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As Sept. 1 nears, the rush to find an apartment in Boston is as competitive as ever

Rents and vacancy rates are back at pre-pandemic levels as colleges gear up for in-person return

Kyetta Haney is a leasing manager at Hancock Village, which is seeing demand approaching the time before the pandemic.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

In Boston’s rental economy, the old, familiar madness is back.

The market has nearly rebounded from a roller-coaster 2020 that saw demand fall to historic lows, analysts say. And that means the usual fall rush to find housing is as competitive as ever.

Vacancies and rental prices have returned to pre-pandemic levels as academic institutions return to in-person learning this fall, making the upward swing in room rates particularly sharp in student-heavy neighborhoods such as Allston and Brighton.

But will the reheated market last, as the shadow of the pandemic persists? The Delta variant is a curveball, people in the industry say, and they’re carefully watching for any slowdown in demand among international students and others from overseas who come here for work or medical training.

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But days away from the city’s traditional Sept. 1 turnover date, landlords say the market has returned to something like normal after a year of pandemic tumult.

“Maybe people were waiting to move, or waiting to change jobs, and I think that all changed during the 2021 rental season,” said Jennifer Murphy, head of marketing for Chestnut Hill Realty, which manages 5,000 apartments in and around Boston. “That’s where we found our residents.”

Median rents in Boston are at $2,030 for a one-bedroom apartment and $2,163 for a two-bedroom, according to data collected by the online marketplace Apartment List. That’s 8.4 percent higher than at the same time last year — and about where rents were before the pandemic.

That means that the short period in which renters held the keys in this housing-constrained region is over. Landlords have ended promotions such as free months of rent as the supply of available units has dropped.

Danielle Hare has been looking for a new place in Allston or Brighton since the spring, as she seeks to move from a shared house into an apartment of her own. Things are getting increasingly competitive out there, she said.

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“They’re saying that the prices went down, but I’m starting to see them surge a lot more,” said Hare, a 28-year-old marketing manager and podcaster. “There’s just so many people applying, trying to move, that finding something in your price range is really hard.”

She began her search in May, and looked early on at one apartment that was listed at $2,300 but passed on it. Now, it’s going for $2,900.

Hancock Village is seeing demand rise to pre-pandemic levels.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The ups and downs have been particularly pronounced in student-heavy areas, which hollowed out last year when many local colleges went remote due to COVID-19.

The vacancy rate in Allston, for instance, spiked to more than 14 percent last September, according to data compiled by Boston Pads, which operates several rental brokerage agencies. In Greater Boston at large, the rate was closer to 7.5 percent, still dramatically higher than normal.

By now, vacancy rates around the region have converged at around 1 percent, and Boston Pads chief executive Demetrios Salpoglou said he sees no indication that number will climb again.

His organization estimated this week that there were about 2,600 available non-luxury units listed in Greater Boston. That’s more than the approximately 1,800 during the comparable period of 2019, but far lower than the nearly 6,000 at this point last year.

Nonetheless, Salpoglou said, renters do retain some advantages. Right now 45 percent of landlords are willing to pay the broker’s fee for new tenants, compared with about 3 to 5 percent in a normal year.

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“I don’t think it’s going to last forever, clearly, but it’s still a great time to rent,” he said.

Landlords are still watching the impacts of the Delta variant, especially on higher education and international travel. Many who signed leases for Sept. 1 did so before the current wave of cases, and a renewed crisis could spark worries that the dark times of 2020 might return.

So far, Murphy, of Chestnut Hill Realty, said she and her colleagues are cautiously optimistic.

“I haven’t seen it this strong before,” said Murphy, who is also president of the Massachusetts Apartment Association, a trade group of landlords.

Kyetta Haney, leasing manager at Hancock Village, one of Chestnut Hill Realty’s properties in Chestnut Hill, said the 804-unit development has been seeing high interest since the spring.

“We’ve been pretty busy, consistently, since March,” Haney said. “Once it hit, it hit and never stopped.”

If demand remains high, prices could soon climb above the levels seen before the pandemic, and even a modest dip in demand from students won’t change the pricey market that faces most Bostonians.

“If we do see changes in terms of in-person plans for colleges, that would be a factor that would cool off the market,” said Chris Salviati, a housing economist at Apartment List. “But I don’t think it would be a solution to the broader affordability [issue].”

For now, Hare, the Allston resident, has put her plans to move on hold, hoping for a calmer market after the fall rush.

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“I’ll stay where I am until winter,” she said.


Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.