The last time Seattle had more renters than homeowners, Pike Place Market (founded in 1907) was a new thing.
Census data shows that in 1910, about 15,000 Seattle residents lived in a rental apartment rather than their own. But by 1920 the owners had moved into the majority, and it stayed that way for a century.
So far it has been.
In 2019, the estimated Seattle tenant population, according to census data, was about 366,000 – just slightly more than the estimated homeowner population, which was about 362,000.
Granted, these numbers are estimates with a built-in margin of error. However, the census data suggests that Seattle has gradually shifted towards tenant-majority status over the past few years. It was only a matter of time before we got there.
In fact, Seattle’s peak year of home ownership is long behind us. It did so in 1960, at a time when Boeing, not Amazon, was the engine of the city’s boom.
Because Seattle grew rapidly in the postwar period, most of the population growth was absorbed by the neighborhoods made up of single-family homes. To date, most of the urban residential area is devoted to single-family homes only (which is a source of constant frustration for our many local city dwellers).
Census data shows that around 364,000 Seattle residents (67%) lived in condominiums in 1960 – interestingly, that’s almost exactly the same number as it is today. But the number of people living in rental apartments at the time was not even half as large at only 178,000.
One reason the condominium population was so much larger was household size. Families with children were more likely to live in their own house, while single people were more likely to live in a rental unit. That’s still true today. But in 1960 the baby boom was in full swing and Seattle had many more children than it does now.
By the 1970s, the Boeing boom had given way to the Boeing bust, and Seattle’s population shrank. The number of people living in their own homes also decreased and did not recover until after 1990. On the other hand, the number of people living in rental units has grown much more steadily over these decades (despite a slight decrease between 1990 and 2000).
There are a variety of reasons why people rent rather than own, but one of the main reasons is cost. Seattle house prices have long been higher than the national average, but over the past decade they have risen out of reach, even for many with good incomes. The typical Seattle home was valued at $ 804,500 in November, according to real estate data firm Zillow.
And that certainly has a lot to do with why the Seattle tenant population has grown twice as fast as the owner population since 2010 – a rate of 34% versus 17%.
Among the 50 most populous US cities, Seattle is among only 18 cities where the estimated tenant population is greater than that of the owners.
The major city dominated by tenants is Miami. 66% of residents live in an apartment or other rental unit. New York ranks second with 65%, followed by Boston with 62%.
The most owner-dominated city is Virginia Beach, where around 65% of the population lives in a home. Omaha and Fort Worth are right behind in that order.
Note about the data: The numbers used in this column refer to people living in rented or owned households. Some people live in what are known as “group quarters” – nursing homes, dormitories, military barracks, prisons, shelters, and other institutionalized facilities. People who live in group quarters are neither considered tenants nor homeowners. In Seattle, approximately 26,000 people – 3.5% of the population – live in group neighborhoods.