Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com
Two Boston nonprofits are partnering with the aim of converting a Dorchester hotel into more than 100 units of permanent, supportive housing for those who have experienced chronic homelessness.
The Pine Street Inn, the largest homeless service provider in New England, and nonprofit real estate developer The Community Builders Inc., or TCB, are working to purchase the Comfort Inn on Morrissey Boulevard and convert it into affordable housing. It’s not the first project the two organizations have worked on together; they are currently working on a building under construction in Jamaica Plain that will feature 140 housing units for formerly homeless individuals.
Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of Pine Street Inn, told Boston.com she’s excited about the project’s potential for being a model for other efforts to create more accessible, affordable housing to address the ongoing homeless crisis. Hotels, she noted, are ideally suited for being converted into housing.
She stressed that homelessness is an issue where if you don’t “keep your foot on the gas,” working to move people into housing or developing more housing, the need and demand has the potential to skyrocket. She pointed to cities like San Francisco where expanding the housing supply didn’t remain in the focus as the city experienced a tech boom and the cost of living in the area shot up.
“That’s something we’ve really got to keep paying attention to,” Downie said.
Pine Street Inn had been working on a plan to create more housing before COVID-19 arrived in 2020, but the executive director said the virus put into clear focus that more units were needed to address crowding shelters. (At the height of the pandemic, Downie said 36 percent of Pine Street’s shelter guests were testing positive.)
“We’ve been looking for a hotel really since then, since COVID started,” Downie said.
When the Comfort Inn in Dorchester came on the market, it was seen as an opportunity to create between 105 and 110 units of furnished, permanent supportive housing.
Under the proposed project, TCB will buy, develop, and manage the building. The nonprofit will collect rents, remove trash, and handle repairs.
Meanwhile, Pine Street Inn would sign a contract for providing a range of services on-site for the building’s residents, who would sign leases and pay 30 percent of their income for rent.
Downie said in 2021, Pine Street Inn saw a retention rate of about 96 percent for keeping people housed, which she stressed is related to the support services the nonprofit provides to tenants. The Comfort Inn project would have case management staff available during the day, with some residential staff present in the evening, along with overnight security.
“Staff really will work with the tenants on everything,” Downie said. “Budgeting, how are you going to make sure you pay the rent? How do you grocery shop again after maybe living in a shelter for many years? Do you have primary care? If you don’t, how do we help you with that? Do you want to go back to work? How do we really connect you either to a training program or direct you to employment? Do you need help with your medication? It really runs the gamut, frankly, from pretty simple stuff to just stuff that’s hard to coordinate.”
The staff would also help with bringing in other agencies or services, such as home health aides, for those who might need it.
Andy Waxman, regional vice president for real estate development in New England for TCB, said the services provided by Pine Street Inn would be key.
“We wouldn’t be doing this on our own,” he said. “It only works in partnership with Pine Street Inn.”
Waxman said a purchase and sale agreement has been signed for the hotel and the project is currently in its due diligence phase.
The project will have to go through Boston’s zoning process to get a change of use variance, since the building’s current allowed use is for a hotel, not multifamily. The aim is for that to be completed by the end of the year.
But Waxman said the hope is that the actual work of changing the hotel rooms into apartments will be relatively straightforward and that it could happen quickly.
“Construction takes a lot longer when you’re starting from scratch,” he said. “Whereas here, it’s really just about adding kitchenettes into the existing hotel rooms to create studio apartments. On the ground floor, we’re going to be adding a lot of community space, amenity space for residents, as well as property management space for The Community Builders staff and office space for social workers who work for Pine Street Inn, who are going to be working with the residents in that building.”
The outside of the building wouldn’t change for the most part, according to Waxman. But he said there is a plan to “beautify” the exterior of the property through landscaping.
Downie said the individuals who would live in the building would come off the Boston Housing Authority’s waitlist and be correlated with the city’s Coordinated Access List, which is for individuals who meet the definition of chronic homelessness.
The individuals would be screened through the Boston Housing Authority, as well as TCB’s property management staff with input from Pine Street Inn.
“It’s really geared toward folks that have been — that have had a long stretch of homelessness, consecutively or repeated incidents of homelessness over a couple [of years] period,” Downie said.
In addition, Downie said the hope is that, pending approval from the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development, Pine Street Inn could move 50 older residents currently being supported by the nonprofit at scattered site units into the converted hotel.
“The reason for that is, a number of these folks, we’re trying to help them age in place and they’re getting much older and they’re having mobility issues,” she said. “And they’re all in buildings where there is almost no access. So they’ve got flights of stairs or buildings with no elevators. And I worry that some of these folks are going to be at risk of homelessness if we can’t find them something that has accessibility, which obviously the hotel does. It’s got an elevator. So those are the two groups that we would be focused on.”
Currently, Pine Street Inn and TCB are engaged in community outreach about the project.
So far, Downie said there has been both some support and some pushback against the proposal.
She said many of the concerns being raised by surrounding community members seem to be rooted in fear and stereotypes around homlessness.
“We do a lot of supportive housing,” she said. “We’ve got 850 units now, and somewhat ironically, a lot of people don’t know Pine Street’s involved in supportive housing because once people are no longer homeless, it just changes things. … Typically, you could drive by any of our properties and there’s nobody hanging outside. There’s no problems. People are just going about their business and happy to have a place to live and happy to get on with their lives.”
The Comfort Inn proposal is permanent supportive housing, not the transitional, low-barrier housing that has been set up at the Roundhouse Hotel near Mass. and Cass.
But Downie said it appears people are conflating the Dorchester project with the push that has occurred over the last year for transitional, low-barrier housing in response to the humanitarian crisis at Mass. and Cass.
“This is very different than that,” she said. “There’s a different screening process, there’s permanency. There’s not a lot of longtime homeless folks on Mass./Cass. There are definitely people down there who are homeless, but when you look at the numbers, more than 80 percent of the folks that end up down there are there for less than three days. So it’s a different focus in terms of who gets targeted for permanent supportive housing.”
Downie said Pine Street Inn is offering tours of their other buildings to show what the setup at the hotel would be like.
She emphasized that at the end of the day, homelessness is a housing problem, meaning that housing is really the issue that needs to be focused on.
Anytime there is an opportunity to add to Boston’s affordable housing stock, it has the potential to have a larger impact on the total number of homeless people in the city, the Pine Street Inn leader said.
“It’s the only thing that gets people out of homelessness,” Downie said. “But for some people it’s got to be affordable and they need support in order to really move on with their lives, right? So we are, I think, certainly in the top five of the most expensive rental markets in the country. And it’s hard for everybody in Boston to find housing. But if you are homeless and you’re very, very low income and you might need some support — there’s nothing. The market is not going to build housing for you; it just doesn’t exist.”
Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com
Stay up to date with everything Boston. Receive the latest news and breaking updates, straight from our newsroom to your inbox.
This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com