The Entire Housing Industry was saddened to learn of the passing of David Kimball Hill, 67, this past weekend (myself, perhaps, more than most) after a long bout with melanoma that was first diagnosed in January 2007. As chairman of Kimball Hill Homes, one of the largest privately held home builders in the country, Dave was among the power elite of our industry, but he made himself accessible to me.
In my business, contacts are everything, and Dave was one of my best contacts for more than 20 years. More to the point, I really liked the guy. He was my friend.
He wasn't always a fountain of information. The games we played, dancing around the edges of a subject he didn't want to fully engage, were often immense fun. He always wanted me to get the story right, even when he didn't want me to get it from him.
He knew more about finance, especially the secondary mortgage market, than any builder I ever met. Why not? He helped found the mortgage finance division of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), and played a key role in the early development of the secondary market. That was evidence of his lifelong passion for keeping the homes this industry builds affordable to Americans with average incomes. It may have seemed a self-serving interest at times, but Dave really cared about the plight of young families struggling to buy their first home. It was no surprise to me when he was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago.
Philanthropic ventures came to dominate his time. He chaired the first National Homeless Conference in 1987. More recently, he worked to establish HomeAid in Chicago. He served as a board member of Homes For Working Families. Kimball Hill Homes CEO Ken Love says Dave wanted his own business to be successful primarily to allow him to do more charitable work.
Kimball Hill Homes' selective expansion, first into Houston, then into markets across the country, seemed a brilliant growth strategy for a builder previously stuck in one market—Chicago. If Kimball Hill Homes had stopped in Houston, the company would have avoided this crash. Houston would have been the perfect counter-cyclical balance to Chicago. But the expansion into Florida, California and Las Vegas forced the company into bankruptcy in April.
One of the last conversations I had with Dave was to check the accuracy of my report on the causes of Kimball Hill's Chapter 11 filing. "Yeah, it's accurate," he said. "Damn it." Then he added, "I picked a hell of a time to get cancer."
When I made trips into Chicago, Dave and I would often get together for dinner, to compare notes on the course of events in the industry, politics and the world in general. We'd laugh and play those games, dancing around what he knew, but wanted me to learn from someone else. I will miss those dinners.
Ken Love says his last real conversation with Dave was last Thursday, and Dave thought he wouldn't make it through the night, but he still wanted to talk business. One of the last things he asked was, "What do you think of the housing bill?"
We will miss you, David Kimball Hill, especially those of us who saw the depth of your intellect and the height of your compassion.
Read more from Bill Lurz on his blog, Ear to the Ground.