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Defunct hotels offer new real estate for housing homeless people

The Roadway Inn in Brockton represents the latest strategy.

Ray Gaessler, 73, is now a resident of Roadway Apartments in Brockton, formerly the Rodeway Inn.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

BROCKTON — One recent afternoon, Ray Gaessler settled into his room in the old Roadway Inn just off the highway, left a pot of onions, peppers, and sausage to simmer, and then melted into his favorite chair to watch a John Wayne classic.

He was home.

“I cook every day, three times a day,” the 73-year-old said with a laugh. “And I buy everything on my own.”

Gaessler, who has depended on Social Security payments since a bad car accident left him unable to work years ago, was nearly homeless just before Christmas 2020 after a new landlord bought his East Side apartment and raised the rent beyond what he could afford. He turned to MainSpring House, a Brockton shelter, where he stayed briefly before moving to the Roadway, which had been converted into an emergency shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Now, Gaessler is a full-time tenant there, paying 30 percent of his income as rent.

Gaessler’s apartment represents the latest strategy in the effort to find housing for homeless people, a creative alternative to the traditional congregate-shelter setting that many homeless people tend to avoid, because of their lack of privacy, and that posed health risks during the pandemic.

With a housing-first focus to get people off the street, homeless service providers are retrofitting old hotels, which are already split into separate rooms equipped with plumbing and other infrastructure. The hotels were deserted in the economic pains caused by the pandemic, and their initial use as emergency shelters proved they could be used for long-term housing, too.

Gaessler’s apartment — a modestly sized studio with a full bathroom, a new kitchenette, and enough space for his extensive DVD collection — is one of 69 units at the Roadway. The space was converted to permanent housing last year by Father Bill’s and MainSpring, a homeless service provider with offices south of Boston.

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Meanwhile, in Boston, the Pine Street Inn, the region’s largest provider of homelessness services, is proposing to turn a Dorchester Comfort Inn into more than 100 permanent, supportive units catered toward those experiencing chronic homelessness, though that proposal has seen some community opposition.

Earlier this year, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu also used the old Roundhouse hotel on Massachusetts Avenue and the Envision hotel in Jamaica Plain to house people who had been staying in tent encampments in the area known as Mass. and Cass, the center of the city’s opioid and homelessness epidemic.

In Western and Central Massachusetts, some hotels are still being used as shelters for individuals in emergencies, and homeless providers have eyed their long-term use for permanent housing, though no firm plans have been made, according to Leah Bradley, CEO of the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance.

But she applauded the use of small-scale, non-congregate-housing options such as hotels for people transitioning from homelessness. She pointed to the similar development of a modular residence at A Place to Live in Worcester — a model that “keeps folks in their home community” while giving them the security needed to apply for a job or pursue additional support.

“Once they get that housing, they can work on those other things,” Bradley said. “It becomes about tenancy, not about folks utilizing services that we tell them they need.”

John Yazwinski, president and CEO, Father Bill’s and MainSpring.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

By their very nature as living spaces, hotels offer a unique opportunity for rapid development of housing, according to John Yazwinski, president and CEO of Father Bill’s and MainSpring.

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“You put a kitchenette in each room, and you pretty much have an efficiency apartment,” said Yazwinski.

The first round of Roadway renovations, which focused on readying the rooms for full-time occupants with the kitchenettes, new paint, furniture, and other fixes, was completed in July, just under two years after development began. Rooms were renovated one section at a time, and tenants were able to move in as soon as a unit was available. Usually, Yazwinski said, an affordable housing project takes three or four years to develop.

Yazwinski also said the project’s cost — $10 million, or just shy of $150,000 per unit — was about half the typical per-unit price for permanent housing, which ranges from $200,000 to $300,000.

In addition to their rooms, Roadway tenants have access to on-site laundry, a fenced courtyard, and a 24/7 staff of social workers. A wall of mailboxes lines the staircase up to the case managers’ office.

“It was definitely built as a building to host a lot of people,” Yazwinski said.

Yazwinski said the Roadway, part of a network of more than 600 units along the South Shore, represents Father Bill’s and MainSpring’s broader goal of shifting away from the congregate-housing model typically associated with shelters. He said shelters should act “more like a medical emergency room,” designed to help in crises and provide people with resources before or while they experience homelessness.

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Close to a decade ago, Governor Charlie Baker vowed to end the use of hotels and motels as emergency resources to house homeless families, but Yazwinski said the concern in those cases was because the hotels were a temporary fix that lacked any stability. The use of the Roadway, and other converted hotels like it, provides residents with a more permanent option that allows them to stay in their own community as they transition out of homelessness.

Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of Pine Street Inn, said the organization has long seen the need for more permanent and transitional housing — like the apartments planned for its Dorchester site — but the pandemic fueled the urgency of seeking out private rooms.

Downie added that permanent housing provides “significant savings” to the state’s health care system, as having a stable address and locking door make it easier for those experiencing homelessness to receive primary care and store their medications, on top of reducing stress.

“You take people out of what I call this revolving spoke,” she said. “You put a spanner in the spoke.”

She said Pine Street is aiming to make about 70 percent of its beds permanent — and is ready to take advantage of any opportunity to create new housing. But finding a site like the Comfort Inn is “pretty rare,” she said, considering Boston’s sizzling real estate market.

“Even when this market dips a little bit, it doesn’t dip for long,” Downie said.

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She and others also noted that they may only have a short window to identify vacant hotels for use. Though the economic pains created by the pandemic led to the hotel vacancies, travel business is starting to return, and so could investments in the hotel industry.

Pinnacle Advisory Group, a national hospitality consultant, forecasts that Boston and Cambridge will see hotel occupancy rates return to 90 percent of 2019 levels by next year. In the surrounding suburbs, that figure is closer to 99 percent.

Sheila Dillon, Boston’s chief of housing, said housing providers need to look for new opportunities beyond hotels as the city’s tourism market recovers.

Dillon said the city is actively working with community partners, like Pine Street — whose Dorchester project was recently lauded by Wu — to increase its stock of permanent, supportive housing. There are currently more than 400 units in development.

“The nonprofits that are being successful here have their ear to the ground, they’re talking to owners early, and they’re able to compete with relatively fair acquisition prices,” Dillon said.

Beyond hotels, Downie said, sites like former nursing homes, convents, and hospitals usually make for quick project turnarounds.

“Let’s prioritize those places if they’re sitting vacant,” Yazwinski said. “If we’re going to really end homelessness, then let’s look at every tool in the toolbox.”

But for now, the quickest tool has been the vacant hotel.

In Gaessler’s apartment, signs of the room’s former use in the hospitality industry still linger, especially in the matching bed, bureau, and nightstand. But the string lights, the plush chair, and the television — those are all personal to Gaessler.

“I take care of myself,” he said.


Daniel Kool can be reached at daniel.kool@globe.com. Follow him @dekool01.