It’s a renter’s market out there

With its six stories of brick between Dorchester Avenue and Ashmont Station, The Carruth makes no attempt to rival the spacious tranquility of suburbia.

From the businesses at street level – including a bank and an Italian restaurant – to the views from the upper floors, there are reminders of other buildings and other people, not to mention the traffic. That is, the setting for the mixed-income development is unabashedly urban and, thanks to the Red Line, a single ride away from downtown Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.

Completed by Trinity Financial last year, just as Dorchester’s multi-family housing market was shaken by a rash of foreclosures, The Carruth failed to meet expectations for condo sales. But what failed to attract buyers has been a hit with renters.

“The building’s full, and we’ve had great success in renting these. And they go very quickly,” says Tim Deihl, a broker in the Peabody Square branch of At Home Real Estate.

According to Adriana Guzzo, Director of Marketing at Winn Residential, the rents for two-bedroom units on upper floors are anywhere from $1,720 to $2,165 a month.

Owners of most other buildings in Dorchester have to settle for less. For some renters, this makes Dorchester appear as a bargain. But real estate agents say attracting those renters also puts pressure on landlords to make improvements, while forcing other renters without subsidies to look elsewhere.

Though The Carruth is hardly typical for a property in Dorchester, some of its features can be found elsewhere in the higher end of the rental market, even in three-deckers. And, just as The Carruth is affected by trouble in the rest of the housing market, apartments in some of Dorchester’s most distressed areas take on features of the upscale competition.

At The Carruth, some of those features are inside: bamboo floors, marble countertops, and stainless steel appliances. And Guzzo says some of the renters are the kind of people who, a few years ago, would have been in the market for a condo, or “who didn’t want to purchase just yet.”

“The clientele that really finds buildings like The Carruth attractive,” says Guzzo, “are people who don’t want to spend a huge amount of time driving to work, who really like using the ‘T.’”

The Red Line can also expose Dorchester to visitors who perceive it less as a step toward suburbia than a more affordable alternative to Cambridge, Somerville, the South End, and South Boston.

“Because we are directly on the Red Line, we are able to attract a lot of people from all areas of the city because of access to their jobs,” says Deihl. “It’s the kind of diversity that Dorchester’s all about.”
Diversity also applies to the mixture of uses found at many transit-oriented developments, including those at Lower Mills, Peabody Square, Fields Corner, and Dudley Street. Planners associate that mixture of use with enhanced security, and Deihl says that perception is reinforced by improvements at stations all along the Red Line.

Advertising for Dorchester properties can also be found near another stop on the Red Line, at real estate offices along Savin Hill Avenue, all the way from the Southeast Expressway to the foot of Jones Hill.

“The rental market is strong right now. We have a lot of professional couples looking. Basically, you get a lot more for your dollar in Dorchester,” says Jeffrey Barranco, a rental and sales agent with the At Home Realty office on Savin Hill Avenue.

According to Barranco, a two-bedroom apartment can usually fetch anywhere from $1,300 to $1,700 a month if it’s within ten minutes of the Red Line. He says this year’s market “feels stronger” than last year’s, and more steady.

“People visit friends who live here,” he says. “They’re pushed out of other areas – Cambridge, the South End. We’re on the Red Line, very convenient to downtown Boston. For $1,500, you can barely get a one-bedroom in the South End. In Dorchester, you can get a two-bedroom apartment in a very nice neighborhood.”

But the difference between a two-bedroom apartment on Dorchester Avenue – near Savin Hill Station –listing for $1,500 a month and one on Beaumont Street – near Ashmont Station – listing for $1,350 also comes down to features inside. For the more expensive unit, these include hardwood floors, granite countertops, and stainless steel appliances.

“You want an updated kitchen and bathroom. You want to have a clean, freshly painted look,” says Barranco. “The nicer the place, the nicer the tenants.”

Further inland, near Codman Square, the switch from condos to rentals has taken place at all 21 units of the Norfolk Residences, some of them still under construction. Built by New Venture Development, the townhouse units have “typical” features that include hardwood floors, granite counters, stainless steel appliances, and custom moldings. A sign facing Norfolk Street still advertises three-bedroom units starting at $252,900.

“We tried to sell them and we couldn’t sell them, so we had to rent them,” said Eric Lindsey, a realtor for Bentley Real Estate Group.
Lindsey says the majority of the tenants at the development have Section 8 rental subsidies, with two-bedroom units at $1,400 a month and three-bedroom units as much as $1,700 a month.

“The ones that were available were rented out right away,” said Lindsey. “I had an open house and I had maybe forty people there in two hours, so there’s definitely a market.”

Gail Latimore, the executive director of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation (CSNDC), says there are many people looking to rent, though their ability to pay has been limited by the economic slowdown over the last two years.

Latimore says the CSNDC has a vacancy rate of only 5 percent for its units, 80 percent of which are affordable. Most of the units are located near Codman Square and Four Corners. But Latimore says units that would have rented three years ago for as much as $1,400 are going for $1,000 to $1,200. And, she says, until recently the CSNDC even offered incentives, such as free iPods.

“We’re not having too much difficulty renting out the units now,” she said. “There’s always a huge demand for the subsidized units Codman Square NDC is developing.”

But Latimore says the higher rate of foreclosures between Codman Square and Four Corners has brought about instability for the rental market. And Lindsey mentions one landlord renting to tenants with Section 8 vouchers whose rent came down.

Of the 40 apartments in the area that Lindsey manages, he says 35 have tenants with rental assistance.

“Unless you have a property that is not on a main street, and it’s in very good condition, it’s going to be very hard to find someone who’s market rent, who’s going to pay that top dollar for it,” he says.

While Lindsey describes even tenants with vouchers as being “much more selective,” he says the market has been very difficult for people in between – with too little income to cover the full rent, but too much to qualify for assistance.

“When you have Section 8 or affordable housing dictating the rent the landlords are getting, it’s kind of killing the regular market,” says Lindsey.

“In a standard triple-decker,” he adds, “landlords can still get an average of $1,500. That’s really killing the standard market tenant, because they can’t afford $1,500 with cash and no assistance.”

Also putting renters in a bind is the search for more convenient public transportation. An agent with Patriot Real Estate Group, Tasha Marshall, says some renters who want a faster connection, with fewer trips on buses, will look to the other branch of the Red Line in Quincy.

“I see more people from Dorchester moving out of Dorchester,” she says.

Yet another example of a change of plans caused by the market is a project of the CSNDC. In hopes of stabilizing a troubled apartment building at the corner of Washington and Lyndhurst streets, the CSNDC originally tried to get financing for its redevelopment as owner-occupied condos. But foreclosures and distressed sales have lowered comparable values, making some projects too risky for lenders or too expensive for potential buyers.

Says Latimore, “It’s too difficult to compete with the foreclosure market.”

At the high end of Dorchester’s rental market there is at least the groundwork for some recovery with condos. At The Carruth, Guzzo says leases remind tenants about the option to buy and the possibility the unit could be sold to someone else.

But glimmers that mirror the top of the line can be found even in the depths of the foreclosure market, as in the listing for a newly renovated condo on Meeting House Hill, on Draper St. With its parallel rows of three-deckers, the street was hit by several foreclosures over the last two years after sales of converted units.

In one of those houses, all three units were sold after foreclosure for a combined total of less than $230,000, then redeveloped, with a revived condo association. One unit that sold in November of 2006 for $372,000 has recently been put on the market for $199,000.

A listing for the unit shows hardwood floors, a ceiling with track lights, granite counters and breakfast bar, even the gleam of light off the stainless steel of a range hood. The features, as the listing boasts, are “designer touches found in million dollar homes.”

The location is also within a ten-minute walk from the Red Line at Fields Corner. The listing mentions the attractions of Ronan Park, including a dog-walking club. With the cost of the mortgage, fees and taxes estimated at $1,300 a month, the listing asks, “Why pay someone else’s mortgage?”