It all starts — and ends — with the building Rebecca Danigelis called home for nearly four decades.
Danigelis first visited 140 Clarendon St. in 1978 after she attended rape counseling sessions at the YWCA, which owned the 13-story Back Bay property. Five years later, she moved into a low-income apartment there with her two young sons, and eventually was hired as the head housekeeper of the Y’s new hotel on the sixth and seventh floors.
The place was her sanctuary. Then in 2016, at the age of 75, she was let go — and given a year to move out.
Her younger son, Sian-Pierre Regis, a journalist in New York, decided to fight, and make a documentary about his mother’s plight. The mission of YW Boston, as the organization is now called, is “eliminating racism, empowering women,” he points out. It says so on a plaque on the building. Kicking out his aging mother, who had raised two Black children there, he said, was “counter to its mission in the realest way.”
It’s also inhumane, said Regis, who moved out when he left for college in 2002: “They attempted to discard a 75-year-old woman with no regard to what would happen next.”
Regis’s documentary, “Duty Free,”is airing on PBS Monday night as part of its Independent Lens series (and can be streamed for free online and through the app until Dec. 21). The film, which was shown in theaters in May, largely focuses on his and his mother’s journey to fulfill her bucket list while she’s unemployed, and touches on age discrimination and the financial needs of the elderly. But behind Danigelis’s impending eviction from the YWCA building looms the incredible need for affordable housing for seniors, especially in high-cost places like Massachusetts.
Statewide, nearly 64 percent of single women and almost 56 percent of single men over the age of 65 are economically insecure, according to a June report by the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging at the University of Massachusetts Boston — the highest rates in the nation. For couples, it’s 30 percent, the fourth-highest rate.
The biggest factor is the cost of housing, said center director Jan Mutchler. Age discrimination plays a role, too, she said, noting that older job seekers stay unemployed longer than the rest of the population.
The 140 Clarendon St. building opened in 1929 as home to the Boston YWCA, the first official such organization in the country, dating back to 1866. Its mission was to provide a “suitable and economical home for girls, many of whom were away from home for the first time trying to earn a living,” according to the National Register of Historic Places registration form. The YWCA eventually opened up to men, and started shifting its mission toward diversity and inclusion work. In 2000, the organization formed a for-profit company to expand its ability to make money off the building, paving the way to open Hotel 140 in 2005. Danigelis was hired to help run the 55-room hotel, in exchange for free rent and a small salary.
“Duty Free” begins with Danigelis getting fired from that job 12 years later. Maloney Properties, which managed the building and was her employer, told her it was restructuring and her position was being eliminated. Her housing, which at that point was tied to her job, was going away, too.
Her older son, who has schizophrenia, has lived in his own unit in the building since 2005.
“My mom’s entire life was wrapped up in this building,” Regis says in the film.
Danigelis tried to find a job while Regis worked to secure her housing. Regis proposed turning her apartment into a subsidized unit, with a portion of her income going toward rent. (Before she started working in exchange for rent, Danigelis had paid $1,549 a month.) Maloney Properties told Regis that her income from Social Security and unemployment were too high for a subsidy, and a low-income housing tax credit didn’t pan out. But following the release of the trailer for Regis’s documentary and the ensuing press coverage, Danigelis signed an agreement in 2019 not to “disparage, criticize, condemn or impugn” her landlords, and was allowed to stay until May 2020.
In an e-mail to the Globe, Maloney Properties president Janet Frazier wrote: “Because we were concerned about her well-being after she left our employment, she was allowed to continue to reside at the building for almost 4 years and paid a total of $60 in rent during that entire time. At that point, the decision about her continued residence was up to the YW Boston and Ms. Danigelis.”
YW Boston did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Danigelis was 27 when she first came to the United States from Liverpool to promote British tourism in Detroit. Ten years later, she was recruited to work at what is now the Fairmont Copley Plaza, in Boston. Two weeks after she became a live-in employee there, she was beaten and raped while leaving her room, an attack written about in the Boston Globe when the suspect was arrested. The counseling she sought afterward was her first introduction to the YWCA.
In the spring of 2017, Danigelis landed a position as a housekeeping supervisor at the Hilton Boston Back Bay, working for a man who had once been her employee at the Boston Park Plaza. But she was laid off when the pandemic hit, and when her extended lease at the YWCA ended, she moved in with Regis and his partner in New York.
In the meantime, the YW Boston building had been undergoing its own drama. It was put up for sale in 2019, and a buyer was set to upgrade the hotel and convert some of the apartments into higher-end units. But the deal fell through during the pandemic and the building sold last year, for the reduced price of $51.5 million, to developers Beacon Communities and Mount Vernon Co., which plan to convert it into a 210-unit affordable housing development, almost half set aside for formerly homeless residents.
“Poetic justice,” Regis said.
Danigelis’s son reapplied for housing in the building and is being allowed to stay.
Still, the area is highly desirable location for luxury developers. Directly behind 140 Clarendon St., a shiny 35-story tower is going up, the Raffles Boston Back Bay Hotel & Residences, which will have a spa and a rooftop terrace when it opens next year.
Danigelis, now 80, and Regis have become advocates for older workers. In early October, they appeared virtually with the director-general of the World Health Organization, who introduced a WHO screening of “Duty Free” and noted the need to change the “negative narrative around age and aging.” Later that month, they went to Washington D.C. to meet with the congresswoman behind a bill that would prohibit employers from using age to classify or limit job applicants.
“We, unlike most poor people, had a platform and were able to put a spotlight on this,” Regis said. With 10,000 people turning 65 every day, he noted, “this is going to happen more and more.”
Danigelis is glad her experience, as hard as it was, is shedding a light on the hardships many older people face. “I’m a strong person,” she said, “but let me tell you, I was at the brink.”