Even before the proliferation of tents outside the Roundhouse hotel on Massachusetts Avenue, its Tripadvisor reviews had begun to turn negative: “5-star hotel in a 1-star location,” “Great hotel but awful location,” “Worst Hotel Stay, Ever.”
Hannah H., in a May 2019 review, wrote: “We knew we made a poor choice when ALL our uber drivers said ‘Do NOT go outside’ when they dropped us off/picked us up from the hotel ... We were on the ground floor, and could just hear frightening things from outside. We had absolutely NO problems with the staff and the rooms were clean and perfectly fine. I just don’t think for $300 per night you should feel unsafe.”
The pandemic has crippled the hospitality business, but the owner of the Roundhouse hotel is facing his own existential crisis: How do you operate a hotel in the epicenter of Boston’s homeless and opioid epidemics?
The 92-room property, known for its unusual circular shape, has been shuttered to travelers since the summer of 2020 and leased out to house the homeless, first with Pine Street Inn and now with Boston Medical Center as part of Mayor Michelle Wu’s plan to provide transitional housing for those living in tents on Massachusetts and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
“Humanity is on the brink,” said Ashok Patel, a partner at Dev Hospitality, which has owned the Roundhouse hotel since 2014.
If having the homeless stay in the hotel helps clean up the neighborhood, that’s a deal he wants to be part of.
“We have a resource we can give to people trying to make a difference in the neighborhood,” said Patel.
The hotel’s one-year lease with the Pine Street Inn ended in June 2021. As Patel prepared to reopen the hotel for travelers, Victory Programs, another nonprofit that works with the homeless, sought to to rent out some rooms as transitional housing. Community opposition sunk the proposal, but after she took office in November, Wu revived the idea.
Patel would not say if he makes more money in these leases compared to operating the Roundhouse as a regular hotel, but insisted the decision is “not a quick cash-in on anything.”
Boston Medical Center is managing the hotel in partnership with the city, which is paying $2.1 million for a one-year lease.
On Friday, the city began relocating people from Mass. and Cass into the hotel, which is expected to lodge as many as 60 residents. The move comes ahead of a Wednesday deadline Wu set to provide housing for about 140 people who have been living in the encampments.
The hotel’s furniture has been moved out, while BMC has brought in its own beds, dressers, desks, linens, and other furnishings. A nurse is on site, as well as housing specialists and private security. BMC is also planning to open a clinic to provide health care and drug treatment services.
The hotel is set up to take people directly from the encampments, said Dr. Miriam Komaromy, medical director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center. And while the surrounding area has functioned as an open-air drug market, where people routinely shoot up, Dr. Komaromy said substance use will not be tolerated. If people appear to be using drugs, staff will work with them to stop and seek treatment.
“We have a rule against drug use in the facility,” she said.
Dev Hospitality bought the hotel in the spring of 2014, but the neighborhood soon began to change when the city that fall closed its Long Island recovery campus. Since then, Mass. and Cass has become a magnet for drug users and the unsheltered drawn to the concentration of services in the area including homeless shelters and three methadone clinics.
Patel said he, like other nearby business owners, has had to spend more on security to protect employees and customers.
“It has been difficult,” he said. “The most repeated comment from our guests – ‘great hotel, great staff in a very poor neighborhood.’ ”
The decision to go ahead with another lease to house the homeless has pitted Patel against neighborhood leaders and nearby business owners, many of whom remain staunchly opposed to the Roundhouse plan because they believe it will only perpetuate drugs and crime. Instead, many support spreading the encampment population to different parts of the city and even region.
Bill Lim, owner of the Sunoco gas station next to the hotel, worries that he may go out of business if homeless people continue to hassle his customers for money as they pump gas. Lim said he had to shutter the station’s convenience store two years ago because there were too many thefts. His employees do not feel safe, and he would like to see more police patrols.
“It’s so hard for the employees to work. They are fed up,” he said. “I don’t think the city sees the whole picture ... the more programs the city has [here] the more issues we have.”
Similarly, the neighborhood was unhappy with the Roundhouse deal with Pine Street Inn. The nonprofit eased concerns by bringing in private security and staying in regular contact with the community about issues, said Pine Street president Lyndia Downie.
Pine Street, the region’s largest homeless service provider, sought out the Roundhouse in the summer of 2020 to house about 170 older people with preexisting conditions, because having them stay in a group shelter put them at higher risk to contract COVID. The nonprofit had rented from Patel before at another property of his.
Downie said she supports what BMC and the city are doing at the Roundhouse, which is one of at least three new housing options the city is providing for those in the encampments. She acknowledged that keeping homeless at the hotel runs counter to the effort to decentralize services, but the city needs time to works on its longer term regional strategy.
”You need a short-term solution to help the people on Mass. and Cass,” said Downie. “This is a good start ... We have to work very, very hard to make sure the tents don’t come back.”
The uncertainty in the travel industry almost certainly played a role in Patel’s decision to lease out the hotel.
Hotels have struggled to fill their rooms during the pandemic. Occupancy for the Boston and Cambridge lodging market stood at 45 percent in 2021 through November, according to Pinnacle Advisory Group, a hotel consulting firm, compared to 84 percent during the same period in 2019. Pinnacle projects occupancy will reach 64 percent in 2022, but that forecast was made before the emergence of the Omicron variant.
“The transient traveler that was around pre-COVID is not around so much anymore,” said JP Ford, senior vice president of Lodging Econometrics, a Portsmouth, N.H., company that specializes in hotel development. “The hotel industry did sustain a decent comeback in 2021, but it’s not at the level of pre-COVID.”
For Patel, he needs the neighborhood to improve in order for his business to bounce back. He renovated the Roundhouse just four years ago, and bookings were brisk before the pandemic with average occupancy in 2019 hovering around 75 percent, said Patel.
“Boston has always been a very vibrant hotel market,” he said. “It’s still a good investment.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.