Pick nearly any city across the country — Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; Seattle; New York — and the story is one of rents rising by double-digit percentages amid scant inventory.

Nationally, the vacancy rate is below 5%, with more than a dozen renters competing for any given vacant apartment, according to RentCafe. That translates to extraordinarily high rents. In Manhattan, the median rent reached a record $4,000 a month in May, according to data from Douglas Elliman. The same month, the typical U.S. asking rent passed $2,000 for the first time, according to Redfin.

The rental market has been on a wild ride since the spring of 2020, with no end in sight. Early in the pandemic, markets in cities like New York saw rents plunge, as residents left and vacancies soared. Concessions, including months of free rent, became the norm. But those discounts soon vanished, and rents in New York now eclipse 2019 levels. Other markets, like that in Miami, never experienced a sharp decline, as renters from other cities who were able to work remotely moved in.

“Everyone wanted more space, and a lot of people wanted their own space,” said Igor Popov, chief economist for Apartment List. “Those renters all gobbled up the inventory at a time when it was really hard to build” and to buy.

As he put it, “It was this perfect storm of raging demand and tight inventory.”

With few good alternatives, renters who might have moved this year have decided to stay put: Almost 62% have renewed their leases, according to RentCafe. That means there is less available inventory in a market that has long suffered from a lack of new housing.


“A lot of renters feel like they’re on a very crowded subway car,” Popov said. “If you have a seat, you might be uncomfortable, but you’re not getting up.”

Joshua Clark, a senior economist at Zillow, said he is stunned by how fast rents have climbed: “There was a heating up, but the fact that we are at these numbers — I would have laughed at myself if I predicted that.”

The forecast does not look good for renters, in the short-term or the long-term. Rising mortgage rates will push some buyers out of the sales market, putting more pressure on the rental market. And as rents climb, even fewer people will move. With no relief in sight for the inventory shortage, renters have few options.

In New York City, Leonard Steinberg, a corporate broker at Compass, said, “I don’t see enough cranes. The best gauge for a city with rentals is: Are they building tall buildings with lots of apartments? I don’t see too many — it’s not enough.”

Economists predict that rents will continue climbing for the next two or three years, but not at the same clip. Push enough renters to the edge of affordability and they will double and triple up, or leave one market in search of a cheaper one.

“The breakneck pace that we were on in 2021 is just not sustainable,” Popov said. “We’re already starting to see renters respond to that in terms of more searches with roommates.”

So what should renters do? If you can renew your lease, even at a higher rent, the odds are that will be cheaper than moving. You could consider taking on roommates, or looking at cheaper neighborhoods. But none of the options are pleasant, and no one has a crystal ball to predict what the future holds.

“The major X factor is going to be what is happening in the rest of the economy,” Popov said. “If we start to see major shifts in the economy, then all bets are off and we’re in a new world.”