Can the middle class lifestyle my Seattle grandparents had ever be achievable again? | KUOW News and Information

Can the middle class lifestyle my Seattle grandparents had ever be achievable again?

Jul 11, 2016

When I thought about moving to Seattle a few months ago, I was shocked at how expensive everything was.

I grew up in a Michigan town where the average house is worth about $125,000 today, and rent goes for about half of what it is in Seattle.

Knowing the lifestyle that my middle class grandparents were able to have here 60 years ago, I wondered if that Seattle will ever be able to be achievable again for middle class folks like me.

My grandparents were born and raised in Seattle. And my grandmother says things have changed a lot from her memories as a young adult in the city.

“I think our apartment on, I want to say 9th Avenue (it was over by Seattle U) when we were first married. I think that was like $20 a month,” she said.

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My late grandfather was an assistant math professor at Seattle University in the late 1950s. Shortly after that $20 a month apartment, he upgraded and bought a beautiful 3,000 square foot duplex in Capitol Hill for his wife, my mom and her three other siblings.

Grandpa was a fixer. He converted the duplex into a single family home that had five bedrooms and four bathrooms. He bought that house on one income, for about $16,000. That house is now worth more than $1.5 million.

The four McKay kids in the back of their Capitol Hill Seattle home in the late 1950s. The baby is author Emily Fox' mother.
Credit Courtesy of the McKay family

Shelly and Scott McIntyre have owned my grandpa’s old house for 27 years now. They have the luxury to really spread out now: They are empty nesters.

So instead of filling all of the bedrooms with kids, they each have an office, there’s a guest bedroom and a dedicated yoga room.

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Credit U.S. Census, ACS Survey 2010-2014

Shelly manages real estate and Scott is a family doctor.

“We moved here with two young kids, they were one and four. And it was a bit of a reach. As we were then, we couldn’t buy it today,” Scott McIntyre said.

The house has increased in value by about five times since they bought in the late 1980s.

It’s in a great neighborhood, near the Arboretum and Volunteer Park. Most of the homes here are two stories, with ornate designs and details, and have big porches.

Since this colonial style home was a duplex, it has extra things like two living rooms, two fireplaces and two wood banister stairways that work their way up to the second floor from different parts of the house. The upstairs view looks like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing.

The handy work of assistant math professor James McKay made converted a duplex into a real-life M.C. Escher drawing.
Credit KUOW Photo/Emily Fox

But if my grandfather was still working as an assistant math professor and supporting a wife and four kids in today’s world, where would he be able to live? What would that house look like?

Claudette Meyer, a realtor for Windemere Real Estate, showed me a house my grandfather could afford in today’s market.

It’s also a duplex, like what my grandpa bought, but it’s 14 miles farther south in Skyway. It’s half the size of my grandfather’s old house and only has three bedrooms, so as Meyer said, “Everyone will be a little snug here.”

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This duplex is surrounded by equally small, one-story, bland, boxy houses. The yard is overgrown with grass and weeds.

As Meyers said, it’s a “blank canvas” -- basically realtor speak for saying it’s going to need a lot of “sweat equity.”

The top two photos show the front and back of the home an assistant math professor at Seattle University could afford in the 1950s. The bottom two pictures are an example of what would be available in today's market.
Credit KUOW Photos/Emily Fox

Assistant math professors at Seattle University today make about $60,000- $70,000 a year. In a kind of best case scenario, my grandpa would be able to afford a house that is about $320,000 in today’s world.

And in today’s world, Meyer said that would only give my grandfather about 10 options for houses on the market in the city today that he could afford.

And they are nothing like the home he once had. None of them have five or even four bedrooms. They are half the size and are all pretty far from downtown.

“You’ve got a big bunch here in the south end; Rainer Beach and south, and that’s really, those are your options in the city,” Meyer said.

One of the dining rooms and living rooms in the converted Capitol Hill duplex.
Credit KUOW Photo/Emily Fox

Granted lifestyles have changed since the late 1950s when my grandpa bought. It’s rare for parents to have four kids these days and it’s a luxury when a mother doesn’t have to work.

But my grandparents were middle class back in their day. And the life that they were able to make for themselves is becoming something for only the rich in Seattle, like Meyer’s clients who work as computer programmers, software developers, attorneys and people in the biotech industry.

Meyer said middle class workers like nurses and teachers can really only afford homes in the far outskirts of town. And the artists and service workers are being pushed even father north and south than that.

So can the middle class lifestyle my grandparents had ever be achievable again in Seattle?

“I won’t say it will never be achievable in Seattle again, but it’s certainly questionable,” Meyer said.