Maybe a fairy godmother can wave her magic wand and make a dream come true in a children’s fable, but it’s no fairytale that time, sweat and skills with wire cutters have helped make the American dream of owning a home come true in Los Angeles for 30 low-income families.

In November 2007, a cooperative effort by the Los Angeles County chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local Union 11, played an important role in the 24th annual Jimmy Carter Work Project, an ambitious home-building and remodeling program that was spearheaded by the Greater Los Angeles Habitat for Humanity.

In a one-week building blitz, the contribution of volunteer time and work to the Jimmy Carter Work Project culminated in the completion of 30 new townhomes for families who had been living in substandard housing and the remodeling and/or repair of 70 other residences.

Skilled workers from all home-building trades were assisted by 2,000 to 3,000 dedicated volunteers, who converged on Los Angeles from across the United States and foreign countries. The volunteers joined in wiring, hammering, painting, plastering—anything and everything that needed to be done—during the flurry of activity to flesh out the previously erected bare townhome frames and finish the Habitat for Humanity project. But the largest skilled volunteer contribution to the success of the effort was that of the electrical contingent, which Habitat valued at more than half a million dollars.

The Los Angeles NECA/IBEW Labor Management Cooperation Fund responded quickly to a request to participate in the Carter project. Solar power was a first in the nation for low-income homes. Volunteers did the rough electrical work in advance to pave the way for a smooth building blitz. Organization on the electrical portion of the job was modified to meet the tight construction schedule.

Construction of homes for local families in need is the mission of the Jimmy Carter Work Project. The former president and his wife, Rosalynn, led the project for Habitat for Humanity International, which has affiliates in all 50 states and 100 countries. Each year, the Carters select a city in which to build and/or rehabilitate housing for families in need.

In 2007, Los Angeles was selected for the second time. It was first chosen for the Jimmy Carter Work Project in 1995, when 21 homes were built in seven days. NECA and the IBEW were involved in that project, too, which is why the Greater Los Angeles Habitat for Humanity, an affiliate of the international organization, turned to them again.

“The Jimmy Carter Work Project is like winning the Olympics bid,” said Jo-An Turman, then communications director for the Greater Los Angeles Habitat for Humanity. “President Carter and his wife choose a location, and it’s usually an international location one year and a domestic location the next year.”

Turman said the Carters chose India in 2006 and selected Los Angeles for 2007 “because of the major housing crisis here of affordable housing.” She said that in connection with Los Angeles’ selection, the affiliate launched a three-year program to ultimately build and/or rehabilitate 150 more housing units in 2008 and 2009 for low-income families.

The low-income families, known as “partner families,” have to apply to the Habitat for Humanity program and meet certain eligibility requirements. If selected, the partner families have to put in 500 hours of “sweat equity” in the home being built. In turn, Habitat for Humanity will sell them the home for $150,000, with a 30-year interest-free mortgage. In most cases, these families have been living in substandard housing and could not qualify for a home purchase and financing through normal channels.

As mortgages are repaid, Habitat for Humanity uses the funds to build or rehabilitate additional housing for other low-income families.

There was a string attached to the groups’ participation in the project. Kim Craft, IBEW local assistant business manager, who headed the joint NECA/IBEW participation in the Carter project, said the Labor Management Cooperation Fund Committee approved the Habitat for Humanity request with one stipulation: Solar power, which was not part of the original project, would be installed for each townhome.

The assistant business manager reported, “I said, if in fact you’ll consider providing solar installations for low-income families and help us make a statement in this community that we support and sponsor this type of installation, then not only will we get involved, but we’ll do the electrical on all 30 of the homes at no cost to Habitat for Humanity.”

All the building materials for the project were either purchased by Habitat for Humanity—often at a discount—or donated. In the case of the photovoltaic systems for each home, arrangements were made with Day4Energy Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia, to obtain 192 solar panels. Craft said Day4Energy’s discounted price for the 170-watt panels required saved the project about $75,000.

The 192 panels were installed during the weeklong blitz at the project’s two widely separated Los Angeles locations, one south of downtown and the other in the city’s harbor area of San Pedro. In San Pedro, 16 townhomes were erected at the Harborside Terrace development, and 14 were built at the closer-in Vermont Village project on donated or discounted land for the 30 units. The dwellings are a mix of three- and four-bedroom townhomes, with square footage ranging from 1,100 to 1,300 square feet.

The $150,000 sale price for these dwellings contrasts sharply with real market values in Los Angeles, where the median home price is approximately $500,000. Jack Baringer, director of A Brush With Kindness, a Greater Los Angeles Habitat for Humanity home rehabilitation program, said, “Down the street from Vermont [Village], I saw a house that was smaller and old and not in as nice shape as the new ones . . . and it was $475,000.”

Volunteers, including retired electricians and apprentices, began work on the new ones in September 2007. As the framing went up, Craft said, the electrical personnel mounted the electrical boxes, pulled the flex conduits from the main electrical panels to all the utility boxes and switches, in addition to making up all the circuits and installing receptacles.

Overseeing and coordinating the work were supervisors volunteered by electrical contractors. Organizing of the job was modified to meet needs. Two contractors were at the Vermont site, but each of the duplexes at the harbor had a separate contractor with one overall project supervisor.

“Without the sponsorship and without the supervision and these contractors stepping forward, we would never be able to be successful in these kinds of projects,” Craft said. “It takes their dedication. They roll out on the job site with the trucks, the tools and the qualified supervision.”

To facilitate the work, a lot of thought and preparation was put into organizing the job and modified to deal with time constraints. For example, all the electrical supplies at Harborside Terrace job site for each of the 16 townhomes were in place when personnel were ready to begin working. Craft said a choice was made at Harborside to have a crew concentrate on an individual unit and complete the work in one or two nights, before moving on to the next one, rather than simultaneously working on more than one at a time.

The push was to complete the preparatory work before for the Oct. 28, 2007, kickoff of the Carter project blitz. Once the walls, roofs and plastering got under way, the pressure was on the electrical volunteers to do the finish work in a week. Ultimately, Craft explained it was the goal to have the job completed at the two sites so the partner families could receive the keys to their finished homes from Carter at the end of the week.

Overall, Craft said, that meant for the electrical volunteers that the underground utilities, perimeter lighting, “the complete electrical systems, whether that be sound, data or power,” had to be in place, up to Code and working. The electrical workers had to wait until blitz week, when the roofs were nailed on, before they could start to install and test the solar panel systems.

Craft sees the solar panel system installation, which he believes to be the first in the nation for low-income housing, as an important way to provide utility savings for low-income families and as a showcase for its use.
“Everyone thinks that PV and green technology is strictly high end,” he said. “We need to really develop the train of thought that this is something that we all need to incorporate in our daily living. And what better way to showcase the importance and utilization of solar installations than this Habitat project?”

Habitat’s Baringer went a step further about the electrical volunteer effort, saying, “I think it’s really important to recognize the group as being just unbelievably supportive. Every time we’ve needed something, they’ve been there. Not a question, just 100 percent commitment and support.

“It’s really remarkable,” he said. “You just really don’t see that anymore. It was above and beyond anyone’s expectations.”

But for Craft, the payoff for the time, sweat and skills that was put into the project comes not from accolades for their help but from the reactions and joyous emotions of the partner families when their American dream becomes a reality.

“When you see the sincere gratitude of these people realizing that ‘we’re not renting this; I own this,’ and see the joy of the mothers and fathers,” he said, “it’s fun for me to see a bunch of tough electricians standing around with tears in their eyes. It’s a pretty nice experience.”