Guest columnist Jennifer Phipps reflects on the challenges of single parents raising children in the face of Seattle’s soaring prices for housing and other necessities.
Forty years ago, the television show “Alice” introduced us to the idea that a single mother could make ends meet by waiting tables. On the way to Los Angeles to make it as a singer, her car broke down in Phoenix. As a waitress at Mel’s Diner, she was able to save and rent an apartment with a bedroom that had an actual door for herself and her 12-year-old son.
In fact, in a classic episode from that first season, fellow waitress Flo moved into Alice’s apartment after someone stole Flo’s trailer. Flo flitted through the apartment in sheer lavender lingerie, drank beer, invited a man into the apartment at bedtime. Fortunately, Tommy missed it all because he was tucked away — safe and sound — behind his bedroom door.
What a contrast to my experience as a single mother. In Seattle I began my search long before I moved. That hadn’t been my intention. It took months before I could find something I could afford. I scoured my North Ballard neighborhood so that my son — 7 years old at the time — could stay in his school. This led me through a thin maze of homeowners’ basements, mother-in-law units in backyards with rickety doors attached to bathrooms and then, finally, to corporate studio apartments.
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I rented the studio because it cost less than any of those basements and barely habitable mother-in-laws. We have no bedroom. Instead there’s a sleeping space separated from the main living area by a half wall.
The studio is by no means cheap. In the beginning it cost more than 50 percent of my net monthly pay. But for the grace of child support — thank you, state of Washington — I barely get by.
My son, as happens with kids, grows older. This fall he turned 9. His body lengthens by the week. Sometime soon we will both want a real wall and a door that closes. Each time my 10-month lease ends — even with a history of making every payment on time — the rent increases. I’d prefer a longer lease, but longer leases are significantly more expensive.
I work full time at the University of Washington as a program coordinator. It is a good job. I had serious competition to get it. I attempted to supplement my full-time salary with night or weekend shifts from my previous job at the UW, where I’d worked as a field interviewer. But the UW has a rule about not allowing employees to work more than 40 hours per week, even if the jobs are in two different departments.
When I talk to people about my predicament, the advice has been amazingly consistent: To wait tables. And a decade, two, three, even four decades ago, this might have worked.
But last month the UW Self-Sufficiency Standard for the state of Washington released a report that revealed the scope of my problem. In Seattle, the cost of meeting basic needs increased $30,000 in a decade. That’s an entire salary; not just a few extra shifts. For a family to make it in Seattle, parents must make $75,000 annually just to exist. Not to live well. To exist.
As of October 2017, the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment was $2,138. This is an impossible dream for a single mother without an elite job.
Further compounding the problem is the fact that the Institute for Women’s Policy Research for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Women’s Funding Alliance found that the Seattle area has one of the biggest gender-wage gaps in the United States. Women in Seattle earn 78.6 cents on the dollar.
This month, my current lease ends and with just the utilities the building charges (that is, not including electricity or Wi-Fi), I’ll pay what those homeowners would have charged me for the privilege of living in their Ballard basements and backyards. This will be nearly 65 percent of my net pay. I can subsist for just one more lease.
Do I pack up like “Alice” did and see how far a car will take me? Except that I don’t have a car. To be honest, I couldn’t even afford gas. This archetype of a plucky waitress making ends meet is officially middle-aged. It’s time we transform the fantastic images — as they were when they aired — into more accurate reflections of our time. Which for me is studying bank statements by the light of my laptop in the one room that does have a door, our bathroom, at night as I figure out our next move.