On a mission to build housing democracy
Jesse Kanson Benanav
Managing Director, Abundant Housing-MA
Industrial experience: 19 years
A stint as a community organizer helped Jesse Kanson-Benanav realize he wanted to help change the zoning rules that determine who can live where and why. Armed with a master’s degree in urban planning from MIT and a decade in various parts of the affordable housing world, including developing affordable projects at B’nai B’rith Housing, he helped launch a new advocacy group for Statewide housing in 2020: Abundant Housing-MA.
The group grew out of his experience helping to found A Better Cambridge, a housing advocacy group formed to oppose downgrading in that city’s Central Square area and later won the passage of a zoning overlay citywide that gives density bonuses to affordable housing developments. At its heart, the new venture led by Kanson-Benanav aims to democratize decision-making around zoning by bringing voices to the table who want to see more housing, but who are usually drowned out by opponents of development.
Q: Was your professional journey distinct from your personal journey as someone deeply concerned about housing issues?
A: Everything is somehow connected. I grew up in a fairly political family – my father was on rue Saint-Paul [Minnesota] City council and mayoral candidate. There’s campaign literature there with me when I was 18 months old, ever since my dad first ran for office. It’s also rooted in being Jewish and in the Jewish concept of “tikun olam,” our duty to leave the world better than we found it. It’s been integral to how I was raised and why my dad was in politics, and even the activism I did as a teenager.
When I graduated from college, I wanted to be a community organizer. I strongly believe in the power of communities to bring about change and to bring people affected by a problem together to create solutions. That’s what brought me to Boston originally, an internship at a community organization in Somerville doing housing policy organizing work and a bit of tenant organizing around expiring uses of the section 8, organizing tenants to convince their landlord to reapply. I had no professional training in town planning, zoning and real estate, but I realized that it was something that had fascinated me from a very young age – the physical development of cities and the regulations that guide and the choices we make about who can live where and do what.
Q: Is there a direct line to people involved in housing advocacy today?
A: We have a housing crisis hitting everyone in Greater Boston. It strikes – first and foremost – workers, but it does not only affect people with limited incomes. It hits young families who want a bit more space but can’t afford to trade. It hits people who want to downsize but can’t find buildings with elevators they can afford. It even affects the field of biotechnology. They try to hire people with PhDs in places with lower housing costs like the Midwest, but find that Massachusetts housing costs make them less competitive. This movement is racially and age-diverse, and thrives because it affects people from all walks of life, at all income levels.
Q: You recently scored a victory in Beacon Hill by having a measure included in the Senate version of the infamous Economic Development Bill that would have legalized secondary suites on many single-family lots. What else have you been working on lately?
A: We hired our first organizer a few months ago, we now have about 300 paying members, we have about 800 people who have acted with us – writing letters and signing petitions – and we have a dozen groups in the Boston area. who have affiliated with us, groups like A Better Cambridge and Engine 6. We plan to expand statewide.
Recognizing that we are new and building capacity, we have focused heavily on MBTA Communities legislation and ensured that the guidelines – expected to be released any day now – are robust, and for making sure that when communities have these conversations around multi-family zoning around transit, a grassroots activist base is ready to lead these efforts locally and speak up for these efforts.
Q: How does your organization differ from other housing advocacy groups?
A: We believe there is a severe housing shortage in Massachusetts. It’s driven by exclusionary zoning, the fact that many communities don’t build homes, and has gotten us to a point where we have this housing deficit that forces the working class and the poor into direct competition with the richer for houses. Whenever this happens, the wealthiest people are going to gain and increase the cost of housing, not only when people make huge cash offers to buy houses, but also when tenants offer extra money just to secure an apartment.
We are members of CHAPA. We are also members of the MACDC and strongly support their work. But we are not a trade group for any particular industry. We are a grassroots organization. Our members are mostly people who live in their communities and do not work in housing, but have seen how the housing crisis has impacted their lives, their friends, their neighbors and their communities.
Q: What is important for people in the real estate world to know about your organization? A: We’re not just focused on affordable housing in Capital A. We support the creation of housing at all income levels across the state. That being said, our goal is to strengthen this grassroots base in many communities across the state and prepare them – the grassroots groups and their members – to advocate for housing-friendly policies and, if they choose , to certain developments.
However, we are generally unable to speak in favor of specific developments. For me, as a Boston resident, even going to Brookline or Arlington to talk to a zoning board doesn’t give me much legitimacy. But it’s powerful if our members in those communities have the ability to speak out for housing near transit, or for more affordable housing and other policies that could lead to more housing in their communities. and throughout the state.
Q: Governor Charlie Baker has made housing production a priority during his administration. Do you see opportunities as a new governor takes office?
A: In the midst of a severe housing crisis in Massachusetts – Boston has the second highest rent in the country! — we don’t seem to be getting much movement from legislative leaders on housing issues. We cannot consider our work around zoning reform and housing production finished. Just because we have the MBTA Communities Act doesn’t solve the problem. It can have a lot of good impacts in the years to come, but a lot of things are up in the air. What changes are needed to strengthen the law? We have already heard from communities about not wanting to comply with the law.
Secondary suites are another important conversation. Already, our neighbors in Maine and New Hampshire have legalized ADUs in their state. These are opportunities on a smaller scale, without the physical or “characteristic” impact of multifamily housing, to bring more diversity into communities that are not diverse. If we are to live up to the values Massachusetts claims to stand for, we need to make changes.
Kanson-Benanav’s five favorite things to do in the summer
- Visit Distraction Brewing in Roslindale
- Ride the T to the playground with her 3 year old
- Cycling along the Southwest Corridor
- Visit the Outer Cape with the family
- Visit outdoor festivals, flea markets and “Open Streets” events