Above it all, there is a huge question mark: what will colleges and universities do this fall? Their decisions will help determine how many of the tens of thousands of students who crowd into apartment buildings and three-story buildings across the city each September 1 will actually return.
“Nobody really knows if the students are coming back,” said Ishay Grinberg, general manager of Rental Beast, an apartment listings website in Somerville. “This kind of freezes the whole market.”
Indeed, the student market has an outsized impact on apartment rentals in Boston.
According to city data, about 65,000 Boston college and university students live off-campus, along with other students from schools in Cambridge, Somerville and elsewhere in the area.
Most student leases start on September 1, which by extension has also become a de facto move-out date for the legions of twenty-somethings who live here after college. According to some figures, 60% of leases in the city are renewed on September 1, creating an apartment search cycle that peaks in May and June.
This spring, this cycle practically stopped. No one wants to browse strangers’ homes with a broker. Many students are long gone and it is unclear when they might return.
“The bottom may have fallen from the college market,” said Doug Quattrochi, executive director of MassLandlords. “It’s a bit of a mess.”
The market is swamped with empty sublets, Quattrochi said, as tenants try to find short-term replacements for roommates who have moved out of town.
Landlords eager to lock in tenants for next year are offering more concessions — offering a free month’s rent or splitting brokerage fees — than they’ve had in some time.
They are also doing something unheard of in Boston in recent years: lowering rents. According to data from Somerville-based Rental Beast, asking rents are down 2% from a year ago, excluding concessions.
This is good news for tenants, who generally have little leverage in the very competitive market for even modest apartments.. But it’s a bargain only if they know they’ll be living here in September.
For many, this remains an open question.
Most local colleges have said they plan to reopen for the–courses on campus, but few have announced firm plans. Even if schools reopen, international students — there were 71,000 in Massachusetts last year — could face additional hurdles if they want to return due to restrictions on flights from overseas. Others may simply choose to stay home, leaving their roommates in the lurch.
Until those issues are ironed out, said John Puma, chief operating officer of real estate website Places for Less, it will be difficult for many students to commit to an apartment.
“We work with a lot of students who are really on the fence right now,” he said. “The idea of signing a 12-month lease in Boston and then sitting in your apartment, taking online classes, is a lot.”
Yasmine Badawi, a student at Boston Architectural College, searched for an apartment from her home in Egypt, where she returned when the school closed in March. She spent many hours browsing online listings and emailing brokers and owners. But she is also waiting to find out whether her classes this fall will be in person or online. If the latter, she could save thousands of dollars by staying in Egypt.
“I plan to come back, but I don’t know when,” Badawi said. “I’m confused. Right now I guess I’d say I’m stalling, hoping to find something that will be flexible.
Many people, including homeowners, seem to take this approach.
Demetrios Salpoglou, who runs the Boston Pads real estate website and several major apartment rental companies in the area, tracks listing data for more than 150,000 units in the city. More of them, he said, are vacant than usual for this time of year: 1.5%, compared to 0.9% last May. The share of units available for rent in the coming months is also up, at 7.4%, compared to 5.2% in the same period last year. Some landlords Salpoglou talks to are waiting to advertise their units until schools agree on their plans for the fall semester.
When that happens, he said, the market could be flooded with renters and owners, compressing a months-long rental season into weeks.
“You could see a huge amount of rental in a short period of time,” Salpoglou said. “It could be almost too busy.”
Yet some tenants take the plunge, no matter the uncertainty.
Connor Haaland plans to move here from outside Washington, DC, to begin classes at Harvard Law School in September. Last week, he and two roommates signed a lease for an apartment in Somerville that they only saw online. They were even able to negotiate a discount.
“We all decided we wanted to be at Cambridge, whatever,” he said. “The atmosphere is always the atmosphere. It would be difficult to try to start law school in my parents’ basement. I much prefer to do it in the place where I will be a student, even if classes are online.
The good news, Salpoglou said, is that much of this instability will likely be short-lived.
Colleges will soon have to decide on fall classes. Landlords will have to put their homes up for rent or risk missing out on the September 1 market altogether. Tenants could benefit by continuing to hold out, but eventually they will have to find a place to live. And if the last two months have taught us anything, Salpoglou said, it’s that life can change quickly.
“Everything we’re talking about right now could change in two weeks,” he said.