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‘I live on Zillow these days’: Pandemic briefly gave Boston tenants the upper hand, but the old crush is back

Agent Nicole Stabnikov and broker Jaimi Meuse show an apartment in Brookline’s Washington Square to Riley Eyges.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Not so long ago, in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, Boston-area renters had a rare advantage in their long-running struggle with landlords to find a good apartment they can afford.

That time is ending.

As the region quickly opens back up this spring, with sidewalks coming to life and restaurants repopulating, apartment hunters are coming back, too. Young professionals are contemplating at least occasional trips to the office. Students are plotting their return to college. And Boston’s typically tight rental market is rapidly returning to form.

Rents in recent weeks have surged toward prepandemic levels, climbing more than 4 percent from March to April alone, according to rental website Apartment List. A typical two-bedroom unit now rents for $1,890 a month, still 10 percent less than a year ago, but up more than $200 from December.


“We were expecting to see things bounce back,” said Chris Salviati, a housing economist at Apartment List. “But we’re surprised to see how soon and how quickly.”

It’s a big shift from last fall, when the rental market tanked after the onslaught of COVID-19. The legions of students and 20-somethings who fill apartments in places such as Allston and Somerville receded, completely upending the typical balance of power where landlords had the upper hand and renters had no choice but to pay the going rate. Suddenly, with thousands of vacant apartments, many landlords offered steep discounts and other enticements just to get someone — anyone — in the door.

“Buildings were offering two, even three months of free rent,” said Arthur Deych, owner of Red Tree Real Estate in Brookline. “They’d probably have thrown in a Thanksgiving turkey if you asked nicely.”

That changed in March, as the rate of vaccinations accelerated and — crucially — colleges such as Northeastern and Harvard announced plans to bring back students in the fall. Major employers started plotting their return to the office, and Sept. 1 — already a big day in Boston’s seasonal rental market — started to come into focus as the day on the calendar when the rhythms of city life would return.


“It was like a light went on. There was a flip of a switch,” Deych said. “The tenants’ upper hand went away almost overnight.”

Some renters watched that happen in real time.

Just before COVID hit last year, Lise Brown and her husband renewed the lease on their apartment downtown. Then the pandemic hit, and they had to ride it out in a small one-bedroom apartment, their once-bustling neighborhood now quiet. As their lease approached its end earlier this spring, they decided to look for something bigger, but hopefully close to downtown. Brown, during her initial hunt, said she spotted great deals on two-bedrooms in the South End and South Boston, where newer buildings were offering enticing discounts to fill units.

“There were so many places in our budget,” she said. “I was so excited.”

By the time they were ready to sign, however, it was too late. Those deals were gone, at least on apartments close to downtown. So they searched further out and last weekend moved in to a new building in Quincy Center. It’s a nice place, Brown said, and they got the extra room they desired. But their new home is a little further from the action than she hoped.


“I wish we could’ve moved last spring or summer,” Brown said. “Everyplace was clamoring for people to move in then.”

But while rents fell fastest in student-heavy neighborhoods and higher-end buildings downtown during the pandemic, they did not drop in lower-cost parts of the city and in many suburban areas. They even rose in outlying cities that experienced a surge in demand as people left Boston for more spacious quarters in the suburbs and beyond.

“Rents in Worcester? They’re up 4 percent,” Salviati said. “Around Manchester, N.H., it’s even more.”

Now they’re snapping back pretty much all over.

That’s true this spring in large, expensive cities around the country, including in those where rents plunged last year. But maybe nowhere is rebounding faster than Boston, where students are an unusually large part of the market and the booming life sciences industry continues to grow.

“There’s a lot of good things happening in Boston,” said Mark Parrell, chief executive of Equity Residential, one of the nation’s largest apartment landlords, on a recent call with analysts. “Boston is going to have a really nice recovery and come out of this more quickly than anyplace else.”

Landlords are making that bet too, bringing a wave of listings on the market that they hope will capture the renewed demand.

Demetrios Salpoglou, chief executive of Boston Pads, which operates several rental brokerage agencies here, said he’s never seen as many apartments available as this spring. Along with normal seasonal turnover, there are thousands of units that have sat empty since last summer, their owners eager to get the rent checks flowing again.


“It’s kind of a wild ride,” Salpoglou said. “There’s going to be a ton of apartments that get rented in the next few weeks.”

The compressed season this year — months’ worth of apartment hunts squeezed into April and May — is adding to the sense of frenzy.

But tenants do still have a bit of leverage left. In more than half of the apartments Salpoglou tracks, landlords are still offering to cover brokers’ fees — usually equivalent to one-month’s rent. In more normal times, that cost tends to be passed on to tenants. If you want minor repairs done before moving in, Deych said, now is a good time to ask ― your new apartment may well be empty. And the shift toward online apartment hunting, accelerated during the pandemic,means renters have more information at their fingertips than ever before. That knowledge brings power, said Joel Mundele, a veteran rental broker who last year launched an online listing platform called Spot Easy.

“When you show places in person, it takes forever,” he said. “People are used to shopping online. They just want more info. So by the time they decide to go see an apartment they know it’s what they want.”

And when they get there, they’re finding at least some landlords are more willing to be flexible on price than they were prior to the pandemic.


“Nobody I’ve talked with has ever been as open to negotiations as they were this year,” said Molly Sadoff, who just wrapped up her search for an apartment in Somerville. “The broker was, like, ‘They will come down for good quality tenants who are going to stick around.’”

Sadoff and her boyfriend, Sean Hathaway, were able to move up from a one-bedroom apartment to a two bedroom. The extra space is especially important since they are both mostly working from home. They also focused more on the apartment itself than the location, and traded a longer walk to the T for a smaller building that felt more private.

“We used to spend 40 hours a week at work, plus commuting,” said Sean Hathaway. “Home’s kind of has a different definition for us now.”

But with a May 1 move-in date, Sadoff and Hathaway were able to sign a lease while the market was softer. Just few weeks later, that’s started to change.

Grace Heffner and her fiancé are hoping to move to an apartment in Boston or Cambridge after their wedding in September. They’ve bumped up their budget to $1,900 a month and broadened the map of neighborhoods where they’re looking. But the deals Heffner had hoped they would find have vanished.

“I live on Zillow these days,” she said. “It’s hard. But things are hard for everybody right now. We’re grateful that we can even consider living in Boston.”

Tim Logan can be reached at Follow him @bytimlogan.