Soaring rents and scarce inventory are pushing Greater Boston apartment hunters to their wits’ end

Dozens of tenants in Greater Boston are struggling to find a place, any place, to live these days. Rents have hit record highs after the COVID-19 pandemic sent rents tumbling the area hasn’t seen in years, and a host of factors are making Boston’s still-challenging apartment market even more frantic.

Concessions some landlords were offering during the height of COVID, like free months of rent or signing bonuses, have evaporated. A higher-than-usual vacancy rate amid the pandemic has prompted some landlords to renovate units, adding a dishwasher here or new flooring there, and then raising the rent. And an extremely low inventory of homes for sale in the suburbs has forced some potential buyers to stick to renting, adding even more pressure to the rental market.

In another era, Cabell Eames and her husband would probably be landlords. They had sold a home in Haverhill in the late 2000s, intending to leave the state, before family circumstances kept them in Massachusetts. They were renting a three-bedroom house in Belmont and keeping tabs on where to buy, but the houses were getting more and more expensive.

Eames watched nearby rents, wanting to see if there was anything in town with room for his family of four. In recent years, rents in Belmont for places that would work for their family have typically ranged from around $2,500 to $2,800. These days it’s more like $4,000.

“It stresses me out so much that I can’t even think about it, because I have no options,” Eames said. “There is no choice. When there are two apartments available, that would mean your entire paycheck would be rented out – that’s not a choice.

She is reluctant to move to a new city. Disrupting his children’s social networks and schools, especially after the isolation of the past two years, is a failure.

“You don’t know what’s around the corner, but you know you can’t move,” Eames said. “There is no choice. There is no choice. It’s purgatory on all sides.

By the end of 2021, asking rents in Greater Boston were up 11% from a year earlier, according to a recent report by real estate firm Colliers International, with the average 1,000 square foot apartment renting for about 2 $700 per month. It’s the biggest leap in at least two decades.

The growth is, in part, a rebound from the worst of the pandemic, when rents in many parts of the region actually fell for the first time in years, said Jeff Myers, director of research at the Colliers office. in Boston. But it is also fueled by strong demand, rising wages and very low vacancy rates, in part due to the return of students and workers to the city.

In effect, Boston stampswhich tracks real-time data from some of the city’s largest rental brokerage firms, shows that the apartment vacancy rate in Greater Boston is below 1%.

“It’s like, unbelievably low,” said general manager Demetrios Salpoglou.

It’s tight enough for a Cambridge councilor to struggle to find accommodation. Burhan Azeem recently moved house and thought he had a sublet room, but the room was accidentally double-booked, giving him a few days to find a new place to live.

Six of the seven apartments he tried to obtain were rented within half an hour of his request. One room had no heating or windows. Azeem now plans to stay in a friend’s spare room which is usually rented out on Airbnb, before moving into one of the bedrooms in a four-bed, one-bath apartment in East Cambridge.

“It’s really awful conditions, but even with a lot of it, you’d be lucky if you had one of those places,” Azeem said. “There are so many people applying for such limited places.”

That’s partly because it’s so hard for people to buy a house, so they keep renting.

Robin Swanson, a single mother who has lived in Troy Boston apartments in the South End since 2015, secured a rent deal when the building opened. At the time, she was paying around $2,600 for a one-bedroom apartment. She is now paying $4,200 for a two-bedroom unit for herself and her young daughter.

She would like to own a house, but the rents are so high that it is difficult to save for a down payment. Moving would mean giving up the daycare spot down the street and shelling out five figures in first and last month’s rent, brokerage fees and a security deposit.

“For me, I’d rather save that money to buy a house,” Swanson said.

She was made redundant during the pandemic and is then entitled to housing assistance. But with the income from her new job in a pharmaceutical company, she is not entitled to any help.

“$4,200 is a lot for a single parent, but also for anyone else,” Swanson said. “Usually in my building, people have roommates. I am 47 years old; we don’t have roommates.

The cost of housing was among the top issues during last fall’s municipal elections in Boston, and last week Mayor Michelle Wu appointed a 23-person task force to study “rent stabilization” – or the rent control – and how these programs work in other cities. The committee will advise Wu, who has supported statewide rent control efforts, on “developing a proposal for the next state legislative session,” the city said.

“If we are unwilling to accept the rent increases that drive families out of Boston, then we are not meeting the needs of our neighborhoods,” Wu said in a statement.

Real estate industry groups including the Greater Boston Real Estate Board (GBREB) and NAIOP Massachusetts — who won’t sit on the advisory board — have opposed rent controls, arguing it would slow the construction of much-needed new housing.

“Massachusetts and Boston should not recycle failed policies like rent control and stabilization to solve the housing crisis,” GBREB chief executive Gregory Vasil said in a January statement.

As this debate continues, Miller and Anthony’s search for a new place to live continues. The North End couple got a verbal yes from a broker for a unit in Allston, but no papers yet.

But Miller recently learned of a pay cut at work that will significantly affect his budget.

“It’s pretty hard,” she said. “We’re going to find out one way or another.”

Catherine Carlock can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @bycathcarlock.

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