Market Experts Opine About the Region's Meteoric Future as a Global City on the Rise
Scores of guests assembled at MG2 Architecture in downtown Seattle during an evening reception on September 28th about the future of the Seattle and Bellevue metro area in the next decade. The town hall-like event was a continuation of provocative conversations started during the BISNOW “State of the Market” event hosted earlier in the week, which was attended by more than 400 industry stakeholders and local media.
“This is the first time we’ve aggregated opinion leaders about where we’re headed as a region and the trajectory is eye opening,” said John Spear, Associate Publisher with Seattle Magazine and moderator of the panel discussion.
Seattle Magazine is celebrating its 50th anniversary in publishing as a trusted chronicle of trends in the city and Spear announced that SeattleMag.com will now syndicate content by the FutureCast Forum with a viewpoint ahead.
Forum panelists included Dylan Simon, Colliers Seattle; Trevor Bennett, Caliber Home Loans; Maria Royer, REAL Retail; Jennifer McCullum, GRAY Magazine; Brian O’Connor, O’Connor Consulting Group; Brian Evans, Madrona Financial Services; and Dean Jones, Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty.
O’Connor kicked off the conversation with a macroeconomic overview of the region’s robust job and population growth. He offered perspectives about historical and projected housing cycles with a focus on the balancing of new owner vs. rental demand.
During past economic cycles, O’Connor found that demand trends for ownership and rentals were typically offset by one another, but in more recent years both have been growing.
“Apartment demand is going to start to decline and ownership demand is on a slow trending pattern upwards,” said O’Connor. “One of the things holding ownership demand back is the lack of inventory.”
Another finding was how concentrated the demand for all product has been in downtown Seattle and other urban areas. This compares to past cycles when it was more broadly distributed throughout the region.
To be sure, boundless job growth within the local tech industry, most notably by Amazon, has eclipsed even the Bay Area, creating unprecedented demand for rental properties. O’Connor is concerned that the region is not generating enough housing, especially in single-family neighborhoods. Permit activity in King and Snohomish Counties for new houses has plummeted in the current economic cycle notwithstanding steady declines in mortgage interest rates. Conversely, multi-family permit activity is setting new benchmark records in the region in what experts are referring to as the urbanization of the Pacific Northwest.
Dylan Simon, who specializes in apartment investments, described an environment in downtown Seattle where rising rents (climbing 50-percent in the current decade) and extraordinary levels of global capital have created a modern-day gold rush of investment interest in apartment buildings.
“The great majority is in the urban core of Seattle,” said Simon. “We have this technology ecosystem and that’s creating a real vibrancy for companies that were based in Silicon Valley to actually move to Seattle and grow here.”
According to Simon, average rents in Seattle are about $2,000 compared to San Francisco where they are twice the cost. He said average salaries are about the same (less than a 5-percent difference) after factoring in taxation and cost of living. Buying a house and renting a Class A office in Seattle is also about half the price compared to the Bay Area. Therefore, doing business and residing in Seattle makes a great deal of sense; hence, employers are moving here and attracting thousands of employees. Many will choose to rent, for a while, but Simon believes millennials will couple up, choose to have children and seek out ownership opportunities. All of those new apartment buildings are incubating future homebuyers.
“These economic trends are going to put us in a class of cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco,” adds Simon. “With that, we’re going to get big city problems and we’re going to have to deal with those problems along with the benefits.”
The panelists addressed other common concerns, such as transportation and housing affordability. Dean Jones, who lived in both Vancouver BC and San Francisco shared that Seattle has similar geographic constraints and is following in the footsteps of its West Coast peer group.
“Seattle is effectively an island with very limited ingress and egress for commuters,” said Jones. “We don’t currently enjoy a subway or expanded light rail system. We have small town infrastructure but global city opportunities.”
Jones observed that the high-density region of Seattle and Bellevue that’s bound between SR-520 and I-90 is effectively 2 miles by 10 miles, about the size of Manhattan. He referred to Lake Washington as the region’s Central Park and suggested immigration and development trends that played out a few hundred years on the East Coast may be playing out now in the Seattle/Bellevue area.
“Consider how the cities of New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire and much of New England were viewed as the ‘New World’ for European immigrants - immigrants and investors were coming out west for a better life and opportunities,” notes Jones. “I see that happening with Asian nationals favoring our West Coast gateway cities – does this make us New Asia?”
Jones said many of the new projects being proposed in downtown Seattle are in fact international developers, including those from Canada and Asian countries such as China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, among others. Nowhere is this level of investment and change more pronounced than within the burgeoning East Village neighborhood west of I-5 and along both sides of Denny Way.
Jones agreed with O’Connor and Simon that there’s an undersupply of for-sale housing in downtown Seattle, especially at more affordable price points below $700,000. He concluded that for the current decade, only 6.5-percent of the 25,115 new units being delivered in downtown Seattle will be available for sale and two-thirds of what’s under construction today as condominiums by 2020 is already presold.
Other statistics were shocking. Downtown housing prices are climbing with resale properties spiking 37.7-percent during summer 2017 over the prior year, while resale volumes fell 9-percent on dwindling inventory. Just 43 resale units were listed for sale with a median asking price of $1,150,000 and more homes were pending than new listings being added, according to NWMLS statistics.
The market discussion also focused on trends within lending. To help renters better qualify for mortgages, Mortgage Banker Trevor Bennett is using regional underwriting and portfolio loans as a non-bank residential lender.
“The 36-and-under crowd is the largest buyer demographic,” said Bennett. “We see a unique niche to fill. The companies that figure this out will be doing a majority of the business.”
Bennett leads by example. Caliber Home Loans will now consider restricted stock units, a compensation package popular with technology companies, as acceptable income during mortgage prequalification. The progressive lender is also pioneering loan application processes using a proprietary digital platform.
The search for affordability introduced several alternative markets to downtown Seattle and Capitol Hill. The panelists discussed the future of “boom-bergs” or emerging urban centers such as Columbia City, Ballard and Redmond, that are becoming independent real estate microclimates attracting new residents and businesses alike. Maria Royer confirmed these new retail nodes are challenging traditional shopping districts. First-to-market businesses are choosing these alternative opportunities like the Kirkland Urban project – a 1.2 million square foot mixed-use development that her firm is representing. She says growth is happening where there’s a walkability score.
“Main Street will never go out of style,” said Royer. “We take a lot of pride in creating unique and different retail nodes. There are many people who don’t want to shop in a mall.”
Another demographic topic discussed at length during the FutureCast Forum was the would-be retiree segment of the population. As a CPA and wealth manager, Brian Evans understands many baby boomers would like to simplify their lifestyle, downsize their home and travel the world. The problem, however, is they are saddled by active management of income properties and struggle to find the appropriate townhouse or condominium amidst the tight supply – so they stay put and defer their true retirement.
One solution to free up landlord responsibilities without incurring taxation is through the use of a Delaware Statutory Trust (DST). Evans explained that appreciated rental real estate can potentially be exchanged into passive investments that provide annuity-like returns.
“You no longer have to fear that midnight phone call from a tenant or worry about a roof leak in your 5,000 square foot home,” Evans adds. “The cash flow from DST real estate may even be higher than it is from high-maintenance older rentals. I encourage my clients to unlock the equity in those large homes they no longer require and transfer the assets into a passive investment, such as a DST.”
In terms of design trends, Jennifer McCullum drew upon recent features in GRAY Magazine to suggest where architecture and interior design is headed. Her top predictions ahead included greater efficiencies in planning, a sharing of community spaces, further advancement in green development practices and programming a healthy home.
“The influx of the population and the development that’s happening here – the effects of that certainly translate to design as well,” said McCullum. “There’s only so much land that can be developed so we’re having to see a real creative use of public and civic places to be able to give back to the community.”
The most recent discussion was just the beginning of the conversation by FutureCast Forum members – more than a dozen contributors will provide observations on various market topics online at www.Seattlein2020.com. Register now to be updated.