When JJ Meadows moved to the Boston area five years ago, living here was easier.
But the region’s housing market can turn lives upside down in a flash.
After Meadows and her longtime partner separated, the 26-year-old lab tech struggled to find a place she could afford on her own. She pursued countless listings and toured apartments that seemed like they were falling apart. Nothing panned out. And before she knew it, she was homeless, living in her sedan during two of the hottest months of the year last summer.
“It was dehumanizing,” Meadows said. “Truly the worst period of my life. Every place that I saw online was off the market within a day. I felt hopeless.”
These days, she has a bedroom in a shared apartment in Jamaica Plain. But her anxiety about her next move, which she feels she must make because of a roommate conflict, is creeping back in again as Boston’s traditional apartment-hunting season ramps up, even more intense than it was last year.
While rents have cooled in many US cities as the pandemic has eased, they’re accelerating in Boston. Vacancies, already at historic lows in 2021, are getting fewer and fewer.
There are a host of reasons why. Rising interest rates have slowed the home-buying market, which leaves even more people renting. And that in turn reduces the supply of available units, while new construction has slowed. Turnover is also down, as renters fatigued from moving during the pandemic are choosing to stay in their current place.
“What we’re seeing now, unfortunately, is a return to normal,” said Chris Salviati, a senior economist at the rental website Apartment List. “We saw rents dip for the first time in a long time at the start of the pandemic, but the reality is that Boston is so undersupplied that even with the broader slowdown we’re seeing in the housing market, rents are just going to keep climbing.”
All of that means that finding an apartment here — at any price — has become a harrowing feat.
Sara Feldman, for one, has all but given up on finding something better. An instructor at Harvard University, Feldman has spent the last five years in a shared living collaborative with six other people in Cambridge and, while the rent is cheap, she’s confined to a single room. She can’t help but think about her old place in central Illinois, a 1,500-square-foot apartment that cost $1,050 a month.
Searching for a new apartment within commuting distance of Harvard this year has only left her more discouraged. Everything’s tiny, or out of the way, and too expensive.
“All of the places that I see on the market would be financially suicidal for me,” said Feldman, 43. “There’s no good option.”
It’s feeling that way for more and more people. While rents in the Boston area have long been high, they historically haven’t increased as quickly as in some other markets, and that was largely the case during the pandemic. Cities such as Tampa, for example, saw rents balloon nearly 40 percent over the last three years, according to Apartment List data, more than double the rate in Boston.
But over the last year, as rental markets nationwide began to cool, rents in Greater Boston have kept climbing: up 6 percent since March 2022, well outpacing the national average. That puts the median rent for a one-bedroom in Boston at $2,011, according to Apartment List, making this one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, in line with New York City and San Francisco.
It’s driven by the same dynamic that has pushed home prices so high: immense demand for too little supply.
Greater Boston’s vacancy rate, a measure of how many apartments in the region are unrented, sits at 0.49 percent, down from 0.59 percent this time last year, according to BostonPads.
A healthy vacancy rate, said Demetrios Salpoglou, BostonPads’ CEO, would be somewhere around 6 percent. Vacancies hit around 9 percent in 2020 as people left Greater Boston, but have otherwise been below 6 percent for years.
“That tells you how bad it is right now,” said Salpoglou. “We’ve got a lot of people staying in their same apartment because they don’t want to take a chance on the market. And that means there’s so little vacancy that those apartments that do come on the market go for a higher price. It’s a crazy cycle. The wheel almost breaks.”
It can be especially intense this time of year, as rentals start coming on the market ahead of Boston’s infamous Sept. 1 moving day, when somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of the leases in the city turn over.
Having so much of the housing market turn over at once means the competition to find a place is immense. Listings disappear in days. Facebook groups for apartment hunters become a free-for-all. And securing a place becomes a matter of who is willing to put money down first.
“It feels like you’re racing to be the first one to send in a down payment for apartments that have been listed for a day or two, sometimes places people haven’t even toured,” said Sam Downes, a 27-year-old transportation engineer. “Honestly, it’s like a second job.”
Downes has been trying to avoid reentering the rental market for exactly that reason, but couldn’t avoid it this year.
This summer he’s planning to leave the apartment in Roslindale where he’s lived since 2020, and has spent more hours than he can count sifting through Zillow listings and talking with real estate brokers in his search.
“It becomes pretty exhausting,” he said.
And there’s no end in sight. Salviati, the Apartment List economist, said the only thing that could realistically relieve some pressure on Greater Boston’s rental market in the short term would be a dip in interest rates, which might prompt more people to buy houses instead of rent. But it’s anyone’s guess as to when that could happen.
In the meantime, finding an apartment will continue to be a struggle. And not everyone will prevail.
Gabriela Benavides Jaramillo, 23, moved to Boston five years ago to attend Berklee College of Music. After graduating last year, she wanted to stay to contribute to the city’s music scene and live near friends.
But it wasn’t to be. After what felt like an endless search, she gave up a few months ago, and moved to Florida to stay with family temporarily. Now, she’s contemplating a graduate degree, and she’s hesitant to come to a Boston school.
“There’s no guarantee I’m going to find a place” to live, said Jarmillo. “Boston feels like a risk.”