A few months ago, Cherise Kenner got a raise. Another $10,000. The sort of money that just a couple of years ago would have meant the chance to finally buy a house.
Not in this city, not now.
Instead of picking up the keys to a place of her own, 41-year-old Kenner is sleeping on a futon. An investor last year purchased the building where she rented a three-bedroom with her two teenage children, and raised the rent by $700. Still determined to save for the home she someday hopes to buy, she rented a two-bedroom in West Roxbury, ceding the rooms to her kids.
Opting for one less bedroom than her family needs is saving Kenner hundreds of dollars in rent each month, though it’ll be years before she can seriously think about buying — and sleeping in a room of her own again.
“It’s what I have to do for now,” she said. “Obviously it’s not ideal. People should not have to be doing all of this to be able to afford a home.”
But after two-plus years of seismic shifts in Boston’s housing market, they do, and that put buying a home out of reach for tens of thousands more families here. And it’s not just lower-income households. Kenner now makes $75,000 a year as a faculty assistant at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, but middle-income salaries like hers are, by and large, insufficient in a market this distorted.
Indeed, even to afford a house in the lowest-priced third of the Greater Boston market required about $138,000 a year in household income in 2022, according to an analysis by Boston Indicators, a research center at the Boston Foundation. A year prior, that figure was $96,000.
That stunning erosion of affordability ultimately leaves people treading water, putting life decisions on hold, or reconsidering where to go next. It means a couple more years on the futon. It means waiting before having another baby, or not having one at all. And for some, it means deciding whether or not to leave Boston altogether.
“The deterioration in affordability that we have seen over the last two years, even the last year, is frankly stunning,” said Daniel McCue, a senior research associate at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. “It’s not that Boston was affordable before, but this has become a housing market for almost no one.”
Home values and housing costs have been on the rise nationally for decades, steadily outpacing income growth and becoming an ever-larger burden on millions of American households. Then came COVID-19, and a massive reshuffling of people’s calculus of where they could live and work. Home prices here were already among some of the highest in the United States, and when the housing market caught fire, they jumped another 37 percent from March 2020 through last summer.
And while the buying behaviors that dominated that stretch were extreme — like waiving inspections or offering hundreds of thousands of dollars over asking price to secure a house — homes were still more affordable than they are now. In some cases, monthly mortgage payments were actually cheaper than rent on a comparable place.
But then interest rates jumped too: the average on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage climbed from 3 percent at the start of 2022 to nearly 7 percent by October. That translates to a nearly 60 percent increase in monthly costs on a median-priced house. For Kenner, the shift means her monthly payment on a house would be about $1,000 more than what she currently pays in rent.
“That’s just too much,” she said.
By the Boston Indicators count, there were 222,000 renters who could afford to buy a home in the lower third of the market in 2021. One year later, that number had fallen to around 125,000.
“Essentially, the number of households in the region who were able to afford a house a few years ago has been cut in half,” said Luc Schuster, executive director of Boston Indicators. “There are so many people who can hardly shake a stick at buying a house.”
It is a particularly wrenching reality for Daniel Rees and Samantha Palace. The couple, a software engineer and a microbiologist both in their 30s, had been considering buying their first place in 2019, but were waiting until their lives settled down a bit.
Then the pandemic hit, the market shifted, and now they’re stuck. They had their first child, Joanna, last year and want to have another. But to find the space for two kids at a price point they can afford, they’d have to move too far out of the city to maintain realistic commutes.
“We are leaning towards just giving up on a single-family home,” said Rees. “I just can’t imagine us ever being able to afford that here at this point. But what has resonated with me through this process is, why should we have to give up anything?”
Or they could leave Greater Boston entirely. That so many people seem to be considering that, driven to look elsewhere by their prospects in this housing market, should be a big cause for concern, said Adam Guren, an associate professor of economics at Boston University. Without a sustainable housing market, he said, the region is at risk of losing the residents who make the place tick: Teachers, social workers, even people in lucrative industries like biotech, whose salaries in most other cities would be more than enough to buy a place.
“People really need to start looking at the bigger picture here, which is what our city becomes when so many people can’t afford to live here,” said Guren. “It’s a city without diversity and without essential workers. A city for the wealthy, really.”
And it also means that it’s getting a whole lot harder for longtime residents to stay here.
Take Nic Jones, a Boston Public Schools teacher who grew up in the city and now lives in Dorchester.
A lot of his paycheck each month goes to rent. Some more goes to help his mother and sister, who are both struggling to find stable housing. Buying a home, Jones said, feels like a distant dream. But he’s more worried about the friends he grew up with and his students who come from low- and moderate-income backgrounds.
“I have students commuting in from Brockton because their parents can’t afford living in Boston anymore,” said Jones. “What is this city going to look like in 20 years if housing stays like this? How many Black people are still going to be here?”
In expensive cities like Boston, homeownership has long been seen as the ticket to building wealth. Homeowner households have a median wealth roughly 40 times that of households that rent, Boston Indicators found.
But historically, people of color, particularly Black people, have had a harder time accessing it, in large part due to policies of the past like redlining that made it hard to get a mortgage. Today, Black home buyers still often have to borrow more because they have been able to save less for a down payment and have unequal access to credit, so when the housing market shifts like it has, it disproportionately prices them out.
And that’s exactly what has happened. The Boston Indicators analysis found that some 58 percent of Black residents who could have afforded a lower-tier home in 2021 could not in 2022.
“This is an urgent issue for our region,” said Symone Crawford, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance.
Some are remaining hopeful, though. Jones is determined to buy a house in the city some day, once his BPS salary increases, maybe even a multifamily property so he can allow family or friends to stay with him.
Kenner recently finished MAHA’s homeownership education program, and she’s confident she’ll be able to buy in the near future with the money she’s saving on rent.
But for now, it’s more nights spent on the futon.