GROWING UP ON BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Renton was never an actual place. None of the Seattle suburbs were. Federal Way, Tukwila, Bothell — they only existed in traffic reports. “Stop and go on southbound 405 through Renton” meant as much to me as Morse code.
Seattle, on the other hand, lived on the horizon. Instead of cruising Main Street or meeting at the mall, we’d sneak through people’s yards to find the best views of the city. In my imagination, I’d live in the apartment in Smith Tower and I’d look back the other direction toward where I used to sit on the beach.
Where Renton was just a dot on a map, Seattle was the Emerald City, a place as magical as it looked reflected in Puget Sound.
But as Seattle has boomed, that image of Seattle as my forever home has slipped away. I still get nostalgic when I smell the low tide from downtown or take the walk from the ferry to the baseball stadium or sit near the Seattle Center fountain. (I now rent an apartment in the Central Area). But the truth is, I don’t see how I’d ever afford to own a home here. A median home price that’s more than $500,000? Teardowns in West Seattle going for $400,000 plus? Bidders paying over the asking price in cash? Unless I happen to write the next Twilight, I see no path toward even a modest home in the shimmering city.
The Seattle City Council and Mayor Ed Murray are working toward making Seattle available to people like me once again. Seattle voters recently approved a $290 million housing levy,one path toward more affordable housing. The city has an Office of Housing, dedicated exclusively to housing policy. The Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) lays out a goal to add 50,000 new housing units to Seattle — 20,000 affordable, 30,000 market rate — over the course of the next 10 years.
But Seattle last year added 15,000 new people. The goals of HALA are noble, but if the population continues to climb at that pace, 50,000 new units is only a third of what the city would need just to keep pace. As the rules of supply and demand go, unless Amazon goes bust, market rates for housing will continue to climb.
And so it’s with that at the back of my mind that I look south to Renton, where the price of a house is nearly $200,000 cheaper than in Seattle; the cost of rent nearly $500 a month less. It’s a place where Boeing employees, immigrants and refugees and ex-Seattleites all stand a chance of living an affordable life. It’s where someone like Demont Corneleus, a longtime resident of Seattle’s Central District, could find something for his family that’s also close to his work.
More than that, there’s also an appeal to the place. Its location on the southern end of Lake Washington positions it as ruler of the body of water — from Renton, the whole of the lake stretches north before you. I was recently driving through Renton and pulled over to Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park. The narrow strip of park along the lake is protected from the sound of the road by a line of trees. The gazebo in the middle is home to a Kidd Valley so you can eat French fries and drink a milkshake on the fresh water beach. I wondered if this could become my regular thing.
There’s also a foundation of “hip” places taking root for, you know, hip people like me. A new brewery, The Brewmaster’s Taproom, not only makes beer, it makes bread out of the spent grain it uses to make beer! And the City of Renton is offering loans to local businesses to spruce up their storefronts. The minimum loan is $10,000. The hope is to attract more businesses whose storefronts would fill some of the empty spaces along South Third Street and fill out what could be a charming downtown. It’s there, you can see it: in the marquee of the theater, in the corner clock tower, even in the old chapel.
Suddenly, the thought of living in Renton makes, well, sense. Of course, I’m not the only one looking for alternatives outside of Seattle. Housing remains more affordable in Renton, but it’s getting more expensive and more competitive. And because there’s always been so much “naturally affordable” housing in South King County, not as much effort has gone into subsidized affordable housing. In other words, like so many other places in this region, Renton’s at risk of losing its status as a blue-collar and affordable city.
The Renton Housing Authority is developing more affordable housing, such as in the Sunset area near downtown. Will it be enough? Let’s hope so because a lot of Seattle folks are putting their eggs in the Renton basket. The folks at the Housing Development Consortium, a housing advocacy group based in Seattle, can see it. Kelly Rider, who focuses on South King County, says vacancies are starting to dip to 3 percent. This is pushing landlords toward making long-needed improvements, but it’s also driving rents higher. So does moving south get you out of the woods? Nope. There’s a drumbeat of rising rents in King County and it’s hard to outrun. But you can stay one step ahead and, for now, that’s where Renton sits.