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Former Boston city councilor Josh Zakim launches new prohousing nonprofit

Organization will focus on breaking down zoning barriers and providing help to local activist groups

Josh Zakim waved to the crowd at the Democratic State Convention in 2018 after he won the nomination for secretary of state. He was later defeated by incumbent William F. Galvin in the Democratic primary.
Josh Zakim waved to the crowd at the Democratic State Convention in 2018 after he won the nomination for secretary of state. He was later defeated by incumbent William F. Galvin in the Democratic primary.John Tlumacki

After forays into city and state politics, former Boston city councilor Josh Zakim is following in the footsteps of his late father, civil rights leader Lenny Zakim, by becoming a nonprofit leader.

Josh Zakim has just started raising money for a new nonprofit, dubbed Housing Forward-MA, which he will oversee as its executive director. The nonprofit’s goal is to compile and promote research aimed at breaking down zoning barriers to the construction of affordable and middle-income housing, and multifamily housing in particular, across the state. It also plans to offer training for local activist groups about these issues. The Internal Revenue Service granted it 501c3 status in September, he said, making donations tax deductible.

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Zakim, who once chaired the City Council’s housing committee, recognizes he is joining a crowded field: The housing sector already has a number of nonprofits on its side, championing for policies that could increase the construction and availability of moderately priced houses and apartments.

“We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel here,” Zakim said. “The data is out there. What we’re trying to do is provide it to policy makers, other nonprofits, for-profits, activists in different neighborhoods — as well as the tools they need to make change.”

Zakim said his nonprofit will look to support policies that spur more equitable communities, particularly by offering more opportunities for low-income residents and people of color, as well as policies that support dense development near transit hubs and help address the climate crisis.

“If we’re not finding a way to create more sustainable housing, more low-income housing, more affordable housing, companies are going to hire elsewhere, and they’re going to move elsewhere,” Zakim said.

One such policy Zakim mentioned is the governor’s “Housing Choice” bill, which would allow a range of housing-related zoning and special-permit requests to pass at the local level with a simple majority of votes, as opposed to the two-thirds majority required by state law today. Different versions of that bill have been included in the House and Senate economic development packages, which are being negotiated this fall on Beacon Hill.

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Zakim expects his organization’s budget for the first year to be limited, likely under $100,000 to start, funded by contributions from Housing Forward’s board members: Chestnut Hill Realty chief executive Ed Zuker, and housing policy experts Barry Bluestone and Eleanor White. In addition to Zakim, the nonprofit has another full-time staffer and a part-time policy fellow, all working remotely for now.

Bluestone, public policy professor emeritus at Northeastern University, said rents in the Boston area have softened a bit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But he fully expects the region’s housing crisis to worsen once the colleges and universities fully reopen and the hospitals are back at full speed, putting more demand on Greater Boston’s multifamily housing, even if more white-collar employees can work from home after the pandemic ends.

The preponderance of single-family zoning throughout the state, Bluestone said, is the single biggest barrier to addressing the state’s long-term housing crisis. It’s a longstanding issue that Bluestone hopes Housing Forward can help resolve.

“This is critical for our businesses here that are having trouble recruiting their workforces,” Bluestone said. “There’s a lot of misinformation about what affordable housing means, such as, is this going to change the character of my community? What we’re trying to do with Housing Forward is say, ‘Your fears are unfounded.’”

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Zakim had a front-row view of local housing controversies during his six-year tenure on the City Council. He decided not to run again last year. In 2018, he challenged longtime incumbent Secretary of State William F. Galvin, garnering the delegates' endorsement at the Democratic State Convention that year before losing to Galvin in the primary.

Through it all, including with this latest venture, his dad’s commitment to the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam,” or “repairing the world,” remained front of mind. Lenny Zakim was probably best known through his work with the Anti-Defamation League, and he launched the Lenny Zakim Fund, which provides grants to smaller nonprofits, several years before his death in 1999. (Josh Zakim serves on the board of that fund.)

“My father was always talking about building coalitions from people of diverse backgrounds to achieve a common good, a common interest,” Zakim said. “I try to live to that philosophy and will definitely bring that to this work.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.