Showcasing the most current data available relating income levels to housing prices, the region's largest daily paper bucked conventional wisdom with its "Sticker Shocked?" series last week, claiming that houses are, in fact, affordable nowadays. But despite months of investigation, the report is misleading.
The crux of the series is that the local median income is up. Certainly, that part's true. The Seattle Office of Financial Management reports that the 1999 median (the midway line splitting the population in half by income level) for King County is a whopping $65,000. The Times reported that the median in 1984, adjusted for inflation, was just $28,000. This means that today's income-earner is 132 percent richer in adjusted dollars than the 1984 income-earner. What does the Times make of this? It's easier to buy a house today.
What they aren't as keen on mentioning is the flip side of these stats. While the median presents a more realistic picture than the average, which would be pushed up by Bill Gates, there's no doubt that the median is skewed by the millionaires at the top as well. According to a February article in The Economist entitled "Seattle gets reality check," King County software workers "earn an average of $287,700 a year apiece, including share options. Meanwhile, the median household income of everyone else in the county is $34,300."
It's as if the Times took a snapshot of the fanciest block on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and said, "Gee, the wealthiest people can afford a penthouse on Sutton Place. This must mean penthouses are affordable." Too bad most of us can't live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Is this the direction Seattle is headed?
Dorothy Lengyel, executive director of HomeSite, a nonprofit agency that offers down-payment loans, finds the Times' analysis suspect. "While there are a lot of millionaires," she acknowledges, "there's a whole lot of us, basic working class, on the outside of the stadium looking in." Case in point: The average income above the median in Washington state is $84,000. The average income below the median is $23,000.
The Times kicked off its series with an anecdote about David and Julie Wicklund, who moved to Seattle last year and settled for a "skinny house in Ballard" for $214,000. Presumably the Wicklund story is supposed to prove that you have to be flexible if you want to buy a house in Seattle, where the average home sells for $270,000, according to the Office of Housing. Many don't have that kind of flexibility or money.
Even people in households making more than the median income frequently can't afford Seattle housing. For instance, Travis Tremper, 33, and his wife Clare, 37, earn a combined income of $75,000, but they had to move outside of Seattle to buy a home.
They both manage properties for the Low Income Housing Institute, and until last April, the agency subsidized their downtown Seattle apartment. They thought that after working for five years, they could save up enough money to buy a house. This turned out to be a pipe dream.
To make matters worse, in April the local Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the Trempers were making too much money to qualify for low-income housing, and kicked them out with $9,000 compensation. It was time to buy their house.
They hired two real estate agents and searched in Seattle every night (often separately) for four months. They couldn't find anything within their budget. "It still was not easy for me," says Travis Tremper, "even though we had 10 grand to put down." The couple ended up settling for a 1,000-square-foot condo in Tukwila for $64,000.
The Trempers' story isn't unique. There is a huge need for financial assistance among low- and moderate-income residents. For instance, the Community Home Ownership Center, a nonprofit group that helps lower- and middle-class people buy their first homes, received about 3,000 calls last year. Another group, the Home Choice housing program (run out of the Fremont Public Association), gets about 500 calls a year from people in King County whose homes are being foreclosed because they can't afford the payments.
"I think it's very superficial to say that housing is cheaper than before," says Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute. "It may be cheaper for a Microsoft millionaire. Essentially, working people are getting priced out of Seattle."
When Erik Stockinger, an engineer, and his wife Mari, a medical biller for UW Physicians, started looking for a house, they knew exactly what they wanted. "Our idea was an older house, probably something from the '30s or '40s. A three-bedroom," says Erik. The thirtysomething couple has a combined income of $67,000, just above the household median. For a year they looked in almost every neighborhood in Seattle. They came up empty-handed.
"We were just sick, because we watched the prices jump," Erik says. In February 1999, he and his wife gave up and bought a $170,000 house in Lake Forest Park, 20 minutes north of downtown Seattle. "It was kind of frustrating because we didn't really get what we wanted," he concludes.