Newspaper denounces high rents in Seattle in January 1901.

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 8/21/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1638
In January 1901, Seattle housing is in high demand and difficult to obtain. Also in the downtown shopping area, which stretches along 1st and 2nd avenues and Pike Street, retail shops are in high demand. Rents are increasing and many claim are too high.

Seattle broke out of the 1893 depression in a flurry when gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1897 and in Nome in 1899. The town was beset by hordes of people arriving in Seattle by train or steamboat that had money to spend and needed a place to sleep. Between 1890 and 1900, Seattle's population doubled in size to more 80,000, and a significant portion of the increase occurred after the Klondike Gold Rush started. This created a crush for housing and retail shops.

Following is an editorial in The Seattle Star about the high rents.

KILLING THE GOOSE THAT LAYS THE GOLDEN EGG

"The Star as on several occasions calls attention to the excessive rents which are being charged in this city by many landlords, and has pointed out the fact that a long persistence in the policy of over-charging tenants, either in the business or residence districts, cannot but be prejudicial to the interests of the landlords themselves, to say nothing of the harm inflicted upon the community in general.

Business tenants rents.

"The reason offered by most of these property-owners who overcharge renters is that the law of supply and demand regulates prices, and that because there is a brisk demand for stores and residences, therefore prices should correspond. But does it pay to take nearly all of the merchant's profits away from them for the benefit of his landlord? Would it not be better all around for the landlord to be content with 50 per cent and leave the merchant the other 50 per cent? It is a fact well known that large numbers of merchants in this city give up most of their profits to the owners of the premises in which they do business and are very much disheartened over the prospect ahead. They can do business and make good profits if assessed reasonable rents, but just as fast as business grows through judicious efforts, just so fast do their rents increase. A few days ago one of the leading merchants was notified that his rent was to be tripled at a single jump, the increase amounting to over $300 per month ... . Speaking of the matter to the editor of the Star, he said, 'It will never do to kick to the landlord. If I did, he would probably give me another boost on the rent, and I would have to pay or get out. He now gets all of my profits over a bare living, and I hardly know what course to pursue. I do not, however, propose to go on indefinately [sic] using my brains and my capital to benefit him alone. I want my share of the profits. If I cannot get them in this city, I can elsewhere.'

"And the words of that merchant voice the sentiments of nine-tenths of the renting merchants along First and Second avenues, and upon Pike street. Many of them are located in one or two story buildings, some of which deserve the name of shacks, and yet are compelled to pay rentals proper only for large buildings with all modern improvements.

"It is but right to state that there is a very considerable number of property-owners and real estate men who do not approve of the forcing up of rentals in the business district and who have refused to follow the lead of those who seek to grasp everything in sight for their temporary advantage. Unfortunately, those sagacious and moderate men are not in control of the situation, and they behold without being able to check the increasing movement to gouge the merchants out of their profits. It is unfortunate, but true, that most of Seattle's business men rent their stores, very few indeed owning the premises on which they do business. Hence the evil of abnormal rents vitally effects the business of the community.

Residential rents are also too high.

"The same state of affairs exists in the residence districts of the city. While some landlords are reasonable in their rent scales, the majority have yielded to the opportunity of the hour and are getting all of the money they can out of their tenants. The rents asked for ordinary houses are in many cases, double what they should be, and would be under normal conditions. Some property-owners will let houses remain vacant for weeks, while house hunters clamor for admission, telling each applicant that the premises are for rent, but mentioning fancy figures that usually kill off all negotiations. These property-owners are certain that some desperate people will finally give up the sums asked, out of sheer necessity. Usually their expectations are realized.

"The resulting effect of high rents and the increased cost of supplies of all kinds due to the boosting of the trusts, is to make living in Seattle today a very difficult problem for thousands of people of slender incomes. The clerk in the store naturally turns to his employer and says. 'I must have more salary,' and the merchant replies, 'My rent has gone up and I cannot afford to pay you more.' The artisan who belongs to a trade union feels the increasing burden of costs and the trade unionists are moving for better pay, basing their demands upon the increased cost of being. It is becoming a serious question with every body who is not wealthy, where this thing is to end, for end it must. The breaking point is not far away.

"There is no disputing the fact that many people who would have remained in Seattle if they could, have moved away because they could not afford to stay. This class will run well up into the thousands. The growth of the city is being materially hindered by the policy of over-charging. If more people who visit Seattle would remain and more who would like to come, could be induced to do so by reports of reasonable rents, etc., property-holders themselves would be largely benefited. There would be a quickened demand for vacant real estate and a more pronounced prosperity all around.

High rents never pay.

"A cinch game never pays in the long run. It will never pay the owner of business property whose future prosperity depends upon the prosperity of the merchants. It will never pay the owner of houses who rents at exorbitant figure, because he drives away from the city those who cannot afford to stay, and keeps away others who would come if they could see their way clear to remain. Indirectly this landlord's interests suffer, because the whole community suffers.

"The question is how to keep rents down to a reasonable figure in Seattle, is one of the most serious before the people at the present time."


Sources: The Seattle Star, January 14, 1901, p 2.

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