Jan. 13, 2022
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, people living in congregate facilities — spaces with shared living areas like bedrooms and bathrooms — were especially vulnerable to infection.
At MainSpring House, an emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness in Brockton, Massachusetts, the COVID infection rate among the 140 adult shelter guests rose to more than 30 percent in the first two months of the pandemic.
Today, those stats look very different. Some shelter guests will be moving into units of their own at the Roadway Apartments in the first quarter of 2022. What began as an emergency measure to protect MainSpring House guests' health is now an adaptive reuse success story: An underused hotel has been transformed into 69 units of permanent supportive housing, with renovations expected to be complete this spring.
More than a stopgap
In April 2020, Father Bill's & MainSpring (FBMS), the shelter's operator and service provider, depopulated the facility in an effort to allow for safe social distancing and prevent further outbreaks. FBMS quickly erected outdoor tents in an adjacent parking lot and moved some guests there, but the tents were only a stopgap measure.
"We needed a viable, long-term solution to permanently reduce the shelter population, especially since many of our guests are at high risk of infection," says John Yazwinski, FBMS's president and CEO.
Less than three miles away from MainSpring House, the Rodeway Inn sat empty due to the surging pandemic. Seeing an opportunity, FBMS leased the entire hotel in June 2020 and swiftly relocated more than 60 shelter guests.
The move paid off. The COVID infection rate at MainSpring House plummeted to less than one percent. For guests like Charles, 70, who has serious health issues and has experienced homelessness for four years, the change was a lifesaver.
"It's better because I have my own room. I have my own privacy," he says. (Charles, like other FBMS clients quoted in this story, is using his first name only for privacy.)
Reimbursements from FEMA helped FBMS run the hotel temporarily as an emergency non-congregate shelter, but FBMS knew the subsidies wouldn't last. FBMS approached the hotel's owner and negotiated a purchase for $4.2 million.
Zoning tools and funding
As the project's potential came into view, the state's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) announced in August 2020 that it would make up to $10 million available in capital resources for creating permanent supportive housing.
"As COVID-19 revealed, the lack of affordable housing in the Commonwealth is a public health crisis, particularly for those most vulnerable among us," says Massachusetts Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy. The project received more than $7 million in subordinate debt and 69 operating subsidies from DHCD for renovation of hotel rooms into enhanced single room occupancy (SRO) units with kitchenettes. (See the table below for a fuller picture of the project's funding.)
FBMS also needed the support of its partners at the local level, since the change in use from hotel to housing required city approval. But there was no time for a potentially lengthy public permitting process, given the still-surging pandemic.
FBMS used a zoning tool available in Massachusetts known as the Dover Amendment, which exempts nonprofit organizations providing educational services from land use and dimensional requirements. This tool allowed the homeless service provider to quickly secure its building permit without the need for a public process.
"We were happy to support FBMS in bringing new housing and much-needed services into our community," says Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan, whose administration helped confirm the applicability of the Dover Amendment.
To afford the acquisition price, FBMS needed a mission-driven lender that understood the project's complex layering of public and private financing. FBMS turned to the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation (CEDAC), a quasi-public community development financial institution that provides early-stage financing to nonprofits that develop affordable housing across Massachusetts.
"CEDAC was established in 1978 by then-state representative Mel King to support projects just like this one with financial and technical assistance," explains CEDAC's Executive Director, Roger Herzog.
In January 2021, CEDAC approved the $4.2 million acquisition loan to FBMS, which closed on its purchase of the property in March, ensuring that the 69 people living at the hotel temporarily would be able to stay permanently.
Overnight, the congregate shelter population in Brockton was cut in half. The timing couldn't have been better for Russell, who began experiencing homelessness at the height of the pandemic after struggling with substance use disorder.
"Without them, I would have nothing. I would be on the streets," says Russell, citing FBMS's efforts.
A replicable model
Brockton, with a population of 105,000, sits 25 miles south of Boston. The Roadway Apartments building is ideally located across the street from the Brockton VA Medical Center, and two nearby bus lines serve the downtown Brockton commuter rail station. A large shopping center is just a mile away and FBMS's administrative offices lie just beyond that.
Residents also have access to a comprehensive set of wrap-around supportive services provided by FBMS's on-site staff, which has already made a huge difference for Russell, who is celebrating one year of sobriety. "I've never really lived on my own, so it will be pretty cool to have my own space," he says.
Since FBMS first proposed its hotel conversion, CEDAC has been providing technical assistance to several other organizations around the state interested in replicating this Housing First model. The success of future efforts "will require continued state capital and operating funds and dedicated service funding," says CEDAC's Herzog, particularly with more than 1,200 people still living completely unsheltered in Massachusetts.
FBMS began renovations in September 2021 and the first batch of units were finished soon after, in November. Charles will be one of the first residents to move into a completed unit, which will allow him to conveniently get to his doctor's appointments. "This is the best thing that will ever happen," he says.