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Jul 1, 2024

The New Adventure of Jenna Abbott: Advocating for Builders of Affordable Housing

A policy veteran shifts jobs

By Ed Goldman

While she loves to hike in the Tahoe Forest near her home in Truckee, Jennifer Abbott says she’s “strictly an urban girl. Let me put it this way: The last time I went camping was the last time I went camping.”

That’s why, in addition to their semi-rustic home in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Abbott and her husband of 25 years—Jon Kirkham, an information technology consultant who specializes in the public sector—own a house in Sacramento’s midtown. It contains a rental unit and also an Airbnb in back that runs at “about 89 percent occupancy,” she says, “and did almost from the moment we remodeled it.” They live in the city three or four days a week.

Edgy Cartoon

Jenna Abbott. Photo by Christie Gimple

Abbott’s worked hard for this dual lifestyle. Her career has been a kaleidoscope of top-level public- and private-sector jobs, which led to her recent hiring as only the second executive director in history (and “complete staff”) of the nonprofit California Council for Affordable Housing. Its founder and longtime chief, the visionary attorney and housing advocate Patrick R. Sabelhaus, passed away unexpectedly in 2023. 

Before that, she spent two years as the senior vice-president of strategic initiatives for the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, a job for which she was energetically recruited from her then-current post as executive director of The River District & Capitol Station Associates. The latter post carried echoes of the job Abbott held when I first interviewed her nine years ago: executive director of the Mack Road Partnership. Both jobs saw her overseeing property-based improvement districts, or PBIDS (pronounced Pea-bids) and both came with a strong possibility-of-failure factor: she needed to convince the owners of business properties to contribute money to improvements in their area—and then, when it was time to collect dues to continue the partnerships, to persuade the reluctant ones that keeping a business area alive, thriving and tidy doesn’t end after a single project. 

“I was pretty successful in getting them to re-up,” Abbott told me at the time.

In her new gig, she’s again working with businesses—in this case, 90 companies or individuals, most of whom build for profit, affordable housing. Her association is there to help move barriers to progress and ensure that tax credits are available as an added incentive to the builders.

“We try to expedite the process,” she says over a recent lunch, “so that decisions are made more quickly and at the city council level.” Though she’s a bit too sharp-witted and politically experienced to state it explicitly, I infer from her comment that spending too much time and energy appearing before planning commissions and architecture review panels can bog things down when the need for affordable housing has never been more keenly felt.

CCAH tracks and monitors pertinent state and federal legislation, and sees its mission as having an informed membership. It sponsors two statewide conferences each year, certificate-granting seminars for resident managers as well as a host of educational programs on Fair Housing, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and tax credit-monitoring rules and regs.

“We also maintain a litigation fund for issues that can carry statewide impacts,” she says. In other words, the group is not only willing to voice its opinions but also, when necessary, open its wallets.

The Canadian-born Abbott says she thinks of her new employer as “a shield and a conduit for builders, construction companies, architects, road builders, city and county housing authorities, land use attorneys, bankers and lenders.” 

She says the “secret of my success, when I have it, is because I’ve helped create or maintain relationships. When my members look good, I’m happy.” Just not a happy camper.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).