Jesse Kanson-Benanav
Executive Director, Abundant Housing-MA
Age: 41
Industry experience: 19 years 

A stint as a community organizer helped Jesse Kanson-Benanav realize he wanted to help change the zoning rules that shape who gets to live where, and why. Armed with an MIT master’s degree in urban planning 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 statewide housing advocacy group in 2020: Abundant Housing-MA. 

The group grew out of his experience helping found A Better Cambridge, a housing advocacy group formed to oppose downzoning in that city’s Central Square neighborhood and which has gone on to win passage of a citywide zoning overlay that gives density bonuses to affordable housing developments. At its heart, the new venture Kanson-Benanav leads is intended to democratize decision-making around zoning by bringing voices to the table who want to see more housing, but who are typically drowned out by development’s opponents. 

Q: Was your professional journey distinct from your personal journey as someone who has come to care deeply about housing issues?
A: It’s all sort of related. I grew up in a fairly political family – my father was on the St. Paul [Minnesota] City Council and ran for mayor. There’s campaign literature out there with me when I was 18 months old, from when my dad ran for office the first time. It’s also rooted in being Jewish and the Jewish concept of “tikun olam,” our duty to leave the world better than we found it. It’s part and parcel of 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 believe strongly in the power of communities to make change and bringing the people impacted by a problem together to create solutions. That’s what brought me to Boston originally, a placement at a Somerville Community Organizing doing organizing work on housing policy and a little bit of tenant organizing around Section 8 expiring uses, organizing tenants to convince their landlord to re-apply. I didn’t have any professional background in planning and zoning and real estate issues, but I realized it was something that fascinated me from an early age – the physical development of cities and the regulations that guide that and the choices that we make about who can live where and do what. 

Q: Is there any through-line to the people who are getting involved in housing advocacy today?
A: We have a housing crisis that’s hitting everyone in Greater Boston. It’s hitting – first and foremost – working people the worst, but it’s not only hitting people of limited incomes. It’s hitting young families that want a little more space but can’t afford to trade up. It’s hitting people who want to downsize but can’t find buildings with elevators they can afford. It’s even hitting the biotech field. They’re trying to hire people with PhDs from places with lower housing costs like the Midwest, but they’re finding that Massachusetts’ housing costs make them less competitive. This movement is racially and age diverse, and growing because it’s hitting people from all walks of life, across the income spectrum. 

Q: You recently scored a win on Beacon Hill getting a measure included in the Senate version of the infamous economic development bill that would have legalized accessory dwelling units on many single-family lots. What else have you been working on recently?
A: We hired our first organizer a few months ago, we now have around 300 dues-paying members, we have about 800 people who’ve taken action with us – writing letters and signing petitions – and we have about a dozen groups in the Boston area that have affiliated with us, groups like A Better Cambridge and Engine 6. We’re looking ahead to expanding across the state. 

Recognizing that we’re new and building our capacity, we’ve focused strongly on the MBTA Communities legislation and making sure the guidelines – which are set to be released any day now – are strong, and to make sure that when communities have those conversations around zoning for multifamily around transit, a base of grassroots activists are prepared to lead those efforts locally and speak in support of those efforts. 

Q: How is your organization distinct from other groups in the housing advocacy space?
A: We believe that there’s a severe undersupply of homes in Massachusetts. That’s driven by exclusionary zoning, that many communities aren’t building homes and has brought us to a point where we have this housing deficit that’s forcing working-class and poor people into direct competition with wealthier folks for homes. Any time that happens, wealthier folks are going to win and bid up the cost of housing, not only where people are making huge cash offers to purchase homes, but also with renters offering extra money just to secure an apartment. 

We’re members of CHAPA. We’re also members of MACDC and support their work strongly. But we’re not a trade group for a particular industry. We’re a grassroots organization. Our members are for the most part folks who live in their communities and who don’t work in the housing field but have seen how the housing crisis has impacted their lives, their friends, neighbors and communities. 

Q: What’s important for people in the real estate world to know about your organization? A: We’re not just focused on the capital-A affordable housing. We support the creation of housing across the income spectrum across the state. That being said, our focus is on building up that grassroots base in many communities around the state and preparing them – the grassroots groups and their members – to advocate for pro-housing policies and, if they choose, for certain developments. 

We aren’t generally in the position of speaking in favor of specific developments, though. For me as a Boston resident to go even into Brookline or Arlington to speak to a zoning board doesn’t give me a lot of legitimacy. But it is powerful if our members in those communities have the ability to speak up in support of housing near transit, or for more affordable housing and other polices that might lead to more housing in their communities and across the state. 

Q: Gov. Charlie Baker has made housing production a priority during his administration. Do you see any opportunities as a new governor comes into office?
A: In the midst of a severe housing crisis in Massachusetts – Boston has the second-highest rent in the country! – we can’t seem to get much movement from legislative leaders on housing issues. We can’t consider our work around zoning reform and housing production done. Just because we have the MBTA Communities law, it doesn’t mean the problem is solved. It can have a lot of good impacts in the coming years, but a lot of things are up in the air. What changes need to be made to strengthen the law? We’ve already heard communities talking about wanting to not comply with the law. 

Accessory dwelling units are another important conversation. Already our neighbors in Maine and New Hampshire have legalized ADUs across their state. They’re opportunities on a lower scale, without the physical or “character” impact of multifamily housing, to bring more diversity into communities that are not diverse. If we want to live up to the values Massachusetts purports to hold, we have to make changes.  

Kanson-Benanav’s Five Favorite Things to Do in the Summer 

  1. Visit Distraction Brewing in Roslindale 
  2. Ride the T to playground hop with his 3-year-old 
  3. Bike along the Southwest Corridor  
  4. Visit the Outer Cape with family 
  5. Visit outdoor festivals, flea markets and “Open Streets” events  

On a Mission to Build Housing Democracy

by James Sanna time to read: 5 min