By Ray Sylvester
The seventh-fastest growing city in the US in 2016. The fastest-growing and -densifying city in the country since 2010. The city with the fastest-growing home prices in 2017. The fastest-growing big city from mid-2015 to mid-2016.
That city? Seattle. Seattle exemplifies, as much as just about any metropolis in North America in the past twenty years, the icon of the boomtown. Of growth incarnate, and all the externalities growth can conjure.
My family and I moved to Seattle in September 2012 when my wife was pregnant with our son. At the time of the move, buying a house wasn’t really even on our radar. We were in a new town, with a baby on the way. We had always been renters to that point, so we went with what we knew. We rented.
Back then, the city still offered options for us — financially speaking— if we’d decided to go the home-buying route. We just chose not to. (The median home value in Seattle as of September 2012, when we arrived in the city, according to Zillow, was $375,000.)
In the three and a half years we lived in Seattle, however, the city’s housing market took on a dizzying escape velocity.
The median home value as of February 2016, when we left? $559,000.
It was a missed opportunity for us, but for many others who did buy in when the buying in was good, there’s been a dark cloud to the silver lining of Seattle’s skybound housing market in the early twenty-first century.
Mike Watt is a friend of mine who lives in the View Ridge neighborhood of Seattle with his wife, Lilia, and their two young children. Back in 2013, they bought what Mike describes as “a modest house,” one they “could barely afford.” And like many homeowners who got in while the getting was still attainable, they’ve “made a ton of equity on it” since then. So what’s the catch? To capture the full benefit of that soaring equity, they’d have to sell their house and find another cheaper one. But to do that would require moving well outside the city limits. As Mike told me, “If we sold it today, we’d be hard pressed to afford much of anything else in Seattle. Because of the insane, unchecked real estate market, we stay put.”
(By the way, the median home value in Seattle as of March 1, 2018, according to Zillow? $727,400.)
Hungry for Housing
If you’re picking up what I’m putting down — and I think you are — you won’t be surprised to learn Seattle is rapidly becoming one of the most expensive cities to live in in the country. The rich are increasingly concentrated in the city proper, while the middle class and poor are being pushed out to the suburbs; the lack of affordable housing also means a significant homeless population. This socioeconomic demographic trend is not unique to Seattle, of course, as it’s been occurring recently in many other US cities, particularly New York City, Denver, and Atlanta.
In 2017, the estimated population of the Seattle–Tacoma–Bellevue, WA Metropolitan Statistical Area (as defined by the US Census Bureau was 3,798,902, making it “just” the 14th largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in the country. Meanwhile, Seattle proper had a population of just under 705,000 in 2016. But this lightweight figure belies the scale of the problem. Seattle needs more housing.
A lot more.
A big part of the issue is the fact that much of the city is zoned for low-density, single-family housing. Fifty-seven percent of the city is zoned for single-family homes. You could argue this figure is as high as 65 percent, if you include public parks. In 2015, Seattle’s then-Mayor Ed Murray launched the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), a program aimed at generating 20,000 new affordable homes by proposing significant zoning changes across twenty-seven “urban villages.” The so-called “upzoning” promoted by HALA essentially allows developers to build taller and denser housing units.
Seattle exemplifies, as much as just about any metropolis in North America in the past twenty years, the icon of the boomtown. Of growth incarnate, and all the externalities growth can conjure.
As Seattle’s housing prices have ballooned, this inflation has also attracted foreign speculative investment that’s further pumped up the market. There’s a precedent to Seattle’s example here, one that can be found a few hours north up the Interstate 5 corridor: Vancouver, Canada. Vancouver has been dealing with its own tempestuously buoyant housing market for several years, one that many have attributed partly to a flood of foreign money, mainly from East Asia, that’s been poured into luxury housing as nonresidential investment. After several years of runaway inflation in housing prices, Vancouver recently implemented a 20 percent tax on foreign buyers and speculators that may put a damper on the inrush of what Charles Mudede of Seattle weekly paper The Stranger refers to as “global surplus capital.”
In an attempt to learn from Vancouver’s example, Seattle is looking at implementing a similar tax of its own. But whether or not an initiative like this helps to turn the tide of upward housing prices, the current reality is one in which many Seattleites — Mike and Lilia included — are effectively locked into their homes. A rising tide may float all houses — but it also creates a rough ocean that makes it dangerous or even impossible to haul anchor and venture out into the city’s wider real estate market.
Leaving, Just to Return
In response, many of Seattle’s workers are planting their roots farther outside the city proper, where housing prices are tamer. One result of this, however, is a significant commuter community, one that contributes to another of the boomtown’s major growing pains: traffic congestion. Seattle is a case study in the emergence of the phenomenon of the mega-commuter, usually defined as a person who spends at least 90 minutes traveling each way to work every day.
According to US Census data as reported by the Seattle Times in June 2017 (see previous link), the number of commuters who fell into the “mega” category exploded by 72 percent between 2010 and 2015. During the same period, the number of people with commutes between five and fourteen minutes dropped by 4 percent, while those with sub-five-minute commutes declined a hefty 22 percent.
As a double whammy along with the congestion-creating influx of commuters who opt to live outside the city for reasons of affordability, Seattle is already a very car-centered city. As a result, it had the fourth worst traffic in the nation in 2017. Between 2010 and 2015, Seattle’s population grew by 12 percent, and so did its car population; in 2016, there were 637 cars per 1,000 residents.
A bright spot: Starting in 2010, the percentage of households with more than one car began to drop, mainly as younger residents started to forgo car ownership. The trend is reversing, but the absolute numbers show that the automobile still rules in the Emerald City.
The timelapse shows the development of South Lake Union, the Denny Triangle, and downtown Seattle. In a Hackernoon post, Brualla covers some fascinating highlights and tidbits he uncovered in the process of creating the timelapse.
Outsourcing the Boom
Credit for much of Seattle’s boom falls at the feet of world eater Amazon. Although not the biggest employer in King County, where Seattle is situated (that honor falls to Boeing), Amazon’s physical footprint in the city is undeniable: the company maintains as much office space as Seattle’s next forty biggest employers combined.
Amazon has been growing so fast that it’s simply outgrown Seattle. As a result, the company has been searching for a second headquarters in another North American city.
How many other cities can say they’ve had to outsource their boom?
Amazon has gone about the search for a new home in a savvy way, courting cities openly in a Bachelor-style format. This approach means cities are incentivized to outdo one another with tax breaks and the like in a quest to land the coveted designation.
While some commentators have lauded this strategy of brazenly pitting cities against each other — CNN’s Kaya Yurieff called it “genius” in a February 2 editorial, others argue it represents a race to the bottom. Why don’t the cities collectively bargain instead, asked the Intercept’s Zaid Jilani in a January 22 editorial?
How many other cities can say they’ve had to outsource their boom?
On January 18, Amazon narrowed the field to twenty finalists. As of the writing of this piece, that’s still the case. In any case, wherever Amazon ends up next, its new host city is due for some earth-shaking changes of its own.
(As of this writing, a panel of experts polled in a study conducted by Zillow had pegged Boston as unlikely to get the nod for Amazon’s new headquarters, on account of its expensive housing market, as well as the “transportation problems” caused by being a coastal city. As a resident of Massachusetts, albeit one who lives two-plus hours from Boston, paint me relieved.)
“Can Seattle handle its success?,” asked Ronald Brownstein of the Atlantic in November 2017. “Few cities have moved as aggressively as Seattle to confront the challenges of growth,” Brownstein claimed, citing attempts to improve the minimum wage, expand preschool access, and tax short-term housing rentals, along with other initiatives to address the rapid change and upheaval of a city that’s growing about as fast as it can.
“There’s still a scene, for sure, but it feels more underground and less important.”
But regardless of how successful Seattle becomes at wrangling the multi-headed challenges of its growth, there’s the ongoing and inevitable passing of the “old” Seattle, perhaps most iconically its status as the city that served as the early-’90s epicenter of alternative music and birthed the grunge revolution. As a musician who’s lived in the city since the late ’90s, my friend Mike is again well-equipped to opine here:
“I’m sure I’m subjective, as I’m a musician, but it felt like there used to be a collective social interest and focus on the Seattle music scene — it seemed like a broader population of the city cared about what was happening in the music scene. It doesn’t feel that way anymore. Perhaps that’s also an effect of my aging, focusing more on my young children, and not keeping so much of a finger on the pulse of the music scene. But I believe music isn’t as important anymore — you don’t see a lot of articles, front page or not, about new Seattle bands or artists. There’s still a scene, for sure, but it feels more underground and less important. The only thing the local press or anyone seems to consistently care about is fucking Macklemore — but again, maybe that’s just old-man, ‘Dad-me’ talking.”
Besides the effervescent early-’90s heyday of Kurt Cobain & crew, members of the old-man Dad-me set and their ilk are known to cast a nostalgic eye toward another icon of the “old” Seattle: the city’s former NBA team, the SuperSonics.
During the team’s tenure in Seattle, its fans celebrated one championship, in 1979, as well as the raw excitement of a 1990s squad that orbited around the dynamic duo of hotshot point guard Gary Payton and dunkmaster Shawn Kemp — a team that again flirted with ultimate success in 1996 but lost to the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in the Finals that year.
After the 2007–08 season, in the wake of several failed attempts to secure public funding to build a new arena, owner Clay Bennett swept the Sonics out of Seattle and relocated the team to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where it took on new life as the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team’s departure — the circumstances of which are steeped in political and corporate intrigue — left a raving fan base grieved and wounded, a saga that’s captured in exhaustive detail in the award-winning 2009 documentary Sonicsgate: Requiem for a Team.
On April 13, 2008, the Sonics rallied from six points down in the final three minutes to beat the Dallas Mavericks 99–95, in what would be the team’s final home game. Gary Payton, in the stands that Sunday evening, was introduced before tipoff by the announcers, and met with a standing ovation from the crowd. “I almost cried, to be honest with you,” said the team’s rookie star Kevin Durant after the game. Durant, the team’s first-round draft pick and no. 2 overall pick, would go on to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award.
It’s been almost precisely a decade since that day, and in that time there have been rumors and murmurs, false starts and glimmers of hope, of a return of NBA basketball to Seattle.
“I think they’re a town that should have a team,” former NBA commissioner David Stern said in a June 2017 interview.
The return of the Sonics would be jubilant news for Seattle. But it wouldn’t be the same. Because, frankly, how could it?
Besides, at this point, the city’s kind of got its hands full.
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