For a building still behind construction fencing, with plywood strewn around because of the mud, Station House on Capitol Hill sure is a popular place.
Though the 110-unit apartment building isn’t set to open for another five weeks, it’s already received 1,300 rental applications – which equals more than 10 people or families lining up for a shot at each apartment, sight unseen.
Three hundred applications were filed in the first ten minutes, like show tickets going on sale. It reached a thousand in the first day, says Capitol Hill Housing, the developer of the building at the corner of E. John St. and 10th Avenue East.
“We’re in the thick of an affordable housing crisis, and this is what it looks like,” said Yiling Wong of the nonprofit developer.
The building is subsidized to be affordable to renters making 60 percent of Seattle’s median income – meaning the most you can make to live there is $66,000 for a family of four (family median income here now tops $110,000). The building’s rent for a one bedroom maxes out at $1,210 a month. That may not sound that cheap, but it’s about 40 percent below Capitol Hill’s average one-bedroom market rent of $2,100.
This is how it’s going whenever affordable housing opens around Seattle. Last week the online site Crosscut reported that a new nonprofit building in the Central Area drew 850 applications for just 74 spots.
It’s quite the contrast to where I work, down in Seattle’s crane-pocked crater where the prosperity bomb went off. In South Lake Union and also downtown, it’s been common during the past year to see signs begging renters to apply.
“UP TO 8 WEEKS FREE!” says a deal right now at West Edge, a new luxury tower downtown.
“Resident-Only Exclusive Memberships to SLU’s Hottest Social Club,” says a leasing deal at The Marlowe, in the Amazon jungle.
The four-quarter average of vacancy rates in South Lake Union is 12 percent – meaning about one of every eight apartments has been empty over the last year, according to figures from Apartment Insights/RealData, which surveys landlords here quarterly. That’s better than it was a year ago, when 18 percent were vacant.
The rents in some of these new buildings are astronomical. The West Edge, for example, is advertising that 21 units are available immediately (out of 339). The average rent for these 21 units is $7,000 per month (it ranges from $2,500 for a one bedroom on the second floor to $19,000 a month for a 38th floor penthouse).
The luxury building boom downtown is driving rents to San Francisco heights. Apartment Insights surveyed the buildings that are going through lease-up (which typically means they’ve opened in the past 12 months), and found that in these new buildings the average rent in South Lake Union was $3,241. In downtown Seattle, it was even higher, at $3,489. The most rarefied neighborhood of all, downtown Bellevue, saw the average rent in new buildings hit an altitude-defying $4,580 a month. Two Lincoln Tower in Bellevue currently has one empty apartment going for $21,700 a month — or more than a quarter-million dollars a year, just for rent.
In New York, which is well ahead of us in hollowing out its middle class soul, they’ve coined a term for this: “bluelining.” In the redlining of 50 years ago, the financial industry deprived entire neighborhoods of resources. Here the worry is the opposite: That certain parts of town are being deluged with so much investment aimed only at the uber-wealthy (the blue bloods) that entire neighborhoods are becoming off-limits to anyone else. Plus, money chasing ever more luxury causes shock waves of higher rents down the line.
“New York’s example is extreme—the squeezed middle class, shrink-wrapped into tiny bedrooms, beneath a canopy of empty sky palaces,” The Atlantic magazine wrote about the phenomenon.
That is extreme – here our sky palaces aren’t exactly empty (the Apartment Insights report said there’s a very healthy appetite in Seattle for $5,000 per month apartments). But we are well on our way to becoming what inequality activist Chuck Collins calls a “swanktuary city.” When you have 1,300 people lined up for a shot at a modest apartment building, but it’s the sky palaces that keep rising in huge waves of development, something is getting seriously out of whack.
More subsidized housing (which likely means more taxes) is one obvious answer. But at some point society may also have to grapple with the meaning of housing altogether: Is it for people to live in, or our money?