Would you pay $360,000 for this Seattle house? | KUOW News and Information

Would you pay $360,000 for this Seattle house?

Jul 18, 2017

Sonny Kwan, a real estate agent in Seattle, was shocked recently by a listing he saw just off Rainier Avenue South.

“Wow, this house is in horrible shape,” Kwan said. “The roof looks like it has got issues. It’s probably leaking inside. That chimney is probably going to come down.”  

Kwan grew up in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood, where his dad ran a restaurant. He’s been a real estate agent for 30 years, so he’s been watching the housing boom – but even this listing was a jolt.  

The asking price: $360,000. And that’s at the low, low end for single-family homes in Seattle right now. The median price is $750,000.

Candidates in Seattle mayor's race all say housing affordability is a top priority. But what are they going to do about skyrocketing prices?

One big problem the city faces is tight supply. In real estate lingo, there's currently around just four to six weeks of it, which is next to nothing. In a “normal” market Seattle would have four to six months of supply.

Add to that a buzzing economy and rapid population growth.

As Kwan sees it, the city was “just inundated with too many people at once. There's people coming from all over the country for places to live, and they're not going to be able to find in Ballard and Fremont and areas like that. So they're getting pushed out to different areas like Rainier Beach."

And when that happens, buyers aren’t the only ones feeling the squeeze. Despite the poor condition of the house Kwan noted down in Rainier Beach, someone does live here.

But Kwan says the renter was so fearful of being forced to move, he didn't want to let anyone inside to take a look. 

Evan O'Hart, 25, poses for a portrait at the Rainier Beach Food & Farm Hub on Tuesday, July 11, 2017, in Seattle.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Across the street was Evan O'Hart, who works in the neighborhood, doing food distribution for the non-profit group Tilth. O'Hart used to live here, too – near where he worked. That’s what "smart growth" advocates and the regional growth management plan would want him to do.  

But O'Hart was forced to move.

"I was living in Rainier Beach with seven other people," O'Hart said. "Our house initially was going to be foreclosed on, and our landlord didn't let us know. And eventually she had to sell the house, and we moved out, had to move to SeaTac, got priced out there and had to move to Tacoma." 

With so many stories like this of people unable to afford to buy or to rent — and being forced to move, or in some cases to live on the streets – the heat will be on whoever is Seattle’s next mayor.

Bob Hasegawa, a mayoral candidate and state representative, says one way to fix the problem of tight supply, "is to build significant amount of public housing, just to increase the numbers of available units to lower the pressure on the appreciation." Hasegawa has proposed a publicly owned bank to finance it.

Another candidate who calls for a big investment in public housing is lawyer and activist Nikkita Oliver. She sees market-rate housing as more of a problem than a solution.

“We are demolishing affordable units, while building luxury units that are at the rate the market's at,” Oliver said. “As a result, those affordable units disappear and are not replaced, even as a one for one." 

Mike McGinn, the former Seattle mayor who is running again, also wants to see more spending on publicly funded housing. McGinn's proposed a corporate head tax and a hike to the business and occupation tax to pay for it

Urban planner Cary Moon says a big part of problem is with investors in a global economy: "It's the hottest stock out there. Buy a house in Seattle, watch the price escalate, it's faster than buying Amazon or buying Microsoft.” Moon says one answer is taxes, like a tax on corporate buyers and non-resident owners to dampen demand.  

Another candidate, Jessyn Farrell, a former state senator and transit advocate, says the city should add more density. But Farrell wants Seattle residents to get more involved in the process of deciding what density looks like, and where it goes.  

Former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan is the candidate most in favor of the current city strategy, which tries to encourage developers to build both more market rate and more affordable housing.     

Real estate agent Sonny Kwan poses for a portrait in front of a home in Rainier Beach.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

But many private and nonprofit developers complain that none of the mayoral candidates have proposals that would radically increase the supply of housing to meet the demand from either low-wage workers or the middle-class. 

Back in Rainier Beach, Sonny Kwan says he hopes the city figures it out. But in the meantime he expects current trends to continue.

"Especially with our Seattle economy," Kwan said, "it really goes higher, higher and higher. It never gets really lower, lower and lower."