Seattle may not be dying, as the saying goes. But it could be doing something we haven’t seen in decades around here: shrinking.
Whether it was the pandemic, the protests and riots, the urban decay, the high costs, the work-from-home trend or pick your reason, people appear to have ditched the Emerald City last year in unusually large numbers, new data shows.
This winter I’ve been seeing apartment rental ads, especially downtown and in South Lake Union, offering crazy deals like “12 weeks free, plus 6 months of free parking!” The city feels a little emptier, due to the pandemic, and the ads suggest it isn’t an illusion.
So I asked the U.S. Postal Service to make a comparison: How many people moved in and out of Seattle in our horrible year 2020, versus the year before?
The data they sent back reflects a tumultuous year. The number of households filing change-of-address requests to move into Seattle was about the same as it was in 2019. But the number leaving the city limits soared, by 36%.
In all, 43,350 households requested moves into the city in 2020, and 69,432 moved out. That means the net migration out of the city was more than 26,000 households. In a city with about 351,000 households, that’s a big change, a potential decline of 7%. It’s how you get 12-weeks-free deals for apartments.
I say “potential decline” above because this is change-of-address data. It doesn’t measure people, but households, so you can’t use it to say how much the population changed (it also doesn’t measure other population factors, like births). Second, a mail change doesn’t in all cases mean a person really left (they could be at a second home for a time, in transition like college students, or forwarding their mail to a work office).
But demographers say USPS address data across a city for an entire year is an indicator of general migration patterns. These numbers may signal the first drop of any kind in boom city Seattle’s population in nearly 40 years, going back to the mid-1980s.
Seattle shrinking. Now that would be a new one to most of us.
The data is more solid on showing where the people went. For the most part it wasn’t to Austin or Charlotte or any of the other supposed “Zoom cities.” It was to Bellevue and Shoreline and Kirkland.
The top 10 destinations for Seattle leavers, measured by “net migration,” were all within 35 miles. No. 1 was Bellevue. According to the USPS, 3,521 Seattle households decamped to Bellevue in 2020, while 1,941 Bellevue households moved into Seattle. The difference, or net migration, is a 1,580-household shift from Seattle to Bellevue.
That’s triple what the shift across the lake was in 2019.
In all, Seattle lost a net of nearly 10,000 households in 2020 to the suburban crescent of Bellevue, Shoreline, Kirkland, Bothell, Lynnwood, Renton, Redmond, Edmonds and Kent. More than 1,700 Seattle households moved to Tacoma, with about 1,000 moving the other way, for a net shift to Tacoma of 700 households.
So has Seattle completely lost its allure?
That depends on where you sit. Seattle actually gained in net migration from the 20 largest cities in the country, as it has in other recent years. Seattle picked up a net gain of nearly 2,000 households coming here from those cities. Most of that influx came from San Francisco and New York — two cities that are both far more expensive, and arguably more troubled in the pandemic, than here.
The San Francisco Chronicle looked at USPS address data and found an even bigger net migration out of that city — a decline of more than 50,000 households. This finding was replicated using different demographic data in a new study by the California Policy Lab.
San Francisco’s number one out-of-state place to move to was … here.
“The most popular out-of-state destination was Washington state,” and, specifically, Seattle, the Chronicle said.
The USPS data I got shows that 1,351 San Franciscan households moved to Seattle last year, while 533 went the other way — a net migration to Seattle of 818 households.
So Seattle’s grass still looks greener from San Francisco — while people already in Seattle are hotfooting it to the burbs.
The Seattle data shows that about 70% of the year’s 69,000 move-out requests stayed in Washington state. Mostly they went to the suburbs but also to places like Spokane. It used to be that Spokanites gravitated here, but that reversed a couple of years ago. In 2020 it accelerated: The net migration west to east, from Seattle to Spokane and Spokane Valley, tripled, to a 354-household shift.
The main national cluster of cities that got a dusting of Seattleites is in Arizona. Tucson, Phoenix and Scottsdale picked up a net gain, combined, of nearly 500 formerly Seattle households.
What does all this mean? It means superstar Seattle had a rough year. The city’s rocketship growth had already slowed and all but stopped rising a year earlier, in 2019. The pandemic, as it has done with most things, simply accelerated a preexisting condition.
It could be temporary, a blip. Boston also saw an exodus last year. But lower rents and spring hopes for a return to normal have prompted what they dubbed “mover’s remorse,” with people reversing course to come back into that city.
That hasn’t happened here, yet. The USPS also sent me change-of-address data for January 2021, and Seattle lost a net of 1,144 more households in the month. Where’d they go? To the suburbs. The story of the past decade was Seattle struggling to handle explosive growth, with fights about upzoning and density. Now it may be the suburbs’ turn in that crucible.
A slowdown in growth may come as a relief to many Seattleites, but shrinking is another matter. Cities that make it a habit are in for a bad run.
None of this data says why people moved out of Seattle in 2020 (everybody will doubtless have a theory). The demographer for the city of Seattle told me that the “why” question was last asked locally in 2019, with the high cost of housing as the No. 1 reason. That wouldn’t explain moving to Bellevue, though, as housing is even pricier there than in Seattle.
We’ve got a big mayor’s race this year. Whether Seattle turns out to be on a shrinking trend, or just a pandemic pause, the city’s fall from its lofty perch ought to be the top issue. If the candidates are not talking about revitalization — of businesses, of downtown, of the parks, the schools, the crime rate, the whole Seattle story arc that has been faltering of late — then they’re not doing it right for 2021.
“Why are people leaving?” is quite a different question than the growth-fueled ones that dominated local politics for the past decade. Better adapt and start answering it.