It’s not exactly breaking news to hear that U.S. rents have grown over 30% since 2019. But new analysis of rental data shows that national wages are struggling to keep up — and the gap is widening.

Rents have grown 1.5 times faster than wages nationwide. That means that rents have outpaced wages in nearly 9 out of 10 major metros since 2019. Here in Boston, rents grew by almost 6% while wages decreased by 1%.

The skyrocketing trend is one of the primary reasons why so many, especially young people, are leaving the city — or even the state. The widening gap between income and housing costs in Boston is not a new issue, and finding new solutions is an ongoing battle. 

Barry Bluestone, founding dean of Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to break down the numbers and examine what paths lay ahead. Despite rent being considered burdensome at above 30% of a family’s income, per Bluestone’s findings, that figure is around 47% for the median Boston household — compared to cities like Seattle, where that is just 28%.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: As we mentioned, the analysis shows that since 2019, rents have outpaced wages in most of the United States’ metro areas. But it also showed that in 2023, nationwide, about half of the major metro areas actually showed a shrinking gap — but not in Boston. Do we know why?

Barry Bluestone: We do. Boston has seen its rents rise rapidly as the expansion in the biotech industry has brought people here, as well as the expansion of the hospital and university sectors. While the population of that group — that demographic — is growing, we have very, very little growth in the apartment stock — the supply of new housing.

So it’s old-fashioned economics: if demand goes up, but supply does not, prices are going to increase, and they’re going to increase very rapidly.

“It’s old-fashioned economics: if demand goes up, but supply does not, prices are going to increase, and they’re going to increase very rapidly.”
Barry Bluestone

Rath: I mean, everything you’re saying sounds about like what we see and experience here in this area.

Bluestone: Exactly. What it means is that there are demographics to this. I mean, people who moved here a long time ago to Boston — I moved here 53 years ago to teach at the universities here, and I was able to rent it for about $300 a month. A one-bedroom apartment in where? The Back Bay of Boston. Today, it’s about five or six times that. And, of course, wages haven’t risen anywhere near that.

But those of us who came of age back in the 1960s and ’70s were able to rent fairly inexpensively, build up a little capital and finally buy a home, particularly if we got married. And then we would see those home prices explode over time so that my generation of baby boomers have done really well.

Unfortunately, the generations after us — including this young generation of students and graduate students coming along — are paying an enormous price and may never catch up with their parents in terms of their ability to afford the kind of housing we want.

Rath: A lot of the jobs that you talked about growing here in the Greater Boston area and in Massachusetts — biotech, medicine and nursing — you would think, or at least like to think, that those are relatively well-paying jobs.

Bluestone: They are.

Rath: Then why is that gap so big for us here?

Bluestone: Well, for people who are in those occupations, they’re able to afford these rents, and that’s why they are staying here. But for people who, let’s say, even a well-paid electrician or plumber, it’s become very expensive for them to live here.

I know recently, my wife and I needed to hire an electrician. It took us five months to find one that was free to come do some little electrical work for us. So the typical worker in the city can’t live here anymore. They can move to some suburbs and move further away.

And then, a lot of young people are saying, “I love Massachusetts. I just can’t afford it. You know, I’ll go to Seattle. It’s a beautiful city, and rents there are half of what they are in Boston.”

I fear that this housing crisis is going to lead, or is leading to, a labor force crisis in Boston and Greater Boston, where we’re going to find it more and more difficult to attract the workers we need for all the tasks we need to get done.

Rath: Gov. Maura Healey has said housing and affordable housing are serious priorities for her and for the state. Are there solutions in the works — or are there solutions not in the works that could do something about this?

Bluestone: There are actually quite a number. The one that our governor has been talking about, Gov. Healey, is to make it easier for families who have a home with a backyard or something to have an accessory dwelling unit, or an ADU.

I know when I lived in Cambridge, we had a very large garage that I didn’t use, and I wanted to convert it to an apartment where one or two graduate students might have lived. I went to the city, and they said it was illegal. You’re not allowed to convert anything to an ADU. Changing that law so that many of these single-family homes could have an accessory unit for a graduate student, grandma or mother-in-law would be very helpful.

Number two: We have to put more pressure on towns and cities to allow housing. As many of your listeners know, Milton recently turned down a zoning change, which they really are required to accept because they’re an MBTA town. Right? So we need to enforce the zoning laws we have.

Years and years ago, two colleagues of mine and I wrote some legislative language, which was actually passed — it’s in the law. Chapter 40A is our zoning laws in the state, and we did 40R and 40S. 40R said if a town or city sets aside a piece of land for housing with at least 20% affordable units, the city will actually get additional state aid. [Editor’s note: Bluestone said 30% in the interview. That figure has been corrected in the transcript.]

A year later, only one town had taken care of it. So I went in, and I talked with some of the mayors of these towns. They said, “Well, we’d like to take advantage of it, but we’re afraid young families will move in with kids and blow up our school budget.”

So we went back to the Legislature and passed Chapter 40S, where, if a town takes advantage of Chapter 40R, and the state will now pay for any additional students who live in those homes. We went from one town to 30 within two years.

There are some interesting ways to deal with these issues, and we have to come up with ideas that somehow circumvent the NIMBYism — Not In My Backyard — because we absolutely have to do that. Not only because it’s right to have affordable housing, but because if we don’t do that, our economy will suffer. And many of the people who don’t want that housing in their community are going to feel the pain.