POSTED ON Jan 6, 2014 9:16:39 AM / by Jay

Census surprise: Seattle the most affordable big city for renters

By Gene Balk
Seattle Times news librarian

How bad is the plight of the Seattle renter?

As reported in The Seattle Times, spiking rents have forced many tenants out of their neighborhoods, or out of the city altogether.

But as dire as the rental situation is here, new data suggest that it could be much worse. In fact, according to a commonly-used indicator of affordability, renters in Seattle are faring better than those in any other major U.S. city.

Census estimates for 2012 show that about 46 percent of Seattle tenants are “cost-burdened” by their rent — that is, they are spending 30 percent or more of their household income on rent. Seattle’s 46 percent is a high number, to be sure. But among the 50 most-populous U.S. cities, that ranks Seattle as having the lowest percentage of cost-burdened renters.

This may be surprising, given the soaring rents here. But when income levels are also taken into account, the least-affordable cities are not the ones with high rents, like Seattle. Rather, they’re the ones with the poorest people. That’s why, by this measure, Detroit ranks as the city where renters are struggling the most.

Seattle, with high-paying jobs but with rents still well below New York levels, comes out looking like a relative bargain.

Still, data reveal that Seattle, like every big American city, has become less affordable in recent years — but other cities have far outpaced us. Between 1999 and 2012, Seattle experienced the smallest rise in the percentage of cost-burdened renters among major cities — a modest increase from 41 percent to 46 percent of renters.

In other words, incomes here have kept pace with rising rents better than they have in other cities. Even so, when nearly half of Seattle’s renters are burdened by the cost of renting, it’s hard to look at this as good news.

And there is something that this data cannot tell us: how many lower-income renters are no longer counted for this statistic because they’ve already left Seattle, pushed out by high rents. Down the road, we’ll be looking for data to try to answer that question, so stay tuned.