For about 15 years, Jack Koutoujian was homeless, the result of a downward spiral that began with a divorce. He frequented the shelter run by Pine Street Inn, then bounced between rented rooms. At 79, he never again expected to have a home he could call his own.
By year’s end, he and about 100 other formerly homeless people will have moved into studio apartments in the most desirable of Boston neighborhoods: the Back Bay.
“Thank God, you have something over your head, outside it’s so cold,” said Koutoujian, who once lived in a house in Belmont. “The best thing in life is to have your own room and especially the bathroom.”
Call it the Miracle on Clarendon Street, born of a pandemic that led one developer to back out and another to step in with the improbable idea of converting a historic building in the Back Bay into affordable housing. Projects like these typically take years to pull together, but this one took just a little over a year from the filing of its plan to the start of renovations.
In a region desperate for affordable housing, 140 Clarendon stands out for how public and private sectors came together, cobbling together 15 sources of government funding and financing from MassHousing, the Boston Housing Authority, and other agencies. Then a neighborhood threw its support behind the project, welcoming people coming out of homelessness into its backyard.
Whether 140 Clarendon becomes a model for affordable housing or just a unicorn in the world of real estate remains to be seen. But this much is clear: If there’s a will, there’s a way to create housing with a sense of urgency.
“It really comes back to political leadership,” said Darcy Jameson, vice president of development for Beacon Communities, which partnered with the Mount Vernon Company to develop 140 Clarendon. “The city and state wanted to make this happen.”
The 13-story building sits a couple of blocks from Copley Square, a neighborhood of glitzy condos and glassy skyscrapers. Turns out it’s also an ideal place for 210 units of affordable rental housing, with access to public transit (the Back Bay T station is next door) and amenities such as the Boston Public Library, churches, and grocery stores.
For close to a century, YW Boston — the former YWCA — owned the Clarendon Street property. The nonprofit’s administrative office is there, and the Lyric Stage Theatre is on the second floor. Boston Public Schools’ Snowden International occupies the basement. There was even a small 66-room hotel (run by the YW), as well more than 100 subsidized rentals.
In 2019, the board of YW decided to sell the property because owning and managing it was taking away from its core mission of empowering women and fighting racism. The board also wanted to capitalize on a hot real estate market and use the proceeds to finance YW programs for decades to come.
All was going according to plan — until the pandemic struck. The first buyer wanted to convert the property into a high-end hotel but terminated the deal when the bottom fell out of the travel market. That gave Beacon, which lost to the hotel developer in the initial bidding, another chance.
Beacon Chairman Howard Cohen corralled city and state officials to come to the table with financing. Beacon and Mount Vernon would purchase the building for about $51 million. Then Beacon would spend another $40 million to renovate the property and manage it. The developers would allow the commercial tenants, the YW, the Lyric, and the Snowden — which all supported the project — to stay, as well as residents in the rental apartments.
Beacon’s plan called for the hotel section to be converted into studio and one-bedroom units, doubling the number of apartments in the building to 210. To qualify for the units, which are subsidized under the federal Section 8 housing program, tenants can’t earn more than $51,950, or 50 percent of the median-area income for a single person.
For formerly homeless residents, the income cap is $31,150, or no more than 30 percent of the median-area income. Rents for similar market-rate apartments are close to $3,000 a month.
Tenants were allowed to stay in the building while Beacon created 111 units of so-called permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people — with Pine Street Inn providing case managers and other services to these residents.
While Pine Street is known for its shelters, the nonprofit owns or manages 960 apartments in the Boston area. That’s more than double the number of shelter beds it operates. Pine Street carefully vets tenants, conducting criminal background checks and other screening to ensure they can thrive living on their own.
When Beacon called Pine Street Inn about providing services at 140 Clarendon, Jan Griffin, the nonprofit’s vice president of housing development, couldn’t believe her ears.
“This was a cold call. We have done some projects [like this], but this is the first time a for-profit developer called and said, ‘We have a project we want you to get involved in,’” recalled Griffin. “Of course, we jumped at it.”
Beacon and Pine Street, both experienced players, proved a potent combination that made the project more attractive to lenders, said Mark Teden, vice president of multifamily programs at MassHousing.
Still, it took months for city and state officials to get the financing over the finish line. They knitted together an alphabet soup of state loans and a package of state and federal tax credits. The city kicked in a $6.3 million grant and forgave a $2 million loan the YW had taken out on the building.
“We do the complicated stuff,” said Kathleen Evans, MassHousing’s senior manager of subsidy and grant programs. “This is why we exist.”
Typically, neighbors stall affordable housing proposals, but that was not the case here. Within a couple of months of the project’s filing with the city, the Back Bay Association, which represents businesses, and the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, which represents residents, wrote letters in support.
“We’re often accused of being NIMBYs,” said Martyn Roetter, chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay.
The Back Bay community isn’t insulated from the housing crisis; residents see the effects with homeless people congregating by the Boston Public Library and other public spaces. Supporting 140 Clarendon was a way to be part of the solution.
“We are not claiming to be some marvelous saviors,” said Roetter. “We’re trying to do all that we can within our limited powers to improve the situation for as many people as possible.”
For YW Boston, there’s symmetry in its longtime headquarters becoming synonymous with affordable housing. The organization was founded in 1866 to provide housing for young single women, many of them immigrants who came to Boston to work as maids.
“It seemed almost the perfect full circle to be able to go back to our housing roots,” said YW CEO Beth Chandler. “The importance of housing in people’s lives has not changed.”
As to whether 140 Clarendon is a model that can be replicated, the answer is clear to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. The project was underway before she was elected in 2021, but she holds it out as an example of what’s possible. Already, her administration has in the pipeline about 900 units of housing for the formerly homeless, all of which rely on public funding including millions of dollars from the city.
“We’ve always been a city that doesn’t back down from big, hard challenges,” said Wu, who plans to meet the residents of 140 Clarendon in the coming weeks. “It’s really a reflection of our neighborhoods and our city’s commitment to wanting to make sure everyone has what they need in their community.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.