In another America, younger people often moved for less expensive housing and better jobs. Maybe Seattle’s potential loss of some millennials could be another city’s gain. But it’s more complicated today.
Reading about the poll showing that 45 percent of millennials say they might have to leave the Seattle area because of high housing costs, my initial reaction was: Good.
They’re showing a healthy realism. They might find opportunities elsewhere, in less expensive locales, and those destinations would benefit from their talent and skills.
I know this risks arousing the Seattle thought police. But life is unfair. Not everybody can get a pony.
When I was 27, I made a leap and moved to San Diego. I drove on Interstate 8 until it ended in the eclectic neighborhood of Ocean Beach. That night, I walked all the way out on the Municipal Pier, turned around and looked back at the enchanting lights on the hills. I vowed I would never leave.
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Within a week, I landed a job at a scrappy little daily in north San Diego County, although I kept my apartment in Ocean Beach.
The catch: horrible pay. It would take years before I stood a chance of getting on at one of the big San Diego papers, and even their pay was lousy. “Sunshine dollars,” locals called it. So many people wanted to live in “paradise,” that most employers could keep wages way down. Living expenses were very high, though — Safeway didn’t accept sunshine dollars.
All around me was spectacular wealth, and not only in La Jolla. At night, I jogged from O.B. south into the handsome Sunset Cliffs neighborhood. I was lonely, so if I looked through a picture window of a Spanish revival house at the lively party, I’d feel desolate in a way only the young can.
But I never expected to be able to buy a house there.
I didn’t expect to be able to buy anywhere in San Diego, at the time a beautiful but sleepy place. I had no inheritance, connections or fancy credentials. This didn’t arouse my anger, class envy or sense of entitlement. It was just the way it was.
I also didn’t want to buy a house. I dreaded an employer thinking it had me hostage to a mortgage. My wanderlust was only beginning. An “Apodment,” had they existed then, would have been perfect. In this respect, I was like many millennials today, if polls are to be believed.
But I did want to advance in my calling, get to the “Big Leagues” — major metropolitan newspapers. So I broke my vow at the pier and left San Diego after less than three years. I moved first to Texas, then Ohio and other places, soon got to the Bigs, even eventually owned a couple of houses. It took enormous work, luck and, perhaps most of all, a willingness to move for better opportunity.
However … After this initial reaction to the news above, a few misgivings set in. For one thing, jobs were more abundant in the 1980s and 1990s than today and in a wider set of industries and skills. Sectors were less concentrated and company formation was still brisk. Technology and offshoring had yet to claim their full measure of flesh. Entire professions were yet to be made obsolete.
And surprising places were not yet priced out for house buyers.
For example, a couple with middle-wage jobs could buy a house in Redwood City, a modest town between San Francisco and San Jose, for about $33,000 in the mid-1970s ($149,000 in today’s dollars). Now those same houses in proximity of Silicon Valley are worth between $800,000 and $1.6 million.
Also, I carried little student debt, while benefiting from low college tuition and generous federal grants. This is a stark difference from today’s millennials. My wage increases, thanks to moving, were strong. Most millennials, especially outside the tech elite, likely won’t find such a sturdy ladder up.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that fewer Americans are moving for work. The trend dates back to the 1980s but has become very pronounced in recent years. It’s bad for a dynamic national economy, which in the past benefited from a substantial churn that matched workers with jobs across the country.
Lower household formation — people waiting to start families and buy houses — is another speed bump for the economy. And owning a house can be the greatest source of wealth for most people, provided they don’t get in over their heads on loans.
Even many millennials willing to move face two obstacles if they seek to buy a house. First, national inventory is near historic lows. Second, places with less expensive housing costs also tend to have low wages.
Seattle isn’t America’s most expensive city, even though it has been leading in housing-price increases. It’s also not the relatively affordable Seattle of the past.
Seattle is one of the superstar metros of post-recession America, especially driven by technology companies.
Employers favor the young today, and techies can pull down triple-digit starting salaries at the likes of Amazon. Not surprisingly, all this money, along with Chinese investors, has goosed house prices.
With limited land and inventory facing population growth, supply and demand was never so stark.
But perhaps not yet enough to cause an exodus.
A report last year looked at the cities with the highest “move-away” rates for millennials and low-income households. Seattle was not among the top 10. San Diego was.
Some things don’t change.
Like baby boomers, millennials are not a monolithic group. They have diverse skills, financial situations and life paths.
Unlike a big chunk of that earlier cohort, they are not riding the broad tail wind of a national economy where prosperity was widely shared.
Seattle won’t stop being a magnet for talent and pluck of whatever age. But the cost of entry and staying keeps getting higher, driven by powerful national and international forces.
Sadly, we may not know whom we lose because of this threshing. But maybe it will help another place make a comeback.