Housing Shortage in Boston & Beyond
In 2022, Boston was ranked fourth in cities facing the worst housing shortages and fourteenth in a different study that examined the underproduction of housing. Boston is cited as lacking 77,000 homes! With rents at all-time highs and families deciding to rehab instead of selling their homes, it’s difficult to find anywhere to live, not to mention somewhere affordable. In Massachusetts as a whole, housing prices are up by over five percent in only a year and a 108,157 home deficit exists. Other New England states like New Hampshire mention years-long waiting lists for affordable housing and many landlords “renovating” apartments as a way to get higher paying tenants; it would be unsurprising if this were occurring in Massachusetts as well.
In addition to the shortage of actual housing, the end of COVID funding for many projects will likely leave more people experiencing homelessness/looking for housing. The COVID-specific rental assistance (RAFT) program applications are closed and funding is almost spent; all subsequent applications have a lot of restrictions that make it far harder to successfully receive assistance. COVID funding also provided temporary housing solutions that could lead to better long-term housing outcomes, but this money too is disappearing.
Unsurprisingly against this backdrop, city government moves such as eliminating camps for those experiencing homeless (like the clearing of Mass & Cass and Worcester encampment sweeps) have had almost no long-term impact. These implications have brought homelessness back to the front of the public mind. In the process of rehousing people from the Mass & Cass clearing, Mayor Michelle Wu's coordinated response team director stated that all transitional housing in the city was full, which significantly challenges those shelter staff trying to move people experiencing homelessness to stability.
Nevertheless, there may be a key in providing transitional stability in some of Boston’s most prevalent buildings. During COVID, hotels were a temporary solution to shelter overcrowding and to keep those with COVID separate from others. However, this temporary fix seems to have long-term value as a system for both short-term housing needs and as an option for addressing housing shortages.
Hotels Addressing Temporary Needs
Throughout New England, hotels were utilized by organizations serving people experiencing homelessness during much of COVID to 1) reduce crowding at shelters and 2) help support the hotel business being devastated by the pandemic. These rooms were mostly funded by federal grants, state money, or from the nonprofits themselves. As of June 2022, Massachusetts had about 600 motel/hotel beds still being utilized for sheltering people experiencing homelessness (of about 1,000 that had been leased over the course of the pandemic).
Temporary housing in hotels has shown promising indicators for long-term success. Both those being housed and service providers from direct care staff through shelter CEOs saw high value to utilizing hotels for shelter versus traditional congregate-care shelter settings. Shelter staff found that those who would not traditionally engage in services when offered with a shelter bed were more easily hooked into services when offered a hotel room. For example, one individual experiencing homelessness who had been offered services for years if he would stay at the congregate shelter finally was willing to engage in services when offered a hotel room instead. Shelter case managers also found it far easier to work with/find their clients because clients had a place to stay during the day (as opposed to an overnight shelter where clients are often kicked out during the day and are thus inaccessible). The reduction in overcrowding of shelters is preferred by both clients and shelter staff as it reduces conflict, increases face-time between case manager and client, and can create more opportunities for bed availability. One shelter CEO imagines a shift in which congregate shelters are utilized more like a medical emergency room, with clients diverted to appropriate services instead of languishing for months; this would only be possible if shelters had somewhere to send clients quickly and hotel rooms could fulfill that need. Clients also cited the hotel room model as more attractive given its ability to provide privacy and cater to specific identities that congregate shelters struggle to support (eg. nonbinary or trans people, couples, people not sober). Finally, some cities have had more success with supportive temporary hotel housing over the traditional congregate setting. For example, in Springfield, Massachusetts:
“City officials examined data over a 22-month period that ended in April and found 46% of people who left local hotel shelters did so to enter permanent housing. By contrast, just 16% of people who stopped staying at the traditional adult homeless shelters in the area left them to enter permanent housing.”
In terms of considerations, there were complaints from some hotels across New England about an increase in service calls (calls to the police) from hotels. However, these locations did not necessarily have the wrap-around support services that hotels with better rates of success were providing. Support services integration should be stressed as integral to an effective temporary hotel room model. Some hotels ended their partnerships due to this increased impression of lack of safety while many others are stopping their program due to lack of funding. There are also some concerns from shelter leaders that congregate care shelter settings will be shut down without the appropriate financial and logistical resources for alternative temporary housing.
Hotels Becoming Permanent Housing
In addition to serving as a temporary housing stopgap, some hotels are/will be converted from hotels to permanent housing options. There are already several examples of hotel conversion seen in Massachusetts. In Brockton, the Rodeway Inn was converted to the Rodeway Apartments, creating 69 permanent supportive housing units. Thus far, the Rodeway Apartments have seen success. In Boston, Pine Street Inn and The Community Builders Inc. are working on converting Comfort Inn on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester into 105-110 units with kitchenettes where residents pay 30% of their income. This building would also have supportive on-site services including case management.
Why might converting hotels into permanent supportive housing be a great idea?
It increases housing stock while also reducing the number of abandoned buildings. This could make big steps towards addressing the 108,157 home deficit existing in Massachusetts and prevent the misuse of abandoned properties.
It is less costly. For example, Rodeway Inn was converted at about half of the cost of building affordable housing from scratch since the bases of each room were already existing; it cost only about $150,000 per unit. Not only is the actual conversion less expensive, but there is dedicated money ($150 million) set aside in the state’s ARPA funding for permanent supportive housing. Utilizing that money towards these more cost effective conversions would mean being able to create more units than otherwise possible.
It is time-saving. Hotels do have to go through rezoning, but compared to the 3-4 years it takes to construct an affordable housing unit, places like Rodeway Apartments only took 2 years to be remodeled. Units can also be reconstructed individually, allowing residents to move in even while construction is still underway.
It creates more ADA compliant options. Hotels are obviously compliant to accessibility regulations; this makes them far more attainable for a variety of clients. ADA compliance can be particularly tricky in Boston where many older buildings are not able to be rehabbed, restricting the number of units actually available to those needing accommodations.
It creates opportunities for integrated support services. Key to these conversions is the continued support services. For example, in 2021 Pine Street Inn had a retention rate of about 96% for keeping people housed once placed in permanent housing; these best practices will be essential for ensuring the success of clients at the Comfort Inn conversion who will have access to on-sit supportive services including case management. Because hotels already have common areas, they have space easily converted to support offices. Some conversions even add live-in units for case managers.
It creates a feeling of agency in clients while also providing permanency. Often community pushback around buildings housing people experiencing homelessness comes from safety concerns/stereotypes of what it means for people to experience homelessness; the actual permanency paired with support makes somewhere like a converted hotel far more successful and safe than congregate shelter/temporary housing. Clients in supportive permanent housing know they have access to services built in on-site and can access these knowing their housing is already secured. To quote CEO Leah Bradley of the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance: “It becomes about tenancy, not about folks utilizing services that we tell them they need”.
In addition to ensuring that these hotel conversions are permanent and include continued support services, they should also guarantee that community input is sought. To compare two options, the Comfort Inn rebuild had community support. However, somewhere like Shattock Hospital, where they want to add transitional housing, lacks both the permanency factor and the invitation of the community to the table. It’s likely for that reason that Shattock Hospital’s addition is encountering so much resistance from local residents and seeing an increase in drug-related incidences and needle litter in the area.
Other Creative Temporary and Long-Term Solutions That Could Come Out of COVID Creativity
While hotels are the most common option for temporary accommodation and permanent housing, other housing solutions tested out in COVID could become promising with funding. For temporary housing, modular (prefabricated) housing like the Shattuck cabins in Boston and the planned A Place to Live units in central Massachusetts could be reproducible as low-threshold housing that gets people off the streets. Also being debated in places like Worcester is the sanctioning of homeless camps as a stopgap while affordable housing is being built.
For permanent options, past congregate settings like nursing homes, convents, and hospitals that are sitting empty could be similarly converted as hotels for permanent housing. There is also the potential for shelters to continue to partner with developers to build brand-new housing with integrated supportive case management. Currently, The Community Builders and the Pine Street Inn are doing a new build in Jamaica Plain that would be a mixed 140 units for previously homeless people and 62 traditional affordable housing units with the on-site support and community backing stressed above.
Overall, we should take the ingenuity and creativity that COVID produced and see what can become of it!