ATLANTA — Kirsten Benson (M.Mu. ’05, M.I.S. ‘20), is a former middle school choral music teacher who left education to pursue a career in acting. On the side, she worked as a residential real estate agent in Atlanta.
Benson’s experiences as an agent drove her from acting to action as she saw corporate and individual investors buy homes for lower prices in promising, often undervalued, neighborhoods.
“I saw long-term residents lose their ability to live in their neighborhoods because it was becoming too expensive,” she said.
Believing that her work helped contribute to gentrification, Benson felt she needed to help alleviate the problem. She decided to pursue a career in affordable housing development and returned to Georgia State University in 2019, at 58 years old, to pursue a second master’s degree.
Her interest in creating affordable housing was cemented during her graduate studies with an internship at Mercy Housing Southeast (MHSE). Working with an organization committed to creating affordable housing in the Southeast for those who lack the economic resources to access safe, quality housing fueled her passion further.
“Mercy Housing provided me with responsibilities, including involvement with multiple projects, which contributed to what I wanted to do,” she said.
Benson’s internship at MHSE turned into a full-time job as a project manager in March 2021. In this role, she served as the development manager for multiple projects, including Thrive Sweet Auburn, a mixed-use, multi-family building MHSE is developing in partnership with Project Community Connections, Inc. (PCCI).
“I like working at Mercy because of the mission’s focus to serve people,” Benson said. “We develop and provide housing that does not look like affordable housing. Our housing is attractive and very comfortable for residents.”
Thrive Sweet Auburn, projected to open next February, will include 117 affordable apartments on the top three floors, 23 of which will be permanent supportive housing (PSH) units to help people who were formerly homeless get back on their feet. PSH services will be provided by River Edge, with funding by Fulton County. The first floor will house the Mercy building management and resident services, PCCI, and a commercial restaurant training facility. The Mercy suite will include space for River Edge to work with PSH clients plus a healthcare suite in which nurses will provide preventive healthcare, vaccines and other health services to residents and eventually to anyone in need in the surrounding neighborhood.
When it opens, Benson’s work will not be done. She plans to continue to fight gentrification by helping to build more affordable housing units for Atlanta residents.
By Ashley Thompson, M.A. in Communication candidate