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Boston is about to overtake San Francisco as a more expensive city for renters

A condo unit under construction in The Parker condo building on Lagrange Street in Boston on July 16, 2021.

Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

  • Median one-bedroom rents in Boston boomed 5% in January to $2,720, according to a new Zumper report.
  • Boston rent is now just $130 below San Francisco’s, and recent months suggest the gap will close soon.
  • Zumper’s national rent index hit a record-high $1,374, hinting last year’s rally will continue through 2022.

New York still reigns supreme as the priciest city in the US for renters. The race for second place, however, is practically a toss-up.

Median one-bedroom rents in Boston rose to $2,720 in January, according to a Tuesday report from rental platform Zumper. That’s within spitting distance of San Francisco’s median rent of $2,850. New York continued to stand well above the rest of the US, with rent climbing 2.2% to $3,260.

It’s possible Boston overtakes San Francisco in just a few months. Rents in Boston rose 5% in January, nearly quintupling San Francisco’s 1.4% gain. Boston rents are also up 26.5% year-over-year, outpacing the vast majority of other cities and handily surpassing its California peer’s 6.3% growth.

Zumper

Zumper

The rental-market shakeup underscores just how differently each coast is recovering from the pandemic and the shift to remote work.

Residential and commercial rents in East Coast metropolitan areas rebounded in the summer, particularly in New York, as the country’s financial sector ordered employees back to their offices.

Workers quickly returned to city centers, office spaces were revived, and rents swung higher. While the Omicron variant has reversed some of that progress, it hasn’t fueled the same emigration cities faced at the start of the pandemic.

The recovery was much bumpier on the West Coast. The Big Tech firms that dominate the San Francisco Bay Area took a more relaxed return-to-work stance, allowing for many to continue telecommuting even as virus cases fell to encouraging lows. The “ambiguous” work situation in San Francisco and uncertainty around future office plans likely powered “a delayed leasing season” and a slower recovery for the city’s real estate market, Equity Residential said in a July earnings call.

The East Coast’s faster return to offices over the summer seems to have solidified a solid lead for those cities’ rent recoveries. Washington, DC overtook Los Angeles for the sixth-highest single-bedroom rent in January, while San Diego fell to the ninth spot.

And in four of the last five months, Boston rent inflation has easily surpassed San Francisco’s. The gap in median one-bed rents between the two cities is now just $130. For comparison, San Francisco rents were an average $1,300 higher than Boston’s as recently as winter 2019.

To be sure, the situation is fairly different with two-bedroom rentals. San Francisco sat in the top spot in January with its median price climbing to $3,930. New York rents fell nearly 3% to $3,400, and Boston prices sat even further below at $3,150, according to Zumper.

But whether you’re looking for a one-bed rental or sharing a place with a roommate, the market is generally much more expensive than it was just one year ago. Zumper’s national index for median one-bedroom rents rose to a record-high $1,374 in January, up 12% year-over-year and 0.6% from December’s level. The month-over-month gain also snapped a four-month streak of slightly easing price growth.

Rent inflation, then, isn’t fading as fast as apartment hunters might have hoped. While January’s report represents just a single month of data, it signals the surge in prices seen throughout 2021 isn’t easing in the new year.

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