How Did Renting in Boston Become Such a Nightmare?
Sky-high prices, absentee landlords, and a swarm of grad students trying to beat you to the punch.
On a breezy, overcast afternoon last April, my fiancée and I hopped into a Lyft on a quest to start our new lives together in Boston. After two years of living and working 500 miles apart, I was moving back to our home state and we were looking for a one-bedroom rental together. As we pulled up to a tall brick apartment building in Jamaica Plain and saw folks cheerily lounging on the lawn, we were cautiously optimistic. When we spotted Bill, our real estate agent, smiling and wearing a hipster-friendly lumberjack shirt, the future looked even brighter.
At least in Boston terms, it was admittedly a bit of a last-minute search. We were looking for a June lease, cat-friendly, with a nook that could double as a home office without absolutely bankrupting us. We’d spent the previous two weeks hunched over our laptops in bed, trolling through Craigslist, Trulia, Zillow, and the like, culling the untenably grim, grimy, and windowless options, until we were finally left with a few potential gems among the dregs.
The first place he walked us through had just come on the market. The paint was a bit rough and the bathroom, which had no window, was directly off the kitchen, but it seemed livable as we gave it a careful look.
When we left to move on to the second place of the day, however, it quickly became clear we were further behind than we thought. “Most June leases have already been snapped up,” Bill told me as we zipped over to the next place in his car.
“When should we have started looking?” I asked.
“Well, most people probably start in February,” he said, nonchalantly dropping an absurdity that most Boston renters, broken and numb, have accepted as a way of life. The worst part, though, is that it immediately became clear he was right.
Our next stop was a place near Longwood. It was located in what seemed like a charming old building, and I noticed the cute tin ceilings when we walked in. Then I saw that it lacked a full-size refrigerator—two mini fridges were tucked under the newish countertops in what seemed like some sort of twisted joke. (A steal at $2,100!) Finally, there was the top floor of a house in Jamaica Plain. It was pleasant, with a circular floor plan that would let our cat run laps. I was ready to take it until I saw that the shower was wedged under the slanted ceilings, so I’d have to kneel, or squat in a yoga pose, to fit under the spigot each morning. It could almost have passed as whimsical, but I had visions of cold February mornings when the whimsy would collapse into wondering how at my age I couldn’t even find a place where I could shower in the standing position. The future seemed bleak.
In the parking lot outside, Bill told us we probably had about a day to decide—he’d be showing the apartments again soon, and they’d likely go fast. Later that night, we decided to go with the first place, pulling together first and last month’s rent, as well as the one-time Realtor’s fee, equal to another full month’s rent. More than a year later, the prospect of going through the process again makes me shudder.
Let’s get something out of the way: Boston is an expensive city to live in for just about everyone. But while those lucky enough to own a piece of the pie kick back and watch the valuation of their assets soar skyward, we renters are stuck in a sort of housing purgatory, competing in an apartment-hunting version of The Hunger Games for the prize of paying exorbitant prices with absolutely no return on our investment. And it’s getting even harder to hang on, let alone save for a down payment: Between 2009 and January 2017, according to Northeastern’s Greater Boston Housing Report Card, the average rent in the “Inner Boston Core” rose by nearly 55 percent, to $2,874 per month. By comparison, the average cost of buying a condo is up 44 percent and the cost of a single-family home is up 32 percent. “So, despite whatever progress the region has made in housing production,” the authors write, “affordability is a greater problem than ever.”
When it comes to the reasons why renting around Boston sucks, the usual suspects abound: The more than 70,000 students who live off-campus every year eat up the housing stock, keeping quality low and prices high; they also make it so that there are essentially only two months, June and September, when renters can sign a lease. Let’s also not forget that month-to-month doesn’t exist here; it’s nearly impossible to find a place that allows dogs; and many landlords illegally won’t rent to families, those with housing vouchers, or people with disabilities. Oh, and there’s almost always a hefty Realtor’s fee. We’re fish in a barrel.
As rough as it is, the rental system, I discovered, is even more flawed than most of us could imagine. Turns out, we have the wrong kind of housing for our population, with millennials and boomers increasingly going head-to-head for the same apartments, and even though it can feel like the whole city is under construction, we’re barely building enough to keep up with demand, let alone get anywhere close to fixing things. And that could have much-farther-reaching consequences for the region than astronomical monthly rents. Can somebody—anybody—save us?
This isn’t the first renters’ crisis Boston has faced, and it isn’t even the most dramatic. Between 1870 and 1920, in the midst of a massive wave of immigration, the city’s population tripled from 250,000 to 750,000, which, given the laws of supply and demand, led directly to a housing epidemic, says Barry Bluestone, founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and founding dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern. “By 1920,” he says, “the population of Boston was bigger than it is today.”
That was the first of three major population and housing upheavals that brought about Boston’s modern-day renting nightmare. In 1870, Bluestone says, “it was mainly immigrants—Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans. We housed all of them, and the way we did it is we came up with a new type of housing that was perfect for these new immigrants: the triple-decker.” Cheap to build and a source of income to boot, triple-deckers exploded across the city, and they make up 40 percent of the combined housing stock in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville today. To many people, renting in one of them is the defining Boston experience.
The next explosive shift was an exodus from the city after World War II, with young people returning home, getting married, and having kids straight away. “And they wanted to move to the suburbs,” Bluestone says. Boston’s population plummeted from a peak of 801,444 people packed into 48.4 square miles in 1950—about 130,000 more than today—to 562,994 in 1980. (Back in the early 1970s, Bluestone moved into a Back Bay apartment that cost $240 a month and was promptly burgled.)
Then something happened: Boston started to bounce back. “The key has been the transformation of Boston from a decaying industrial city to an increasingly important center of education, medicine and finance, and of business services for the high-technology companies of Massachusetts,” explained a still-skeptical New York Times article from 1985. Over the next two decades, universities, in particular, continued to attract more people to the Hub—in fact, by the year 2000, according to Bluestone, about a third of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville’s combined population was between the ages of 20 and 34. And they all needed convenient, comfortable, affordable places to live.
Which brings us to what we’re up against now: “It’s young people coming here, not married, teaming up two, three, four [to an apartment],” Bluestone says. “We also have people like myself—empty-nesters possibly looking to downsize from their single-family homes. And what kind of housing do they need? We have very little of it.” In the city and the ’burbs, what we’re desperately short on are smaller, cheaper places perfect for living alone or as a couple without kids—the kind of apartment that my fiancée and I were looking for and that boomers increasingly desire.
As a result, we’re left with a pretty grim portrait of what it means to live in Boston right now. For the past 15 years, Bluestone and his colleagues at Northeastern have published the Greater Boston Housing Report Card, arguably the definitive record on the state of housing here. What these reports have shown is that the exploding population of grad students, coupled with skyrocketing rents caused by a housing shortage, is starting to threaten the well-being of the city and the region. According to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency for the Boston metro area, we need to build 435,000 new units of housing between 2010 and 2040—about a 24 percent increase—if we want to keep growing our economy. If we don’t do something soon, it isn’t clear exactly who will be able to afford to live here in the future—or who’d even want to try.
In short, the housing crisis is a ticking time bomb. “Economically, the risk is that we’re kind of defying gravity right now. We’ve had such incredible job growth here; we’re basically at full employment, and considering how much it costs to live here, it’s kind of incredible how well we’re doing,” says Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. “At some point, if you’re a company deciding whether to grow here or grow someplace else, the cost of living and the ability to recruit workers becomes a real constraint. I think that’s the big threat.”
The ugly truth is that if you rent in Boston, you’re a second-class citizen. Dependent on the whims of the market and your landlord’s good will, you’re secure for one lease at a time. Unless you’re wealthy and simply aren’t interested in buying, you’re either going to claw together enough cash to buy a place or you’re going to get pushed out.
In the year since I moved to Boston, three sets of good friends have ditched the city. One couple left their cozy Somerville spot for what I hear are spacious digs in Salem. (I’m a bad friend and haven’t visited yet, but they tell me they have two porches and a yard down the street from a brewery.) Another couple decamped from Charlestown for the urban frontier of New Bedford, where they’re thinking about buying a sea captain’s house. (I haven’t visited them, either.) The third couple moved to DC, leaving an absentee landlord in Somerville for a palatial place on Dupont Circle with high ceilings and a fireplace in their living room. (I have visited them, and it’s really nice!) Two other friends managed to stay here and buy. Wheat, meet chaff.
I don’t blame them for abandoning ship: As much as we might hear about this economic boom, about half of Bostonians who rent shelled out more than 30 percent of their paycheck to a landlord last year, and one in four spent a whopping half of what they made. The bigger issue is that renting here can often feel like waiting for the other shoe to drop—no matter what income bracket you fall into. Massachusetts voters, in all their wisdom, repealed the rent-control laws in 1995, meaning rent can skyrocket from year to year. It also means the looming threat of having to move never fades. “There’s no prohibition against doubling the rent at the end of the lease,” says Julia Devanthéry, an attorney and a lecturer at Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center, which provides free legal help to low-income clients. “Rent increases are being used as a tool to empty neighborhoods of their longtime residents, mostly communities of color”—a trend she characterizes as a “strategy of mass displacement.” Gentrification, in fact, is threatening to remake neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Dorchester, East Boston, and Roxbury—and often in ways that will make Boston’s already shameful racial and economic divisions even worse, she says.
Even if you can afford to pay above-average rents, however, you shouldn’t feel comfortable. Take, for example, the poor saps who signed leases at the Millbrook Lofts in Somerville. The 100-unit luxury building on Medford Street, where apartments rented for $3,000 to $4,000, had been open for just over a year when the residents were informed that they were being kicked out so the company that owned it could sell off the units. In this market, luxury is no guarantee of anything.
The result, for many of us, is that we end up bouncing around—forced to move either because our place gets sold or it becomes too expensive. “I started off in J.P., and my home was sold while I was renting it,” says Rachel Heller, CEO of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), which advocates for policies designed to keep housing affordable for people with low to moderate incomes. “I went to Southie and the same thing happened in Southie. So from Southie I went to Revere, and from Revere I went to Cambridge.” Now she lives in Belmont, where she finally bought a place. “I’m not the only one who has a story like this, where I had to move around a lot because of the different changes,” she says.
The thing is, ungodly rent increases are only one of the problems—the same competition that drives up prices can make life hellish in all kinds of ways. For example, thinking about having a kid? Expect your renting experience to get a lot rockier. Back in 1971, after people realized what lead does to children’s brains, the state passed a law making it illegal for kids under six to live in a house with exposed lead paint, which was a good thing. If you’re a renter, that means your landlord is responsible for either covering or encapsulating any lead paint, which seems like a good thing. But doing so can get pricey, and so landlords will often quietly pass over qualified renters with kids, or even flat-out decline to rent to them, which is illegal. Even so, says Jamie Langowski, who co-manages Suffolk University Law School’s Housing Discrimination Testing Program, it’s one of the most common forms of housing discrimination. So for those of us who are aspiring to put down roots but aren’t currently rolling in money, our hopes can be summed up in three little words: Build, baby, build.
If you’ve aged out of roommates but haven’t saved enough for a down payment, it can feel like your days of living in the city are numbered—especially when the folks next door are doing everything in their power to make it harder for you to stay here. You know the type—the entrenched, ladder-pulling NIMBYs who collectively shout “No!” across the city every time a new development is proposed.
Enter the YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) movement, led by Jesse Kanson-Benanav, chair of A Better Cambridge, a pro-development citizens’ group. The basic idea is that we need more housing, and while we need to build strategically, we also really need to just build. “Creating denser communities is one of the main strategies we need to really solve the segregation, exclusion, and environmental destruction that was created by 70 or 80 years of suburban sprawl,” Kanson-Benanav says. Sure, there are concerns about preserving the characteristics that make Boston what it is—the low brick buildings, the omnipresent triple-deckers—but the YIMBYs’ point is that we don’t have a choice: Either we build, and build up, or we accept that more and more people just won’t be able to live here. Trying to maintain the status quo is just a distracting fantasy.
The trouble, however, is that the problem isn’t confined to our cities. “This is definitely a regional issue, and Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville are doing a lot to increase housing production,” says Heller, of CHAPA. “Now we need [the suburbs and] other communities to be adding homes as well.” But for that to happen, we need to overhaul how zoning works in the state—a move that Governor Charlie Baker has already proposed. “High housing prices are directly linked to zoning and our lack of production,” Heller says. Right now, building multi-family houses—apartments, in other words, which experts agree we desperately need more of all over—requires a special permit and a two-thirds vote from the local zoning board, which historically has allowed small, vocal minorities to derail projects. Developers can still get around this thanks to a statute called Chapter 40B, pushing through affordable-housing projects where dense building might not otherwise be allowed. But playing that kind of hardball can leave citizens aggrieved and even more antagonistic toward development than they were before.
We also need to zone for other kinds of building: accessory apartments that can go in backyards, tiny houses, smaller plots, and developments where single-family homes are clustered to preserve green space—especially in the towns and communities outside of Boston proper.
In the city, Bluestone tells me, sitting in his office at Northeastern, we need a way to build housing that’s good for grad students, millennials, and boomers, and find a way to keep it at least relatively cheap. His idea is to create a totally new kind of housing, which he calls the 21st-century village: buildings from five to 35 stories tall, with small apartments and shared common spaces for people, such as grad students, who want to live alone but can’t afford to, and larger apartments that would appeal to boomers looking to downsize. It would give people what they want and relieve pressure on the market at the same time.
His vision is as much about making building construction less costly as it is about floor plans, however. “The fact is, the traditional stick-built home is using exactly the same technology of 70 years ago,” Bluestone says. “There’s been zero productivity increase in home construction during that time. There’s been a 300 percent increase in overall productivity and an 800 percent increase in manufacturing productivity. And that’s why housing is so expensive.” If someone found a way to mass-produce the components of these high-rises, maintaining quality and reducing cost, it would not only help fix Boston’s housing crisis, but it could also be the start of a whole new export industry for the state.
Bluestone’s musings struck me as the kinds of scholarly ideas that sound brilliant but likely will never happen. Except that, as I soon discovered, they’ve already begun.
On a promisingly warm April day, I’m walking with Rachel Swartz to her apartment in the Seaport. Rachel is in her thirties and works as a designer and manager at Stantec, an international architecture firm with offices on Summer Street. We both graduated into the Great Recession in 2008 and suffered through roommates fine and, uh, less fine. We also both ended up in cities where we thought we had the best chance of getting work and resigned ourselves to the exorbitant rents that served as the price of admission. We decided to meet at her office—a converted brick warehouse—so she could show me what might be part of the solution for Boston’s rental crisis.
A 10-minute-or-so walk later—about my daily trek to the T each morning—we enter the lobby of the Watermark Seaport building, a sleek, 346-unit high-rise straddling Fort Point and the Innovation District that opened just a few years ago. There is a 24-hour concierge, as well as scattered fireplaces and two outdoor decks with grills and killer views. The main event, however, is notable more for its restraint than anything else: Rachel lives in a “micro-unit,” part of a pilot program of efficiently designed studios that measure about 400 square feet.
The first thing I notice is that although the place is definitely small, it’s not cramped. Rachel shows me the huge walk-in closet by the front door. “This is what sold me on this unit,” she says. “It’s the thing that makes living in a small space possible.” To my right is a stacked washer and dryer, then the surprisingly spacious-feeling kitchen—electric burners, no oven, but a convection microwave and lots more storage. Beyond that is a cozily adorned living room with a couch and oversize coffee table, then a bed next to a huge floor-to-ceiling window. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not cheap—the apartments now rent for about $2,500 and up—but it’s nice and definitely less expensive than most of the other housing in the area, which is pretty much the point.
The units in the Seaport were mostly built to prove that it could be done—and that people would pay for it, says Tamara Roy, a principal at Stantec and the lead proselytizer for micro-units in Boston. She latched onto the idea in 2012, when then-Mayor Thomas Menino invited her and four other architects to talk to developers who owned land in the nascent Innovation District about what “innovation housing” might look like. “I was like, ‘I’ve got two kids, I’m living outside of the city, what do I know about innovation housing?’” Roy says. She decided to ask the younger people in her office who lived in the city. “And their answer was, ‘Like, who cares? We can’t afford to live here.’”
When they finally started talking about what they wanted, Roy says, “they all said the same thing: that they were basically sick of living with roommates.” The ideal life that they described reminded her of when she lived with her husband and newborn in a 300-square-foot apartment in Amsterdam during grad school. “This light bulb went off,” she says. “I brought that to the symposium and I said, ‘Here are the four principles we have to have: more common space, less private space, lower our carbon footprint, no cars.’ And that was basically it.”
When the idea came to fruition in the Seaport, the units flew off the rental market, suggesting that if the plan was viable in the city’s newest and possibly most expensive neighborhood, it could work anywhere. Now, after years of being the lonely voice advocating for micro-units—or metro-units, as they’re being rebranded—we’re about to see “a tsunami,” Roy says. “Every developer that calls me is like, ‘Can I come in and talk to you about, you know, micro housing?’”
One of the most surprising concepts that is close to realization, however, is also the one that seemed the least likely when I first talked with Bluestone: the prefab high-rise. The idea, explains Jared Curtis—who cofounded a company called WoHo with his father, WinnDevelopment’s Larry Curtis—is that while there isn’t much that can be done about the high cost of land, it’s possible to “use technology and approach the construction process in a new way that allows us to lower the hard costs,” mostly by manufacturing pieces off-site and snapping them together.
WoHo, he says, is close to making this idea happen. For the past decade, it has worked to refine the technology and the process. Now it’s establishing a plant in Massachusetts—the location isn’t public yet—and partnering with industry leader Suffolk Construction. “Basically, we are leveraging advanced-manufacturing data science, design, and engineering to build in a new way,” Curtis says. “It’s almost like Ikea for an apartment building.” (He assures me it’s much nicer than Ikea, however.)
Will any of this be enough to save Boston from its housing woes? If the experts I talked with are right, it will require progress along every possible avenue, which means convincing people that when it comes to building more, the question isn’t whether or not to do it, it’s how. That’s a tall order, but change is coming one way or another. Until then, you can find my fiancée and me in our little place in J.P. with the worn paint and windowless bathroom, dreading our next inevitable June lease.
Additional research by Sofia Koyama.