This is the first installment in a multi-part DigBoston series about how the rent is too damn high and how that’s not changing anytime soon.
BY CHRIS FARAONE @FARA1
After too many years of living like a college loan debt pauper in Jamaica Plain, my liver ruled that it was time to find a new space.
I have major respect for party house lifers who can stand to brush their teeth in sinks stained by cigarette juice, but at 33, I needed a significant change of abode. Though I’ve no intention of retiring my degenerate ways, I’d occasionally like to wake up for a late night snack without finding an inebriated stranger sculpting mohawks in my kitchen.
My road to a new doorstep has been punishing, but it hasn’t been lonely. In searching for affordable accommodations I’ve met others just like me, plus many who are worse off and a rare few who are fortunate enough to live in ivory towers over Back Bay. A lot of their tribulations—mostly the grim ones—convinced me that everybody on the earning spectrum west of the upper-middle class is screwed if they wish to reside anywhere between the southern throws of Boston and the high hills of Somerville.
At first, in curating this series on housing while furiously hunting for a place to hang my own hat, it was easy to marginalize the experience of others. After asking around, however, their stories convinced me there are countless common complications across communities and classes—from rodents and bedbugs, to overcrowding and fires, to the plights of Allston natives and their student neighbors, all of whom are being either price-gouged or priced-out. Over the next month, more than half-a-dozen Dig writers will traverse those trenches.
But before synthesizing their reports from the field, I had to find a place for myself.
Few things are more humiliating than sliding the widget on a real estate website to reflect the maximum amount that you can spend.
Such an admission can even be embarrassing on Craigslist, where folks accustomed to luxury living quarters only slum to score cheap sex and Sox tickets. Nevertheless, I started my adventure by entering “$1400” for a studio or one-bedroom—way more than I can actually swing—and immediately realized just how fucked I was. There were a few options within city limits—something on the seedy side of Eastie for $1350, an Allston studio smaller than my undergraduate dorm room for $1200. The big picture was clear though. Things had changed severely since my last tango in the rental market back in 2008.
That initial rude awakening was in March. In the months that followed, I combed through innumerable listings and scanned enough blurry property pics to write a thesis proving that realtors are genetically incapable of using cameras. I’ve visited dark and moldy dumps around the Fens, and intensely boring family nooks in Hyde Park and West Roxbury—neither of which have decent train access. In all those tours of dilapidated holes and their cheap vinyl accoutrements, I found three single bedroom spots that were habitable and in my realistic $1200 range—two in Roslindale, and one close to Savin Hill in Dorchester. Despite my respectable credit and award-winning smile, I lost both to rival renters; in one case, the owner received 17 applications within hours of his first open house.
Such is the market nowadays. Last May, private research data showed Boston to have the second lowest vacancy rate in America after only San Francisco. That’s since resulted in an annual rent surge of more than 7 percent, and an average monthly apartment price tag in excess of $2000. This scenario came not as a shocker—I never expected to wind up in the North End or Beacon Hill, where digs fetch for more than $3 per square foot. I just thought that by spelunking listings and asking friends about month-to-month mom-and-pop deals to which they might be privy, I could find an affordable livelihood in the vicinity of a train station. By the time that nine of the mayoral candidates met for a housing forum in Chinatown last month, I’d already realized that in order to meet my commuting standards, I had to reluctantly abandon any hopes to stay in Boston Proper.
I think the final straw was when my editor at the Jamaica Plain Gazette—one of the city’s finest young newsmen—announced that he had also been priced out, and was leaving the commonwealth entirely. Meanwhile, I’d been hired to consult the heroic nonprofit City Life/Vida Urbana on web strategy, and the more they showed me how much work’s already needed to keep struggling families housed, the more I realized just how far away the city is from helping overeducated aging hipsters like me.
As planned, the Chinatown mayoral forum focused on topics typically associated with low-income tenants, such as preventable evictions and eroding community control. In the mix, however, organizers from Right to the City and other advocacy forces also conjured universal quandaries—like private developers securing public land with no enforceable strings attached. In the moment, nearly all of the candidates thrived, assailing lenders for sadistic foreclosure practices, and calling for all commons to be used for public good. In the storm of crusading promises, one comment struck an especially relatable note. Asked about the complexity of Boston’s housing quagmire that the next mayor will inherit, Codman Square Health Center Co-Founder Bill Walczak abridged much of what I had been thinking into a single sentence: “For people being run out of town,” he said, “it’s not all that complicated.” The mayoral showdown in Chinatown was an exception.
Usually, when the subject of residential growth comes up, candidates jump to argue that the future of Boston depends on retaining intellectuals, nonprofit peeps, and other eclectic types who move this city forward. But other than an inadequate and outdated Boston Redevelopment Authority program to house artists, there aren’t many opportunities for creatives like me who survive check-to-check. The BRA is planning for so-called “micro-apartments”—450 to 900 square-foot units close to rapid transit with zero to two bedrooms—but anyone who says that such developments will become anything but halfway houses for tomorrow’s high tech honchos is probably named Tom Menino.
It’s been a strangely meta exercise to search for a pad while compiling a series about housing. But in doing so, I’ve come to see the wide range of residents who are all too often left out of the habitation conversation. In upcoming installments, the Dig will strive to identify various related issues—from the results of Boston’s first landlord survey in recorded history, to socioeconomic subterfuge on the breathtaking Eastie waterfront, where greedy developers are petitioning for tax breaks to build cribs for double-digit earners.
As for me … by the time you read this I’ll be laid up in my new apartment outside of Boston—conveniently close to the ocean, and in workable proximity to keep my eye on the Hub. In case you’re wondering, I’m paying less than $1200 a month.