Seattle apartment rents and vacancies

For several years has tracked rent prices in dozens of cities, counties and states across the U.S. They are one of the more credible sources of rental data because of their methodology, which goes beyond just listing prices for available apartments (a small subset of all apartments, but the easiest data to obtain) to try to capture what renters are paying in continuing leases as well (the vast majority of apartments).

Rental housing is generally on an annual cycle, peaking in July and August and bottoming out in the winter. But the pandemic, as well as efforts to help renters weather it through rent assistance and eviction moratoria, caused some additional ups and downs in recent years. It’s also not hard to imagine that this year’s high inflation would have an effect on rents as well. And the data shows all of that — but not consistently across all cities and towns in Washington (or even in Puget Sound).

Here’s a chart of rents in the major Puget Sound cities (in non-inflated dollars, since we’re directly measuring the effect of inflation here):

You can see the annual sine-wave cycle, as well as the dramatic drop in Bellevue and Seattle prices in late 2020 and early 2021 followed by an equally rapid recovery. Over the long term, Bellevue, Tacoma and Everett have seen significant increases in rental prices, but surprisingly Seattle’s have been fairly stable outside of the annual volatility cycle.

Here are several of the smaller towns and cities that Apartmentlist tracks; nearly all of them have seen steady long-term increases in rental prices, some larger than others:

And here’s a look at some towns and cities in the rest of the state; they, too have seen increases, some of them dramatic:

Here’s a summary of the increases for each town and city, looking back one, three and five years from November 2022:

City1-yr Increase3-yr Increase5-yr Increase
Auburn, WA7.1%26.2%45.2%
Bellevue, WA3.2%14.8%23.5%
Bothell, WA4.5%26.9%27.3%
Everett, WA4.4%24.3%36.1%
Federal Way, WA5.2%30.1%38.0%
Kennewick, WA5.3%29.6%33.9%
Kent, WA5.2%23.7%35.0%
Kirkland, WA2.7%16.2%24.0%
Lacey, WA-1.8%18.8%36.6%
Lakewood, WA-0.4%17.5%38.5%
Lynnwood, WA5.7%25.2%33.0%
Mercer Island, WA-4.4%6.0%11.8%
Newcastle, WA4.9%14.0%31.8%
Puyallup, WA2.7%25.0%43.3%
Redmond, WA4.1%14.4%22.5%
Renton, WA7.4%27.6%33.7%
Richland, WA5.2%26.7%41.4%
Seattle, WA-0.6%1.7%7.6%
Shoreline, WA7.0%10.5%n/a
Silverdale, WA-14.2%13.2%30.6%
Spokane, WA-0.2%35.3%48.6%
Spokane Valley, WA-0.7%35.6%46.6%
Tacoma, WA-1.2%21.3%32.1%
Vancouver, WA5.3%27.1%33.7%

You can see that Spokane renters are in a world of pain: while rents have been flat over the past year, they grew by nearly 50% in the four years prior to that. Seattle renters have seen the opposite, however: a total increase of less than 8% over the past five years.

Apartmentlist also tracks vacancy rates, and true to our intuition, they tend to track to the inverse of rental prices: when there are more vacancies, prices go down (and vice versa). For example, here is Seattle:

Let’s compare that to Spokane County:

Unfortunately, there isn’t vacancy data from before late 2019, but given the stability of rents between 2017 and 2019 (there really isn’t even an annual cycle), it probably isn’t very interesting. But we clearly see the inverse relationship between vacancy and rents — just before rents peaked, vacancy dropped all the way down to 1.4%. In the first half of 2021 Spokane clearly had a housing crisis that drove rents skyward.

Putting the Spokane and Seattle vacancy rates side-by-side tells us an interesting story about the early part of the pandemic: throughout 2020, their respective vacancy rates went in the opposite direction. Then in early 2021, as vaccines began to roll out, they came back largely into alignment.

We can see in the vacancy rate numbers for other Washington cities more confirmation of the conventional wisdom: during the pandemic many people did in fact flee towards smaller cities and towns, and then over the course of 2022 many of them have moved back.

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