Habitat for Humanity

Jeff vonKaenel

I am not really a crying kind of guy. I like policy more than emotions. I particularly like housing policy, where small changes in the law and tweaks in procedure can create big changes. I like policies that give people better housing. I like policies that get kids off the couch and into a room of their own.

During the seven years that I’ve been on the board of Sacramento Habitat for Humanity, we have made tremendous progress. The most important thing we did was to hire Ken Cross to run the organization. Believe me, this ex-West Point, ex-Spiritual Life Center guy rocks. Instead of building one house per year, we are now building eight. We operate a very successful ReStore, which takes donated building materials, that would have otherwise gone to a landfill, and sells them at a 30 to 50 percent discount. The ReStore generates more than $500,000 each year. And, now we have completed five LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified homes, with help from The Home Depot Foundation and the U.S. Green Building Council. Money for solar panels came from PG&E and SMUD. Not only are we providing homes for families, we are also improving the neighborhood.

These policies make me happy. But even so, when families that have benefited from Habitat for Humanity come to speak at our board meetings, the tears start coming. You’d have to be pretty tough not to be moved.

The families are always different. Some are large, some are small, some were born in Sacramento and many were not. But they all have a similar story. The parents and the kids come into the board meeting, where we have been discussing the financials. The families are always a little nervous. I’m sure that on the way over the kids have been instructed on the importance of behaving well. The parents make sure that their kids sit down quietly and in the right spot, and then they talk about their house, how they intend to work off the 500 “sweat equity” hours required, and what a home will mean for their kids.

There is always a magical moment. It comes when the parents express their heartfelt appreciation that so many people who do not know them—who are of different races and different religions—put in so much time and effort to help them move into a house. Once they have worked their hours and paid off their no-interest loan, they will achieve a dream of owning their own home. It is so, so wonderful.

Then, it’s over. The young kids start to fidget. Their older siblings try to maintain order. We thank the family. We tell them we are happy that they are getting a house. We get back to the balance sheets. Except that all of us are now too choked up to think about numbers and policies anymore. Now the numbers really mean something.

Our content is free, but not free to produce

If you value our local news, arts and entertainment coverage, become an SN&R supporter with a one-time or recurring donation. Help us keep our reporters at work, bringing you the stories that need to be told.


Stay Updated

For the latest local news, arts and entertainment, sign up for our newsletter.
We'll tell you the story behind the story.

About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.