More than one in four American renters pay more than half their income. But in Seattle, the figure has dropped and is now one in five renters.

Share story

Imagine paying 70 percent of your income toward housing. It sounds almost impossible.

But that’s what Farah Hirji, who rents an apartment in Ballard, has been doing since December. Hirji has been trying to find a job in marketing, which she considers her career. But in the meantime, she works as a nanny and just about scrapes by. She does what she can to save money, from putting off car repairs to cutting back on groceries.

“And I really don’t have any fun money,” she says.

Hirji is among the more than one in four U.S. renters who use at least half their income to pay for housing and utilities. An analysis of census data released last week by Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit that helps finance affordable housing, found that the number of these households has increased by 26 percent since the start of the recession.

But there’s a surprise in the data: Seattle has been trending in the opposite direction from the rest of the nation.

Since 2005, even as the city’s added more than 29,000 renter households, the number spending at least half their income on rent has declined by nearly 2,000. Such households make up 20 percent of rentals in Seattle, down from 26 percent in 2005, according to census data.

With that sharp decline, Seattle now has the smallest percentage of severely rent-burdened households among major U.S. cities.

That may sound counterintuitive, considering the skyrocketing rents here. But it’s more than likely that those high rents are actually the explanation: As the city becomes increasingly expensive, the most vulnerable renters are being priced out. They’re leaving — hence, the declining numbers.

In a city with lower rents, moving away might not help a rent-burdened tenant, as it wouldn’t substantially reduce housing costs.

But in pricey Seattle, if you’re forking over half your income in rent, leaving could be your best option. There are places a lot cheaper to live outside the city.

Just ask Hirji.

“It’s definitely not sustainable,” she says. “I think about having to leave Seattle all the time.”

Even if she lands the job she’s hoping for, she’s not sure if she’ll be able to afford to stay in the city. Hirji calls the escalating rents in her Ballard neighborhood “crazy” and is concerned her rent will soon go up.

But she does have a backup plan: Mill Creek. That’s where her parents live.

“Don’t worry,” she says, “it’ll be fine.”