"Our rent was going up, so we looked around," says Travis Nichols. "Rent has gone up everywhere. It's depressing." Nichols, like many Seattle residents, has been priced out of his apartment. Now, Nichols and his wife are moving far from the nightlife and urban conveniences they enjoyed near their Capitol Hill place on Howell Street—near Trader Joe's, Madison Market, Chop Suey, and the 10, 11, and 12 bus lines. Are the Nicholses joining the one-third of Seattleites fleeing to the suburbs? No, they—like another one-third of Seattle residents—are moving out into the "city."
They are moving to live what Nichols calls a "hermit lifestyle." Because of an exponential increase in rent, he says, "It's increasingly hard to stay in Capitol Hill." He's not alone, either. Emma Margraf moved to Ballard a year ago when she was booted from her Fremont rental house by a townhome development. "My end of north Ballard feels like a suburb after living in Fremont," Margraf says.
The Seattle housing market has become cripplingly expensive as massive chunks of the city's apartment stock are converted to condos and rental housing is torn down in favor of parcels of tightly packed townhomes. Rents have spiked 12 percent over the last year, leaving the median cost of a Seattle apartment ballooning up to $1,169. People are fleeing to the suburbs—sort of. As more apartments go condo, Seattle residents are moving to other presumably more affordable neighborhoods—like Ballard, Lake City, or West Seattle—or outside of the city altogether.
While housing in Seattle's outlying neighborhoods may be affordable for now, the current in-city exodus isn't sustainable. "When people are displaced by rising costs in one area, it pushes costs up in every area," says Siobhan Ring, director of the Tenants Union.
Neighborhoods in North Seattle, such as Ballard, still remain affordable for some renters, but they have their disadvantages. "The bus in Ballard comes every half hour and it's wildly unreliable," says Margraf, a 33-year-old nonprofit worker. "I couldn't find anything I could afford."
Margraf's house hunt was likely made more difficult by King County's 3.8 percent vacancy rate.
Nevertheless, Margraf finally found a mother-in-law apartment she liked and could afford—in Ballard. "I didn't realize when I moved how far I would be." Margraf's daily commute—previously "15 minutes door-to-door"—now takes anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the bus. Margraf, now at the mercy of Seattle's public transportation system, says she feels isolated. "I miss people being around," she says. "I miss running out to a restaurant and getting take-out. It's really quiet."
The Nicholses are having the same experience. Because of the consistent rent increases, they are moving to Leschi. "It's definitely going to be more isolated," he says. "No more walking to friends' houses and bars." The Nicholses were forced to move after the rent on their one-bedroom Capitol Hill apartment increased from $950 to $1,200 over two years. Landlords only have to give their tenants 30 days' notice of a rent increase—if they're not on a lease—or 60 days' notice if the increase is more than 10 percent. "The rent goes up every time it's possible for it to go up," Nichols says. "We signed a year lease for $950. After a year, it went up to $1,045 a month. After that was up, they raised it again to $1,150." According to Nichols, several tenants in his building saw their rents shoot up over the summer from $1,050 to $1,300. One evening, Nichols found a note slipped under his door, it read: "Dear fellow tenants, with the unfinished maintenance problems and the dramatic increases in rent, I firmly believe we must unite!" Instead of banding together, Nichols says his neighbors just moved out. "We had friends who lived upstairs," he says. "As soon as their rent started going up, they moved to Ballard."
Despite her complaints about the dead social scene in her neighborhood, Margraf says she's currently happy with her apartment in Ballard. That might not last. Margraf says she wants to adopt, but with the cost of housing, she just can't afford it. "All of my friends are talking about moving to the suburbs," she says. "Everybody's trying to have a family, [but] nobody can afford to buy a house. I feel like I have to leave the city and buy a car. Everything would seem simpler at least."