Rents are leveling off across the Seattle area after a roller-coaster year that first offered renters deals and discounts, then sharp rent hikes

Median one-bedroom rent for new leases in Seattle hit $1,726 in October, down $4 from a month earlier, according to Apartment List. Rents were also roughly flat in Tacoma at $1,265 and in Bellevue at $2,367, for a one-bedroom apartment. 

The slowdown is typical of the winter months when fewer tenants move into new rentals. But even with the seasonal reprieve, renters across the Puget Sound region are paying more for new leases than they were before the pandemic. 

“Rent drops during the winter do not make up for the rent gains that happened the previous summer,” said Rob Warnock, an analyst at Apartment List.

For tenants searching for a new apartment, few are available. For those staying put and balancing rent with other expenses, it can feel like costs are constantly climbing.

“We have electricity to pay. We have phones to pay. We have groceries that are increasing,” said Luul Abshir, a renter who lives with her teenage daughter in the Mount Baker neighborhood. 

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For much of 2020, the pandemic exacerbated a divide in the region’s expensive housing market: Remote work allowed well-off renters to move farther away from city centers. Met with higher demand, landlords in those more affordable outlying areas could charge higher rents, squeezing people with less money to spend. 

At the same time, rents dropped in pricey areas such as downtown and South Lake Union. Some landlords offered special deals, like a free month of rent. Seattle saw among the sharpest rent drops in the country: down 19% in the city. This summer, those deals faded and some tenants faced rent increases. Eventually, rents for new leases in the city slightly bypassed pre-pandemic levels, according to Apartment List’s data.

Those dramatic swings appear to be fading for now, with rents basically flat from September to October, according to Apartment List. Zumper, which uses data from online listings of currently available apartments, reports a similar trend, less than 1% change in the cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1.

“We’re really back to pre-COVID rent levels in all markets, and some markets in the suburbs are higher,” said Dylan Simon, an apartment broker at Kidder Mathews. 

In Tacoma, Kent and Lynnwood, rents never took the precipitous 2020 drop seen in Seattle and Bellevue. Instead, they held steady or increased. 

In Kent, for example, the median one-bedroom rent is $1,477, up nearly 17% from this time in 2019. Seattle’s increases have been less dramatic, up about 2% from 2019.

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It’s not just apartments: In the Seattle area, including Bellevue and Everett, the median three-bedroom home rented for $2,927 in August, up nearly 10% from a year earlier, according to CoreLogic

Abshir, who works as a paraeducator and lives in subsidized housing, said she worries about housing costs pushing out long-term residents.

“It’s sad to see so many people who have left and people who are trying to stay but are not able to do that because the rent is getting so high. I don’t mind for new people to come in, but people who are there should be able to stay,” Abshir said.

A pre-pandemic apartment construction boom in Seattle helped slow rapid growth in rents, but the city still has a severe shortage of housing for people making less than the top incomes.  

According to a city-commissioned study this spring, only about 75 affordable rentals are available for every 100 households making less than 80% of area median income, or roughly $67,000 for a single person. Even fewer rentals are available for people making less. 

The burden of high rents does not fall equally: In Seattle and other cities, Black and Latino renters pay a higher share of their income toward rent. The typical Black household in the United States has $920 less left after paying rent each month than a white household, according to Zillow

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Nationwide, rents have far outpaced incomes for decades

For the foreseeable winter months in Seattle, renters hunting for a new apartment may find few options available.

The vacancy rate across the Seattle area is 4.6%, down from 7.1% in late 2020, according to Apartments.com, a site owned by the real estate data tracking firm CoStar. The rate matches the all-time low recorded during the dot-com bubble in 2000.

Low vacancy rates have created “an environment where the renter loses all sense of leverage,” said Warnock, with Apartment List.

Several factors could be driving the high demand for rentals, analysts say. 

Runaway home prices kept some well-off tenants who might have otherwise bought a house in rentals instead. Census data shows new households forming, possibly from people moving out from family living situations or starting new families, Warnock said. And some tenants have flocked back to city centers after moving away during the pandemic, Simon said. 

“Workers aren’t even back to the office yet,” said Simon, of Kidder Mathews, “but apartments in and around downtown are full.”