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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

Westneat: The millionaires next door

By Danny Westneat
Published: June 14, 2024, 6:01am

Recently after I had written about how tax researchers had discovered there’s more millionaires in Seattle than anyone had thought, I was contacted by a person who fit into the category of what I had sweepingly called the “superrich.”

He objected: Superrich implies gazillionaires with yachts and helicopters. It’s not at all like that, he said. There are rich people everywhere in Seattle, “blending in.”

Call them the “regular rich.”

“We have a nice house but not that special (not a gated mansion or waterfront house),” he said. “I drive a Tesla (albeit the cheapest I could buy, that less-than-$40K Model 3). We take a pleasant vacation every year (though we do fly coach). So yes, we do blend in.”

He said his household’s net worth is around $10 million — fueled originally by seven-figure Microsoft stock options. For all the caricatures of the exceedingly wealthy, this was no longer something remarkable, not here.

I often think of this fellow as I go around my city. Mainly because I think he’s right.

Puget Sound Business Journal just reported on a new wealth study that puts a number to it. Seattle now has 54,200 millionaires, 130 “centimillionaires” and 11 billionaires, according to estimates from a U.K. wealth firm, Henley & Partners.

The study says Seattle contains the seventh-most millionaires in the nation. If you adjust that for population, though, Seattle ranks No. 2 for “millionaire density,” with about 1 in every 14 people in the city being a millionaire.

The Bay Area of San Francisco and Silicon Valley ranks No. 1, at roughly 1 in 13. (The study lumped much of the Bay Area together, but the Seattle data is confined to city limits, and excludes the Eastside.)

New York has the most millionaires, with 349,500. But that’s only 1 of every 24 people in that city.

These are “liquid” millionaires, the firm says. Meaning they have “investable wealth which only includes listed company holdings, cash holdings, and debt-free residential property holdings” of at least $1 million or more.

There are about 610,000 adults aged 21 and up in Seattle. This means 1 in every 12 adults here is a liquid millionaire.

I don’t know if this study is accurate. However last year the U.S. Census Bureau found that the top 20 percent of Seattle households — about 70,000 in all — earned an average of $442,000 each for the year. Add investments and it’s not hard to imagine many of those are probably millionaires.

The rich-ification of Seattle has been a story for a long time. But I don’t think its effect on the city’s culture or finances is fully understood. Or, the pressure it brings, however unintentionally, on people down the rungs of the economic ladder.

Last fall I wrote how Seattle had the fastest-growing prices in America. That study added up big ticket cost-of-living items and concluded our bills have been rising faster here than anywhere, just ahead of Honolulu.

On Monday, KUOW reported that Seattle also now ranks as the priciest city for tourists in the U.S., tied with Aspen, Colo.

KUOW said: “Shocking that we would be neck-and-neck with a luxury ski resort town.”

It sort of is, except Seattle is well on its way to becoming a luxury tech resort town.

Microsoft now is the most valuable company in the world, worth $3 trillion as of this month. Amazon ranks fifth on the planet, slightly ahead of the Saudi royals’ oil conglomerate.

All that money sloshing around our still relatively small town is how you get Seattle’s version of royalty — the $10 million stock-optioners with humble-ish houses who still fly coach.

Minting millionaires is our biggest growth industry. Seattle created 3,700 new millionaires last year alone, the study found. We’ve become an entire city of the millionaire next door — though many are probably worth closer to 10.

At the close of the 2010s, city researcher Richard Florida dubbed all this the new urban crisis — new because it was caused by too much success.

It’s true, 54,200 millionaires is a good problem for Seattle to have. But that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to solving it.

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