Over the 40 years that Cindy Lares has been with Sunseri Construction, she’s hard-pressed to recall a grand opening that she’s missed. Without a doubt, resident speeches are her favorite part.
Since Sunseri was founded in Chico in the early 1970s, the general contracting company estimates it has built over 10,000 units for low-income seniors, families and homeless individuals throughout California and in Nevada.
“We do a lot of projects where it’s the first safe housing people have had in their lives, and they’re seniors,” Lares said.
This impact has kept Lares, the chief finance officer, and many others working for the company for decades.
“Who wouldn’t want to go to work every day and know that you’re making a difference for people that don’t have the same opportunities, for people that are marginalized?” she said.
Last month, Lares attended another type of ceremony: a groundbreaking to celebrate Sunseri’s construction of North Creek Crossings within the Meriam Park neighborhood in southeast Chico. The project, by Clovis-based Affordable Housing Development Corporation and the Housing Authority of the County of Butte, will house 160 low-income families once completed. There, Lares was joined by another longtime employee of Sunseri: Donny Lieberman, the company’s president and CEO.
In its early days, Sunseri, named after founder Phil Sunseri, cultivated a reputation in the Chico community for its efforts in affordable housing—first partnering with the nonprofit Chico Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), then a young upstart, for its complex Turning Point Commons.
Lieberman, who was raised in Chicago by a progressive family, said giving back to the community was one of their core values. He later discovered his passion for construction and was inspired by Sunseri’s work. When he took the reins in 1991, he “decided that our mission should be social justice.” (Phil Sunseri remains a co-owner, along with Lieberman, Lares, former vice president Greg Creighton, Vice President of Operations Heather Post and Chief Estimator Nyles Armstrong).
On a recent afternoon, Sunseri had two large construction sites in Chico that were a flurry of activity. Subcontractors hand-formed curbs for the parking lot at CHIP’s Creekside Place at the corner of Notre Dame Boulevard and Humboldt Road. The complex will provide 101 units for very low income seniors 62 and older (15 units will be reserved for those with mental illness).
Project Manager Brody Van Koten and Project Engineer Nayeli Cisneros took a walk around the site with Lieberman. Inside, some crews were painting and caulking, while others were installing mechanical, electric and plumbing infrastructure.
“We’re in all of the phases right now,” Van Koten said.
Just up the road, crews were similarly hard at work at North Creek Crossings.
Between the two projects, Sunseri will have constructed 261 new affordable apartment units in Chico by 2024.
That day, Lieberman smiled as he walked by another CHIP apartment complex that Sunseri built, Murphy Commons, just next door to Creekside Place. The 15-year-old apartments, where outdoor plants and children’s bicycles rested on patios, are well-maintained, he said. Many myths about affordable housing persist, and Lieberman tries to dispel them.
“Affordable housing is not about warehousing people that have limited incomes,” he said. “It’s about providing stability and homes for working families that need a chance to reside in the community that they serve.”
Part of the team
During his tenure with Sunseri, Lieberman said, he’s drawn inspiration from the partners that the company has worked with, whom he called “servants of the greater good.” Sunseri’s role in any project is always to “complement others’ missions.”
Affordable housing projects often take many years to develop, and there’s never a guarantee they will be completed, Lieberman said, often due to financial hurdles. Sunseri provides some pro bono work on all of its projects with mission-based nonprofits—preconstruction budgeting, design and value engineering (analysis of building features, systems, equipment and materials to achieve essential functions at the lowest cost while also meeting safety, performance, quality and reliability standards).
When the Camp Fire destroyed CHIP’s Paradise Community Village, the first affordable housing development within the town of Paradise, the nonprofit decided to rebuild. Sunseri, which had constructed the original apartment complex, was honored to join the efforts to resurrect such an important place for survivors in need, Lieberman said.
“It was amazingly uplifting not only watching our staff so determined and full of purpose to bring these homes back to the people that’d lost them, but every subcontractor in a terrible labor market made sure Paradise Community Village was built first,” he said.
Lieberman also pointed to Lavender Courtyard, an affordable LGBTQ senior housing project in midtown Sacramento by Mutual Housing California, as another example of the tenacity and dedication of the company’s nonprofit partners. The development was just completed but took about eight years due to challenges in securing funding.
“[Our partners’] passion, their stick-to-it-iveness and their just absolute resilience against all odds to not let a project [fail] … is humbling,” Lieberman said.
Just as Lieberman has been inspired by Sunseri’s social services partners, so have the company’s subcontractors drawn inspiration from Sunseri’s mission.
Mark Cooper, owner of Sacramento-based H & D Electric, has been working with Sunseri for the past 30 years and said it’s a “model” general contractor for many reasons. Sunseri makes sure that subcontractors are truly part of the team for every project.
“When problems come up, they work together with you to find solutions. There’s none of the finger pointing,” he said. “It’s not a motto or a mission statement that’s left written on the side of the wall and ignored.”
Similarly, Sunseri’s team is driven to provide housing to people in need first and foremost, Cooper said, compared to those whose main motivation is to make a profit.
“Donny’s passion is infectious, and you want to help the cause because you know how strongly he feels for it, and it’s a win-win for all of us,” he said. “You push yourself to find ways to do [a project] more economically—still quality—a way you can do it for less money so you can make sure this project gets completed because you know there’s a need there.”
This dedication to a mission of social justice has made Sunseri a valuable partner for local nonprofits as well. When Anastacia Snyder, executive director of Catalyst Domestic Violence Services, began working with Sunseri over 12 years ago, their shared values were evident from the get-go, she said.
Catalyst was preparing to build a new shelter for survivors of intimate partner violence. Its location at the time was old and in need of repairs and Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades.
She caught wind of Sunseri from another project partner that urged her to consider the company, she said, and Sunseri proved to be attentive to details and “part of the project every step of the way.” The 28-bed shelter (which can take in up to 35 people maximum when including toddlers and children) was finished in January 2010 “on time and under budget” despite changes requested during the construction process.
Sunseri has continued to stay invested in Catalyst’s mission throughout the years, Snyder said. The company regularly participates in the nonprofit’s adopt-a-family gift drive during the holidays, for example.
Most recently, Sunseri completed a project to increase ADA access at Catalyst’s drop-in center in downtown Chico, adding a ramp and ADA-accessible door. It was a project that Snyder wasn’t sure would come to fruition—local engineering company NorthStar made a donation to create the bid and work out a budget proposal for a grant, but when it came time to do the construction, Catalyst didn’t have enough funds.
In passing, Snyder mentioned the situation to a friend, an employee of Sunseri—and the next thing she knew, “they said we’ll figure it out, we’ll get it done.” Sunseri joined the project and provided the pro bono work necessary to complete it, Snyder said.
“It’s critical that there are companies like Sunseri that are committed to building affordable housing because of the housing crisis, the housing shortage,” she said.
Snyder still tears up when she speaks about the shelter and the work that went into completing it all those years ago.
“We were all so invested in this work because we were creating a space for people to heal, and Sunseri, they were equally invested,” she said. “They understand our language of wanting it to be welcoming, wanting it to be healing, wanting it to be efficient. To this day, we still speak of the spirit of Sunseri in the shelter.”
48 Comanche Ct.