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Boston-area housing gains lag job growth, report says

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 8/1/2019 Tim Logan
a tall building in a city: The construction site of Lightview Apartments on Columbus Avenue, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2019. © Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe The construction site of Lightview Apartments on Columbus Avenue, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2019.

By historical standards, Greater Boston has added a lot of housing in the last few years. But it is adding even more jobs. And that’s a key reason why living here keeps getting more expensive.

So says a report released Thursday by the real estate website Apartment List, which found that since 2008 the region has added 2½ times as many jobs as it has housing units — an imbalance that’s greater only by the San Francisco Bay Area among large metro areas nationwide.

“It’s pretty striking,” said Chris Salviati, housing economist at Apartment List. “Especially over a 10-year period. That’s an extended time of not building enough new housing to keep pace with job growth.”

Since the 2008 recession, Greater Boston’s economy has added about 275,000 jobs, many of them in well-paid industries like technology and life sciences. At the same time, it has added 108,000 apartments and condos, mostly in Boston and a handful of nearby municipalities. That ratio — about 2.5 new jobs for every new home — isn’t enough to keep up with job growth, said Salviati, who added that a healthier ratio is one or two jobs for every new home.

It’s Economics 101, he said: “This really just comes down to supply and demand. If those two things are out of whack, prices go up. And that’s what you’re seeing in Boston.”

Indeed, home prices in the state hit record highs in June, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. The median price for both single-family homes and condominiums in Greater Boston now tops $600,000.

Apartment rents have climbed steadily, too, fueled by waves of twentysomethings who stay in or move to Boston for work.

There have, at times, been signs of the rental market cooling, especially in new higher-end buildings that essentially compete with their neighbors for tenants. But rents have grown fast in less-expensive older buildings, and even new units that are slightly less pricey are moving quickly.

The developers of One Beachmont, a building that opened in January in Revere with one-bedroom apartments priced at about $2,500 a month, said last week that 194 of the 195 units had been rented.

A major Boston landlord, Mount Vernon Co., said its newest building, the 132-unit Radius Apartments in Brighton, is more than 90 percent leased just a few weeks after opening earlier this summer.

“We’re doing great,” said Mount Vernon’s chairman, Bruce Percelay, who pointed to his building’s amenities, including an entire top floor of common space, as a key selling point. “Our rate of pre-leasing was more than twice the conventional rate.”

Percelay noted there is a lot more housing in the pipeline.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh wants 69,000 new units in the city by 2030.

Just in Allston and Brighton in the vicinity of Radius several big developments are in the works, including a nearly 900-unit project at the Stop & Shop along the Massachusetts Turnpike, and Berkeley Investments’ recent deal with Harvard University to build on five long-unused acres on Lincoln Street.

“I’ve never seen as much housing going in as I’m seeing right now,” Percelay said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if that relationship with job creation is pretty fluid.”

But even as Boston adds housing, it’s creating a massive amount of office space.

Roughly 8 million square feet of office and lab buildings is under construction, according to the real estate firm Newmark Knight Frank, most of it in downtown Boston and East Cambridge.

Companies looking for room to grow have signed a string of enormous leases in recent months — including Foundation Medicine’s recent deal for a 16-story building in the Seaport District — and office developers are starting construction on more buildings even without tenants lined up.

Some of those projects are large-scale mixed-use developments, with approvals in hand for big blocks of both housing and office space. For now, at least, those developers appear to be opting to build office space.

At Cambridge Crossing, a 43-acre project where Cambridge, Boston, and Somerville meet, owner DivcoWest has launched three office buildings — all of which are fully leased — but no new housing since it bought the site in 2015.

A DivcoWest spokeswoman declined to comment.

WS Development, which owns the Seaport Square complex in Boston’s Seaport District, has an office building underway for Amazon, and will soon start one for Foundation Medicine, but none of the 3,200 units of housing that were approved when WS updated the project’s plans in 2017 are being built yet.

Yanni Tsipis, who’s leading Seaport Square for WS, noted that nearly 2,000 apartments and condos were built in earlier phases of the 23-acre project, including 732 in the Echelon building, now under construction. That housing, he said, is helping to drive demand for office space in the project, as is a general trend among companies to move closer to the core of the region.

“We certainly saw momentum toward more-urban workplaces,” Tsipis said. “And because Seaport Square had come out of the gate mostly with housing first, we thought places to work would be of great interest.”

They have been, so far, though Tsipis said the jobs those tenants bring may create even more demand for housing, perhaps swinging the pendulum back toward residential development.

Salviati agreed — to a point. The supply-and-demand equation tends to balance itself over time, he said, and builders will go back to housing if they decide it’s more profitable. But zoning laws often intervene, he said, especially in municipalities wary of housing but eager to supplement their tax bases with commercial development.

There’s another way the market could self-correct, he said: If Greater Boston’s tight and expensive housing market simply proves too much for some people, they will eventually move elsewhere..

“I don’t think there’s going to be a mass exodus,” Salviati said. “But over time, you’ll see growth slow down, and that’ll have an effect.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.

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