Seattle is one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., and over the past decade, housing costs in particular have soared.
So this statistic may come as a surprise.
Census data shows a smaller share of Seattle homeowners and renters are “burdened” by housing costs now than in 2010.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development considers households cost-burdened if they spend more than 30% of total income on housing costs, such as mortgage or rent, utilities, condo fees, and so on.
If we look at all Seattle households — homeowners and renters combined — about 36% were cost-burdened in 2021, down from 41% in 2010.
It’s worth noting Census Bureau data includes households paying 30% or more of income toward housing costs, which is slightly different from the HUD definition of cost-burdened, which is more than 30% of income.
A household can be a family, a single person or a group of unrelated people (such as roommates or unmarried partners). And naturally, there are differences in income between these various household types.
Let’s break down the data between homeowners (with and without a mortgage) and renters.
In 2010, there were 99,000 home-owning households with a mortgage in Seattle. Of them, about 38,000, or 38%, were cost-burdened by housing expenses, according to census data. By last year, the number of homeowners with a mortgage had increased to 115,000, but the number who were cost-burdened dropped to about 30,000, or just 26%.
That’s a huge decline.
Surely, that drop isn’t due to Seattle homes becoming more affordable. Census data shows the median value in Seattle for all owner-occupied housing units was $440,600 in 2010 (roughly $549,000 in 2021 when adjusted for inflation). The median home value in 2021 was $845,100 — an increase of roughly $296,000 in “real” dollars, or 54%.
Some of the drop in how many homeowners are cost-burdened is undoubtedly due to the low interest rates over the past decade (until this year) which enabled a lot of homeowners to refinance and lower their mortgage payments.
But the data shows even among Seattle homeowners who own their home free and clear, there was no increase in the share who were cost-burdened. In 2010, about 18% spent 30% or more of their income on housing costs, compared with 16.5% in 2021.
Seattle renters are much more likely to be cost-burdened than homeowners. But even as rents in the city skyrocketed, the share of renters who were cost-burdened also didn’t increase.
The median rent plus utilities in Seattle, across all units, was $990 in 2010, which equals roughly $1,230 in 2021 when adjusted for inflation. The median rent in 2021 was $1,787 — an increase of $557 in “real” dollars, or 45%.
In 2010, there were 140,000 renter households in Seattle. Among them, 68,000, or 49%, were cost-burdened. In 2021, the number of renter households increased to 183,000, and the number that were cost-burdened also grew, to 85,000 — that pencils out to 47%, a slightly lower estimate than 2010.
So does that mean Seattle housing is no less affordable today than it was before the Amazon boom reshaped the city?
No, not exactly. To understand why the share of cost-burdened households declined, we need to look at another change that’s happened over the past decade.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the median household income in Seattle hitting $110,000 in 2021, third highest among the 50 biggest U.S. cities. Back in 2010, the median household income in the city was only about $60,000. If you adjust that figure for inflation, it equals roughly $75,000 in 2021 dollars. So in “real” dollars, the median household income increased dramatically — up about $35,000, or 47%.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that everybody living here in 2010 is still here and they all simply got a big fat raise. More likely, the tens of thousands of newcomers who moved here over the past decade tended, on average, to be more affluent than the people already here. And many people who had been living here moved out of the city — or out of the region — because their income could no long cover the rising cost of living.
Household income includes contributions by all members of the household, related or not, age 15 and older. Of course, wages are a major part of household income, but it also includes interest, dividends, income from rental properties, royalties, public assistance and disability and retirement incomes (Social Security, pensions, etc.).
So the fact that the share of cost-burdened homeowners and renters hasn’t increased doesn’t mean Seattle is more affordable. Rather, it’s an indicator of the city’s increased wealth — and of its exclusivity.