Women playing a critical role in home rebuilding effort since the fires
The massive rebuilding following the October 2017 Tubbs fire has been a testosterone-intensive effort. Construction, after all, traditionally has been a male-dominated field. Ever so slowly, that’s changing. Here are the stories of three women, the headwinds they’ve faced, the obstacles they’ve overcome and the traits they share: foremost among them a powerful drive to help design, repair and build new houses so Santa Rosa-area fire survivors can return home.
Helping to raise the roof and young tradespeople
From the builders who doubted her because she was a woman, to the clients who preferred not to shake her hand because of the pigment of her skin, Letitia Hanke has endured more than her share of indignities on her way to the top of her profession.
Since 2004, she has been the CEO and owner of ARS Roofing in Santa Rosa, which completed over $3 million in business last year. “In the beginning,” said Hanke, 43, “I had to really, really prove myself.”
While other roofing companies arrived on the scene and then folded, Hanke kept chugging along building her business, along with a reputation for service and reliability. The best way forward, she thought, was to ignore the doubters and focus on the job at hand. She learned that lesson long ago the hard way.
When Hanke was 5, her father inherited a piece of property in Lake County. The family moved from Berkeley to the boondocks. It was a brutal adjustment.
“There were 7- and 8-year-old kids calling me and my brother the N-word,” Hanke recalled. She was told she was ugly and stupid because she was black. “It was bad. It was bad for years.”
Music was her salvation. When she was 8, a teacher handed her a trumpet. Her daily practice sessions, during lunch breaks, provided her with an escape from the bullies, and over time, an identity and a group of friends.
After taking night classes to graduate a year early from high school, Hanke studied music at Sonoma State University. In addition to performing at the university’s Ives Hall, she took on gigs with area bands as a jazz and blues singer.
“I wanted to be a rock star,” she said, smiling.
She detoured from that plan in 1996. To help pay her tuition, she took a receptionist job with a roofing company. Within a year, she had been promoted to office manager. Soon she had aspirations to run a company of her own. Before climbing that ladder, however, she had to climb hundreds of actual ladders. After four years working “in the field,” tearing off tar paper and shingles and installing new roofs, she passed the contractor’s exam on her first try in 2004.
That same year, she took out a small business loan and started her company. There were lean times, in the beginning.
“There were definitely some people who did not want to give her the opportunities, and respect, they might give to someone else,” said Jason Lotho, a general contractor who owns Fondare Finish Construction, and who has worked extensively with Hanke.
For his part, Lotho looks up to Hanke and her company as “a model” for his own, citing the high quality of ARS Roofing’s work and the “high character” of its owner.
While her company has worked on numerous fire-damaged homes, Hanke’s contribution to the ongoing rebuild goes beyond repaired roofs. Three years ago, in response to the chronic shortage of skilled laborers in Sonoma County, she started the NextGen Trades Academy. It’s a program run by her nonprofit, the Lime Foundation.