TACOMA, Wash. — Real estate agent Marguerite Martin built a business convincing Seattleites they could move to Tacoma.
Now, as Tacoma housing grows increasingly unaffordable for its own longtime residents, particularly in historically black neighborhoods, she said she wishes she hadn’t.
In 2013, as the Tacoma housing market recovered from the financial crisis, “it was so obvious to me,” Martin said. “If you can’t buy a house in Seattle ... then you should hashtag-move-to-Tacoma. It was a no-brainer.”
She built a website, MoveToTacoma.com, and launched a podcast with a peppy jingle: “Move to Tacoma! Move to Tacoma! You’ll like it!”
Her goal was to show Seattleites the Tacoma they thought of as a pungent, violent backwater was actually the City of Destiny: a quirky place with a small-town feel, light traffic, expanding transit, stunning harbor views and — most importantly, for people priced out of Seattle, where the median home value currently hovers around $750,000 — less-expensive homes, many of them quintessential Craftsmans. The median home price in Tacoma is $337,940, according to Zillow.
Martin was rebroadcasting the market’s clarion call. Seattleites headed south in droves.
Nearly 18,000 King County residents moved to Pierce County in 2017, 25% higher than two years earlier, according to census estimates.
The influx is fueling the city’s sizzling-hot housing market and changing the composition of neighborhoods.
Residents say some Tacoma neighborhoods have become bedroom communities, where everyone leaves for Seattle before the sun rises. Some Seattleites who don’t physically relocate are nevertheless investing in Tacoma homes, driving up rents and property values.
The changes are most felt in historically diverse and low-income neighborhoods like Hilltop, South Tacoma and Tacoma’s Eastside.
Home prices in some of those neighborhoods have risen nearly one-third each year since 2016, according to data from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
As newcomers displace Black, Hispanic and Native residents, parts of neighborhoods like Hilltop are turning into what longtime resident Kellianne McNeil called “Wonderbread Lands” for their lack of diversity.
But for many veterans of Seattle’s affordability crisis, Tacoma is a new chance to establish community.
Rachel Collins grew up in the Central District, but bought a home in Hilltop after realizing she couldn’t afford to buy in her childhood neighborhood.
“I simply see more Black people in Tacoma” than Seattle, said Collins, who is Black. “It’s not like they’re visiting. They live here. It makes me feel like I’m at home.”
Fierce competitionIt seems like everyone in Tacoma has a bidding war story.
No surprise: While Seattle was the nation’s fastest-rising housing market between 2016 and 2018, Tacoma now holds that dubious honor, according to Redfin.
In Tacoma’s cutthroat housing market, bidding wars and weeklong (or even shorter) listings for most homes under $600,000 are the rule, according to brokers and home shoppers.
On a recent Saturday, more than 15 groups of interested home shoppers took turns climbing the narrow stairs of a 1927 bungalow in the popular Proctor neighborhood that had been on the market, at $349,950, for less than 48 hours.
That represents a lot of interest for the winter season, which is generally slower, said listing agent Mike Loughlin.
Among those at the open house were Seattle school teacher Tim Nelson. He and his wife were hoping to relocate out of a market he said was “just way too expensive.”
But Nelson and nearly every other hopeful buyer were in for a quick disappointment: The winning offer was submitted mere hours after the end of the open house, according to Loughlin, who declined to disclose details of the offer because the sale is still pending.
Tacoma’s housing market is so fierce it’s not uncommon for buyers to approach homeowners who aren’t selling.
Ashley Parke tried for nearly a year to find a home in University Place’s Westhampton neighborhood, an upper middle-class subdivision southwest of downtown Tacoma.
Eventually, she mailed letters to all the neighborhood’s homeowners, asking if they’d be interested in selling. In 2018, she and her husband finally bought a home for just over $600,000 after convincing the previous owner to sell them the house directly.
“It was worth going after what we wanted,” Parke said. A similar house a few streets away sold for nearly $40,000 more in a bidding war around the same time.
On the other side of the city, Jana Callender’s custom-built Northeast Tacoma home sold for $590,000 after four days on the market. She said the buyers, who work in South Seattle, offered above asking, waived inspection and are covering her closing costs.
“Tacoma is getting nicer. A lot of people now are venturing into the more upscale parts of Tacoma and realizing it’s more affordable than going north,” she said.
Displacement and rebuildingBut upscale comes at a cost for some longtime residents.
Hilltop has lost nearly one-third of its Black residents, and many Black-owned businesses in Hilltop have disappeared, replaced by establishments like the Zodiac Supper Club, where eaters grill their own steaks, and the nationally recognized craft cocktail bar 1022 South J.
“There needs to be a lot more attention paid to being respectful of neighborhoods,” said Jasmyn Jefferson, a Windermere branch manager and broker. Jefferson, who is Black, grew up in Hilltop. “There’s history to our neighborhoods that needs to be preserved.”
McNeil, who is white, said she feels out of place in an increasingly prettified, homogeneous Tacoma.
She’s lived in the Hilltop since 1977 — first as a homeowner, now as a renter on a fixed income. In past lives, she rode a Harley and used opioids. Now, she’s in recovery, and spends time tending her garden and watching track for the new Tacoma Light Rail line being laid outside her front door.
In the Tacoma where she raised her seven children, she said, she knew her neighbors — Black and white, largely low- or middle-income — and they looked out for each other.
In today’s Tacoma, she doesn’t feel comfortable going to the grocery store, she said.
“I walk into grocery stores in the North End. I’m in pajama bottoms and a hoodie,” McNeil said. “It was very friendly before. Now, I show up in that outfit, I get snubbed.”
As a member of the Hilltop Action Coalition community group, McNeil keeps tabs on who’s moving in and out of her neighborhood. She said even that’s getting harder, as home flippers purchase properties to lease at double or triple their former rents.
Across the alley behind McNeil’s fourplex stand three homes, purchased in late 2016 for a total of $340,000 by South L St Tacoma LLC.
Behind that corporation are three Amazon employees based in the Seattle area, who made substantial improvements to two of the homes. That’s a citywide trend: The number of medium- and large-scale remodels in Tacoma rose 36% between 2016 and 2019, according to data from the city permitting office.
Today, the homes are assessed at a total of $603,100. Two of the homes previously rented to families for close to $700 a month, according to McNeil. Those renters are gone now. Last year, the homes were advertised for $1,495-$1,700.
But for some Seattleites displaced by the rapid gentrification of the Central District, Tacoma represents an opportunity to rebuild community.
Collins bought her four-bedroom home in Hilltop in 2017 for less than $200,000, after she and her siblings sold the Central District home they’d grown up in.
At the time, she worked as a career counselor at Garfield High School, and would have loved to stay in the area. But, she said, “I literally could not afford to live in the neighborhood I grew up in.”
She said her new Hilltop home is reminiscent of her childhood one. She likes being just off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, and across from a grocery store — just like the house she was raised in.
Move to Tacoma?It’s easy to understand why Seattleites find Tacoma appealing.
Transplants and longtime residents alike say they love Tacoma’s small-town feel. Neighborhoods just 15 minutes from downtown can be close-knit and family-friendly. Where Parke lives in University Place, a 400-egg Easter egg hunt draws participants from around the city, police lead a large Fourth of July parade and hundreds of kids trick-or-treat on Halloween.
Some Seattle restaurants, closed by rising rents, have reopened in Tacoma — so newcomers may not even need to leave their favorite watering holes behind.
One of Martin’s early clients was Stell Newsome, who swapped renting in Fremont for owning a home in the Lincoln neighborhood south of the Tacoma Dome in 2015.
At the time, he said commuting between Seattle and Tacoma was “a breeze.”
But the tens of thousands of people working in Seattle who were shoved south in the past years have slowed traffic on Interstate 5 to even more of a molasses-like crawl than before. Some mornings, Newsome said he’s stuck in gridlock at 4:45 a.m.
Marianne Bigelow has noticed all her new neighbors in Northeast Tacoma pull out of their driveways at 6:30 a.m., come back after 7 p.m., and “walk their dogs in the dark.”
“Everybody goes north,” she said. “That’s where the jobs are.”
MoveToTacoma.com is still up, helping potential residents find the right neighborhood to grow roots in.
But taking in how Tacoma has changed since she began advocating Seattleites flock south, Martin said that if she had a chance to do it over, she’d orient her website and podcast toward people already living there. These days, her podcast features segments about high rents and interviews with local anti-racist groups.
“I refuse to take all the credit or all the blame. I believe this was market forces and I just had some fortunate timing,” she said. “But as long as people hold their wealth in property, there are going to be people who win and people who lose.”