Cathie Anderson

Sacramento-area homebuilders donate time, materials to sheltering homeless

Miguel Chamorro, a field supervisor with Production Framing, works on widening a doorway to accommodate a wheelchair, one of HomeAid’s projects for Volunteers of America, a group that helps homeless veterans and their families.
Miguel Chamorro, a field supervisor with Production Framing, works on widening a doorway to accommodate a wheelchair, one of HomeAid’s projects for Volunteers of America, a group that helps homeless veterans and their families.

Building industry leaders such as Bill Niemi and Earl Keith think virtually every day about ways they can help put homeless Sacramento-area residents into shelters. Indeed, over the last 20 years, homebuilders, their trade contractors and suppliers have donated time, expertise and materials to 73 projects that added 769 beds for women, families and children in crises.

Homebuilders, contractors and suppliers work through a little-known nonprofit called HomeAid Sacramento, the charity of choice for the North State Building Industry Association. Recently, Niemi and Keith met electrician Nick Himphill and learned how their work had come full circle through him. Before co-founding an electrical contracting business with his brother Tony in 2007, Himphill had lived in transitional housing that HomeAid members have helped to maintain.

“I want to say thanks to you guys for all the work that you do because I know that what they do is important to the communities, but it is life-changing for people like myself,” Himphill told Keith and Niemi. “I’m a recovering addict. I got myself into a lot of trouble years ago. I ended up living on the streets and being homeless for quite a number of years.”

Himphill said he and his wife, Jill, had been living a subsistence existence without regular shelter for years. The couple had tried but failed to achieve long-term sobriety until 2002, when they were dropped off at a local homeless shelter, Himphill said. Encouraged by his brother, his wife opened up to the idea of working a 12-step program, he said. He embraced it especially since the couple had a safe place where they no longer had to scrounge for their next meal.

Living in transitional housing at Volunteers of America’s Mather Community Campus, which HomeAid members have maintained over the years, the Himphills worked toward a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle. Himphill began to pursue licensing in the electrical trade, a field he had worked in during the 1990s. He and his brother now run a crew of five employees and are looking at a merger that will double the Folsom-based company’s size. Himphill Electric does work for retailers, nonprofits, redevelopers and other businesses in Northern California.

The Himphills’ story was energizing and exciting, Niemi said, and he felt that same charge when the interests and expertise of for-profit building industry partners dovetail with the needs of nonprofit partners. Homebuilders and their trade partners have contributed roughly $6.9 million in in-kind labor and materials over HomeAid’s 20-year run in this region.

Sacramento-area builders were the first chapter to adopt the HomeAid model born in Orange County in 1989; today it has 17 local chapters nationwide. Homebuilders act as a builder captain on each project. Keith, for instance, has for months been in the throes of spearheading a $3.9 million expansion of transitional housing for St. John’s Program for Real Change. The nonprofit expects to add 90 beds for women and children by February.

“We have to develop plans and submit them to the jurisdiction for approval, go through all that process, and then oversee or bring in trade partners, suppliers and so forth that want to participate in the project,” said Keith, the controller for homebuilder Lennar’s Sacramento division. “We have our contractor’s license, and we’ll pull a permit. Then we’ll oversee that project during its development and construction.”

At the start of every project, said HomeAid executive director Beth Kang, the builder captain establishes the retail cost of the project and uses that budget to determine what services and materials must be negotiated. If nonprofit partners had paid the retail cost of past HomeAid projects, she said, they would have spent more than $16 million.

A project the size of St. John’s new shelter will require a team of employees from the homebuilder. They track the time they work, and the homebuilder reports those hours and wages to HomeAid for tax purposes. The builder captain – Keith in the case of the St. John project – will go to trade contractors and suppliers, telling them about the project and gauging their interest. If they express a desire to participate, Keith asks whether they want to contribute labor, materials or furniture. These companies also keep records and send them to Kang. She juggles this task, she said, so that St. John’s, Volunteers of America and other service providers can devote their time to administering and delivering programs and services.

“We touch a lot of different nonprofits in the community because of our work,” she said, “and our gift to the community is to work with homebuilders and their trade partners and businesses to donate services for designing, planning and building multifamily shelters where the homeless can rebuild their lives.”

Niemi sat on the board of the North State Building Industry Association when the trade association’s CEO, John Orr, organized a trip down to Orange County to study the HomeAid organization that developed the model. In 1996, when the association launched its HomeAid chapter, Niemi recalled, California was just gaining steam after being hit particularly hard by a recession. It wasn’t the ideal time to ask for donations of labor and materials.

“Initially on these projects, a lot of our trade partners would come in and say, ‘Well, I can give you labor but not material,’ but by the time the project was done, they felt so good about it that they just gave us all of it,” Niemi said. “It’s been a really exciting opportunity for our association. … The idea of starting this kind of nonprofit was bold. But we found two builder captains: Lewis Homes, which no longer builds in the community, was our first builder captain, and U.S. Homes was our second builder captain.”

If you look back at the people recognized in the state’s Homebuilding Hall of Fame, Niemi said, you’ll see that HomeAid’s mission has been inculcated into the industry’s culture. Many honorees, whose number include Niemi and Orr, have led multiple HomeAid projects or have launched HomeAid chapters.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee