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Boston area’s apartment-rental market stuck in limbo

The big question: Will colleges keep classes online past September?

Students moved out of dorms at Harvard and other colleges in March to help slow the apread of the coronavirus. When they'll be returning is  still an open question.
Students moved out of dorms at Harvard and other colleges in March to help slow the apread of the coronavirus. When they'll be returning is still an open question.Maddie Meyer/Getty

Even in normal times, renting an apartment in Boston can be a stressful affair.

Now, as the city hits the traditional peak of its highly seasonal rental market — a time when thousands of college students sign leases for the coming school year — the coronavirus crisis is wreaking havoc on the process of finding a place to live around here.

Showings have gone virtual. Roommates have scattered. Widespread job losses have many people rethinking what they can afford, while months spent working from home have others wondering whether they want or need to live in the city anymore.

Hanging over it all is an enormous question mark: What will colleges and universities do this fall? Their decisions will help determine how many of the tens of thousands of students who pile into apartment buildings and three-deckers across the city each Sept. 1 will actually return.

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“Nobody really knows if students are coming back,” said Ishay Grinberg, chief executive of Rental Beast, an apartment listing website in Somerville. “That kind of freezes the whole market.”

Indeed, the student market has an outsize impact on apartment renting in Boston.

Roughly 65,000 students at Boston colleges and universities live off-campus, according to city data, plus more from schools in Cambridge, Somerville, and elsewhere around the region.

Most student-oriented leases start Sept. 1, which by extension has also become a de facto moving date for legions of twentysomethings who live here after college. By some counts, 60 percent of leases in the city turn over on Sept. 1, creating a cycle of apartment-hunting that peaks in May and June.

This spring, that cycle has all but stopped. No one wants to troop through strangers’ homes with a broker. Many students are long gone, and it’s not clear when they might come back.

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“The bottom may have fallen out of the college market,” said Doug Quattrochi,executive director of MassLandlords. “It is a bit of a mess.”

The market is swamped with empty sublets, Quattrochi said, as renters try to find short-term replacements for roommates who have left town.

Landlords eager to lock down tenants for next year are offering more concessions — giving a free month’s rent, or splitting broker’s fees — than they have in some time.

They’re also doing something unheard of in Boston in recent years: lowering rents. According to Somerville-based Rental Beast data, asking rents are down 2 percent, compared with last year, without taking concessions into account.

That’s good news for renters, who typically have little leverage in the fiercely competitive market for even modest apartments. But it’s a decent deal only if they know they’ll be living here come September.

For many, that remains an open question.

Most local colleges have said they intend to reopen for on-campus classes, but few have announced firm plans. Even if schools do reopen, international students — there were 71,000 in Massachusetts last year — could face extra hurdles if they want to return because of restrictions on flights from overseas. Others may simply choose to stay home, leaving roommates in the lurch.

Until those issues are settled, said John Puma, chief operating officer at the real estate website Places for Less, it will be hard for many students to commit to an apartment.

“We’re working with a lot of students who are really on the fence right now,” he said. “The thought of signing a 12-month lease in Boston and then sitting in your apartment, taking classes online, that’s a lot."

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Yasmine Badawi, a student at Boston Architectural College, has been apartment-hunting from her home in Egypt, where she returned when the school shut down in March. She has spent many hours scouring listings online and e-mailing brokers and landlords. But she is also waiting to learn whether her classes this fall will be in-person or online. If it’s the latter, she could save thousands of dollars by staying in Egypt.

“I’m planning to come back, but I don’t know when,” Badawi said. “I’m confused. Right now, I guess I would say I’m stalling, hoping to find something that will be flexible.”

A lot of people, landlords included, seem to be taking that approach.

Demetrios Salpoglou, who runs the real estate website Boston Pads and several large apartment leasing firms in the region, closely tracks listing data on more than 150,000 units in the city. More of them, he said, are vacant than is usual for this time of year: 1.5 percent, compared with 0.9 percent last May. The share of units available for lease in the coming months is up, too, at 7.4 percent, compared with 5.2 percent at this time last year. Some landlords Salpoglou talks with are holding off on advertising their units until schools settle on their fall semester plans.

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When that happens, he said, the market could be flooded with both tenants and landlords, compressing a months-long rental season into a few weeks.

“You could see a tremendous amount of leasing in a short period of time,” Salpoglou said. “It could be almost too busy.”

Still, some tenants are taking the plunge, regardless of the uncertainty.

Connor Haaland plans to move here from of outside Washington, D.C., to start classes at Harvard Law School in September. Last week, he and two roommates signed a lease on an apartment in Somerville that they saw only online. They were even able to negotiate a discount.

“We all decided we want to be in Cambridge, regardless," he said. "The atmosphere is still the atmosphere. It’d be difficult to try and start law school out of my parents’ basement. I’d much rather do it in the place where I’m going to be a student, even if classes are online.”

The good news, Salpoglou said, is that much of this instability is likely to be short-lived.

Colleges will have to decide soon about fall classes. Landlords will need to put their units up for rent, or risk missing the Sept. 1 market entirely. Renters might profit by continuing to hold out, but they will need to find a place eventually. And if the last couple of months have taught us anything, Salpoglou said, it’s that life can change fast.

“Everything we’re talking about right now, it could change in two weeks,” he said.


Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.