About half the renters in the Seattle region pay too much for their place.
Too much means they’re spending more than a third of their household income before taxes. SeaTac and Rainer Valley neighborhoods are particularly rough on renters, although this trend affects the entire city, regardless of median income. (Check your neighborhood in the interactive graphic below.)
“With the lack of disposable income, you have a much greater chance of failure,” said Mike O’Rourke, senior vice president of Washington Federal. “There’s so much less cash available each month for emergencies.”
Sometimes that emergency is a rent increase. Seattle doesn’t have rent control, which means landlords can raise the rent as much as they want when the lease is up.
Renters throughout the Seattle Metropolitan area are spending more than a third of their household income on rent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, even though paying so much could lead to stress and financial risk.
There is little variation from wealthier zip codes to ones with a lower median income. But rents have continued to rise since the Census data was collected.
Edwin and Shannon Garcia, both in their 30s, were living in Kirkland when their landlord raised their rent by 26 percent.
“It was going to throw us completely haywire," Edwin Garcia said. "We were already on the skin of our teeth most of the time.”
They moved across Lake Washington to an apartment in Seattle's Lake City area. Shannon Garcia found the apartment with a garden that put them – at least for now – on the right side of 30 percent. The Garcias signed a two-year lease and say they expect an increase next time they renew.
The Garcias earn $75,000 – that’s more than the Seattle median of about $55,000 a year.
The situation is less certain for Anthony Fox, 45, and his husband, Robert Darden, 43. They moved from Lake City when Darden lost his retail job last year.
Their income is now below the Seattle median, which made it harder for them to find a place to live within city limits. They are adamant about living in Seattle, because they moved to Seattle from Nashville specifically for the city. They don’t want to live in a suburb.
They found an apartment by moving to deep West Seattle. They now live in an apartment complex across from the Westwood Village Shopping Center off Delridge Way.
They pay just under $1,000. But they have learned their rent will increase by about 35 percent to $1,350. That means rent is about to cross over to the dark side – well past 30 percent of their income.
They live just three blocks from the suburbs, but it's an important three blocks. Living inside Seattle presents its own economic benefits: There are more buses within city limits, and they come more often. Moving to the suburbs would likely mean needing to buy a car; gas mileage and a car payment would just add to their bills.
Thirty percent is an important number. O’Rourke said it’s not a rule but is “a good target.”
But by the time you pay taxes, it’s really half of what’s left. O'Rourke says that when you spend too much on housing, “you have a much greater chance of failure. Because there’s so much less cash available each month for emergencies.”
Fox and Darden said this latest rent increase is a real problem. They already moved 17 miles to stay in the city, and they don't want to contemplate life in the suburbs. But staying put will force them to cut cable, the gym and possibly more.
So far, Darden and Fox believe they will stay put. The financial pain might be temporary. They said they will cut down other costs, like eating out and cable television.
“Robert has been applying for jobs; I am up possibly for a promotion at work," Anthony Fox said. "I'm hopeful."
Update: On the day this story aired, Anthony Fox learned he was promoted. He works in an administrative position at Swedish Hospital.
Where renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
Blue: Zero - 20 % spend more than a third of income on housing
Green: 21 – 40 %
Yellow: 41 – 60 %
Orange: 61 – 80 %
Red: 81 – 100 %
Where homeowners spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.