Sooner or later, everyone moves to Seattle, went one saying in the city’s 1990s heyday. The trouble residents face now: What happens after everyone does?
Known for hiking and the open spaces of the American West, Seattle is in the midst of another boom that’s made it the fastest-growing among the top 50 U.S. cities. That’s causing angst over density, affordability, crime and other issues more familiar to an East Coast metropolis. At the same time, pay is outpacing the national average and an already rich cultural life is thriving as new restaurants and nightspots open.
“It’s a blessing,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, a 59-year-old Democrat, said of the growth. “But with it comes some real challenges.”
While Amazon.com Inc. and other big employers reshape the downtown with new development, some long-time residents say they’re being priced out. Growth even is crowding the Space Needle, whose owners have fought construction that might block views of the city icon. Other residents resent dormitory-like “micro apartments” that squeeze dozens of 150-square-foot units into established neighborhoods.
Costs for everything from utilities to food come as a shock to newcomers. By one measure of a professional’s cost of living -- the price of a basic sushi roll -- Seattle leapt from the sixth-most expensive U.S. city last year to No. 3 this year, trailing only New York and Los Angeles, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Rankings.
In June, Drew Haines and his fiancée saw the rent for their two-bedroom apartment near the waterfront rise almost 25 percent, to $3,100 a month, he said. They moved.
“It was eye-opening,” said Haines, 29, who took a job as a buyer on the kitchen team at Amazon after finishing an MBA degree in Washington, D.C. “The scary thing was, people were viewing the apartment right after. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already taken.”
Seattle’s population grew 2.8 percent in the year ending July 2013 to 652,000, pushing it past Boston as the 21st-largest city, U.S. Census Bureau data show. The rise reflects a new urbanism that’s made places like Denver and Atlanta more appealing, especially for those who can’t afford a house or prefer pedestrian-friendly spaces to suburbs. The largest U.S. cities grew more than 1 percent in each of the past three years, double the rate of the previous decade, a study by the Brookings Institution in Washington shows.
Familiar to many for Starbucks Corp.’s coffee, the downtown fish market, ferries sliding by snow-capped mountains and perpetual mist, Seattle for decades was more akin to a blue-collar manufacturing town. Lumber, airplanes and fishing were dominant. The economy was remade by waves of technology investment -- most prominently in the 1990s by native son Bill Gates’s Microsoft Corp., when the rise of Nirvana and other grunge bands also made it a pacesetter for music and fashion.
“Seattle reigns,” Newsweek magazine wrote in a May 1996 cover story. “Sooner or later, it seems, everyone moves to Seattle, or thinks about it, or at least their kids do.”
This latest boom is led by companies that were in their infancy then, or hadn’t even started. Besides Amazon, which went public in 1997, they include online businesses such as Zillow Inc., Blue Nile Inc. and Zulily Inc.
At Zillow, the starting salary for Seattle software developers is $100,000; it was $65,000 when the real-estate website went live in 2006, said Chief Executive Officer Spencer Rascoff.
“Tell your kids to go into computer science,” he said.
The Seattle area’s unemployment rate fell to 4.4 percent in April, the lowest since May 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Amazon’s global workforce has more than doubled in two years, to 117,300 as of December 2013 from 56,200 in 2011; the company doesn’t disclose local hiring. Blocks of new towers house workers in its headquarters complex just north of downtown. On a stretch once dominated by car lots and the King Cat Theater music venue, Amazon will build offices with three translucent, intersecting spheres that resemble soap bubbles.
“Seattle is becoming one of the places to be again,” said Brett Wilson, general manager of the nearby Wasabi Bistro. A big seller there is the $16 rock-star roll: crab and avocado topped with sockeye salmon and a sesame sauce. The restaurant added an omakase platter last month, a chef-chosen menu Wilson said can cost as much as $100.
“I would consider that high-roller sushi,” Wilson said.
The concentration of technology workers has helped the area buck the nationwide stagnation in incomes. Since 2008, annual pay for professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics increased $14,930, or 18.8 percent. That’s the most of any metropolitan area with at least 100,000 workers in the fields, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
In the housing market, median home prices in the city jumped almost one-third in two years, to $405,742 in May 2014 from $306,371 in May 2012, according to data provider RealtyTrac. Rents rose 7.2 percent to $1,139 in 2013, more than double the 3.2 percent increase nationwide, based on data from Reis Inc., a property-research company. That compares with a 5.6 percent increase in San Francisco.
“It’s a frenzy,” said Seattle real-estate broker Leon Woffinden. The only clients who aren’t surprised by the competition and costs are from Silicon Valley, he said.
Just as in San Francisco, there’s been a backlash, with some people blaming technology workers for widening a wealth gap. Masked protesters in February halted a Microsoft shuttle bus and handed out fliers condemning “hyper-gentrification.” The Seattle rapper Draze released a music video called “The Hood Ain’t the Same,” in which he intones, “I ain’t proud of these new developments, I feel shame.”
Prosperity isn’t reaching minority-dominated neighborhoods in south Seattle, said Louis Watanabe, a college professor and former technology executive who is now running for the state senate. Officials haven’t responded fast enough to a spike in crime, including more than 70 reports of shootings and 19 gun deaths since April in central and southeast Seattle, Skyway and north Renton, he said.
Seattle Mayor Murray, who highlighted what he called a “public-safety crisis” before he was elected in November, named former Boston police commissioner Kathleen O’Toole as his chief in May. “We have significant hotspots,” he said, pledging a mix of policing, human services and economic development as solutions.
After signing legislation last month phasing in a $15 hourly minimum wage, the highest of any big city, Murray said he’ll next tackle housing, perhaps by partnering with nonprofits that might offer subsidies.
“The huge challenge is that we are able to grow, but we are able to grow in a way for Seattle to remain the livable city that it is,” he said.
Developers are increasingly erecting micro apartments, boxy multi-story buildings in which tiny studios are clustered around shared kitchens. While units might cost only $700 a month including utilities, neighbors often object because the developments congest street parking, said Seattle property consultant Brian O’Connor.
Residents of the Eastlake neighborhood sued in May to force one planned 115-unit micro-apartment project to include off-street parking and more kitchens. Jules James, who owns a parcel-shipment store in the area, said the developments will stand out to future generations as slums erected in haste.
“Boomtown economics happen,” James said. “It’ll wane.”