A pre-pandemic fact of life for Seattle tenants has returned: The rent is going up.
The coronavirus and widespread work-from-home policies last year led to reduced Seattle rents, especially in dense neighborhoods such as South Lake Union. Now, for renters shopping for a new lease, those deals are harder to find as rent prices return to pre-pandemic levels.
At the same time, tenants staying in their current homes are dealing with another reality: With the end of Washington’s previous state eviction moratorium on June 30, landlords can once again raise rents.
The dual trends, affecting tenants whether they stay in place or move, will hit cash-strapped renters hardest.
Faced with the cost of moving into a new apartment, which often includes first and last month’s rent, staying put with a rent increase can feel like the better of two bad options.
“A lot of us are going to sign,” said Lakewood renter Arianna Gonzales, who said her monthly rent will soon increase by more than $100. “We really don’t have a choice.”
Rents trend upward
For tenants looking to sign new leases, rents all over the region are on the rise.
Median Seattle rents are up about 4% over last month, the sixth straight month with an increase after a steep drop-off last year, according to the rent-tracking firm Apartment List.
Median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle sits at $1,633, the highest since last June, according to Apartment List. (Because the data comes in part from private listing sites, it can sometimes overrepresent newer and upscale buildings.)
Landlord Morris Groberman said his overall financial picture has rebounded since the worst of the pandemic, when he said rents fell 15% to 20% and he offered deals on new leases such as a month or two of free rent.
Most of his 1,800 Seattle-area rentals are occupied and new rents overall are “back to 2019 levels,” Groberman said.
“We’re seeing the demand again,” he said.
In South Lake Union, where tech offices emptied last year, rents are up about 7% compared to the same time in 2020, according to another firm, CoStar.
Elsewhere in the city, the change is less dramatic. In Ballard, rents are up 3.5%. In Central Seattle, which includes Capitol Hill, the increase was about 1%, according to CoStar.
Those all pale in comparison to areas outside Seattle. In Puyallup and Eastern King County, rents are up about 11%, according to CoStar.
As remote work reduced the need to be in city centers, some renters went in search of more affordable rents or more space, driving up prices outside Seattle.
Now, “people are considering dense cities to be the attractive place to live they had for much of the pre-pandemic period,” said Rob Warnock, senior research associate at Apartment List.
Squeezed by pandemic, tenants face rent hikes
For tenants staying put, the pandemic brought an unprecedented policy: Washington landlords were barred from raising rents under a statewide eviction moratorium.
One exception: Some landlords will continue to be temporarily restricted from raising the rent if they accept government aid for tenants who fell behind on payments during the pandemic.
On July 1, Olympia renter Andryea Grazier got a notice that the rent for her $950 two-bedroom apartment would increase by $150, or about 16%, plus a new monthly $100 utilities charge.
The decades-old apartments are not worth the jump, she said.
“It’s just ridiculous,” Grazier said. “Any security knowing my rent was such-and-such is gone.”
To cover the rent, Grazier, who cares for her daughter with disabilities, expects to put off saving money she hoped would allow her to eventually buy a house.
Before the increase, Grazier says she felt “that security of saying, oh I cannot just live within my means, but I can put something away for a better day.”
Now, “basically the message received was: You don’t get to have a better day.”
Landlords say being unable to raise rent has made it hard to cover expenses.
The property management company for Grazier’s apartment wrote in the notice that some apartments at the complex were leased for far below-average rents in Olympia.
“We cannot continue to keep up with the increases in taxes, insurance and maintenance unless we raise rents drastically,” the notice said.
“A lot of operating expense challenges that property owners have accrued over past 16 months, they’ve remained responsible for,” said Brett Waller, director of government affairs for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, which represents landlords.
Waller cited rising property taxes and protective supplies for employees, among other costs.
In Lakewood, Gonzales received notice that her $900 rent will soon increase to $1,000 plus extra fees for utilities and rent insurance.
Gonzales is now a student and her boyfriend will soon apply to be on disability, she said. The couple cares for their 3-year-old daughter who is recovering from a severe recent dog attack.
Gonzales said she doesn’t have the savings to pay for first and last months’ rent on a new apartment and isn’t sure she could find one she could afford.
“We’re already kind of struggling as is,” she said.
For now, Groberman said he isn’t planning to raise rents on current tenants.
“I could raise people’s rent 5%, but what would that really get me? It might get me more turnover. I’d rather be at peace right now,” he said.
While the pandemic offered some renters a temporary reprieve from rent increases, the year also brought job loss and unexpected expenses for many.
One Fremont renter said she and her husband were still catching up when they got a $100 rent increase. The renter asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from the landlord.
When the landlord cited increased costs for the building, “it was a little insulting,” the tenant said, “It seems like every month we’re scraping together money for rent.”