Stronger Together: Sundt “Super Team” Transforms Affordable Housing in Texas

 |  Building, Community Involvement

Since 2016, Sundt has worked on 11 projects with the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso (HACEP). In that time, our HACEP project team has transformed more than 1,600 units and formed an uncommon bond with the residents who call these places their home. With every challenge overcome across each jobsite, Sundt employee-owners have developed a higher level of collective knowledge and shared purpose behind their work. And, throughout the city, the results speak for themselves.

comparison of before and after photos of HACEP Sherman
Before and after photos of HACEP Sherman, Building 24, where Sundt performed a complete renovation of the building’s interior and exterior. “The tenants are proud to call this their home,” said Project Manager Luis Licón. “That sense of pride has a very big, positive impact on the families who live here—it’s transformative.”

“Do-or-Die” Decisions: Balancing Tax Credits and Project Deadlines

Senior Project Manager Fred Briscoe and Superintendent Mark Brown oversaw Sundt’s first six HACEP projects. They’ve passed along their expertise as the team has expanded. “Part of the challenge on many of these buildings is that their historic designations call for custom, one-of-a-kind features,” said Fred. Led by CEO Gerry Cichon, HACEP’s unconventional approach of using both historic and affordable housing tax credits has reversed the fortunes of many older properties, which otherwise would have been demolished. The subsidies do, however, come with certain conditions.

“We’re completely gutting and rebuilding these properties. We’re also keeping their original look and feel from the 1950s,” said Fred. “So, things like custom windows have long, long lead times, but they’re essential for the historic building designation and tax credit. Then we also have strict deadlines for turn-over to qualify for the low-income housing tax credit, without which the project wouldn’t make budget. It’s do or die. There’s very little margin for error.” Understanding these nuances, planning ahead, and communicating often with all stakeholders has led to success. Thus far, each completed project has hit its deadline for move-in and has received full funding.

“HACEP is changing people’s idea of what low-income housing should look like,” said Gianna Aguirre, Field Engineer at Sun Plaza and Blue Flame (renovated, staged unit shown here). “Sometimes the best solution isn’t the one right in front of us—and it doesn’t come from just one person. That’s why we have our team.”

Unfazed by the Phasing, Undaunted by the Details

Another tough part of these projects is working around occupied units, as well as transferring residents while their homes undergo renovation, especially during a pandemic. The properties house many elderly tenants and individuals with disabilities, as well as young families. Creating the safest and least disruptive environment is key.  “We can’t just go in and do all 28 or 59 buildings at once,” said Luis Licón, Project Manager at HACEP Tays North and Sherman South projects. “We have to go in phases and turn over buildings phased, making sure each unit meets the needs of the end user.” At the Sherman South property, the team has turned over multiple units ahead of schedule, which has allowed for earlier occupancy and potential revenue for the Housing Authority.

Luis has past experience in hospital construction, where ADA compliance is crucial. His skillset is coming in handy on Sundt’s public housing work. “When we build units for residents with hearing impairments, for example, they need a specialized unit to fit their needs.” Details like these reinforce the need to get units 100% right the first time, before they’re duplicated 10, 20, or 50 times over. “We have to overcome hurdles early. So, we document well and catch issues before they become problems.”

A renovated cottage unit at the HACEP Sun Plaza property, where Sundt recently completed a $31 million renovation
A renovated cottage unit at the HACEP Sun Plaza property, where Sundt recently completed a $31 million renovation. The property now features an energy-efficient HVAC system that helps residents save on utility bills.

This dynamic also applies to mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems. According to Fred Briscoe, “Unlike a new build, these projects can’t go ‘offline’ with their utilities. Half of the property may be occupied—either adjacent, above or below the construction zone. So, you have to maintain the right separation from residents while you remove and replace different parts of the system.” For that reason, Fred explained, many buildings’ MEP systems can’t be a “finished product” until the full completion of the project.

Changing Public Housing, One Home at a Time

On the days residents return to their finished apartments and see the difference, it’s all worth it, according to Luis Licón. “When we first get to these units, they’re in rough shape. After we’re done, they look brand-new. Residents tell us, ‘We love it. It’s so much better than before.'” And the impacts are felt much deeper than the individual level. “It makes the whole neighborhood look better, and that changes people’s mentality. People gain a sense of pride, a sense of community.” For Luis and his fellow Sundt employee-owners, “That’s why we do what we do.”

Field Engineer Gianna Aguirre (left) and Field Superintendent Lorenzo Ramos Jr. (right) work with HACEP staff to distribute donated turkeys to Sun Plaza residents
Field Engineer Gianna Aguirre (left) and Field Superintendent Lorenzo Ramos Jr. (right) work with HACEP staff to distribute donated turkeys to Sun Plaza residents. (photo taken Thanksgiving 2019)

In El Paso, as in many parts of Texas, there is an increasing demand for affordable housing. At the beginning of 2020, over 5,000 El Pasoans were on a waitlist to find a home. According to HACEP, that figure was expected to double by 2027—and this projection was made before the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent months, Sundt has seen interest from housing authorities in North Texas as well. Wherever the need may be, our Building Group is proud to have the experienced and community-minded people it takes to get the job done.