A recent posting in a housing-wanted Facebook group advertised a small room in the basement of a house near Green Lake for the “super cheap rent” of $730 a month, not including utilities. That was the actual wording, and it was posted by a student in a group largely for Seattle Pacific University students looking for housing. If students think $730 a month for a modest room in a modest house is cheap, what hope is there for the rest of us?
What that ad says to me is that we have accepted that there are no restrictions on how much or how often landlords can raise the rent in this “progressive” city. We have accepted that the number of people becoming homeless in this city every year is increasing in proportion to the rise in rent. We have accepted that, pretty soon, the only people who can afford to live here are those who have already paid off their house, rich techies or people who can afford job retraining. We have accepted the housing crisis as “just the way things are.”
I didn’t move to Seattle to be a frog in a pot of water that’s slowly heating up. I didn’t move to Seattle for a tech job either. I’ve been here since before Seattle began to feel like a tech corporation. When I first arrived more than a decade ago, Metro had a ride-free zone in the downtown area, you didn’t have to look for over a year for affordable housing a reasonable distance from your employment, and you didn’t have to worry about being ticketed for handing out a sandwich to the one or two people struggling to live outside. And, oh yeah, $700 a month (including utilities) was more than what I paid for a studio on Capitol Hill that I could afford with the job I got before I graduated from college.
The reason Seattle is a permanent construction site isn’t because affordable housing is being built. It’s to accommodate the 1,000 people moving here every month, largely because of tech jobs. There’s no plan for the rest of us, who are likely still earning what we did a decade ago even after getting a college degree. And there hasn’t been for a while. While many more baby boomers own their homes than do millennials, this doesn’t mean they avoid the burden of housing costs. And every generation of Seattle renters is rent-burdened (meaning over half their income goes toward rent).
This matters: Renters make up more than half the residents in this city, and we’ve done nothing effective about it (the ban on rent control in Seattle, for example, has been in place since 1981). But do we care? Does it bother anyone else that $680 a month (excluding utilities) is considered “affordable housing” when a minimum-wage job would make you enough money to support a family of four in no city in the United States, let alone Seattle? Do we really think it’s fine to offer, as another recent ad did, a leaky basement room for $700 a month plus utilities because you can “use the leak as leverage against the landlord raising the rent”? Is moving out when our rent raises out of our reach the only action we’re willing to take, even if that means having to pay rent in two places for a month just to secure a new place, moving more often and farther away from jobs and established communities?
Perhaps we’re all too busy moving or competing for an artificially limited supply of acceptable housing or too exhausted from commuting hours to and from work because we have to go farther and farther away from where the livable-wage jobs are to find truly affordable housing. But allow me to remind you that the housing situation in this city is not just the normal increase in cost of living. It does not have to be accepted. And it should not be OK.
Megan Wildhood is a writer, advocate in the mental health community and published poet and essayist living in Seattle.
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