The closure of the West Seattle Bridge didn’t just add time to Jay Ogata’s commute.
“It ruined West Seattle for us,” the elementary school teacher said.
As Ogata drove to work several days a week to teach virtually from his classroom, traffic pushed his 18-minute commute to 35 minutes. He and his girlfriend felt their moods sour and found themselves avoiding leaving the neighborhood, Ogata said.
So they opted to leave for good instead. They bought a house in Des Moines. For a similar commute and monthly cost, they got twice as much space as their West Seattle rental.
When Seattle unexpectedly closed the West Seattle Bridge in March, residents wondered just how many people might feel the way Ogata did.
About 100,000 drivers and 25,000 transit riders used the bridge each day. Nearby neighborhoods braced for cut-through traffic. Homeowners wondered whether they should list their homes for sale.
Throughout the summer, West Seattle’s housing market showed signs of cooling off.
New home listings shot up, and houses moved off the market more slowly than in the city overall.
By the end of the year, however, the worst fears hadn’t materialized. More home sales closed in West Seattle in 2020 than in 2019.
Rents fell in West Seattle last year and landlords offered special move-in deals to try to entice tenants. But the same trends were playing out in other neighborhoods, too.
Ogata’s former landlord, Ginnie Hance, said most of her tenants stayed put because they could work from home. They renewed their leases without trying to negotiate lower rents. Only two left because of the bridge.
Hance filled the vacant apartments quickly and for the same rent. One of the new tenants is retired; the other takes the ferry from West Seattle to reach his job.
“I can’t imagine someone dependent on the bridge is going to move to West Seattle at this point,” Hance said.
For both homebuyers and renters, it’s difficult to untangle the effects of the bridge closure from the impact of the coronavirus.
West Seattle rents fell by about 6% from 2019, according to CoStar. That drop was roughly the same as in Ballard and Bellevue.
Landlords offered concessions like a free month of rent in about 19% of rental listings near Fauntleroy, 27% near Delridge and 53% near Alki, according to Zillow data from July through December. Special deals were more common in West Seattle neighborhoods than in Ballard and Georgetown, but still less common than in downtown and Belltown.
For home shoppers in Western Washington, 2020 brought intense competition for a low supply of houses. West Seattle may have offered buyers some modest reprieve.
In 2020, the median West Seattle home sold for $675,000, about 4% higher than 2019.
That was a slower year-over-year climb than in most other Seattle neighborhoods, including North Seattle and Beacon Hill, where prices rose 7% to 8%. It was higher, though, than the 2% growth in Central Seattle, which includes Capitol Hill, according to data from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS).
In May, two months after the bridge closed, it would have taken almost two months to sell all of the houses on the market in West Seattle. That was longer than the citywide rate of about six weeks.
That measure, known as months of inventory, stayed slightly higher in West Seattle than the city throughout the summer, indicating less demand.
By October, though, months of inventory in West Seattle dropped slightly below the citywide measure. That trend continued through December.
The number of homeowners newly listing their homes showed a similar swing.
West Seattle saw higher increases in the number of new listings than in the city as a whole, particularly in July, August and September.
In November, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the city would repair, not replace, the bridge. It could reopen by 2022.
Bill Reid, a John L. Scott broker in West Seattle, described the bridge and pandemic as a “double punch” leading to an uptick in listings in the summer. By January, however, he was busy scheduling two dozen showings for a home he put on the market less than a day earlier.
“For every person leaving West Seattle, there’s more coming,” Reid said.
Throughout 2020, 6% more home sales closed in West Seattle than in 2019, compared to a citywide increase of 12%.
Home sellers described mixed experiences finding buyers in West Seattle last year.
Jane Mauser and her husband opted to leave Seattle for Fall City to be closer to outdoor recreation. It took just three days to sell their home at slightly over the asking price.
While the bridge closure may drive some to leave the peninsula, “there are also people who do very well not leaving West Seattle,” Mauser said.
Some sellers lost out, even later in the year.
In December, Emily Eastlake and her husband sold their three-bedroom house near the West Seattle Junction for about $27,000 less than what they paid in 2018.
The couple, both software engineers, moved to Tacoma to be closer to family members who were helping care for their young son during the pandemic.
After listing the home for more than they paid, they didn’t get any offers. They dropped the price and took the first offer, Eastlake said.
“We bought in a hot market and sold in a post-bridge-closure market,” Eastlake said.
New housing development in West Seattle may see “some softening” in the short term, but not as dramatically as some expected, said Jeff Pyatt, CEO of real estate lender Broadmark Realty Capital.
“When the bridge closed, there really was a panic … I didn’t expect it to come back as strongly as it has, as quickly as it has,” Pyatt said.
For Hance, the landlord, uncertainty lingers.
With two more one-bedroom apartments emptying this month, Hance plans to lower the rent from $1,545 to $1,515.
Lindsey Doan, another tenant who left Hance’s West Seattle building because of the bridge closure, is making the move to Magnolia to be closer to her job in South Lake Union.
Doan’s commute went from 15 to 20 minutes to 30 minutes or longer. The unpredictability was anxiety-inducing, she said. She feared it would get worse as people returned to office work.
One hitch: The Magnolia bridge is about worn out and the city has no firm plan for replacement.
“It has made me very aware of bridges,” Doan said.