Private sector, public service

Don Harris demonstrates the power of nonprofits to rebuild communities

Don Harris founded Nehemiah Corporation of California.

Don Harris founded Nehemiah Corporation of California.

photo by Larry Dalton

After seven years at the helm of a national nonprofit organization, whose work on behalf of blighted communities, minorities and lower-to-middle-class families easily rivals any government-sponsored program, Don Harris was asked if he’d ever consider running for elective office.

His answer may help explain why local and state politicians laud him—and why they need him working in the private sector.

“I guess one should never say never,” said the 36-year-old Sacramentan, “but it’s hard to imagine, because there’s such a complexity when you’re [in office] in terms of the compromises you have to make to get things done that are important to you. [But] now that we have become one of the largest community development corporations in the country, we can throw our weight around a bit. We can say, ‘We ought to make this a priority,’ and then go and do it.”

The ‘we’ Harris refers to is his brainchild, Nehemiah Corporation of California—an umbrella organization whose various divisions provide a host of services, including down-payment assistance for first-time homebuyers and redeveloping blighted areas in Sacramento and throughout the country.

The organization’s most recent program—the Nehemiah Urban Land Trust—illustrates Harris’ ability to identify a need and begin to fill it. Harris maintains that people in need of transitional and supportive housing in America’s communities have had few options. At a recent retreat, Nehemiah board members decided to commit more than $1 million to urban land trust projects for the next year—the intent being that if the projects are successful, interest will build in both the public and private sectors.

“To me, this is about caring for the least among us and creating a vehicle to do that,” Harris said.

Nehemiah’s first urban land trust project was a $300,000 purchase of the Southside House at 521 T St. in Sacramento, a property currently providing supportive housing to the mentally ill and run by Transitional Living and Community Support.

“In the future, it may remain as housing for the mentally ill, or foster kids or transitional housing for the homeless,” Harris said. “But the point is, we’ve taken it off the market. We’re not doing it to maximize the value or maximize rents; we’re trying to preserve it as a unique housing resource. Do you know how cool it is to be able to go on a board retreat, come back and say, ‘We’re going to do this’ and then have it done? It’s really amazing.”

But if Harris is to see his full vision realized, he will need help from his friends in public office—people such as Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg and Sen. Deborah Ortiz, both Sacramento Democrats, as well as the Sacramento City Council. Already, Nehemiah is collaborating on legislation that would create tax incentives for dedication of land or resources to urban land trusts so that more people in the private sector will become involved in similar efforts.

“Don Harris is a remarkable leader,” says Steinberg. “He’s very much a pioneer in a number of areas. Don has a high intelligence and great passion and that’s a formidable combination.”

Inventing Nehemiah
Nehemiah had modest goals when it was formed in 1994. The fact that it grew to an organization that has aided more than 70,000 families with more than $232 million in down-payment assistance for first-time home buyers, that it is active in 3,500 cities in 49 states, or that it would partner with Habitat for Humanity, spending $1 million and building 20 homes, including the Oprah House in Del Paso Heights, is as much a surprise to Harris as anyone.

Harris initially formed Nehemiah as an adjunct to the Antioch Progressive Baptist Church where his stepfather, Curtis Mitchell, serves as senior pastor. The true impetus in starting Nehemiah was, Harris said, to provide a vehicle so the church could fulfill its vision of building 100 senior housing units as part of a multipurpose church campus that would include a childcare center and community gathering place.

The seed capital came from Mitchell’s church, Harris says, and stemmed from his father’s goal of meeting people’s “basic, human needs,” as well as their spiritual ones.

“So we didn’t have any grand design at the time to turn it into a national organization and do all things we now do,” Harris says. “After the [senior housing], I was probably going to go on and practice law. I didn’t intend for this to become the big detour that it has become.”

But along the way, Harris began thinking about what he terms the “historical wealth disparity” among white males, minorities and single women.

In simple terms, this can be illustrated using two people: one white, one non-white, with the same educational background, same income, same credit rating and same ability to pay a monthly mortgage. Both would seem to be on even economic ground. But looking at each person’s ability to come up with a down-payment of $2,000, the situation becomes less equal.

“Historically, you take the typical African-American household and the typical Caucasian household. While one family was accumulating property, the other family was property,” Harris said. “And we’ve never caught up. That’s the easiest way to say it.”

So while the white home buyer often has the ability to obtain help with a down-payment from parents or other relatives, non-whites often can’t tap similar resources.

“So let’s say [the first] buys a house in Laguna. Now, the other home buyer doesn’t have that access, so they save up for that down-payment, waiting two years before they buy a similar house in Laguna,” Harris said. “What’s happened in the meantime? One party’s real estate now has realized equity, and the other one’s is two years behind. Multiply that by several generations. That’s wealth disparity.”

Yet Harris is about helping the disadvantaged, regardless of race. Of the more than 70,000 first-time home buyers that Nehemiah has provided with down-payment assistance, 60 percent are white, 23 percent are black (almost double the percentage of blacks in the general population), 12 percent are Hispanic, 2 percent are Asian or Pacific-Islander and 2 percent are Native American.

Local focus
The oft-quoted mantra of former House Speaker Tip O’Neil—“all politics is local”—is a lesson Harris seems to have taken to heart and one that was fostered first through his work with the late Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna.

“I learned the art—and the importance—of coalition-building from Joe,” Harris said of his days spent as one of the first administrative assistants to the Sacramento City Council in the mid-1980s.

“People are too often so protective of their little piece of turf that they don’t see how much power [for change] can be achieved when you come together,” Harris said, pointing to Serna’s ability to bring the business and education communities together to fix a troubled Sacramento City Unified School District in the mid-1990s as a prime example.

It was also under Serna—and later working for the law firm of McDonough, Holland and Allen after graduating from law school at the University of California at Davis—that Harris became immersed in the issues of local redevelopment.

Vice Mayor Bonnie Pannell said that when she thinks of Harris, she thinks of a young man who “knows what community is all about.”

“Don’s smart, he’s articulate … he could have done anything he wanted to do,” Pannell says. “A lot of people come into your community, make money off of it and then leave. Don gives back.”

Former and current City Council members, as well as Steinberg and others, vividly remember the arson attack on Congregation B’Nai Israel in June 1999, a hate crime that sent waves of anger and fear through the community.

“Nehemiah, and by that I mean Don, was the first organization to come forward with financial assistance and support the unity project we were in the midst of developing,” Steinberg said. “By doing that, I know he was recognizing the historic African-American/Jewish community alliance that goes back as far as the civil rights movement.”

Looking forward, Harris says that he hopes that when people evaluate Nehemiah under his tenure, they’ll conclude that his is an organization accountable to the communities it serves.

“To me, there’s a resounding obligation that if you’ve got the resources … that you have a public trust obligation to be good stewards,” Harris said. “I hope they’ll see that we walk the talk and that it’s not just a bunch of hype.”