For older renters, Western WA’s housing boom can sow insecurity

June 17, 2024 at 5:59 p.m.
Maryann Griffin and Sandra Mears discuss where to hang a print of Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Monkeys” in their new home, May 29, 2024. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)
Maryann Griffin and Sandra Mears discuss where to hang a print of Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Monkeys” in their new home, May 29, 2024. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

... by Josh

Sandra Mears and Maryann Griffin loved their little cottage in West Seattle’s Delridge neighborhood. They had a beautiful garden, good neighbors and felt a sense of community. It was exactly the sort of place they’d sought after decades of living in apartments around the city; the sort of place they could imagine living in forever.

But after about five years in their dream home, they learned the owners were selling and they had to move out. As renters they had no say in the matter. And as a couple with modest means and little savings, they were unable to purchase the home.

Mears has worked in homelessness services for more than 30 years. She leads a small nonprofit called the Jean Kim Foundation in Lynnwood that provides hygiene services and operates a tiny-home village. Griffin is a decade older, now retired and collecting Social Security. She spent her career mostly in customer service and later at a work-release program for people transitioning out of incarceration.

After hearing their cottage was being sold, they went through the expensive and laborious task of finding a new rental home and moved to a new place in West Seattle. The couple was able to stay for about six years in that home before once again learning the owners were planning to sell. The new owner asked them to stay, but they planned to eventually redevelop the property, making it a temporary reprieve.

That was about four and a half years ago. Mears and Griffin left Seattle entirely and found a new rental in downtown Snohomish where they paid $2,000/month plus utilities. In January, it was déjà vu. Mears, a Michigan native, was watching her Detroit Lions lose the NFC Championship to San Francisco when their landlord came by to let them know they were selling the home and that the couple had 90 days to move.

Mears and Griffin take a load of belongings to their storage unit, May 29, 2024. After downsizing to their new temporary rental, the couple has had to keep much of their furniture and other items in storage. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS) 


None of their moves have been easy. But leaving their place in Snohomish has been an expensive, stressful ordeal. Rents are higher than ever, move-in costs are challenging and their options feel limited.

Theirs is a story about the instability of being modest-income renters in a booming housing market; the sparseness of the social safety net; the irony that working in homelessness services pays too little to guarantee housing stability; and the politics of housing development.  

“Forget staying at the Edgewater [Hotel] or traveling, my bucket list now is to not be homeless,” Mears said.

They are not alone

Data analysis by AARP shows 6,889 adults 55 and older are expected to experience homelessness this year in Washington state. The homeless population is getting older nationally and locally. The median home sales price in King County has topped $1 million. Median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Seattle metro area is nearly $1,900/month. 

“We have skyrocketing housing costs here in the Puget Sound,” said Cathy McCaul, AARP Washington’s advocacy director. “The more marginalized and more vulnerable in the community are feeling more susceptible to these shifts. Especially if you’re on a fixed income it is doubly, triply, more difficult to maintain stable housing.”

Family photos and other items are collected on a dresser as Mears and Griffin unpack at their new home. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS) 


Mears and Griffin have staved off homelessness again — for now. They found a furnished home in Northgate marketed for traveling nurses. It’s $2,400/month with utilities included. They’re also paying $200/month for a storage space for their personal furniture that doesn’t fit in the furnished unit.

They’re on a three-month lease that becomes month to month after that. Mears described their situation as “rather tenuous,” but is too emotionally and financially drained from the previous house hunt to keep searching for a longer-term solution right now.

Before they settled for the Northgate house, Mears and Griffin cast a wide net: searching as far north as Mount Vernon, joining Facebook groups with rental listings, talking to real estate companies, asking friends and acquaintances for leads.

Mears found the process frustrating. At a Mount Vernon listing, they were told they’d be given only 15 minutes to view the property. Applying for places means paying $50 per person for background checks that aren’t transferable among applications.

“It used to be when we were renting that we could see a home and talk to the landlord and could court them, if you will,” said Mears. “Now it’s flipped. You can’t even see a home until you fill out an application.”

Mears says in total she’s spent nearly $8,000 on the move to Northgate after paying for first and last month’s rent, the security deposit, movers, cleaners, application fees and other unexpected costs.

Sandra Mears looks at the listing for the house where she and partner Maryann Griffin formerly lived in Snohomish. It is now on the market for $625,000. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS) 


To help pay for the moving costs, Mears took out money from the small IRA she’s managed to save. She says working in homelessness services her whole career has made it challenging to put away money and essentially impossible to buy a home in Seattle. She even attempted to buy the West Seattle dream cottage, but it was out of her price range.

Mears is not alone as a homeless-services worker struggling with low wages. Service providers in the Seattle area have struggled in recent years with high turnover and lingering vacancies thanks in part to the low wages they’re able to pay for difficult work.

In fall 2022, state officials used federal COVID-19 relief money to offer small stipends to homeless-service workers if they agreed to stay in their roles. A 2023 report from the University of Washington found nonprofit social-services workers are underpaid by 37% compared to their for-profit counterparts.

Mears said she’s always taken side gigs, like doing field interviews and research, to help pay the bills. She’s been redoubling those efforts to reestablish her savings after the move to Northgate.

“I feel it’s a calling, but it’s unfortunate that people maybe cannot pursue their career choice or talents or commitments,” said Mears. “It’s sad that we cannot, as a society, support individuals that are in public service.”

Improving the system

Having been forced to move far more often than she’d like, Mears has a few thoughts on how the process could be improved for renters.

For one, it would help to require landlords to return security deposits faster. In 2023, Washington started requiring landlords to return a deposit, or provide an explanation for not returning it, within 30 days. Mears said when money’s tight and you’re trying to apply for new rentals that also require deposits, it would help to have that money within two to three weeks.

She also thinks the requirement that a landlord provide a tenant with at least 90 days’ move-out notice should be longer if the tenant has lived there a long time. Say if the tenant lives somewhere for multiple years, require a 120-day notification.

Mears also wants to see changes to the current requirement that each would-be tenant plunk down $50 for a background and credit check on each rental application; instead, applicants should be able to pay for one background check transferable from application to application.

Mears and Griffin have had to move three times after their landlords decided to sell the homes they were living in. They are now living in a temporary furnished home usually rented to travel nurses. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS) 


Sean Flynn does not think those changes would necessarily help, or at least that there would be tradeoffs. Flynn is executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents small-to-midsize landlords. 

More notice would just result in a tenant house-hunting too early, so that any open units someone is looking at likely wouldn’t be available when it’s time to move. On security deposits, Flynn said it used to take 14 days, but legal requirements for landlords to provide more details about what they’re using the money for extended the process. And finally, on background checks, he said many of their members use a product called SmartMove that allows some portions of screenings to be reused for a period of time, but that credit checks are a federal regulatory issue. 

More broadly, Flynn argued that the rental market needs to be stabilized with more housing supply and by keeping existing rental units on the market. He said many landlords have sold off their single-family rentals in response to new state and local regulations. 

“There are real problems [with the housing market],” said Flynn. “Anyone who says oh, it’s fine, they don’t know what’s happening. People need their housing stabilized. But what we’ve done with regulations in the last 10 years has created a lot of problems for people.”

AARP’s Washington chapter has done lots of lobbying around housing stability and supply at the state and local level.

The organization worked on legalizing accessory dwelling units statewide, which the Legislature passed in 2023. ADUs can provide space for multigenerational families to live on the same property; allow older residents to collect additional income that helps offset rising housing costs; or enable a caretaker to live on-site.

Sandra Mears looks into her storage unit filled with items that don’t fit in her new home, May 29, 2024. After downsizing to their new temporary rental, the couple has had to keep much of their furniture and other items in storage. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS) 


AARP also supported the statewide “missing middle” zoning bill that legalized duplexes, quadplexes and sixplexes in all residential neighborhoods in WA. “It’s about letting older adults have more choices for housing options,” said AARP’s McCaul.

The organization also worked on the Legislature’s co-living bill, which makes it easier to build dorm-style apartments and shared living and cooking spaces. The aPodment-style buildings are typically built with 20-something tech workers in mind. But, says McCaul, people in their 60s and 70s want the same amenities: affordable rents, good locations, space to host friends and family and ability to connect with neighbors.   

“People all want parks, walkable communities, want to walk to a brew pub or cafe or a park and listen to a band playing live music,” said McCaul. “Community is about creating a space where everyone belongs. And there are small changes we can make that make it accessible, affordable and easy for everyone to live here.”

AARP also worked on a bill to raise the eligibility threshold for Washington’s low-income elderly property tax break. Under the new law, the threshold in King County increased from about $58,000 to $72,000.

In addition to lobbying, AARP also works on making sure people are accessing all the benefits they qualify for, such as the property tax break, SNAP food assistance and rental assistance. McCaul said they’re working with senior centers to try and connect more people to benefits.

Taking a toll

Mears said that ultimately she and Griffin are thankful for the roof over their heads, and acknowledge that plenty of people are in even more precarious situations. “I don’t want pity. And yes, I live better than many.”

But the cost and stress of the moves has had ripple effects in their lives. Griffin had to miss the funeral of a lifelong friend because she couldn’t spare the money to travel to Chicago. Mears has felt slightly unmoored.

“When you’re not stabilized, you’re not your best self,” said Mears. “I think that’s what we lose as a society, that brainpower, because it’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”



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