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Originally published May 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 12, 2008 at 1:05 PM

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Pacific NW Cover Story

Priced Out: Fleeing Seattle's costly core, they live on the edge

When Aaron Cone goes upstairs in his South Park house and looks out a north-facing window, he can see the skyscrapers of downtown Seattle rising above the industrial expanse that separates his up-and-coming neighborhood from the city center.

How we compare

Income vs. housing costs in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, compared to the country as a whole:

Seattle/United States

Per capita income: $38,648/$25,267

Median household income: $58,311/$48,451

Median mortgage payment: $2,077

Median rent: $833

Portland

Per capita income: $27,429

Median household income: $44,273

Median mortgage payment: $1,549

Median rent: $721

San Francisco

Per capita income: $41,734

Median household income: $65,497

Median mortgage payment: $2,864

Median rent: $1,174

Source: U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, 2006

When Aaron Cone goes upstairs in his South Park house and looks out a north-facing window, he can see the skyscrapers of downtown Seattle rising above the industrial expanse that separates his up-and-coming neighborhood from the city center.

It's a view he's cherished since buying the 1908 farmhouse five years ago with his business partner — and not just for aesthetic reasons.

In South Park, literally the fringe of the city, you can't get much farther south of downtown and still actually see it.

With its large Hispanic population, cute fixer-upper houses along the Duwamish River and gritty, working-class vibe, it was one of the few neighborhoods in Seattle that Cone could afford as a collectibles dealer specializing in estate sales.

Everybody's feeling the squeeze of a local economy that's pushing up prices for homes, basic goods and services and entertainment. Forget the idea of Seattle being among the nation's most livable cities. Cone and many of his ilk — middle class and jealously in love with their town — are just trying to make Seattle bearable.

For every affluent urban area — whether it's San Francisco or New York or Boston — there comes a tipping point at which the people who give the city its character, who help make it so desirable, risk being priced out of their own creation.

Can Seattle really claim to be a livable city when the median home value is half a million dollars and so many who live here feel they may not be able to anymore?

"We live in the same place as the richest person in the world, and that's pretty unique," says Cone, 35. But with the area's wealth comes a trade-off for anyone whose name is not Bill Gates.

"I'm just glad I was able to buy a house," Cone says. "I feel like I just kind of squeaked in."

WHETHER SEATTLE has reached a tipping point is an open question, but for people like Cone it's a burning one.

A Seattle native and the child of artists, he grew up in the thick of things, hanging out at Pike Place Market, catching $1.50 movies at the old Coliseum Theater on Fifth Avenue.

Cone would go on to co-own World Pizza on Lenora Street between Second and Third avenues, a cult favorite with the same hipster clientele that made nearby establishments like the Crocodile Café popular stops on the then-burgeoning Belltown nightlife circuit in the early 1990s.

People who were fretting about the city's high cost of living in those days — as many who were watching districts like Belltown and Capitol Hill begin their rise to hipness did — surely had no idea how good they had it.

Today the old World Pizza location is a Starbucks, the Coliseum is a Banana Republic, the Crocodile has closed and Cone has fled the city center.

Cone and his former girlfriend, Alyssa Stevens, started an antiques business specializing in estate-sale items eight years ago. They opened in Pioneer Square, but moved the business to the industry-fringed Georgetown neighborhood last year to escape the district's parking woes and high rents.

Entrepreneurs like Cone, creative types and everyday workers are all hoping to make a stand on the cheaper fringes of the city to prevent being pushed out altogether. For some, that tipping point is dangerously close.

When asked about affordability in Seattle, the first thing Georgetown Records saleswoman Tina Forbes says is the story of so many who are disoriented and frustrated by the fast pace of change here: "I'm getting ready to leave — Portland, man!"

"We just keep getting pushed farther and farther south," Forbes says of people like her who've dealt with rising rents and apartments going condo, which has happened to her twice already.

"Seattle's gonna lose all of its cool people," Forbes says. "Developers need to slow... the heck ... down."

If Forbes follows through with her plan, she will join a long line of "cool people" who've migrated to cheaper climes in Portland, which in the past few years has become home to the band Modest Mouse's frontman Isaac Brock as well as Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, who explained his move to the culture magazine Paste: "I started looking at houses here two years ago, and thought, "I can afford to buy a nice house within walking distance of a bunch of mom-and-pop shops run by adult kids just like me.' "

Forbes, 39, says she works six days a week to afford her current apartment on Beacon Hill — full time at a Vespa dealership in Belltown and part-time at the record store. She's not even thinking of buying here.

"I can't afford a condo," she insists.

She rarely splurges on things. "On Sundays, I just veg out in front of my TV or do movie fest or watch 'Project Runway.' "

Cone and Stevens are better positioned. Their new shop, called Fruit Cocktail Collectibles, is among a host of businesses in Georgetown that seem determined to keep mom-and-pop stores alive in Seattle.

Today only business partners, and co-owners of each other's homes in South Park, they've made South Seattle their low-cost stomping ground by day and night.

On Friday nights, Cone often goes to the Annex lounge on East Marginal Way South where, he says, the karaoke performances by the largely African-American crowd are "like going to a concert."

"I would pay money to see it, but it's free," he says. Or he'll visit 9 Lb. Hammer in Georgetown, a popular and inexpensive haunt for inner-city exiles like himself.

"It's like you walk in, and everyone knows who you are," Cone says.

The tavern's owner recently opened Loretta's, a steak joint and lounge in the heart of South Park that is made to look like a roadside saloon, in keeping with the raffish quality of the mostly Latin-flavored commercial strip. There you can feast on $3 Tavern Burgers, a $13 steak-and-potatoes special and cheap beer and feel like it's Belltown, circa 1990, all over again.

South Park is slowly becoming a hipster's haven, miles away from the city's mainstream bastions of cool.

"A lot of the people that work in Georgetown live in South Park, and a lot of people who've lived in Georgetown, their rents have gone up so a lot of them have moved to South Park, too," Cone says.

"More and more, you see people moving to South Park who look like they should be living in Georgetown or Capitol Hill."

Cone says that as he and Stevens weighed purchasing the house where he lives in South Park, he was driven as much by his emotional connection to the city as by price and concrete amenities.

"When I went upstairs and looked out the window, I was like, 'OK, at least I can still see downtown. I'm not moving to the country!' " He laughs.

There's a fine line between weepy nostalgia for days gone by and a real sense of urban dislocation.

When a coffee shop in the city's South Lake Union neighborhood cheekily commemorated the launch of what was erroneously known as the South Lake Union Trolley last winter by selling T-shirts saying "Ride the S.L.U.T.," it highlighted the gallows humor of many locals as they watched their town grow up around, and seemingly in spite of, them.

Neighborhood activists championed more low-income housing amid the high-priced condos. Three candy-colored streetcars seemed like strange compensation.

Things change. You deal with it.

In a fair world, though, you want to feel as if you're on the winning side of change.

But many of Seattle's most die-hard devotees say they aren't riding the prosperity trolley so much as adapting to it, holding on for dear life. That's no way to live in a "livable" city.

HERE'S A SOBERING thought: While Seattle and King County's technology companies continued to infuse the area with high-paid workers last year, the majority of job vacancies overall were for positions paying less than $25 an hour, barely enough for an adult with two children to achieve economic "self-sufficiency," according to a study by the nonprofit Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County.

Local advocates for "living wages," a different but often-cited cost-of-living measurement, generally agree that figure should be at least double the state's current minimum wage of $8.07 per hour.

Problem is, state Department of Employment Security numbers show that the regional economy isn't producing many jobs paying between $16 and $30 an hour. What's left is a kind of wage dumbbell, with high-paying technology and other white-collar jobs clustered at one end and low-paying service-sector jobs clumped at the other.

Whether that $25-an-hour figure is dead-on or not, department analyst Dave Wallace agrees "there just aren't enough jobs that pay those wages."

He thinks that while the cost-of-living predicament in the area needs more study, Seattle's problems may be more acute than in other cities, and the situation is increasingly bleak for anyone holding just a high-school diploma or GED, those most likely to take those low-wage service jobs.

There was a time when a high-school education could lead to a job that paid the bills and provided a decent living.

"That does seem to be disappearing," he says.

"People have to do something to distinguish themselves to earn that living wage," he says, such as learn a skill that's in high demand.

The pain for average working people extends right down to the grocery list. Prices for basic necessities have risen, in some cases dramatically, in the past year alone.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices for bread rose 10.5 percent; milk was up 19.3 percent and cheese was up 13 percent; chicken 6.3 percent; fruits and vegetables 5.9 percent.

Fuel oil was up 32.4 percent; gasoline 29.6 percent; public transportation costs, including airfares, rose 10.6 percent.

Wallace says the overall inflation rate in Seattle has been running near 4 percent, "pretty high by our standards for the past 15 years or so."

He adds that in the past five years, the cost of living has increased faster than actual wages — 17 percent compared 10 percent.

However you slice and dice the depressing array of numbers, and there are many complicated, sometimes conflicting ways to assess the impact of the economy on people, the current price pinch is more than a feeling. It's a reality.

Certainly, there are ways to live cheaply in Seattle as the prices shoot up. You can still buy a Dick's burger for less than $2, go to town on a two-piece white-meat chicken dinner at Ezell's for $5.70 and down good, cheap drinks at mellow dives like the recently opened Hideout on First Hill.

But maybe, in a haze of popularity-induced pride, we've set the quality-of-life bar so high that we've created a cost-of-living crisis, to say nothing of an identity complex.

We've gone from a modest city with lots of rich people to a rich city that yearns for its more comfy, low-key, low-slung self.

"If every place is the next Belltown, then where is everyone else gonna go?" Cone says.

Wallace, of the Employment Security Department, says that if people are feeling squeezed while earning three times the minimum wage, that's an issue everybody should worry about.

"These aren't poverty wages," Wallace stresses. "In a way, these are what people should be making to have that middle-class life."

WHEN LARRY Butler gazes out his living-room window in the once-cheap, now-happening Columbia City neighborhood in South Seattle, the city's divergent economic fortunes stare him right in the face.

The Seattle University computer specialist points to a house across the street that just sold for nearly $500,000 and to one behind that, which recently sold for more than $600,000.

The Butlers, islands in this sea of gentrification, have lived in their little white house for 21 years. They bought the place for $80,000. It is worth four or five times that much today. It's their nest egg and their kids' inheritance. Good for them.

Still, Larry and Vicki Butler — she's director of academic technology at Seattle Academy, a private school on First Hill — say that as late-career professionals with good jobs, they never imagined feeling cash-strapped so near to their retirement.

They are dealing with their own sobering truth: "If we had to buy this house today, we wouldn't be able to do it," Vicki Butler says. "That's mind-boggling. And our kids, they will never be able to afford a house in the city."

But the Butlers don't spend much time complaining. Like many who are surviving the rising cost of living in Seattle, they've learned to be resourceful and clever spendthrifts.

Larry and two of the couple's four sons have done nearly all the repair work on the house, and they even completed an addition off the kitchen that today serves as a family room.

Vicki points to the lime-green, wooden cabinets that line the kitchen and then to her husband, who's standing nearby in a doorway. Those are his handiwork, too.

The family carpools with a single mom from the neighborhood who doesn't have a car, splitting fuel costs with her.

The couple has taken in foreign exchange students for nearly 15 years, but the $500 a month these students pay today for rent serves as a much-needed financial cushion.

The extra cash even allows them to splurge occasionally.

"It means you can take that and go out to dinner — it makes it OK," Vicki says.

The Butlers even have a strategy for shopping — basically don't shop in the city proper. They may commute to the Fred Meyer in Renton for good deals on groceries because the supermarkets in the Rainier Valley, just down the hill from them, tend to be pricier.

Even with the careful planning, Vicki says, "we spend more on groceries without the kids in the house than 10 years ago when they were here."

A few years ago, "we were in the upper end of the middle class, and now we're back down to penny pinching ... We should be doing OK."

Despite the financial strains, the Butlers are a cheerful pair. That's a good thing, because one of the most unusual ways they bring extra money into the house has something to do with Larry's long white beard, round belly and jolly disposition.

Each holiday season, he plays Santa at Northgate Mall, which helps pay for Christmas presents for his own family.

THE GRAFFITI recently tagged in pink spray paint on the Denny Way overpass at Interstate 5 referring to Seattle as "grunge city" would have felt perfectly apt 10 or 15 years ago, right down to the fact that there was graffiti on the overpass.

Instead, the tagging could be seen as quaint, a street-culture blip, an attempt to revive grittiness on a downtown landscape that is, in fact, growing dense with construction cranes and freshly completed high-rises in which "condominium homes" start well above $300,000.

At a time when city leaders profess to be remaking the city as a place that has something to offer all comers, there's a chorus singing, "But is it still the place for me?"

The answer, rhetorically and in reality, continues to be yes even for those who feel pressed.

Deborah Kelch is a prime example of someone who's found her place in the new Seattle.

The Seattle native moved to Belltown in 1979 when the district was "artists, old people and merchant marines." Just last year, she and her husband had to move out of their apartment near First Avenue and Denny Way. Their $1,100-a-month, two-bedroom apartment would be converted into a $450,000 condo. But the couple managed to buy their own nearby for about $350,000.

The new home's price was steep, Kelch says, but staying near the center of Seattle is worth it.

"We're budgeting very carefully right now to squeeze out that mortgage payment," she says. "We were extraordinarily lucky" to have found a home of any kind to buy in the city.

When Cone looks out of his bedroom window at the changing city skyline, he could pop in a Sky Cries Mary or Mudhoney CD and wax nostalgic about the old days. But he has good reason to feel lucky, too.

His house, which he and Stevens bought for $179,000, has nearly doubled in value over five years.

And if he looks out from his back porch, he can see the house right behind his. He and Stevens recently bought it for $120,000, expanding their little South Park empire. Cone rents it out for $1,000 a month, which helps mortgage payments.

It's one thing to stay grounded in a city on the move. It's quite another to own the ground on that quickly appreciating landscape.

Cone has staked his claim.

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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