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8 Key Findings from 2 Years of the COVID Community Data Lab

By Anne Calef

June 22, 2022

Launched in April 2020 by Boston Indicators and the Center for Housing Data at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, the COVID-19 Community Data Lab (CCDL) was a platform for analyzing the wide-ranging social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Greater Boston. The CCDL grew from a data repository of real-time data sources to include research briefs on topics ranging from housing stability to traffic patterns as well as the Seizing the Moment: Proposals for a Just and Equitable Recovery series written in partnership with other community leaders and advocates.

Two years and 48 research briefs later, this final CCDL brief presents eight interesting trends and patterns we observed. We will no longer be updating the data repository, but the archive will remain available, and we will continue to advance research focused on building an equitable recovery from the pandemic.

We thank all the community partners that made this ambitious research effort possible, especially the Barr Foundation for its early support.

#1: Early job losses were historically severe, but recovery has also been faster than expected.

In roughly one short month, Massachusetts lost an unprecedented 692,000 jobs when the pandemic began, mirroring national trends. That summer, we published a short brief titled “Assessing the Economic Damage of the COVID Crisis Four Months In” where we cited a Congressional Budget Office estimate that it would take a decade for employment to return to pre-pandemic levels. Fortunately, job recovery has progressed much faster than that, due in large part to the scale of federal intervention. Although we are still 74,000 jobs below pre-pandemic levels, weekly unemployment claims have fallen back to pre-pandemic levels and the unemployment rate is now just 0.9 percentage points higher than before the pandemic. Since peak job loss in April 2020, we’ve regained over 610,000 jobs, four years faster than our recovery from the Great Recession.

#2: Job loss was especially severe for lower-wage service workers who are disproportionately Black and Latinx.

Industries that relied on in-person interaction, particularly leisure and hospitality, suffered heavy losses when the pandemic began and have been slow to recover. While jobs in the professional and business services industry have actually increased since before the pandemic, hiring in leisure and hospitality is still down significantly (approximately 33,800 jobs). Lower-wage service workers are also disproportionately Black and Latinx, leading to much higher unemployment rates for Black and Latinx workers. In 2020 Quarter 2, the estimated unemployment rate for Latinx workers was almost 30 percent, compared to just 13 percent for White workers. By 2021 Quarter 4, estimated Black and Latinx unemployment had fallen to 6.9 and 8 percent, respectively, but were still nearly double the estimated unemployment rate for White workers (3.8 percent).

#3: The state and federal governments responded more robustly than they did after the Great Recession, helping to alleviate suffering.

The federal and state governments responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a broad range of social supports. Federal stimulus payments and expanded unemployment insurance helped impacted workers continue to support themselves and their families while the economy was shut down. The Paycheck Protection Program helped keep small and mid-sized businesses afloat, avoiding what would have been even greater levels of layoffs. The expanded Child Tax Credit helped alleviate child poverty, while additional funding for Medicaid increased eligibility for many families in need.

Particularly noteworthy in Massachusetts was increased funding for rental assistance programs. Through state and federal allocations, funding for housing supports for low-income households jumped from $235 million in FY2020 to $471 million in FY 2021. The number of families receiving rental assistance programs increased dramatically and the feared eviction and foreclosure wave never occurred. Evictions in Massachusetts are now below pre-pandemic levels.

#4: Rent decreased in many inner core neighborhoods at the start of the pandemic, but now exceeds pre-pandemic levels.

In the first year of the pandemic, rents in expensive, inner core markets fell as many workers, no longer tied to the office, sought larger, lower cost homes and as many universities switched to remote learning, leading to declines in Boston’s student populations. Rent in downtown Boston fell 15 percent from 2019 Quarter 4 to 2020 Quarter 4. Near Harvard and MIT, rents fell 9 percent. However, in the spring and summer of 2021 as students returned to Greater Boston and more employees resumed in-person work, rents began to creep upwards again—ultimately, exceeding pre-pandemic rents in some high-cost markets. In 2022 Quarter 1, median asking rents in Boston’s Back Bay and South End were up 7 percent from 2020 Quarter 1. Rents in Brookline, Newton and Watertown were 12 percent above what they were during the pandemic.

#5: Outside of the inner core, housing costs rose throughout the pandemic.

The same dynamic that led to the decline in rents within the immediate urban core led to an increase in home prices in suburban areas and Gateway Cities. Workers capable of remote work sought more space in their homes; the household savings rate increased as people spent less while the economy slowed; and historically low interest rates increased the purchasing power of many would-be homebuyers. As a result, rents in lower cost markets consistently rose throughout the pandemic and the home sale market entered an unprecedented level of frenzy. Asking rents in Lawrence rose from approximately $1,500 in 2019 Quarter 4 to $1,600 in 2020 Quarter 1 to $1,800 by 2022 Quarter 1. Additionally, home prices soared across the state from a median listing price of $559,500 in March 2020 to $709,495 in May 2022.

Another cause of rising sale prices was that listing counts dropped to unprecedented lows and by May 2022 median listing duration for a Massachusetts home was just 19 days—less than half the median listing duration in May 2019 (42 days). Greater Boston has struggled with persistently low levels of housing production for years, and this problem worsened during the pandemic as supply chain issues and labor challenges slowed the ability of home builders to complete projects or begin new construction.

#6: Public transit ridership plummeted early in the pandemic and the gradual rebound has varied widely by service type.

Transit ridership has been down across the board since the pandemic began but bus ridership has proved especially resilient. Through most of the summer and fall of 2020, MBTA rapid transit lines maintained around 20 percent of their pre-pandemic ridership, while buses maintained 40 percent of their ridership. Bus routes that served areas with more frontline workers retained up to 78 percent of ridership, demonstrating how essential bus service was during the peak of the pandemic. Looking outside of the MBTA, Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) have maintained similar levels of ridership to the MBTA. Since the early days in the pandemic, multiple free bus pilots have also expanded transportation access both in Boston and in other cities such as Worcester and Lawrence.

#7: Recreational bike use grew, as did the infrastructure to support it.

Before the pandemic, bike share usage spiked during peak commuting hours and remained lower in the evenings and on weekends. During the pandemic, these patterns shifted. Bike share data showed that riders were taking more evening and weekend trips. Rides became longer rides and were more likely to occur in residential areas or for recreational purposes. As interest in biking grew, so did the growth in the biking infrastructure. The state’s Department of Transportation provided funding and technical assistance to municipalities so local leaders could rethink their streets, leading many to install more bike lanes and bike infrastructure. Cities and towns within the Route 128 beltway, including Boston, added 34.2 miles in 2020 and 2021.

#8: Despite Massachusetts’ high statewide vaccination rate, racial and geographic disparities persist.

More than one year into mass vaccination efforts, Massachusetts has some of the highest vaccination rates in the country—almost 90 percent of Massachusetts residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine and 57 percent of fully vaccinated individuals have received a booster dose. Early in the vaccine roll-out we saw large racial disparities in vaccination rates, but grassroots-led movements to increase vaccine access in communities of color and other vulnerable communities have narrowed disparities by race in recent months. However, disparities persist nonetheless, particularly when looking at booster doses. Vaccination rates are particularly low in small towns where Trump performed better in the 2020 election, and in lower wealth Gateway Cities with more residents of color and lower levels of educational attainment.

Tracking these metrics over the pandemic has offered surprises, confirmed hunches, and opened new areas for exploration. Like other phenomena of the past two years, the numbers have depicted inequities woven into the social fabric that were only exacerbated by the pandemic. We hope that the COVID Community Data Lab helped tease out these inequities with data, helping us bend the recovery towards a more equitable and just future.

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