Landlords and Soaring Rents in Seattle: A Contributing Factor to Homelessness

Milo
Dialogue & Discourse
9 min readSep 1, 2023

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The city of Seattle at sunset.
Downtown Seattle city skyline and homeless camp | edb3_16 — stock.adobe.com

In the summer of 2013, I bid farewell to Seattle, then, after a near decade-long absence, I returned. Before leaving the Pacific Northwest, I had already noticed a lot of changes happening throughout the city and surrounding areas. Amazon, with the city council playing their part, had embarked on a mission to dismantle and resurrect South Lake Union as a cookie-cutter copy of Bellevue (aka Hellevue). The first leg of the light rail was being completed, connecting the airport to the city center. Rainier Valley was undergoing gentrification thanks to the stops being added by the light rail. And Capitol Hill, the once alternatively hip and open to all refuge, witnessed the red-bricked building that housed my favorite coffee shop being demolished. All to pave the path for the emerging light rail station being built in its place, in a never-ending urban transformation of so-called progress.

Upon subsequent visits, when driving through the city and neighborhoods, everywhere I looked construction was happening. The already mentioned Amazon was expanding, Google was moving in, as well as Facebook and many others. Seattle was turning into the new Silicon Valley, with access to the mountains for winter skiing, the Puget Sound for boating in the summer, and a cost of living that hadn’t reached the levels of San Francisco… yet.

Visiting with friends, I would hear the complaints about the homeless problem. They would moan about how they couldn’t go into the city center anymore because of how dangerous it was, or how when they would walk down the streets they would be accosted by homeless people. They complained about crime rates going up, the cost of living going up, and drug use in public. I would hear stories about what a terrible job the city and state governments were doing. In 2020, protesters took over a section of Capitol Hill, creating a no-go area around the police station. At one point there was a change in the state law that prevented police from chasing suspects in vehicles. And of course, I was on Reddit where people would post pictures and videos of homeless camps and RVs parked with trash piled around in the Seattle subreddit. So, yeah, it was all looking pretty bad, with the local government doing little to prevent the decline.

Then came my return. A return to the Pacific Northwest and a city I often spoke highly of. A place where the locals suffered through the long dreary winters of rain and overcast clouded days, to rejoice in the warmth of those few beautiful months in the summer. In 2023, the pandemic was over. However, many businesses had yet to initiate the push for their employees to return to the office, the employees having realized that they could work from home just as effectively, without the commute. Unemployment rates remained low as I managed to find work while competing against the recently laid off tech workers of Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon in the area.

Searching for an Apartment

Step one in my return was finding an apartment. As someone who prefers minimalist living, all I needed was a small place and a nook to set a desk for my home office. Things had changed since the last time I had rented an apartment in the Pacific Northwest, roughly 20 years ago. Back then, rents were affordable, and leases could be had for 6-months. It never seemed challenging to find a reasonably priced apartment in the city or surrounding areas. One could secure a 6-month lease after a simple credit check and quickly move in. Once the lease was up, the majority of apartments transitioned to a month-to-month rental arrangement. No need to sign a new lease at an ever-increasing rate. Rent increments usually occurred between tenants, rather than while tenants were living in the unit.

I sat down in front of my laptop and started searching for apartments in the areas I wanted to live — one bedroom or studio apartments. It was at this point I began to regret selling my condo after moving to Europe, a decision I had made due to a string of non-paying tenants, who often left a mess, and a homeowners’ association that became a pain to deal with. Looking at the rents for the small apartments, and calculating a raise or two in homeowner dues, my three bedrooms and two bath condo would have cost much less than many of the one bedroom, one bath apartments I was looking at. But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

I started searching the Bothell area as the location was near where many of my friends lived. The town had undergone a significant transformation, having been demolished and rebuilt. This process resulted in the creation of a charming community, complete with an array of restaurants and coffee shops conveniently located within walking distance of each other. The revamped Bothell, marked by its new constructions, witnessed a rise in living costs for its residents. Illustrating this point was a one-bedroom apartment priced at over $2,000 per month, with a 12-month lease. If opting for a shorter 6-month lease, it would have incurred an even higher rate, because leases were now based on how long the tenant signed for. Being priced out of Bothell, I then looked at a 250 sq ft. studio in South Lake Union with a murphy bed for $1,450. a month. There was a rooftop deck that had a nice view of Lake Union. It had a shared laundry room that could accept payments by card instead of coin, and in that area no parking. Many of the other newly constructed buildings were offering perks, such as exercise rooms or a rooftop deck to justify the higher rents. Some had shared areas with enormous TV screens or pool tables. They had secure entrances and new appliances. However, the apartments were small, very small.

The apartment search websites had plenty of available unites listed. Driving through the city, nearly every apartment building had ‘now renting’ signs up. There was also a plethora of construction. The news had stories about the ‘housing crisis’ with people living in vans and tents. The news reports implied that the lack of housing was the cause, praising any new construction happening throughout the area.

From what I could tell, there was a glut of available places to live, the catch only being that people couldn’t afford to live in them. To move in, potential tenants would have to pay an application fee, sometimes $80 or $90 dollars. They would have to pay a deposit along with first and last month’s rent. Want parking? That is going to cost another couple hundred a month.

I looked at a one-bedroom apartment in the Columbia City area. It was a short walk to the light rail so I could get to the airport easily. All I needed was $1,860 per month for a 600 sq ft barely one bedroom. Plus, a deposit, first and last months’ rent, and pay $80 dollars for an application fee, then sign a 12-month lease. Since my wife would eventually be joining me, I asked if they had two-bedroom apartments that we could move into once she arrived. Yes, they did, he told me. All we would need to do is pay a $500 dollar fee to change apartments, and sign a new 12-month lease, even though I would already be a tenant at that point.

The Bigger Problem

This issue turns out not only to be relevant to Seattle. Even in the central Washington city of Moses Lake, mostly known for the airport where they train airline pilots, my father recently received notice that his rent was being raised by $200. This isn’t a trivial hike, particularly in a city that most people pass through on their way to more interesting destinations. He is retired, with a limited income, and now forced to leave the house he had been living in for a number of years — a house complete with two bedrooms, a garage, and yard. He will need to move into a small apartment. A small apartment that is not going to cost all that much less than what he is paying currently. But on the plus side, at least he won’t find himself living in a van on the streets.

When it comes to homelessness, it is widely known that various contributing factors play a role, with addiction being the leading cause. However, one aspect that tends to be overlooked as a contributing cause is the impact of landlords and property management firms that own large apartment complexes. These people have plenty of units available, yet would rather leave that unit empty while holding out for a tenant willing to pay the gratuitously high rents.

Underneath the highway near Seattle, WA
Encampment free underpass | © Milo Denison

What’s the Solution?

At the moment, the major cause of outlandish rents and increasing homeless population is inaction on the part of the government and greed on the part of landlords and developers. The response received from developers and the city is “just build more”. Yes, that is one solution and needed as the population is continuing to grow. However, it is not the only solution. The developers and corporations overseeing these expansive multi-unit complexes are primarily driven by the financial profits they generate, while cities are motivated by the tax revenue they receive. Not necessarily the most altruistic motives.

A popular proposal is adding price caps on how much a landlord can increase the rent. Currently, bills are under consideration in the legislature. However, landlords have lobbied fiercely against the bills, and as of this writing are winning.

There are other bills being deliberated as well, which so far have all failed to be passed. This is particularly noteworthy considering that the state legislature is mostly Democratic, the party that is often associated with championing the interests of the people rather than big business. Yet in this case, the influence of big business is winning.

An economic recession could offer some relief. We experienced that during the 2008 Great Recession, when housing prices experienced a decline, benefiting home buyers. However, the adverse consequences of a recession might outweigh the advantages of reduced home prices.

I like the idea of letting more people work remotely. If a person doesn’t need to go into an office in Seattle, Bellevue, or Redmond, they might be more inclined to live further away for lower prices of homes. We are seeing this happening in San Francisco at the moment and in the surrounding areas. As such, rents in the city are adjusting.

Various solutions exist for this issue, that could lead down a never-ending rabbit hole. However, for now, the predominant factors contributing to unreasonable rents and the growing homeless population appear to stem from governmental inaction and the greed of landlords and developers. Rather than endlessly debating while looking for a single cause and solution, it would be wise for the Seattle City Council and the Washington State legislature to adopt a multifaceted approach, exploring and implementing a variety of solutions. Look at solutions to drug addiction besides having cops walk past crack users in the street doing nothing. Look at rent caps, whether landlords like it or not. The Seattle mayor received an extensive list of possible solutions, nearly 10 years ago. So, where are they?

What Can We Do?

As a society, we have the potential to address this issue by reducing or limiting our population growth. Fewer people equal fewer people looking for places to live. However, that is a long-term solution that would require more consensus from our population than is currently possible.

As consumers, we are limited in our options. We can try to fight back by negotiating rents. Make an offer and walk away, because they most likely won’t accept it. If enough people do it, and landlords are stuck with half full buildings, they might look at reducing the rate for the next tenant. Know the laws about what property managers can and cannot do, so that landlords don’t take advantage of you. And, of course, try to influence your legislatures. They have contact information on their websites so you can email or call them. Go to a speech they are giving and ask questions or bring up the issue.

How about giving a nod to some businesses beyond the Amazon and tech giants that dominate the city. There is a clear correlation between the tech giants moving in, and the rent surge. Fewer tech giants in the city could lead to fewer highly paid tech employees renting, that reduce the rates for the average workers to find a place to live.

Don’t just sit at home complaining while doing nothing.

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Milo
Dialogue & Discourse

Milo Denison is a freelance project manager and content writer. His most recent book “How to Manage Your Manager” is out now www.milodenison.com/books