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A move-in day like no other: Tenants have a rare upper hand as apartments sit empty

The Bower apartment buildings in Boston. Building one, right, is complete, and building 2 is scheduled to be finished in September.
The Bower apartment buildings in Boston. Building one, right, is complete, and building 2 is scheduled to be finished in September.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

When Ravi Munde was looking for an apartment this summer, he checked out where he used to live in the Fenway, when he was a student at Northeastern.

The monthly rent was $200 cheaper than what he paid a little more than a year ago.

Other buildings he looked at offered such incentives as $1,000 gift cards and breaks on the brokers’ fees ― just to get a tenant to sign a lease. Munde settled on an apartment at Assembly Row in Somerville. His 12-month lease included the first six weeks for free.

These are unusual times in Boston’s rental market. You might even call them unprecedented.

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The coronavirus pandemic, a rapid shift to working from home, and mass confusion at the colleges and universities that drive so much of the city’s housing demand have combined to give tenants a rare upper hand over landlords.

Rents are down by more than 3 percent, compared with this time in 2019, according to one report.

Concessions granted to renters are up, with landlords and brokers sweetening deals with a month or more’s rent, no broker fees, and even a window air conditioner if it will land a tenant. But despite the perks, more than 13,000 apartments in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville remain available in advance of the traditional Sept. 1 move-in frenzy.

Even in a market with roughly 250,000 rental apartments, that’s a huge number of vacancies, said John Puma, chief operating officer at the rental website Place For Less. And it could spark even better deals in the weeks to come as landlords scramble to fill their empty units.

“A lot of these apartments have never been vacant on Sept. 1,” Puma said. “Once it sets in that there’s all this vacancy, I don’t know what the limit will be on price reductions.”

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Rents have dipped in a way unseen since at least 2008, during the Great Recession. The average two-bedroom renting for September costs $2,082 a month, according to data tracked by Apartment List, down 3.1 percent, compared with last year. Since the pandemic started in March, only five other cities have bigger declines, said Apartment List researcher Rob Warnock — all of them, like Boston, pricey job centers with large populations of twentysomethings.

“Like in San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., you’ve got people adjusting to a new economic reality,” Warnock said. “You’ve got some people asking whether they can continue to afford what they were paying for housing, and others seeing rents going down and hoping to take advantage in some way.”

There are also new buildings opening, competing for tenants in a market very different from the one in which the developments were conceived. They include the Bower, a two-building, 312-unit complex that just opened on Beacon Street in the Fenway.

The lobby of the Bower apartment building in the Fenway area of Boston.
The lobby of the Bower apartment building in the Fenway area of Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Being new has advantages, said John Rosenthal, whose Meredith Management is codeveloping the project with the Portland, Ore., housing developer Gerding Edlen. The complex has a huge roof deck, all the latest environmental features, and operable windows — not a given in a high-rise.

“That’s fresh air,” Rosenthal said on a recent tour.

The roof deck at the Bower apartment building in Boston.
The roof deck at the Bower apartment building in Boston. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Still, he and Gerding Edlen’s managing partner, Kelly Saito, acknowledged that pre-leasing has been a bit slow. They get a lot of phone calls, but it has been hard to get people to come in for tours because of pandemic fears. It may take longer than planned, but the developers are confident the building will eventually be filled, especially given its proximity to the booming Longwood Medical Area.

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“We are getting a lot of inquiries,” Saito said. “It’s almost like things are good and slow at the same time.”

Indeed, there’s a lot of nuance to the current rental market, say brokers and other real estate experts.

Studios and one-bedrooms are renting much faster than larger apartments, as groups of roommates have broken up, with some going home to their parents. Other renters simply chose to stay put, preferring inertia to the prospect of apartment-hunting in a pandemic.

The turnover at at a Gerding Edlen building in East Boston, Saito said, has been strikingly low. And, flipping on its head decades of conventional wisdom about Boston’s housing market, suburban areas seem to be in demand, while student-heavy neighborhoods in Allston, Cambridge, and other places struggle.

“College neighborhoods are really the trickiest,” said Maggie Getman, marketing manager at First Choice Realty in Brookline. “The closer to a college you are, the more difficult it is to rent those apartments.”

All of this, she said, is requiring flexibility from landlords and brokers to fill units before the fall. First Choice has been offering shorter-term leases, providing air conditioners, and sometimes renting large apartments room-by-room, instead of holding out for a pack of roommates.

“You really have to think on your toes,” she said. “Renters have some leverage right now.”

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How long this state of affairs will last is unclear.

Uncertainty around in-person college classes this fall, in particular, knocked Boston’s typical Sept. 1 start of the renting cycle off kilter. But more students will one day return. Many twentysomethings currently working from their parents’ houses, Warnock predicted, will also rejoin city life — someday.

But it’s too soon to know when and how many, said Bruce Percelay, chairman of Mount Vernon Co., which owns about 1,600 apartments in and around Boston. While he’s optimistic the city’s economy — and thus demand for apartments — will recover, some neighborhoods may take longer than others.

“The market is either going through a convulsion that will bounce back in the spring, or a correction, a longer-term change,” he said. “That’s the question. And we won’t know the answer until COVID is stabilized.”


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