Realtor and lifelong Highlands resident Tina McKay was shredding old paperwork when she found the first house she sold in the Maple Heights area in 1988, with a property value for $75,000.
“The cost of our homes have skyrocketed,” McKay said. “If you want to live here, it’s tough.”
New numbers out from the Office of Financial Management on June 28 showed Renton continues to hold as the eighth largest city in Washington state, with a population of 104,700.
Last year the city was at 102,700. Population rose between 1 percent and 2 percent each year since 2010, except for a nearly 3 percent increase between 2015 and 2016.
From 1990 to 2018, Renton had a 149.7 percent increase in its population. Renton had the fastest population increase of any city between 2000 and 2010.
A lot of this came from annexations into Renton, including Benson Hill in 2008: now a quarter of the city’s population. The rest came from the amount of growth the city has eagerly taken in.
And there aren’t any plans to slow down soon. For the last few years, Renton has planned to accept the third most growth of the King County cities within its current boundary, falling behind the only two metros: Seattle and Bellevue.
So who has moved to Renton, and will that be a testament to how it will continue to grow in the future? Here’s a look at the numbers, stories and plans for Renton growth so far.
Benita Horn, who is now the Inclusion and Equity Consultant for the city, moved to the Lakeridge area 25 years ago. Horn said she remembers Renton was very white, and less than half the population. Lakeridge had a slightly more diverse neighborhood than surrounding areas thanks to Boeing employees there. She said she was drawn to the small-town feel of Renton.
“It gave us the opportunity to get to know our neighbors,” Horn said.
She then moved to Benson Hill in 2000. While Lakeridge was suburban, Benson Hill was open space and farmland, she said. She remembers a horse ranch near her townhome and roosters waking her up in the morning.
The Benson Hill annexation added an estimated 16,000 new Rentonites overnight, city analyst Aaron Raymond stated in an email.
Deputy Public Affairs Administrator Preeti Shridhar said that annexation gave Renton a big bump in population, and that growth has been a combination of other factors like people moving from Seattle to other parts of King County.
The city accepted 66 annexations since 1990, which significantly changed its size and character, according to documents from the 2019 council retreat.
Then the state stopped offering money for annexations, which challenged the city, Shridhar said. That impacted growth decisions in Renton.
Renton started charging fees for annexations in 2016, slowing down the process. Renton is the fourth largest city in the county, behind Seattle, Bellevue and Kent. After the Benson Hill annexation, Renton continued to grow, surpassing 100,000 residents in 2016.
When the city annexed Benson Hill it was a great improvement, Horn said. She saw improved infrastructure, police protecting the streets and meeting neighbors, more diverse residents and higher density.
Donna Francis grew up in the Highlands, but moved to Benson Hill when she decided to buy a home. She’s now lived there for 21 years.
“The Highlands had just priced us out,” Francis said. “In Benson the prices were a lot less.”
Benson Hill continued to increase in population, but the Highlands and downtown have seen the majority of growth since 2010, according to data compiled by the city from the Office of Financial Management.
In decades before, Renton was an industrial town, defined by Boeing. The company had created a culture for the city.
Francis said Renton has changed a lot since she grew up. She remembers all her neighbors were out of state from Minnesota, South Dakota and were coming for Boeing.
But then the city started expanding.
“Boeing isn’t the only employer anymore, we have all kinds of industries now,” Francis said.
Today, everything is defined by diversity of employment, places to live and ages, Shridhar said. The city not only has this diversity, but celebrates it.
Horn said there’s a lot more diverse businesses and products, ones that accommodate her family, she used to have to go to Seattle’s Central District for African American hair products. She can go to Latino grocery stores in Renton for cooking Mexican food at home, and an international assortment of restaurants in the city.
Rupy Kaur has lived in the Highlands for 15 years, from Kent. She moved to Renton because the city was clean. affordable, low-key, nice housing, but had quick freeway access up to University of Washington (UW), where she attended for undergraduate school. She’s now a nurse practitioner at UW.
Today, Renton is more accepting, Kaur said. When she used to go to a QFC, she wouldn’t see other families of diverse backgrounds, her family is Sikh. In the last five years, she said she sees almost every culture represented. Her kids have students in their classes from 10 different countries.
The increase in diversity also shows up in her neighbors, instead of all-white there is a different ethnicity in every house, she said.
Kaur also said restaurants are becoming more family-friendly, and the police presence recently has made her feel more safe to go out to grocery shop at night. She feels like there are people to protect her, and that wasn’t the case 15 years ago.
Horn also noticed a greater sense of safety when walking around, and more people on the streets.
Influx of people
Kaur said she’s noticed there’s a lot of people here now, and that it’s been challenging and developing so fast. Her and McKay, who’s lived in the Highlands her whole life, both noticed the increase in “cookie-cutter” houses.
According to data compiled by city-data.com, Benson Hill and Highlands had the highest amount of movers from within King County, and Benson hill saw the most who moved from abroad. Those living in the city center have also been at some of the highest risk of displacement, along with Sunset and Cascade/Benson Hill.
Displacement and increased prices is going to be one of the biggest challenges for Renton moving forward, Horn said.
According to data from the Puget Sound Regional Council, majority of Renton is in a moderate opportunity area, but a moderate risk of displacement, with the Sunset, City Center down to Benson Hill showing high risk of displacement.
Horn said when talking to folks in the community, she hears the greater density and demand for residents have increased prices, and some concerns of displacement.
The horse ranch near her Benson Hill townhome is now several new homes. The prices started at $800,000. She said she sometimes misses the rooster’s crow.
She has heard concerns from low income families and seniors not being able to manage increase in rent, but city council has looked at this closely. Council intervened when an apartment was going to deny Section Eight vouchers in 2016.
Renton is one of the few places in the region with their own housing authority, which Shridhar said has been an advantage in creating affordable housing.
The city has completed several affordable housing projects over the last 10 years, most recently the June Leonard Place in 2019. As part of the Sunset Transformation Plan, projects are complete or underway in the Sunset area, including Sunset Court, Kirkland Avenue and Glennwood townhomes.
“There’s a lot we’ve done with the Sunset area, but we try to look beyond because it’s something we have to address throughout the city,” Shridhar said.
Change keeps on
Shridhar said growth comes in several forms: the inevitable, the planned and thoughtful, the economic and then unsustainable growth.
New leadership in January, who will be elected this November, will likely be shaping the future of Renton, and how much growth we want. But the vision of this minority-majority city will likely remain, Shridhar said.
While attending a recent regional meeting on equity and inclusion, Shridhar said she told representatives of other major cities she’s convinced the work they’ve done so far in Renton would continue in that direction with any of the candidates running for mayor.
Renton has the benefits of living in a metro area, access to a wide variety of activities, entertainment and parks, without the increased density of a metro area. It makes for a healthier community, Horn said.
When Kaur convinces her friends to move to Renton, she tells them they can have a backyard, nearby parks and trails and convenience to the freeway.