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Surging rents and scarce inventory are driving Greater Boston apartment-hunters to their wits’ end

Ben Anthony and Brenna Miller in their North End apartment. They are seeking a new place to live after their landlord told them he would hike their rent by $400 a month.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

One cold day last month, Brenna Miller and her partner, Ben Anthony, hopped on the Green Line with a mission: find a new apartment. Their landlord had just announced the rent was going up $400 a month on their tiny ground-floor apartment in the North End and required six months’ notice if they chose to leave. So Miller and Anthony began the hunt.

It felt a bit like throwing darts at a board, but Miller and Anthony found a spot in Allston that fit their budget. They toured, told the broker they were interested, and headed home.

“We were sitting on the Green Line and the broker sent us a text message saying, ‘Sorry guys, somebody’s already filled out an application and paid a deposit. That apartment’s gone,’ ” Miller said. “It’s brutal.”


Scores of renters in Greater Boston are battling to find a place, any place, to live these days. Rents have surged to record highs after the COVID-19 pandemic sent rents to lows the area hadn’t seen in years, and a slew of factors are making Boston’s always-challenging apartment market even more frenetic.

Concessions some landlords offered at the height of COVID, such as free months’ rent or signing bonuses, have evaporated. Higher than usual vacancy amid the pandemic prompted some landlords to renovate units, adding a dishwasher here or new flooring there, and then raise the rent. And a vanishingly low inventory of homes for sale in the suburbs has forced some would-be homebuyers to stick to leasing, adding even more pressure to the rental market.

In a different time, Cabell Eames and her husband would probably be homeowners. They’d sold a home in Haverhill in the late 2000s, with plans to move out of state, before family circumstances kept them in Massachusetts. They leased a three-bedroom house in Belmont and kept an eye on places to buy, but homes kept getting more expensive.


Eames has monitored nearby rents, wanting to see if there was something in town with room for her family of four to spread out. In the past few years, rents in Belmont for places that would work for their family typically ran from around $2,500 to $2,800, These days, it’s more like $4,000.

“It brings me so much stress that I can’t even think about it, because I don’t have options,” Eames said. “There are no choices. When there’s two apartments available that would mean your entire paycheck would go to rent — that’s not a choice.”

She’s loath to move to a new town. Disrupting her children’s social networks and schools, especially after the isolation of the last two years, is a nonstarter.

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

By the end of 2021, asking rents in Greater Boston had climbed 11 percent compared with a year prior, according to a recent report by real estate firm Colliers International, with the average 1,000-square-foot apartment renting for about $2,700 a month. That’s the largest jump 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, research director at Colliers’ Boston office. But it’s also powered by strong demand, growing paychecks, and vacancy rates that are very low, partly driven by a return to cities by both students and workers.


Indeed, BostonPads, which tracks real-time data from some of the city’s largest rental brokerage firms, shows apartment vacancy in Greater Boston at less than 1 percent.

“That’s like, mind-alteringly low,” said chief executive Demetrios Salpoglou.

It’s tight enough that a Cambridge city councilor is struggling to find a place to live. Burhan Azeem moved recently and thought he was set with a sublet room, but the room was accidentally double-booked, leaving him with just days to find a new place to live.

Six of seven apartments he tried to get were leased within half an hour of his applying. One room didn’t have heat or windows. Azeem now plans to stay in a friend’s guest bedroom that’s 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 that, you’d be lucky if you’d get one of those places,” Azeem said. “There’s so many people applying for such limited spots.”

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

Robin Swanson, a single mother who has lived in the South End’s Troy Boston apartments since 2015, got a deal on rent when the building opened. Back then she was paying around $2,600 for a one-bedroom. She now pays $4,200 for a two-bedroom unit for herself and her young daughter.


She’d like to own a home, but rents are so high that it’s tough to save for a down payment. Moving would mean giving up the day-care spot down the street, and shelling out five figures in first and last month’s rent, a broker’s fee, and a security deposit.

“To me, I’d rather save that money towards buying a home,” Swanson said.

She was laid offduring the pandemic, and did qualify for some rental assistance then. But with the income from her new job at a pharmaceutical company, she doesn’t qualify for any assistance.

“$4,200 is a lot for a single parent, but also for any other person,” Swanson said. “Usually in my building, people have roommates. I’m 47 years old; we’re not having roommates.”

The cost of housing was among the top issues in last fall’s mayoral election in Boston, and last week Mayor Michelle Wu named a 23-person working group to study “rent stabilization” — or rent control — and how such programs work in other cities. The committee will advise Wu, who has supported statewide rent control efforts, on “shaping a proposal for the next state legislative session,” the city said.

“If we aren’t willing to take on the rent increases that are driving families out of Boston, then we aren’t 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 — neither of which will serve on the advisory committee — have opposed rent control, arguing that it would slow new construction of badly needed housing.


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

As that debate rolls on, so does Miller and Anthony’s hunt for a new place to live. The North End couple has gotten a verbal yes from a broker for a unit in Allston, but no paperwork yet.

But Miller recently learned of a pay cut at work that will affect their budget in a big way.

“It’s pretty rough,” she said. “We’ll figure it out somehow.”

Catherine Carlock can be reached at Follow her @bycathcarlock.