Category Archives: Sable in the News

Sable Homes professionals are featured in the news discussing timely industry topics.

Sable Homes Wins Homebuilders Care Award

On Feb. 11, the Home Builders Association of Greater Grand Rapids Foundation (HBAGGRF) will recognize local heroes who carry out the Foundation’s mission, “making an impact on the lives of those with special housing needs and supporting the development of the next generation of housing industry professionals.” HBAGGRF will honor Sable Homes (Sable) with the Home Builders Care Award, Home Repair Services with the Community Builder Award, and Habitat for Humanity with the Next Generation Workforce Development Award.

Sable is receiving the Homebuilders care award for their work building a new home for Ryan and Amanda Bockheim and their children. In a thriving housing market Sable didn’t have to help the Bockheim family, but because they did, the family’s twin girls who were never supposed to live are now thriving. Born 12 weeks premature, the girls weighed just over two pounds and faced on-going health challenges. Their new Sable-built home provided a safe, clean, healthy and affordable home for the entire Bockheim family to live, love and grow in.

Pictured (left – right) Ryan and Amanda Bockheim with their children Berkleigh and Oakleigh, Sable Homes General Manager Karin Kay, and Jodie Rykse Salmoran with the Home Builders Association of Greater Grand Rapids Foundation.

Pictured (left – right) Ryan and Amanda Bockheim with their children Berkleigh and Oakleigh, Sable Homes General Manager Karin Kay, and Jodie Rykse Salmoran with the Home Builders Association of Greater Grand Rapids Foundation.

Home Repair Services will be honored for the work its volunteers have completed helping those with disabilities. A group of retirees spent 10,000 hours volunteering to build access ramps for more than 500 families who can now safely enter and exit their homes.

Habitat for Humanity Kent plays a key role in developing the next generation of housing industry professionals as they provide hands-on construction experience for students at YouthBuild/Bethany Christian Services, Grand Rapids Public Schools Academy of Design and Construction, Grand Rapids Community College M-Tech and Job Corps. Habitat for Humanity Kent will receive the Next Generation Workforce Development Award.

Award winners will be recognized at the fourth annual Home and Hearth Awards & Benefit event taking place at, New Vintage Place at 6:00 p.m. on Feb. 11. Individuals interested in more information about the HBAGGRF and the awards can call (616) 281-2021, or visit

The Home Builders Association of Greater Grand Rapids Foundation (HBAGGRF) is the charitable 501(c) 3 arm of the Home Builders Association of Greater Grand Rapids. Since 1988, HBA members and community members have partnered to make an impact on the lives of those with special housing needs and to support the development of the next generation of housing industry professionals.

Sable Homes Announces Promotions and New Hire

 Sable Homes, a home builder specializing in high quality, energy efficient construction in West Michigan, has announced the promotion of Karin Kay to general manager. Ron Austin will assume the role of sales manager and focus on the company’s marketing strategies. Kirsten Platto has joined Sable Home’s as a digital marketing specialist.

While using the latest technologies to create the regions healthiest homes, Kay will play a pivotal role in leading Sable’s efforts to build cost effective homes with the latest features and amenities.  Kay began her career at Sable as a new home sales consultant, and since then has held the positions of marketing assistant, new home consultant, and design and marketing specialist. Kay earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Aquinas College. She is a member of the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors and the Home Builders Association of Greater Grand Rapids.

Karin Kay

“I am honored to take on this leadership role at Sable Homes,” said Kay. “In an industry where the majority of purchasing decisions are influenced by women, I am thrilled to fill a role that is typically viewed as male dominated.”

In his new role as sales and marketing manager, Austin will now focus on all aspects of marketing Sable to the next generation of home buyers. Austin has been in the residential real estate business for 15 years and a licensed real estate broker for 12 years.  Austin is a member of the National Association of Realtors, Michigan Association of Realtors and the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors.

Ron Austin

“We are focused on providing homebuyers with exceptional value, in the most desirable communities for years to come,” said Austin. “With Sable selling 100 homes so far in 2015, and having sold just over 100 homes during 2014, Sable needs a concentrated effort in sales and marketing to sustain a continual growth to fulfill customer demands.”

Kirsten Platto joined the Sable Homes team as their new digital marketing specialist. Platto’s areas of expertise include digital media, marketing and creative writing. She graduated from Grand Valley State University with a degree in communications. She was involved with the Susan G. Komen walk to raise funds for breast cancer awareness and research. Platto’s previous experiences include social media interning for Spectrum Health, marketing for The Lemon Bowl, event services for Blythefield Country Club and more.

Kirsten Platto

“We are privileged to have the opportunity to provide new homes for more families this year than ever before, said John Bitely, president of Sable Homes. “Because of our recent growth and the boom in West Michigan’s housing starts, it is necessary to look to the future and build a strategic team for the years to come.”

About Sable Homes      

Combining affordability with craftsmanship, Sable Homes has been building high-quality, energy-efficient homes for West Michigan families since 1996. For more information about our communities, visit our web page,, or follow us on Facebook.

Inside Track: Blue-collar housing and strong work ethic are nice fit

John Bitely’s ‘never give up’ farmer’s mindset saw his Sable Homes through the Great Recession.

By Grand Rapids Press, Mike Nichols

John Bitely always wanted to be a farmer.

Although his career started out with tilling the land for a living, eventually his life took him on a different journey.

In some ways he’s still a farmer, but the crop he’s harvesting now isn’t corn — it’s houses.

As the owner of Sable Homes, a Rockford-based residential development firm, he’s seen many a plentiful harvest in the last couple of years.

“My crop is development. The crop I plant now is the last plant of that land.

“We’re blue-collar housing. We’re the workingman’s home. We do some entry-level, we’ve done high-end — and we can do it, but our main focus is blue-collar housing.


“We also do development, which we haven’t’ done much of for about six years because everything fell on its ear,” he said, referring to the Great Recession and the bursting of the housing bubble.

“We used to be happy with (building) 25 to 30 homes a year. … We’ll do more than 100 homes this year.”

Bitely grew up in Sparta, the son of a part-time farmer. He graduated from Sparta High School in 1983, by which time he was already renting and working part of his family’s farm.

His parent’s work ethic was one of the best gifts he’s ever received, he said.

“The work ethic — either from my parents or my own internal drive — is probably my biggest break,” he said. “Everything has built on everything else for me. It’s not like, ‘Oh, this thing happened and everything else was gold.’”

Although he was accepted to Michigan State University after high school, Bitely decided not to go to college and to focus on farming instead, although he did attend Kent Skills Center to learn more about the mechanics of farming equipment.

“I liked girls and beer better than education, and I knew all I would have done was chase girls and drink beer,” he said. “I was actually mature — or at least practical enough — that I knew I wasn’t going to waste the money attending college for those purposes.”

After high school, Bitely got a job working at his uncle’s seed farm in Sparta called Post Farms. He loved the work, but eventually he began to realize his passion for farming wasn’t paying off for him.

“Farming’s in your blood. You till the land, you grow things, you’re around livestock. It’s a very noble way to make a living. It doesn’t pay a lot of money, but it’s not a bad thing.

“The problem was the timeframe. Farming was becoming very business-orientated. The family farms were dying left and right, and that’s what I was really trying to come into. And as a family, we weren’t wealthy. We had small landholdings.

“As time went on, I had to do something to generate enough money to make my initial stake ever happen. And with that came (the realization): ‘I’m going to work my whole life to have a decent job if I am stuck in farming,’” he said.

“My whole upbringing was I wanted to be a farmer. I loved agriculture, loved working the land — loved all that stuff. And my total focus right out of high school was growing a small farming operation into something I could make a living at. A couple of years into that, it just wasn’t making sense. It’s a tough way to make a living. It was a slow, tough, long haul.”

Bitely took a second job as a truck driver for Burlingame Lumber, which eventually became Wolohan Lumber, in Wyoming.

He left that company and started working for Standard Lumber in 1985. He had to create his job because the outside sales position he wanted didn’t yet exist.

“I (presented) the pro forma to my manager, and it was truly farm-boy written. It was a hand-written pro forma of business available. … My manager looked at it and pretty much dropped his teeth. I think he was shocked at what I had given him,” he said.

The manager sat Bitely down and told him he was too young and inexperienced and, since the job would be paid by straight commissions, he wouldn’t be able to afford to do it.

But since Bitely still had extra income from part-time farming, he pressed upon his boss that he was prepared to take it on.

“It was one of those weird conversations where I don’t really think I knew what it meant at the time, and I don’t think he really had any idea what it meant. … That might have been the big break because my manager believed in me from that day on.”

“Later on, when I left that company, there was me and one other salesman who, every single month, had the number one volume in sales, and I always had the best margins. So they were writing me some big checks,” he said.

“That job afforded me 10 years of education in the building industry, and you can’t go to any college to get that information and experience,” Bitely said.

During his time at Standard Lumber, Bitely got out of the farming business for good. In a way, he said, the time he spent farming was unfair to his then-growing family because it took him away from them and it really wasn’t helping pay the bills.

“Eventually, it came down to: I could make $5 to $7 an hour farming, or I could go out and put siding on a house for $15 an hour,” he said.

“I still have the heart for farming, but it was a commitment to my family. Maybe growing up (meant) giving up the childish hope of wanting to be a farmer for the reality that I could do so much better for my family and myself.”

In 1995, Bitely and his friend, Kelly Powell, now the owner of the farming tourist attraction Deer Tracks Junction in Cedar Springs, started Sable Homes together.

Ever since, Bitely said his No. 1 frustration is when townships, municipalities and states make rules that do not allow him to “grow as nice a crop for (our) parcels.”

The business grew well but then suffered during the Great Recession like most in the construction industry. Bitely believes it was his farmer’s mentality that helped the company survive those slow years.

“When the whole economy was upside down and everybody said you can’t make money building houses … part of the mindset was ‘farmers never give up,’” he said. “It’s that belief that every spring is going to be better.”

Sable Homes was one of the few builders left standing when the bleeding from the Great Recession finally stopped. In its wake, the business found itself facing a pent-up demand from an industry that hadn’t built houses for about six years.

And although Bitely now has plenty of work to keep himself busy, he still has one hobby that hasn’t fully left him and probably never will: gardening.

Farming is in the blood, after all.

“I’ve always got a garden. No one else in the family has interest in it, and most of it I just give away. (I grow) potatoes, sweet corn, strawberries and pumpkins,” he said.

“I probably walk out to the garden three or four times a week just to look at it — just because.”

Demand is High, Supply is Lagging

By: Ron Austin, Sable Homes General Manager

The demand for homes is expanding in Michigan, however the construction of new homes has been lagging behind. Why is this? City officials note, “construction is about to come to an abrupt halt not for lack of demand –but lack of vacant lots” (Mlive). So then, the demand for homes is still there, but the infrastructure development is costly, and the availability of vacant lots is dwindling.

In Michigan, the cost of developing the sites is an obstacle for many home builders as the municipal requirements are expensive and require extensive permitting.  Home builders and developers are hesitant to jump into infrastructure for lots due to the lack of inventory as well as the risk involved with development.

The costs to build the housing infrastructure can vary. “At the local level, jurisdictions may charge permit, hook-up, and impact fees and establish development and construction standards that either directly increase costs to builders and developers, or cause delays that translate to higher costs” (NAHB).These higher costs translate into hesitation for new constructions and new developments that have the potential to provide more risk than reward.

There is a level of uncertainty involved with the home development market. This risk stems from “competition from sales of distressed existing properties, uncertainty about the health of the overall economy and labor markets, and difficulty in qualifying prospective buyers for mortgages” (NAHB).  However, developers are still interested, but they are paying close attention to commercial and job growth as well as trends in the housing market. The development investments must strike a balance between the cost of the investment, the current housing demand, and the existing government regulations.

Sable Homes took a gamble on the Central Park Property in Sparta, and the market was in our favor as 20 new homes were built on the property to serve the needs of the developing economy and bustling community. There is most certainly a risk that was tied in with the purchase and development of the Central Park Property, but with community ties and help from the village in purchasing the property the risk was well worth it.


Gamble on swapping park for homes paying dividends for Sparta

By Jeffrey Cunningham | 
Email the author
on July 21, 2015 at 5:09 PM

SPARTA — When the Sparta Village Council voted in July of 2013 to sell the former 4.46-acre Central Park property to developers for new homes, the thought was that it could take up to five years to fully build out the 20 lots.

Central Town Square .jpg

(This home at the corner of Union and Grove streets was built where home plate was in the baseball field of the former Central Park)

It was a gamble village leaders were willing to take at the time to get the stalled housing market moving in Sparta. It was also an opportunity to shed some of the excess property the village owned.

The gamble for the village has paid off. In less than two years, all of the 20 home sites have been sold and houses have been built on the sites.

Many of the new residents to Central Town Square, like Virginia Huffman, said the new homes on the former park were exactly what they were looking for.

The former Rockford resident said her family had been looking for homes in the Rockford area, but couldn’t find what they wanted. “We moved here because we found a home that we liked,” she said. “We knew the village and this is s good location for us.”

Built by Sable Homes of Rockford, the houses have sold for $135,000 to $180,000.

The village hasn’t quite recovered all of the $277,000 it invested in the property since it took ownership in 2009 from Sparta Public Schools, but village leaders say the investment has clearly paid off.

“This is a case where government could do things to help get a development like this built that private industry most likely couldn’t have gotten done,” said Sparta Village Manager Julius Suchy.

Sable Homes president John Bitely said that without the help from the village in the form of being able to purchase the property at below market value, he would not have been able to build the new homes.

The village bought the property in 2009 from Sparta Public Schools after the school district closed the former Central School.

It cost the village $145,000 to demolish the former school and grade the property. The village paid the school district an additional $100,000 in water credits for the property and with other costs associated with the purchase, Suchy said the village had an estimated $277,000 invested in the property.

The agreement with the school district was that if the land eventually sold for a profit, the village and the school district would share the proceeds.

The village sold the property in 2013 to Sable homes for $120,000, leaving the village with a net loss of $157,000.

As the 20 homes were built and hooked to the village’s water and sewer systems, the hookup fees netted the village $93,000, leaving the village $64,000 in the hole.

Fifteen of the 20 new homes were on the 2015 village property tax rolls, which netted the village another $18,000, leaving the village roughly $44,000 left before it had paid off its costs associated with the development.

With the five additional homes on the 2016 tax rolls, the village will take in at least $21,000 annually on the homes in the development.

“It will take another couple of years before we are in the black with this project from a development standpoint, but I think the village is already ahead as the stores and restaurants are already seeing an increase in traffic from having additional residents in the downtown area,” Suchy said.

Bigger is better for new home buyers in West Michigan

Bigger is better for new home buyers in West Michigan

By Jim Harger | 
Follow on Twitter
on May 24, 2015 at 8:25 AM

CASCADE TOWNSHIP, MI – When Jason and Jackie LaFontaine looked at floor plans for their new home, they concluded bigger was better.

Their new four-bedroom home, on which they will break ground in Eastbrook Homes’ Stoneshire development later this month, will have a larger kitchen and pantry, a home office for Jason, a formal dining room, a hearth room and “kids retreat” on the second floor.

Compared to the house they bought from Eastbrook Homes four years ago, the LaFontaine’s new house will be about 500 square feet larger at 3,400 square feet.

“Being second time builders, we wanted to be sure this was going to be our ‘forever’ home,” Jackie LaFontaine said.

“Being second time builders, we wanted to be sure this was going to be our ‘forever’ home.” New home buyer Jackie LaFontaine

Their new home has all the features they wished they had put in their first house, she said.

With 1-year-old and 4-year-old daughters, the LaFontaines also want to make room for the possibility of a third child in the future, she said. Their new home also is closer to the Forest Hills school buildings where she works as a speech pathologist.

Larger Homes
Bigger Houses The average size of a home in Kent County has grown by about 500 square feet over the past decade. That’s about the size of a king-sized master suite in a new luxury home – or about 2 1/2 “tiny houses.”miltk

The LaFontaines are typical of many new homebuyers in West Michigan. With the economy back on track and interest rates low, the average new house is getting bigger and more expensive.

According to Builder Track Reports, which follows the West Michigan home building industry, the average size of a new home in Kent County last year was 2,538 square feet, about 500 square feet larger than the average size of a new home in Kent County 10 years ago.

That’s about the size of a king-sized master suite with a full bathroom and walk-in closet in a luxury home.

Homes in Ottawa County showed similar growth, with the average size being 2,412 square feet in 2014 compared to 1,944 square feet in 2009, according to Builder Track statistics. In Muskegon County, the average new home was 2,114 square feet in 2014 compared to 1,758 square feet in 2010.

While the average size of a home is getting bigger, so is its cost. According to Builder Track, 61 percent of the houses under construction in the first quarter of 2015 had a construction value of more than $200,000.

In 2014, 53 percent of Kent County’s new homes were valued at more than $200,000 while in 2011, only 36.5 percent topped the $200,000 price tag, according to Builder Tracks.

Despite the rising costs, homebuilding is booming again in West Michigan after stumbling through the Great Recession.

In Kent County, contractors reported 206 housing starts in the first quarter despite a lingering winter. Last year, Kent County home builders reported 1,088 housing starts, a 7.7 percent increase over 2013.

Bob Sorensen, vice president of sales and marketing for Eastbrook Homes, said homes are getting larger because consumer confidence is improving and interest rates have remained low.

New homes also are getting more luxurious, with high end finishes like granite countertops and larger bathrooms, Sorensen said. Finished lower levels with “man caves” also are growing in popularity, he said.

Mike McGivney, vice president of sales and marketing for Allen Edwin Homes, said low interest rates are giving their customers an additional $25,000 to $50,000 in buying power.

“A lot of that translates into the square footage they can add to their homes,” McGivney said. That additional buying power also is an incentive to build a new house rather than remodel an existing home, he said.

Aaron Schoonover, a regional sales director for Allen Edwin Homes, said the larger homes they are building in the 150-site Stonegate development in Byron Township are designed to be flexible to meet the changing needs of their owners.

The two-story homes in Stonegate, which start at $240,000 and can cost up to $416,640, feature an assortment of upgrades that include “smart space” rooms that be converted into informal sitting areas or home offices.

Kitchens have grown to include larger islands and mudroom areas now have lockers, Schoonover said. While the square footage has grown, so has the overall volume with nine-foot ceilings on the main floors and lower levels.

John Bitely, president and CEO of Sable Homes, said the growing footprint of new houses in West Michigan also is a reflection of township zoning ordinances, which require larger lot sizes to keep the quality of new housing high.

Homeowners who can afford larger lots also are able to afford larger houses, said Bitely, whose company has focused on building mid-level homes. “It’s a legal type of exclusionary zoning.”

“I don’t know of any builder that’s building entry-level homes. You can’t make it work if you’ve got a lot that prices out to $30,000 to $40,000,” Bitely said.

West Michigan’s appetite for bigger houses is not being shared on a national level.

RealtyTrac, a national real estate survey firm, reported the average size of a home was 1,799 square feet in 2014, down from its high point of 1,863 square feet in 2012. The average size picked slightly, to 1,803 square feet, in 2015, RealtyTrac said.

Jim Harger covers business for MLive/Grand Rapids Press. Email him at or follow him on Twitter or Facebook or Google+.

Homebuilder promotes new way to build barrier-free houses on concrete slabs

Homebuilder promotes new way to build barrier-free houses on concrete slabs

By Jim Harger | 
Follow on Twitter
on May 12, 2015 at 5:58 AM


SPARTA, MI – Homebuilder John Bitely says his company has come up with a new way to build a barrier-free house on a concrete slab that’s less expensive than a typical Michigan home with a basement or crawl space underneath.

The new technology uses a thick foam-type border dug into the ground to protect the slab from frost damage, said Bitely, president of Sable Homes LLC. His company’s “Freedom Foundation” saves about $15,000 over the cost of building a house that’s elevated over a basement or crawl space, he said.

“In West Michigan, barrier-free living has not been readily available at an affordable price,” said Bitely, who is currently building a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house in Sparta that will sell for less than $160,000.

Although slab foundations are used in 80 percent of the homes built in the U.S., Bitely said they are not used in northern states because of frost damage that can occur in colder northern climates.

Most builders dig concrete footings down at least 36 inches to get below the frost line with their foundations, Bitely said.

Buyers looking for an affordable one-story home can opt for a modular home that is built off the ground and usually requires steps or a steep ramp for accessibility.

Bitely, who is building the barrier-free home in a neighborhood he has developed on the former site of Sparta High School, said his foundation system offers a more accessible home that’s of higher quality than a typical modular home.

“Using ‘Freedom Foundation’ will save time and money for builders, and makes a shallow foundation install much easier,” said Bitely. “Using these resources, we’re able to provide this style of home at much more affordable costs than ever before.”

Bitely said the foam barriers around his footings provide adequate protection against frost damage without the costs associated with deep concrete footings.

“We feel it is important to offer a safe environment for those who are elderly or disabled. Our new ‘Freedom Foundation’ technology will allow individuals to live safely at lower costs than with traditional building materials.”

David Bulkowski, executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County, endorsed the barrier-free design in a news release produced by Sable Homes.

“One of the most significant needs for persons with disabilities is affordable housing that is accessible and integrated into exciting neighborhoods,” Bulkowski said. “It’s great that Sable Homes has developed the Freedom Foundation technology to greatly expand the opportunity to purchase the house of their dreams for persons with disabilities.

“With some budgets, home buyers requiring accessible homes are limited to modular homes, or worse, homes that do not fully meet their needs, due strictly to foundation costs,” Bulkowski said in a statement.

Jim Harger covers business for MLive/Grand Rapids Press. Email him or follow him on Twitter or Facebook or Google+.

Sable Homes new technology opens the doors to affordable and accessible home ownership

Sable Homes new technology opens the doors to affordable and accessible home ownership


Rockford-based Sable Homes is producing a new type of home in Michigan that provides barrier-free living for individuals who are physically handicapped or seniors at a more economical price.

The homes feature a new technology which allows homes in the northern states to be built on a slab foundation. Although these foundations are used in most southern U.S. states that do not have basements, they are not insulated well enough to be used in northern states with annual frost.

The technology, Freedom Foundation, is essentially a thick, foam barrier which surrounds the slab foundation, insulating it and protecting the cement from frost.

Joanne Feutz, occupational therapist at Disabilities Advocates of Kent County, is delighted with the design but she says these homes follow the precept of“universal design” and they are really for anyone, not just someone with a disability. From her perspective, this type of home fills a big need in the market. “A lot of builders will build a custom home but no one is building homes that are designed to be accessible and affordable,” she says. Feutz says the homes “are beautiful” and are perfect for individuals needing barrier-free living.

Sable is working on organizing an installation team which can assist other builders in setting up these foundations to produce similar model homes to help support this community of buyers.

Sable Homes is one of the few builders that works with Veterans Administration and Rural Development for construction loans for new homes.

To learn more about Sable Homes you can visit their site here.

Technology erases some mobility barriers

Technology erases some mobility barriers

Sable Homes’ process benefits those with physical impairments.

March 27, 2015

The secret to creating hundreds of easily accessible homes for those with mobility impairments was right under John Bitely’s nose all along.

For years, Bitely, president and owner of Rockford-based residential development firm Sable Homes, had been looking for a way to create affordable housing that could be easily accessed by those in West Michigan with mobility impairments, particularly those with disabilities, aging senior citizens and wounded veterans.

His searching eventually led him back to a technology he’s been using since before the Great Recession: foam insulation billets he now calls the “Freedom Foundation.”

“In West Michigan, barrier-free living has not been readily available at an affordable price,” he said. “We feel it is important to offer a safe environment for those who are elderly or disabled. Our new Freedom Foundation technology will allow individuals to live safely at lower costs than with traditional building materials.”

Bitely and his team had originally used the specialized foam to compete with the modular-home industry almost seven years ago.

“One of the frustrating things we’ve seen is we’d been watching what people pay for modular homes,” he said. “They’d drive them in, take the wheels off, slap them on the ground and they were paying an outrageous amount of money for what we thought was a less than adequate product.”

That’s where the foam insulation came in. The foam, which comes from Atlas EPS in Bryon Center, is generally used in Michigan and other northern states to allow homes to be built on a slab foundation while still being well-insulated. The thick, foam barrier surrounds the foundation, insulating it and protecting the cement from frost.

“The first home we built with this project was probably about six years ago. This goes back to when we wanted to compete with the modular (market)… We’ve got this product out and it’s stood the test of time. What is new is how we’re tying this into a market segment that’s underserved,” Bitely said.

“(We asked), ‘Why don’t we just make this out of that type of product?’ In so doing, we developed this piece of foam, which in turn ends up being the form and the base foundation of the house.”

So how does this new Freedom Foundation foam help people with disabilities? It helps because now Sable is using it to build ranch houses with zero steps. Almost all modular homes and traditional homes involve some kind of steps, either inside or by the doors, Bitely said, and that can be trouble for someone in a wheelchair or using a walker. But now Sable is building homes flat enough to the point that raised steps or ramps are no longer required.

Another nice feature about these homes is they can also cost less, Bitely said.

“We have a model home that we built. It’s just under about 1,400 square feet. It’s a ranch style: three bedrooms, two baths. It has an oversize, three-stall garage,” he said. “We will sell that here in Sparta for under $160,000 with the lot,” he said.

Different disabilities require different solutions, and Sable is also customizing its Freedom Foundation homes based on the individual buyer’s needs. One home was created with special door levers and a microwave built into the kitchen island for a woman in a wheelchair with limited hand use, Bitely said.

That’s good news for a number of underserved markets, he said.

“We’re using this technology not only in the world of disability, but also aging … for those who are retiring and they don’t want to ever move from their home, and they know as they get older steps are a problem or they’re going to need a wheelchair. This can eliminate all of those barriers.”

One of the most important affordable housing needs for people with disabilities is that the homes be both accessible and integrated into good neighborhoods. These houses are more likely to be built in areas connected to transportation, including the bus transit system, Bitely said.

“With some budgets, home buyers requiring accessible homes are limited to modular homes, or worse, homes that do not fully meet their needs, due strictly to foundation costs,” said David Bulkowski, executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County.

“The Freedom Foundation will provide barrier-free living at a more affordable price point for many, many families.”

One individual who appreciates Sable’s new mission on a personal level is Bri Keeshan, owner of a home that features a Freedom Foundation.

“Having a home that is designed to meet my needs impacts my daily life in many ways,” Keeshan said. “Ever since my car accident in 2009, all I’ve ever wanted was to live ‘normally,’ and win my freedom back. Although things aren’t exactly the way they used to be, having this home has put me, and my life, in the right direction.”

Builders discuss lack of skilled workers before House committee

Builders discuss lack of skilled workers before House committee

Youth Employment Standards Act hinders minors from working construction jobs.

By Mike Nichols

Could the lack of available skilled labor currently facing West Michigan’s construction industry be partially solved with a legislation change?

Members of the Home Builders Association of Michigan testified earlier this month before the State House. In a hearing held Feb. 5, they urged the House Workforce Development Committee to enact legislation to help increase the number of people entering the skilled trades.

The hearing comes on the heels of HBAM having completed its annual member survey of about 4,500 members. The survey found most HBAM homebuilders have a positive outlook for 2015, with about 90 percent of survey responders saying they expect business to go better this year than last year. But the issue of finding talent was still a major concern, with about 71 percent of HBAM’s members agreeing the biggest issue facing the industry is a workforce shortage, according to HBAM.

“Homebuilders in Michigan lost 60,000 jobs to the Great Recession. Literally, when the housing industry went south, so too did many of our workers,” said Dawn Crandall, public affairs director for HBAM.

“Fortunately, the industry is coming back, and there are good paying careers ready to be had. We will be working closely with Michigan policymakers and educators this year to increase the number of high school graduates seeking careers in the home-building industry.”

One of the members who testified Feb. 5 was John Bitely, owner of Rockford-based Sable Homes and co-chair of the Home Builders Association of Grand Rapids’ Next Generation Committee.

“The lack of workers going into the skilled trades is the biggest factor impacting the growth of Michigan’s home building industry,” he said. “The shortage of labor is resulting in construction delays and increased labor costs, and it’s dragging on our state.”

There are a couple of Michigan laws that make it unnecessarily “cumbersome” to hire younger workers, Bitely said.

He cited the Youth Employment Standards Act 90 of 1978, which essentially states that anyone under the age of 18 “may not work in any occupation deemed to be hazardous, which includes work on construction sites,” without parent, school and employer signed work permits, he said.

“(The) Youth Employment Standards Act 90 of 1978 defines a minor who is less than 18 years of age, including but not limited to employees, volunteers, independent contractors and performing artists,” according to “Minors under 18 years of age must obtain a work permit or have their school complete a training agreement before starting work. Work permits can be obtained from the school the minor attends or the school district where the minor will be employed. If the minor changes jobs, a new work permit is required for the new employer. A work permit may be revoked for poor academic performance. A work permit is required even if the minor does not attend school.”

The Act’s work permit process does more to hinder high-school students and the construction industry than it does to protect students, Bitely said.

“There are lots of high school students who could gain valuable work experience in the building industry over the summer, but the current law forces them into flipping burgers,” he said.

“With that in place, as a residential builder, I cannot hire ‘Johnny B. Tough’ to come carry lumber on my site or come seed the lawn because it’s a construction site. … The common joke I use is Pizza Hut. They will not let you cut the pizza unless you’re 18 years old. A lot of people don’t know that.”

Laws like this hurt the middle class, Bitely said, adding that such laws are a complete deviation from how many of the industry’s current leaders got their start.

“If you go back in years past, a bunch of us started our summer job with ‘Uncle Joe’ or ‘Neighbor Fred,’ and we got in his truck and helped out at a construction job,” he said.

“I cannot put a 16-year-old youth on a sawhorse and teach him how to use it. That’s considered too dangerous. But (they can) at Kent Career Technical Center in a shop class. Why can’t we do it in the field?”

Bitely said he was encouraged by the committee’s response, saying they seemed genuinely interested in working on the issue. He hopes they’ll act in time for his upcoming trade skills event for students, which is being held April 28 at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids.

The event — Career Quest — will highlight about 25 potential trades for the 2,000 West Michigan students expected to attend, ranging from 7th-12th grade.

Career Quest is being co-hosted by Michigan Works! and the Construction Workforce Development Alliance.

Bitely’s plans to combat the construction industry’s lack of labor goes back to 2013, when local leaders in the industry realized many workers had either aged out or left during the recession, and new talent wasn’t being trained.

Unless the problem is addressed soon, it could begin to slow the growth the area’s been enjoying lately, he said. That would become problematic for everyone.

“It’s going to stagnate us a little bit or greatly diminish the amount of growth and recovery that’s available. I don’t know any residential builder in West Michigan that isn’t ready to hire people or a design firm ready to hire. They cannot find people to fill the positions,” he said.

“(We want to be) telling young people, ‘There’s jobs for you and hope for you. I don’t want to be negative about college, but you can make a good living with us without student debt.’”