Seattle expats are finding affordable housing and a reasonable commute with Kitsap's new faster ferry — but they're bringing higher costs with them.
If you missed the “Move to Bremerton” ad campaign, that could be because it wasn’t around for very long.
Shortly after taking office in January, Mayor Greg Wheeler pulled the plug on the city’s marketing effort, which targeted young Seattle families and professionals in search of more affordable rents and home prices.
It’s not that the new mayor doesn’t welcome folks from Seattle. But Wheeler says he’d rather focus on the people already living in Bremerton rather than luring newcomers. And he adds that there was no need for the campaign — by the time it was underway in 2016, Bremerton had been discovered.
“This is a desirable place, so there was a natural migration here,” he said. “It was happening already.”
New data bears him out. In county-to-county migration numbers released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau, Kitsap County is — for the first time — a top 5 destination for folks leaving King County.
The data, which is based on the average annual number of movers for the period from 2012 to 2016, show an estimated 2,261 folks per year made the move from King to Kitsap in that period. That’s a 29 percent increase from the 2010 data release. If you go a few years back, Kitsap didn’t even rank among the top 10 counties for expats from King.
Snohomish and Pierce are the perennial No. 1 and 2 counties for people leaving King, naturally, with Los Angeles a distant third. Whatcom is fourth, and tends to rank highly because of all the students from the Seattle area who move there to attend Western Washington University in Bellingham.
Kitsap is now fifth, after leapfrogging a bunch of counties including Spokane, Arizona’s Maricopa (Phoenix) and Oregon’s Multnomah (Portland).
Bremerton is Kitsap’s largest city, with a population of about 41,000, and it’s been growing at a faster rate than the rest of the county for the past few years. In addition to its more affordable real estate, Bremerton boasts direct access to downtown Seattle via ferry. It’s no wonder the city is drawing more movers from this side of the Sound, and the new Fast Ferry — a mere 30 minutes to Colman Dock — could further fuel the trend.
But while an increasing number of Seattleites are moving to Bremerton to escape the affordable-housing crisis here, they’re inadvertently contributing to the one unfolding over there.
“Prices rose so fast here that we wound up putting a lot of people in jeopardy,” Wheeler said.
Like Seattle, the majority of households (57 percent) in Bremerton are renters. But unlike Seattle, gentrification is a new phenomenon in this blue-collar Navy town. Census data put the median rent in Bremerton at $956 last year, up by about $180 from 2010.
“I was way ahead of the census data — I was seeing it in real time,” said Wheeler, who campaigned by going door to door across the city. “You knock on a door, and it’s a house in crisis, some of them in tears because they’d just gotten their notice — rent was jacked up from $800 to $1,200 a month. For Bremerton, that’s a big deal.”
And they’re seeing more homelessness in Bremerton, he says.
In another sign of gentrification, census data shows that homeownership is up by 15 percent in the past five years, which is significantly faster than the rate of growth for renter households. Home prices have surged in recent years, but are still low by Seattle standards. Last month, the median price for a single-family home was $334,000 in Kitsap County.
Wheeler has worked with the City Council on housing initiatives to help low-income renters. These include an affordable-housing fund and a rental-assistance program that can provide up to $250 per month, or first and last month’s rent. It can also help out with one-time assistance for renters who have a gap in their income, or an unexpected major expense. These programs, which are funded by sales-tax revenue from construction projects and from the city’s general fund, kick in Jan. 1.
“We think it will be a model for other jurisdictions,” Wheeler said. “It’s the most progressive affordable-housing measure in the state.”
So what’s it like to go from being among those priced out of Seattle to being a gentrifier in Bremerton?
Wheeler says it’s undeniable that some tension exists between the locals and the new transplants, but he adds that he’s been impressed with the Seattle expats, many of whom have become deeply involved in the community. He also feels that they support his affordable-housing measures as much as those who are struggling with higher rents.
“Folks are moving here because they had their own housing insecurity in Seattle. So they come here and they find their affordable housing,” Wheeler said.
“And what I’ve noticed is they’re extremely compassionate and care about the rising rents in our area, because they’ve been there, too.”