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A PhD student who grew up in Seattle feels locked out of the city by its unaffordable housing costs: ‘It’s so strange to feel like a city is off limits’

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Anastasia Selby has lived in Tallahassee, Florida for almost a year. Before that, Selby lived in Seattle, Washington, their hometown, and the city they’d prefer to live in. Had it not become so unaffordable for Selby, things might’ve been different.   

“It’s so strange to feel like a city is off limits, like a city that is part of me,” Selby told Fortune

Selby always left and came back to Seattle. It always felt like home to Selby—and still does. This time around, Selby moved back to Seattle in 2019, after graduating from Syracuse University and earning a master of fine arts degree in creative writing. Selby, who is a nonbinary writer in their early 40s, intended to stay there at the time. Selby took on a full-time nanny gig, working 50 hours a week “serving tech workers” as they put it, before receiving a Fulbright to Europe. Then the pandemic happened, and Selby had to leave Europe.  

“If I’m going to go anywhere, it’s going to be Seattle, because that’s where I’m from,” Selby said, recalling their thought process at the time. Selby moved back and got another full-time nanny job, and lived with five roommates. Eventually, Selby moved out to live on their own and paid around $1,300 for rent per month in each apartment they lived in. One apartment had mice, Selby recalled. Another, a one bedroom apartment in Wallingford, a neighborhood in Seattle, had a hole in the bathroom floor and didn’t have a fully functioning heater in 45 °F weather last year. 

“That winter I decided to apply for Ph.D programs because I was like, I can’t stay in Seattle, like I can’t afford to live here,” Selby said, and at the time, they’d quit nannying and began freelancing to focus on their writing, while also recovering from a severe back injury. “My rent had gone up. It was $1,350 plus utilities for one person who’s freelance writing, [it’s] just a lot of money.”

Even as a nanny, Selby said they made about $55,000 annually and their rent was roughly $15,600 for twelve months, which means Selby was close to being considered “rent burdened,” although it was more manageable than what came after, just freelancing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has defined “rent burdened” as spending more than 30% of income on housing. Roughly 28% of Selby’s income was going toward covering their rent. When Selby was freelancing, making nowhere near as much as when they were nannying, and even paying slightly more for rent, they were rent burdened. 

Now, Selby is pursuing a Ph.D in literature and creative writing at Florida State University and working on revisions for a book they wrote. Selby was accepted into a couple different programs, but their decision had a lot to do with the cost of living in each market because of how hard, at times, their previous experience had been. Selby remembers moving out of Seattle and barely having anything to take with them to Tallahassee because they couldn’t afford to rent a U-Haul or hire movers. “Seattle had just totally depleted me, financially,” Selby said, after living paycheck to paycheck, largely to afford rent.

“It was really hard to leave, honestly,” Selby said. “I didn’t want to leave. I left in the end of July, when Seattle’s at its most beautiful, and it really felt like I was leaving home. It felt like this is the last time I may try living here because I can’t afford it, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to afford it.”

At the time of our call, Selby was paying $995 a month in rent for a small apartment near the university, but explained that they’d be moving into a new place that’ll be $750 per month. Selby was sort of grandfathered in. It’s a one bedroom apartment that’s “super tiny, and it’s got quirks,” but Selby compared it to getting a rent-controlled apartment in New York City. As a Ph.D candidate, Selby’s stipend is under $30,000 a year. Selby intends to freelance to supplement that income but has around $55,000 worth of student loans to think about. Still, living and renting in Tallahassee is much more affordable than Seattle. But in Selby’s view, it doesn’t necessarily feel right, having to move away and not being able to afford to live in their hometown. 

“It made me feel terrible,” Selby said, pausing for a moment, “it felt like I was constantly just saying goodbye to things, like all these things that I grew up with, like I would go to Pike Place Market with my mom when I was little.”

Seattle’s tech sector grew with the pandemic, and along with surrounding areas like Redmond, it’s home to Amazon, Microsoft, Zillow, SpaceX, among others. That changes things, and sometimes that means a higher cost of living, amid high demand and relatively low supply. Selby went back to the same places again and again when living in Seattle, revisiting those memories previously made, until it felt like Selby didn’t have the money to do so anymore. Housing costs, whether that be renting or buying, are 70% higher in Seattle than the state average, and 111% higher in Seattle than the national average. 

Neither of Selby’s parents graduated high school, and for some time, as a teenager, Selby was homeless—so the thought of buying a home in Seattle is almost a dream. Selby has never had enough money to buy a house, except when they got their book deal. Even then, Selby used that money to pay off some debt. 

“I look on Zillow, at houses all the time, and imagine that I would have enough money to buy [a house],” Selby said. “But it is not something that I have been positioned to even really think about seriously, ever in my life.”

Selby was a wildland firefighter in their 20s, which not unlike being a writer (most of the time), wasn’t a lucrative career. Selby didn’t have a college education until their 30s, at which point it took a lot of time and cost a lot of money. But now that Selby’s a Ph.D candidate, there’s a hope that more opportunities will present themselves, whether that be writing and publishing more books or teaching creative writing. 

“I do think that with my trajectory as it is now I will eventually, hopefully, within the next five years be in a position to buy a house,” Selby said. “But I don’t look at houses in Seattle.” 

Given that the average home value in Seattle is more than $840,000, which is actually down 8% over the past year, but up close to 32% since March 2020 (the onset of the pandemic), it’s no surprise that Selby isn’t looking in the city. Even being in the position of affording to buy a home, sometimes feels unimaginable, Selby said, despite having come this far. 



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