Will the Last Family Leaving Seattle Please Turn out the Lights?


New Census data for the Seattle area's population changes, 2000-2010, permit a preliminary look at age and at types of households in the region. Let's look at patterns of geographic variation in selected age groups and household types for places in greater Seattle. It provides more evidence for how rapidly Seattle in particular is changing in fundamental ways.

The data show show a fairly similar geographic pattern — a dramatic gradient from Seattle (and to a degree also the older core cities of Tacoma and Everett) through the older suburbs and out to the urban and exurban fringe. These gradients trace the shares of singles (high in Seattle, low in the far suburbs), those under 18 (low in Seattle, high farther out), husband and wife families with children (low in Seattle, high in the far suburbs), and home ownership (lower in Seattle).

This pattern is not new. But because of growth management and the concentration of higher-density redevelopment in the core cities, the gradient is perhaps more marked than earlier. Seattle really is exceptional — amazingly high in singles, but low in husband-wife couples with children, proportions under 18, and in home ownership. Conversely, some of the far suburbs are exceptionally low in singles, and high in traditional families, persons under 18, and home ownership.

Two related variables are young adults, those 20-35, and the share of unmarried partners, but there are some differences from each other and from the preceding variables. The share of persons 20-35 is again exceptionally high in Seattle and Everett but also on military bases, and along the 520 corridor (Kirkland and Redmond). It is unusually low in retirement communities and on islands (e.g., Vashon, Bainbridge). The share of unmarried partner households is also very high in Seattle, but also in less affluent areas, places with high minority shares, and in a few rural communities.

The shares of population over 65 and of single-parent households also have distinct patterns. The highest shares of the elderly are naturally in retirement communities, followed by island places (Vashon and Bainbridge and Mercer Island) and some older suburbs. Low shares of older folks characterize military bases, areas with many ethnic minorities, and some younger suburbs such as Sammamish and Mill Creek, and (in contrast to many large cities) in Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett.

High shares of single-parent families occur on Indian reservations, on military bases, and in minority ethnic areas, most notably in south King Ccounty and parts of Pierce County. Low shares of single-parent households occur, as expected, in affluent suburbs, but are surprisingly low in Seattle. These variables, in particular, attest to the continuing gentrification of Seattle, and its changing patterns of ethnicity related to gentrification and high housing costs.

Higher shares of persons under 5 reveal areas of young families. The highest shares are in military bases and Latino towns in eastern Washington, but are quite high, over 12 percent, in the farthest suburban and exurban places around Seattle such as Duvall and Snoqualmie. They are lowest in retirement towns, on islands such as Vashon and Bainbridge, and in some college towns such as Pullman.

Shares of persons under 18 show a similar but not identical pattern. Again they are highest in military and Latino places, and in suburban and exurban places in the metropolitan area, and lowest in university towns and in Seattle itself. This implies that while still low Seattle is not as deficient in the very youngest as it is in older children.

The story is very different for young adults. Not surprisingly, shares 20-25 are very high in university towns, on military bases, and Seattle, and quite low in suburban, mainly residential communities, especially more affluent areas, and on islands. Middle-aged adults, aged 45-64 (the baby boomers and thus the largest age group) are high in some older residential suburbs where younger adults are less common, and low in college towns, Latino areas, and in some areas of very recent growth, as in Snoqualmie and Monroe.

Home ownership is related to both age and household types. Rates of home ownership are extremely high, in the 90s in newer and more affluent suburbs, with mainly single family homes; the rates are lowest on military bases, college towns, and in a few less affluent suburbs, such as Tukwila. As for the city of Seattle — which has indeed changed its character in a fundamental way — home ownership has dropped to a low of 48 percent. This shift helps us understand the cleavages in Seattle’s body politic, as a formerly very middle class city adjusts to an influx of singles, renters, and young people.

Finally, as to types of households. Married couple families with children are the historic norm. They remain traditionally high on military bases, and in the farther newer suburbs, such as Snoqualmie, Sammamish, and Maple Valley; they are low as expected in college towns, in retirement communities, and (no surprise) in Seattle—13 percent, which is really low.

Conversely, singles are highest in two island towns, Friday Harbor and Langley, but Seattle is an extremely high 41 percent. Shares are lowest in the same new suburbs rich in families, as in Sammamish, at 11 percent. Shares of unmarried partners are a high 10 percent of households in Seattle, but are higher on Indian reservations and the cities of Hoquiam and Aberdeen. The share of single-parent households is also high on Indian reservations, in less affluent and more ethnic suburbs like Parkland and Bryn Mawr and Tukwila. It is lowest in the newer, family-filled far suburbs.

This piece originally ran at Crosscut.com and was edited by David Brewster.

Richard Morrill is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Washington. His research interests include: political geography (voting behavior, redistricting, local governance), population/demography/settlement/migration, urban geography and planning, urban transportation (i.e., old fashioned generalist).

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Definition of "family"

This blog (or at least the title) seems to assume that "family" only refers to husband-wife couples with children, and that these are for some reason more desirable than other household types, although they represent a small (less than a quarter) and declining share total North American households. Yes, there are good reasons to insure that diverse housing types, including affordable housing suitable for families with children, are available in urban neighborhoods, but the trends described in this column seem overall rational and responsive to demographic shifts, such as older age of marriage and increased longevity which are increasing the total share of single and senior households.

Todd Litman is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (www.vtpi.org), an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative solutions to transport problems.