What's it like to live a middle class lifestyle in Amazon's neighborhood?
Deborah Bartlett knows. She's a teacher. And like half the people in Seattle, she earned less than $50,000 last year. She works part time at a school near Amazon’s headquarters.
She wanted to live near work because her commute was so bad. So she started apartment shopping. She'd go building to building and say:
"Hi, how much are rents?"
Answer: It depends. What kind of rents are you looking for?
"About a thousand. Less than a thousand," she would say.
Answer: Bye! We're four thousand. Or three thousand. Or five thousand.
It was far too much for Bartlett, a single parent with a school-aged son.
Then she found Casa Pacifica, an apartment run by a nonprofit called Bellwether. “Well, I felt like I hit the jackpot," she says, because her rent today is under $1,200 for a two-bedroom. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to live there.
“People say ‘Oh, you live in South Lake Union, it’s so vibrant and so exciting and there's so many things to do," and I say 'Yes, there’s a lot of things to do down there… and I notice them…’” But she doesn’t do those things, at least not regularly, because they’re priced for Amazon workers, not teachers.
“I feel like an observer,” says Bartlett. She is literally an observer, as her school, which has an outdoor-focused curriculum, has her walking young children through the neighborhood. Many of them are children of Amazon workers. Together, they wave to the storekeepers through their windows.
All across Seattle, middle-class households make up less of the city each year. As the middle class's presence shrinks, restaurants and businesses turn their attention to more abundant and affluent customers. That's true in much of Seattle. It's especially true in the South Lake Union neighborhood, where Amazon has its headquarters.
Bartlett has a boyfriend named Ponch Hartley. He brings her roses sometimes, but not from the flower shop by Bartlett's place. Hartley's a landscaper, and sometimes he gets roses for free when he prunes them back for a customer.
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Together, Bartlett and Hartley have a plan to thrive in South Lake Union. “We make a point to sit down, you know, every Sunday to do the budget, to do the grocery plan, to do everything like that and talk about money.”
Then they head to the cash machine and stuff their spending money into envelopes: one for each category of spending. “So there’s a grocery one, and a dining one, and an entertainment...” she says.
They shop at Trader Joe’s in Ballard, because it’s cheaper than the Whole Foods right by their house. They choose chicken thighs over breasts. Non-organic garlic over organic. “It makes this all sound like we’re pinching pennies. Sometimes I’m like, ugh, can’t we just get something without looking at it.”
“Sometimes you’re like 'Ugh?'” teases Hartley.
Okay, constantly she's like "ugh."
Bartlett and Hartley cook meals at Bartlett's home, because the restaurants near their house would blow their whole month’s dining budget in one sitting. They're willing to eat out on special occasions but must carefully guard the dining envelope to make it possible.
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Being middle class in Amazon’s neighborhood means making compromises. But it's not as painful as it might be for someone on an even lower income. Bartlett chooses to be grateful. “It’s not just about having or not having money. It’s more about what I have,” she says.
And this whole budgeting thing — they think of it as a kind of game. When they have extra money to spend at the end of the month, it feels like winning. Experiencing that together with another person feels good. “It’s not slowing us down" as couple, says Hartley, "it’s made us stronger.”