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The Apartment Market in Harvard Square

The Apartment Market in Harvard Square

If you’re in the market to rent a place in Cambridge, MA, Harvard Square is a popular option to consider. When it comes to renting in Boston in general, of course, finding the right place can be extremely tricky. That’s definitely the case regarding this thriving city, which is home to MIT and numerous other huge, prestigious universities. With the right help, securing a suitable apartment here should be much easier; read on to find out how Boston City Properties can help.

With our huge online database of continuously updated MA real estate listings, Boston City Properties is uniquely qualified to assist you in your search for rentals in this part of the city. After signing up via a quick, easy form, you’ll enjoy immediate, unlimited access to our powerful search tool. Use it to narrow your search to the specific neighborhood that you want, and input your requirements regarding things like number of bedrooms and average rent to zero in more quickly on what you need.

Our help doesn’t stop there. Boston City Properties also happens to have several knowledgeable real estate agents who specialize in this neighborhood. When you are ready to start looking at places that you’ve found using our searchable database, contact us. A member of our team will be happy to connect you with an agent who can take you to check out units and much more. In the meantime, read on for in-depth information regarding the rental market in this centrally located neighborhood.

About Harvard Square

In case you’re not already somewhat familiar with this neighborhood, which is located in a bustling city just across the river from Boston, we are here to fill you in on the basics. A triangle-shaped plaza, the square is located at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, Brattle Street and John F. Kennedy Street. Situated near the heart of the city, it offers a central location that’s perfect for everyone from students to professionals.

Although the name of the neighborhood implies that it consists only of the public square, it actually extends out from that intersection in each direction for many blocks. In addition to offering a number of housing options, this part of the city boasts a vibrant business district. Its proximity to the university of the same name makes it very popular with graduate students and faculty.

People mostly get around on foot in this neighborhood, so there’s never a dull moment. In addition to the main square from which it gets its name, it includes others like Brattle Square and Winthrop Square. The Pit, a sunken section that looks a bit like an open-air arena, adds to the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood. The walled-in Yard, which also shares a name with the primary university here, is another popular hangout spot. Amid all of these sites, rentals abound; unfortunately, however, most of them are occupied.


According to the most currently available information, approximately 34,000 people call this neighborhood home. Of course, with more than 20,000 students flooding in during the school year to attend dozens of nearby colleges and universities, that number isn’t entirely accurate and may imply that finding a rental will be a breeze; it won’t be. Still, with the right help--including from Boston City Properties--you can zero in on a place that suits your budget and needs well.

The median age in the neighborhood hovers around 29, which makes sense. The colleges and universities, of course, attract young students. From undergrads to graduate students, these young folks bring down the average age considerably—and you’ll be competing with many of them for places to rent. The area’s burgeoning biotech industry and its research facilities draw in even more younger folks, and many of them decide to settle down in the neighborhood.

More than 350 businesses can be found within the boundaries of this bustling area, and there were around 13,300 households at last count. The average household income is around $100,000, and the median household income is around $68,000. As you will see, however, renters with lower incomes struggle considerably to find places to rent here. Can you even rent a place here if you don’t earn six figures? Absolutely. The trick is having the right resources, and Boston City Properties is here to help you with that.

What are Units Like?

Before getting serious about finding a place to rent in this vibrant Boston-area city, it helps to have a basic understanding of what you’re going to encounter. According to the most recent available data, the average size of a rental here is 842 square feet. This is likely due to the fact that many units are studios or even “mini-apartments,” which are becoming more popular due to the housing crunch.

It should also be noted that places here tend to command very competitive rental rates. Consider this information to see for yourself:

Average Rental Prices

So, what can you expect when it comes to renting a place in this part of the city? Since rent prices change often, the best course of action is to sign up with Boston City Properties. You can then get up-to-the-second information regarding availability and pricing for rental units across the area.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at how much people have been paying to rent units in Cambridge lately by type of unit:

The most recently published vacancy rate for rentals in this city was 2.51 percent, which is among the very lowest in the area. Most neighborhoods in Greater Boston have limited availability, but the issue is somewhat compounded here due to the annual influx of students and other variables. Given how poor availability tends to be here, beggars truly can’t be choosers. However, by signing up with Boston City Properties and availing yourself of our searchable database and connections with local real estate experts, you’re far more likely to find something that suits your requirements.

About the Local Housing Market

Although this overview pertains mostly to rental units in this neighborhood, understanding the overarching real estate market can help a lot when scouting out places. Since last year, the city has seen an increase of $19,000—about 2 percent—in median home sale prices. During that period, the average price per square foot for homes on the market jumped from $833 to $864.

Why does real estate market activity matter? The less affordable it is to buy, the likelier someone is to rent. With the median price per bedroom in the Square averaging around $1,400 per month—which means around $2,800 per month for a two-bedroom unit—it’s easy to see that the housing market has made its mark. Additionally, of course, there’s the limited number of options; the vacancy rate hit its lowest point in February 2019, but it has been creeping up slowly since that time. The question, of course, is whether this trend will continue.

How Rents have Evolved in the Area

If you ask pretty much anyone in metro Boston about how rents have been trending, they’re certain to say “up.” This neighborhood is something of a microcosm for the city’s rental market as a whole, but it may present even more challenges than other areas.

Rent prices in the city are up by 2.97 percent over 2018. They have even increased by 1.13 percent from last month alone, so the upward trend continues. In the area, the average rent over the last half-year has increased by $39, or 1.3 percent. Rents for one-bedroom units have decreased by $31, which means they are down by around 2.6 percent for the period. However, rent prices for two-bedroom units here have increased by $52 per month, which equals an increase of 1.5 percent. If you only need one bedroom, then, you may be able to snag a better deal. If you require two or more, expect to pay considerably more.

Cheaper Alternatives

Like many people, you may not have too much of a choice besides trying to live in this part of metro Boston. However, if you have any flexibility and need cheaper rents, you should take a look at a few other neighborhoods in the city. In particular, check out MIT and Mid-Cambridge. To avoid the priciest rents, steer clear of the western and eastern sides of the city.

What’s with the Lack of Rentals?

Given how many people actually need to rent versus own in this city, it comes as a shock that there is such a sparsity of rentals. It’s easy to assume that grad students have adequate housing options through local universities, but that just isn’t the case.

Traditionally, young adults living in cities graduated to buying homes before too long. Those homes were typically located in outlying suburbs, so space was regularly cleared out for newcomers. Millennials are turning everything on its head, however; many are staying put in cities for much longer than previous generations. As a result, they continue renting for much longer—and they continue occupying precious rental space for much longer as well.

Not surprisingly, the biggest issue concerning rental availability and pricing in this area concerns high demand for suitable places and a low supply of them. When this occurs, of course, landlords are able to command higher rents even for less-than-first-rate rentals. In turn, nicer units become practically beyond the reach of many folks.

One of the biggest issues causing such a lack of housing supply in this part of the city involves zoning. This city, with its many major colleges and universities, has long imposed strict zoning laws to ensure that there remains a nice balance between residential, commercial, educational and other areas. Even as some zoning restrictions are being relaxed, however, a lack of available land stymies efforts to build new housing. As you will see later, although demand for new buildings is high, the rate of new construction is very low. It is unclear how this issue will be resolved in the future—and it’s one more reason to turn to the experts at Boston City Properties for assistance.

Rent Control in the Area

In many major cities, rent control is used to ensure that affordable housing remains available for the population at large—especially in consideration of its demographics. This practice places restrictions on how much landlords can charge for rent, and it was the standard in Brookline, Boston and this city for a very long period of time.

However, that all changed in the mid-1990s. Up until that time, a 1970 mandate that has been passed and approved in the city had placed limits on the amount of rent that could be charged in buildings built prior to 1969. That changed in 1994, when a referendum narrowly passed and eliminated the rent control policy across the state.

While rent control was in place, landlords of even very high-value properties were forced to lease units at rates that were 25 to 40 percent lower than fair market value. During that period, property values in affected areas depreciated considerably. With the repeal of rent control in 1994, however, housing values skyrocketed by $1.8 billion through the year 2004.

Once that happened, rents in this city rose by over 50 percent during the period between 1994 and 1997 alone. They have continued to rise steadily but not as dramatically ever since. Even during the recession and housing crisis, rents in this part of the city continued to stay high. With the recovery of those markets, of course, rents have started climbing higher once again. For this trend to be reversed, a greater supply of rentals is needed--and more affordable housing options are a must.

Efforts to Make Rent More Affordable

Since the problem of high rents has been around for many years in this part of metro Boston, efforts have sporadically been made to improve the situation. For many years, for example, private real estate developers were required by the city to ensure that 10 percent of new housing was “affordable.” By the city’s definition, affordable means that housing costs do not exceed 30 percent of a person’s income. In November 2018, the percentage that was required jumped to 20 percent. It is still too soon to tell whether this change has had any sort of impact on the local rental market.

Another method that has been explored for creating more affordable and abundant rental housing in Cambridge closely involves Harvard University. The university’s students and faculty account for a huge portion of renters in the area. Although the university houses around 98 percent of its undergrads, it houses only 48 percent of its graduate students.

To improve the difficult situation with the rental market, advocates have urged local universities to offer more graduate student housing. Their efforts have been met with some success. For example, MIT filed a rezoning petition to redevelop a large section of Kendall Square so it could accommodate housing. The measure was approved, and some of the new units were earmarked for graduate housing. Ultimately, this added around 250 new units for such students.

Not surprisingly, the largest and most prestigious university in the area has played an active role in improving the situation. With about 25,000 affiliates of the university living in the area, including staff, faculty and undergraduate and graduate students, the school has worked to build and preserve affordable housing in the city.

In the early 2000s, the university launched its 20/20/2000 initiative. Under this program, the school pledged to commit $20 million over 20 years to create low-interest loans for affordable housing in every neighborhood in the city. As of now, the school has spent $14.6 million in support of more affordable rental units. More than 1,600 units in 33 developments have been developed or renovated with money from the school. Despite this, of course, low supply and high rents continue to plague the area. Affordable housing is out there, though, and Boston City Properties can assist you in finding a rental unit that meets your budgetary requirements.

Graduate Students’ Impact is Considerable

If you’re a grad student looking to rent a place in this neighborhood, you are probably better situated than a working professional trying to do the same. The key difference for grad students is that although their population is growing and housing isn’t, they can live with other grad students in rental units. In turn, they can pool their resources and share the burden of the higher rent, which makes it more affordable for each of them. Of course, many people don’t have this luxury, which is why getting help from a knowledgeable source like Boston City Properties is an absolute must.


With rent control out the window, gentrification across the city of Boston and beyond has been rampant in recent decades. That holds just as true regarding this university-filled city as it does with other communities around the area. Neighborhoods that were once home to affordable bodegas and watering holes became dotted with upscale cafes and eateries. With every passing season, rents climbed ever higher and forced out lower-income families.

Gentrification, of course, is a touchy subject in any major city—and that’s definitely the case in Boston. The phenomenon has its upsides and downsides. Areas that are impacted by it don’t tend to be completely overtaken by it, and those who know where to look and what to do are likelier to find what they need. To that end, you should connect with Boston City Properties quickly to get the insider help that you’ll need.

How to Find a Place to Rent in the Current Market

If you have your heart set on renting a place in this very desirable neighborhood, which is just a stone’s throw away from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, you’re going to need all of the help that you can get. These tips, which have been put together by the Boston City Properties team, are sure to help:

Applying for Rentals – What You’ll Need

Because you will have to act fast if the right unit comes along, it pays to be prepared to meet with leasing officers when the time comes. In other words, don’t wait until you have found a promising place before figuring out what you’ll need to bring for your application. Boston City Properties can help to make sure that you’re all set; in the meantime, here are some essentials to have on-hand during the rental-hunting process:

Will the Rental Crunch Ever End? New Housing is Needed

At the end of the day, the best and probably only effective way to ease rent prices and low vacancy rates in this part of metro Boston is by adding more housing. As mentioned earlier, however, this university city is stymied in such efforts by zoning restrictions and a lack of available land.

Although you’d expect there to be some sort of construction boom happening in the area, that hasn’t really been the case. There have been a few exceptions lately, of course, and they hold the promise of making the rental market more accessible to more people. For example, Ten Essex at Central Square, which will boast 46 rental units, is currently under development. CambridgeSide, a multi-building project at the site of the old CambridgeSide Mall, will add more housing to the area as well. The site of the former Sullivan courthouse and jail is being developed into a storefront community that will include 24 low-to-moderate income units, and Park 77, which is replacing the former J & C Adams Door and Window Co. site, will add additional rental units as well.

Still, these are the only “big” projects that are currently underway in the area, so the odds of seeing a major improvement in terms of availability or price are pretty slim at the moment.

Where to Rent Now

The best way to check current availability for rental units in the Square and surrounding areas is by signing up for free, instant access to Boston City Properties’ extensive online database of searchable real estate listings. Once you’ve done so, you can use the search tool to pinpoint properties in this area that meet your most important requirements. Filters let you adjust your preferences for things like number of beds and baths and total square footage, so you can more quickly zero in on what you need.

With that being said, it also helps to familiarize yourself with popular rental developments, buildings and communities in this part of the city. As always, you will need to check our database for current availability in any of them. Some of Boston City Properties’ top picks for places to rent near the Square include:

How Boston City Properties can Help

Now that you know what you do about finding apartments for rent in this popular Cambridge neighborhood, you probably also realize that you’re going to need all of the help that you can get. When it comes to securing a suitable rental unit that is close to the Square and that works with your budget, your first step should be signing up with Boston City Properties. Complete the quick, simple form, and you’ll enjoy immediate, free access to a wealth of useful resources. There’s our massive, constantly updated online database of searchable rental listings that makes it a snap to pinpoint promising options, which you should avail yourself of right away. Later, when you are ready to check out places in person, we’ll put you in touch with a local real estate agent who knows this part of the city like the back of their hand. With their help, you’ll find what you need in no time. For more information, give Boston City Properties a call anytime.