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Affordable Housing Shortage Driving Poorer Seattleites Away

KUOW Photo/John Ryan
Audience members take an electronic survey at an open house on affordable housing at an Ethiopian community center in south Seattle.

Rents are rising sharply in Seattle, and the city has launched another effort to tackle the shortage of affordable housing.

At an Ethiopian community center in the Rainier Valley, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray's new affordable housing committee tried Wednesday night to take the pulse of a community hit hard by housing costs.

The 28-member committee's first open house began slowly as a consultant showed the multicultural audience how to use handheld electronic clickers to take part in an instant survey.

Instructions and questions were interpreted in Somali, Oromo and other languages.

As the evening progressed, the survey results, projected for all to see in real time, gave a sort of snapshot of the city's housing problem.

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The audience -- not counting the many city officials in the room, who didn't get clickers -- was mostly renters from South Seattle. Nearly half the 70 people taking the survey said housing costs had driven their friends or family out of the city.

Michael Neguse used to live in the Rainier Valley, then he moved to Renton, away from his job and his Eritrean community. He said much of Seattle's East African community has relocated to south King County and as far as Tacoma.

"I see all these new, very attractive buildings mushrooming all over -- $1,500 for one bedroom," Neguse said. "Nobody can afford it, so people are moving."

Over the past decade, rents have gone up faster in the Rainier Valley than anywhere else in the city except Ballard. Adjusting for inflation, rent per square foot has gone up 36 percent in the Rainier Valley and 48 percent in Ballard, according to the Seattle Office of Housing.

Someone priced out of the Rainier Valley is unlikely to be able to live elsewhere in the city.

At $1,042 for an average one-bedroom apartment, the Rainier Valley remains a bargain compared to most of the city. The average one-bedroom apartment in Seattle goes for $1,412 a month; the average newly built one-bedroom apartment goes for $1,780, according to the Seattle Office of Housing.

Overall, Seattle rent has shot up faster in the past three years than in any major American city, according to the Seattle Times.

Committee co-chair David Wertheimer, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said one out of five Seattle renters pay more than half their income on rent.

"An elementary school teacher can't afford a one-bedroom apartment," Wertheimer said, calling the city's mismatch between wages and housing costs "a huge challenge."

The housing affordability committee is slated to make recommendations by May 31.

The committee is holding open houses Thursday night at Garfield Community Center at 6 p.m. and also Thursday, Dec. 4, at Olympic View Elementary.

Year started with KUOW: 2009