While the entire country is seeing low-income households move to the suburbs in search of more affordable housing, the Seattle area is already on its second wave of migration.
A new study from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab showed that between 2000 and 2016, parts of Snohomish County have overtaken South King County as the areas with the highest rates of eviction.
South King County, formerly a haven for people seeking affordable housing, has become so expensive that many lower-income residents have moved again, this time north, to Snohomish County, where they face fewer tenant protections and a higher risk of being evicted.
Suburban evictions have risen overall in the Seattle metropolitan area. Nearly 79% of evictions in the area were occurring in the suburbs by 2016, up from 72% in 2000.
Studies show the overwhelming majority of people who are evicted end up homeless.
But services have not followed low-income renters from cities to the suburbs. A Seattle Times analysis of 39 King County cities showed that two-thirds of the county’s homeless shelters are in Seattle.
A national eviction moratorium enacted during the pandemic temporarily alleviated some of these concerns. And new state laws aimed at protecting vulnerable tenants seem to have worked. But some of those protections either have gone away already or are going away, and advocates worry that evictions and homelessness will soon be on the rise, this time in the suburbs.
Seattle had a head start
Snohomish County’s development as an eviction hot spot is a result of Seattle’s early influx of wealthier residents.
During the tech boom of the 1990s, many Black residents, among others, were displaced from Seattle’s Central District and other neighborhoods and settled in the suburbs. By 2000, 61% of residents living below the federal poverty level — at the time, $17,050 for a four-person family — in the Seattle metropolitan area already lived in the suburbs, increasing to 67% by 2016, according to the study.
The “suburbanization of poverty” has been occurring in metropolitan areas across the country, but Seattle is unusual in how early it happened here, said Peter Hepburn, one of the study’s authors.
Many low-income households initially moved south of Seattle. Areas where low-income households are clustered face higher risk of eviction, and thus the region’s evictions were concentrated in South King County at least by the 2000s, the earliest data the study looked at.
Black residents in the suburbs around Seattle are almost four times as likely to be evicted as white tenants, according to the study.
Because Seattle’s gentrification happened early, the perception of South King County being affordable for low-income families is already outdated.
Hepburn said the families moving into South King County now are primarily middle-class and at lower risk of being evicted. By the 2010s, low-income families were forced to seek refuge in Snohomish County, where rents were still relatively cheaper, creating a new hot spot for evictions up north.
The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in South King County is on average only 2% to 15% lower than in Seattle, where the average two-bedroom apartment is $1,868, according to ApartmentList.com. Renton is more expensive than Seattle.
Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said South King County’s “peak” in being an affordable place to live has already passed, although she said the city is attempting to prevent the people already living there from being priced out by providing rent assistance during the pandemic, funding legal aid for those facing evictions and repairing peoples’ homes to help keep them housed. While eviction hot spots have been moving north, households in South King County still face the highest risk of losing their housing within King County.
The study’s results come as no surprise to Snohomish County officials.
“We recognize we’ve got a housing crisis and a housing shortage,” said Jennifer Gregerson, Everett special project manager and housing policy expert.
The study shows evictions are not rising uniformly among suburbs but in pockets of low-income neighborhoods. Within Snohomish County, those pockets are in Everett and in eastern Snohomish County.
Gregerson said some of the high-eviction areas in the study are along Casino Road, where median household incomes are about $40,000 a year, and whose population comprises people of color and those whose primary language isn’t English.
The Housing Authority of Snohomish County has closed its waitlist for housing vouchers since 2014 because of how long the queue was.
“We certainly know that people have been moving out of King County northward,” Snohomish County Human Services Director Mary Jane Brell Vujovic said.
Brell Vujovic said that Snohomish County used pandemic relief money to provide about $130 million in rental assistance across nearly 26,000 households, which she said “really speaks to the extent of the need here.”
Lack of services, protections in the suburbs
While evictions increasingly move to the suburbs, study author Hepburn said that social services that could prevent evictions or help people get back on their feet remain more available in urban areas like Seattle.
“When you’re looking for a food pantry, when you’re looking for the local [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] office, when you’re trying to get legal aid because you’re going through an eviction, it’s a lot harder to do that in the suburbs,” Hepburn said.
“Snohomish County has zero local protections for tenants” other than what the state requires, said Jane Pak, executive director of Snohomish County Legal Services, which offers legal aid to tenants facing eviction.
Seattle, on the other hand, has some of the most robust tenant protections in the region, typical of larger cities. Landlords in the city must provide at least 180 days of notice if they intend to raise rents, and must provide three months of rent as “relocation assistance” for low-income tenants if rent is raised by 10% or more in a 12-month period.
Auburn requires landlords to provide 120 days notice for a rent increase of more than 5%. Washington law requires 60 days.
Although Everett has no tenant protections, city staff said the mayor and several council members are “interested in looking at some of those tools.”
Evictions slow for now
While these hot spots emerge, evictions have slowed in the past several years due to national and state protections.
And with some of those national and state protections set to expire soon, Snohomish Legal Services, a legal aid organization, says people in Snohomish County could become vulnerable to pre-pandemic levels of eviction, potentially resulting in a faster increase in homelessness.
Snohomish County tallied 1,182 people living homeless in 2022, the highest in a decade.
Even though the eviction moratorium ended more than a year ago, evictions in King County, Snohomish County and many parts of the state remain down more than 50% compared with pre-pandemic numbers, according to data from the Washington Administrative Office of the Courts.
Experts think that’s largely due to programs Washington state enacted to soften the blow of the expiration of pandemic-era protections.
In 2021, Washington became the first state to guarantee legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction. The same year, the state Legislature established the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program, which provides legal advocates a chance to facilitate an agreement between the landlord and tenant that avoids eviction.
Pak says in 2022, Snohomish Legal Services was able to resolve the majority of evictions before they ended up in a court filing due to the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program.
But that program sunsets at the end of June. And the state Legislature chose not to pass several bills in the latest session that would limit rent increases and increase how much notice for them would be required.