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After a substantial pandemic dip, Seattle rents inch back up

If you are a renter in Seattle, and you've poked around apartment listings over the past year, you may have noticed some pretty good deals as rental prices dropped.

More recently, prices are heading back up again. Heidi Groover covers real estate and business for The Seattle Times. She spoke with KUOW’s Kim Malcolm about what's going on.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kim Malcolm: Up until last spring, it seemed like rental prices in Seattle would never stop rising. Then we hit this wall with a pandemic.

Heidi Groover: That's right. For rents on new leases after the pandemic started, rents were dropping pretty precipitously in Seattle proper, especially in expensive neighborhoods like downtown and South Lake Union. Overall in the city itself, rents right now are down about 18.5% from last year by one measure.

If you were looking for a new lease, you may have found a special deal offering you a month of free rent to try to entice you into some of these city apartments that are in neighborhoods that were really desirable before the pandemic.

What has changed recently?

Over the last couple of months, the rents for new leases in Seattle have started to tick back up. We've seen a 2% increase month-over-month in February and March. The rents are still down in the city compared to last year, but the sign seems to be that they are on the way back up.

Are you seeing an uptick as well in cities outside of Seattle?

Outside of the city, the trend was pretty much the opposite. Rents actually went up during the pandemic in places like Tacoma, Auburn, and Federal Way. This could be people looking to move a little farther out, maybe get a bit more space for their money. They're not so worried about the commute if they're working from home.

Or, it could be people who are at facing financial uncertainty and wanted to move somewhere where rents are more affordable, or maybe to be closer to family. We don't know exactly why, but those are some of the reasons that rents have been going up outside of the city of Seattle.

When you step back a little bit and look at the larger picture in our area, what do you attribute it to? Why are rents on the rise again?

I think we're all seeing some return or a hint to a return to normalcy. We're seeing some larger employers like Amazon saying they intend to return to working in the office primarily. I think the idea that maybe remote work was going to forever change where we could live isn't really going to come to pass as dramatically as some people might have thought.

Anecdotally, I've also heard some people who chose to move outside the city, then they found it kind of boring. They were eager to get back to the city and eager for all of the reasons people live in cities to reopen.

Ultimately, there's just a high demand for housing. There are a lot of people with very high incomes competing for the housing here. I think that will create ongoing pressure on rents.

Is two months’ worth of data, showing rising rents, enough to say this is a trend?

I think it's too early to say for sure what might happen. There are still a lot of unknowns with the coronavirus pandemic. But if the vaccine rollout continues as it's going, if more businesses reopen and people return to working in the office, I think that the general expectation is that rents will continue to go back up.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.