Monthly Seattle-Bellevue rents are double monthly disability benefits

Up until fairly recently, a person living on disability benefits in the Seattle-Bellevue metro area could come close to affording an apartment, though they likely would have spent their entire income on rent. Rent has skyrocketed since then, and in 2022 that gap yawns wider than ever. Fair market rent for the smallest of units is twice as much as a disability check from SSI.

Year after year, numbers from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) re-confirm what we have known–that market-rate housing is out of reach for many of the people we serve.

Trend for local monthly efficiency apartment rent vs. monthly SSI benefits, 2012-2022

The orange line shows HUD’s Fair Market Rents (FMR) for the past 10 years in the private rental market in the Seattle-Bellevue metro area. The teal line shows the maximum an individual can receive in a monthly SSI payment. (Data source: HUD Office of Policy Development & Research and Social Security Administration)

HUD publishes the Fair Market Rents (FMR) for metropolitan areas across the country each year. This number represents the cost of a unit at the 40th percentile (meaning 40 percent of the units on the private rental market cost less than the FMR).

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is the federal disability program for people not eligible for a higher level of income through the Social Security Disability Insurance program. Many people with serious mental illness receive their only income from SSI. SSI is the most common income type for the people whom DESC serves: people who have disabilities and have been homeless for long periods of time.

As of November 2021, an efficiency apartment in the Seattle-Bellevue metro area rented for $1,674 per month.

In 2022, an individual monthly Social Security disability check increased by 5.9 percent, but at $841, it’s just half of the monthly rent required for an efficiency unit, the smallest, least costly apartment available. The only way this person can afford even the lowest rent is by using a rent subsidy, but subsidized housing is available to only a fraction of the 37,000 SSI recipients in King County.

For many years, the income of a person receiving SSI was close to the rent benchmark. But despite a little dip in 2021, since 2015 rents have increased sharply while SSI benefits have not–annual Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) have ranged from 0-5.9 percent since 2012. Add to that the fact that Seattle is one of the most expensive US cities in which to live, and it’s a daunting and growing gap that daily makes it more difficult for thousands of local citizens to find and stay in housing.