Cathie Anderson

Sacramento’s Habitat will see lots of change under new CEO

Rob Kerth, the new chief executive of Sacramento Habitat for Humanity, leads an organization with a $5.9 million budget and a mission to provide housing to low-income residents of Sacramento and Yolo counties.
Rob Kerth, the new chief executive of Sacramento Habitat for Humanity, leads an organization with a $5.9 million budget and a mission to provide housing to low-income residents of Sacramento and Yolo counties. Courtesy of Rob Kerth

Former Sacramento City Councilman Rob Kerth has taken the reins of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Sacramento as the organization is changing up its fundraising strategy and adding a program aimed at neighborhood revitalization.

In 2011, state leaders eliminated redevelopment agencies that funded projects in blighted areas, redirecting those dollars toward schools and special districts. Critics had pointed to a number of for-profit projects underwritten with the funds that did not improve struggling neighborhoods.

Habitat will spend the last of its state redevelopment funding on four of the nine houses it will build this year. The state had provided $50,000 of the $125,000 needed to build a house. Businesses and private individuals provided the remaining $75,000.

Despite the bigger fundraising challenge, Kerth doesn’t sound dejected: “This is really a very exciting time in housing. Within the next few years, we’re going to come up with a whole new system to replace redevelopment. ... We’re going to get a lot done.”

Kerth, 67, was selected from 164 applicants to be the organization’s new chief executive. He sits on the board of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and is a scion of the Kerth family who founded the American Ice Co. and the Iceland skating rink in North Sacramento. He is responsible for the design of ice rinks in what’s now called Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento and an outdoor rink at Squaw Valley’s High Camp in 1990.

Veteran nonprofit leader Pam Saltenberger, who served as Sacramento Habitat’s interim CEO for about six months, said she and other members of the executive search team felt that Kerth’s experience in the political arena would help the organization lead and navigate discussions about how governments and nonprofits can work together to ensure there’s adequate housing for low-income residents.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for Habitat to strategically think about the future and the impact we’re going to make in our communities,” Saltenberger said. “I think Rob will bring some energy and expertise in that area of opportunity for Habitat.”

The loss of government funding is not the only challenge for the Sacramento Habitat, which has a budget of $5.9 million for the fiscal year ending in June. Nationwide, Habitat affilitates have begun hearing from some corporate sponsors that want their dollars stretched to help more than just one family.

“Some of our funders are backing away from individual homes,” Saltenberger said. “They’re much more interested in seeing a broader base of people helped.”

Habitat affiliates across the country have begun offering neighborhood revitalization programs, and the Sacramento-based organization launched its effort last year with a work project in West Sacramento. Habitat volunteers worked on several homes in one neighborhood, doing things like replacing building materials damaged by dry rot, painting homes, fixing or putting on new roofs.

“The whole neighborhood starts to clean up and change after that,” Saltenberger said. “When we spread our dollars, we get lots more impact for our dollars by doing that. We’ll never stop building houses, for sure, but really diversifying what we’re doing and how we’re doing it is really the wave of the future.”

Kerth said that, as a community activist and politician, he’s seen a new Habitat home turn around neighborhood decay as well.

“When Habitat comes in and they buy an old weedy vacant lot, and a year or so later, there’s a nice little house on it, some new homeowners who are proud of their community and get involved, that good spreads. The next thing you know, other people on the block are fixing up their houses. The fences start to get painted.”

The Sacramento Habitat affiliate has begun to put particular emphasis on interfaith home-building projects, an endeavor that Saltenberg said has taken off with advocacy from board member Jeff vonKaenel, publisher of the Sacramento News & Review. Essentially, she and Kerth said, it’s an opportunity for people of all faiths to sponsor a home, volunteer to work on a home-building project or do both.

The idea is that, if people of all faiths can work beside each other for a common goal, they can share faith stories if they choose and gain understanding to stem the tide of any negative rhetoric that rises against one particular faith, Saltenberger said.

And, they will be working side by side with the person selected to buy the Habitat home, said Kerth, who served on the Sacramento City Council from 1992-2000. He stressed that Habitat is not a giveaway program. Those who qualify to buy a home pay for it with their sweat equity and a no-interest mortgage. Their payments ensure that the organization can continue its mission.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee