The headline confirmed what I see when I look at the “new Seattle.”
“$100K-plus households are now the majority in most Seattle neighborhoods,” said a Seattle Times headline last week.
There are now only a handful of neighborhoods where the majority earn less than $50,000 and even more disturbing, there is no longer a single census tract in Seattle where the majority of households earn between $50,000 and $99,000, or middle income, FYI columnist Gene Balk reported.
This is definitely not the city I grew up in.
When Balk wrote in 2020 about Seattle’s median income exceeding $100,000, he reported that just 10 years earlier, the median income in the city was about $60,000 — or about 20% higher than the national median at the time. In a decade, the gap had shot up to 56% higher than the national median. We are becoming a city of just the haves and the haves.
And lest you think this rising tide is lifting all boats, it is not. The poverty rate remains stubbornly unchanged. The racial wealth gap I wrote about last year has not magically disappeared. As Balk wrote in 2020, the median income in 2019 for a household led by a white or Asian American person in Seattle was $112,000, and the median income for households led by a Black person was $43,500.
What does this mean for our city? It means we are losing our economic and ethnic diversity — the very things that for me, make a city a city. I want to live in a place with people of all economic and racial backgrounds, with families, artists, teachers, bus drivers and service workers, not a homogenized playground for the most affluent, like Tribeca in Manhattan or the Capitol of the Hunger Games.
It was against this backdrop that I was intrigued to learn last week of a ballot initiative to create “social housing” in Seattle. The proposal, reported in a story by The Seattle Times’ Anna Patrick, would establish a public developer to “create, own and maintain” public housing in the city. Unlike the Seattle Housing Authority, which must follow federal housing rules, the new entity would make it possible for a governing board of renters to decide who lives there and open the developments to a mix of incomes and backgrounds.
In a statement announcing its initiative, the House Our Neighbors coalition said, “We cannot continue relying on the private housing market to meet our housing needs. Each year that goes by where the city of Seattle is not proposing radical improvements to our affordable housing landscape, rent continues to rise, more of our neighbors are pushed into homelessness, Black and Brown communities are displaced and low-wage workers are pushed out of the city.”
I agree. Our current approach chips away at the edges of the problem when what we need is a much more dramatic and bold approach. So many friends — mostly Black, Indigenous and people of color — have already left or are planning to leave the city because they can no longer afford to make their dreams possible here. It is heartbreaking and it’s unacceptable and it hurts us all.
With a median house price in Seattle of over $850,000 and climbing, you would need a whopping $170,000 in cash for a 20% down payment on a median-priced house. Yes, there are down payment assistance programs for first time homebuyers, but even with a Federal Housing Administration loan and 3% down, you might end up with a lower down payment but you would be left with a monthly mortgage of about $5,000. That’s assuming you don’t run afoul of the debt-to-income ratio caps or loan limits, which you would if you are not among the higher income households.
Even if your household earns the median income of $102,000, how are you supposed to afford to spend $60K of that on housing?
Some cities, like Evanston, Illinois, are taking the centuries-overdue step of providing up to a modest $25,000 in down payment or house repair support to Black families as a form of reparations. Seattle, with its history of racist redlining and housing segregation that fueled the racial wealth gap, could do something similar.
Some critics might deride Seattle as a bastion of socialism but we are so far from it it’s laughable. In Vienna, considered a world leader in social housing, about 60% of the city lives in some form of social housing, which makes up more than 40% of their housing stock. Social housing projects there are mixed income, and they do not penalize you if your income rises or changes. Housing is considered a human right and it is paid for with a 1% tax on salaries — half paid by the worker and half by the employer. In Seattle, publicly-supported housing makes up just under 9% of housing stock. Vienna’s social housing is considered desirable by all and features amenities such as recreation, on-site child care and cafes.
Yes, there are still many unanswered questions about the Seattle social housing proposal. Where will the money come from? How many people will it serve? No doubt single family zoning proponents and private housing developers will loudly oppose.
But the time for baby steps is over. We can and we must change course, unless we want to permanently lose what made the city I love worth living in.