In many large cities in the US, there is a crisis caused by a shortage of affordable housing options. This has led to a host of social challenges. In this series called “How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable” we are talking to successful business leaders, real estate leaders, and builders, who share the initiatives they are undertaking to create more affordable housing options in the US.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Fayez Kazi.
Fayez Kazi is a disruptor of industry and activator of people using his expertise in engineering, development and entrepreneurship to nurture the next wave of leaders through mentorship, investments and philanthropic efforts. As the founder and CEO of HEXAH, a collective of industry leaders and partners creating connected and complete communities, he employs his two decades of leadership and engineering experience to expand the Austin skyline and create opportunities for future leaders to make a difference in the community.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Iwas born and raised in Kuwait, a country bordering Iraq and Saudi Arabia. During the Gulf War, Iraqi forces invaded the region and my family was forced to flee to a Red Cross refugee camp in Jordan. After some time, the Red Cross reunited us with extended family in Mumbai, India — during this 18 month stay, the allied forces took back Kuwait and we were able to move back to our home country where I was able to finish high school. Graduating as valedictorian, I realized I had an aptitude in equal parts for math and art and wanted to combine those interests by studying architectural engineering in the United States, even though I had never been to the country and knew very little about it. I set my sights on attending the University of Texas at Austin because its architectural engineering program was one of the best in the country.
Post graduation, I spent a few years working as an engineer and encountered little innovation in the way civil engineering was practiced. That’s when I decided to start Civilitude Engineers & Planners in 2010, a civil engineering and planning services firm centered around land development for private and public projects. The firm started off with K-12 schools and affordable housing projects, and now works on a healthy mix of public and private sector work including the Google tower in downtown Austin, Waterloo Terrace, The Ann Richards Schools and A at Lamppost.
As Civilitude expanded its volume of projects and expertise providing consulting services to the housing and commercial development community, I noticed serious shortages in developers and contractors in the community that offer and innovate on affordable housing, and services within or in close proximity to housing developments. In response, I founded Capital A Housing, an Austin-based and focused development company of affordable and mixed-income projects and Constructinople, a general contractor offering design and build services. Since then, there have been other additions to the roster of entities including Urbanuity, Fabitat Realty & Property Management, KCK Concrete and more. Eventually all of these entities came together as Civilitude Group of Companies in 2020.
In 2022, Civilitude Group of Companies became HEXAH, a collective of industry leaders and partners utilizing their expertise in engineering, development and investment to create connected and complete communities that work towards the common goal of living together better. Through HEXAH, I hope to expand on the work I’ve done with Civilitude Group of Companies by empowering people to create thriving communities.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are two facets of my career that I think are interesting, and that set me up for where I am today: serving on the City of Austin Planning Commission and working as a professor for The University of Texas at Austin.
Before my work on the Planning Commission, I was on the Zero Waste Advisory Commission, and at either my first or second meeting, they asked me to serve as the chair of the hauler ordinance committee. A little bit of background, in order to haul trash in Austin you are required to have a license, this ordinance would set parameters and minimum requirements for licensure.
I had no idea what I was stepping into with the hauler community with stakeholders of all shapes and sizes — one of them had an active lawsuit against the city, another was politically powerful and others with national reach. I had to help all of these parties, who had varying opinions and interests, reach consensus. Ultimately, the process of leading people through consensus helped me understand the political machine that the city was, and because of that understanding, I got to introduce some policy and some ideas around policy that accounted for different needs. This experience also helped me understand that it was challenging to lead a team through heavy decision making and consensus while also accounting for unintended consequences of suggested policies, but it was good training for the Planning Commission.
The Planning Commission was a perfect next step because it had much larger impacts to the future of our community. I took what I had learned in the previous role and could acknowledge that things wouldn’t always be perfect — there would always be opportunities to improve and learn. Once I recognized this, I got to see how policies became effective because people were cognizant of the need for change, thus allowing a lot of these policies to make it all the way through and enact change.
Now, my journey as a professor was interesting from the start because I started my career in academia at the same time I started working as a graduate engineer.
I was energized because most of the professors I had encountered, during my time as a student, were highly academic but not many had been part of the industry that would allow them to talk about real world problems and solutions. As I was growing in my professional career, I was able to bring those examples to my students.
This particular path was interesting because it helped me attract good talent. I was able to connect the dots between my professional growth and could communicate with my students what to expect when they got out of school — it was important that I showed students the different paths they could pursue, not just in civil and architectural engineering, but also the intersection of expertise they would experience.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
As far as timing, there were three tipping points that divinely or coincidentally aligned with the birth of each of my daughters:
When my first daughter was born, I had just gotten my Professional Engineer (PE) license and I switched jobs. I had been with this firm for 6 years and stepped out of my comfort zone, going from a laid back company to a performance driven company — it was a new job but it was also a great opportunity.
With my second daughter, I founded Civilitude Engineers & Planners. I went from a very aggressive corporate firm to essentially a start-up. I was able to incorporate what I had learned in both of my previous jobs into my own firm, and I was setting out to create a clone of myself in Nhat Ho, who currently serves as president of Civilitude. The lesson that really clicked three years into founding the company, was realizing that Nhat had many other strengths that I didn’t have and rather than trying to make him a clone of myself, I set out to support his development in the areas he excelled in. That was the tipping point in Civilitude’s growth.
When my third daughter was born, Civilitude really began to demonstrate exponential growth. This moment was when I really began to see the potential for all the things that Civilitude could be. Later on, this vision came to fruition through Constructinople, our construction company and Capital A Housing, our development arm.
Through all of these experiences, I eventually realized that there was so much I didn’t know and that I needed a lot of help to nurture this business. Instead of trying to work on this business alone, I started asking for help — I got leadership coaching, I got help with strategic planning, I created a 5 year plan, etc. I really began to lean on others to create systems so that the organization could run and expand effectively.
The overarching lesson I learned throughout all of these experiences is: People, people, people. I realized that just me, by myself at the top, is a very lonely place so I needed people around me who were able to fill in the knowledge gaps and who could support me, and I elevate them in return.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Attributing my success to one particular person is difficult because it took a village to shape who I am today. In my personal life, I have four people that I take after: my mom, my dad and my two uncles.
My mom is street smart and knows how to read people
My dad is honest — he has so much integrity and he is also brilliant on the technical side of things as an engineer himself
One of my uncles was a leader and very assertive. He could be authoritative. I do tap into this part of me when I need to ‘get ’er done’
My dad’s younger brother is frugal and has an innate sense of self preservation and survival
I often approach situations/problems/challenges from one of these perspectives or a combination and this has served me well.
I’ve also had some great professional mentors including my first boss, who was technically very brilliant and had a great impact as a mentor. On top of that, I learn from my own observations of other entrepreneurs and industries to maintain a pulse on what others are doing well and not so well.. It’s helpful to create data points and map out what I can learn from those observations. Finally, former Mayor Steve Adler has been a great unofficial mentor, he is great at building consensus and creating comprehensive strategies to solve major problems — he took charge when needed.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
A couple of deeply impactful perspectives come to mind. There was a TED Talk by Roselinde Torres titled ‘What it takes to be a great leader’, in which she talks about what it takes to be a leader today and distills it down to the diversity in your frequent contacts. How diverse are the folks you are engaging with? Are they diverse not only in ethnicity and gender, but also in thoughts and perspectives? How much input are you getting that differs from your own opinions? That is what enriches your worldview and makes a leader out of you.
Another impactful book was “Regenerative Development and Design” that I got introduced to through an intensive program called the Regenerative practitioner. The basic premise of Regenesis is that the essence of a place which is characterized by unique ecological patterns and social, cultural and political dynamics must be understood and clearly articulated. These patterns and dynamics are complex and require frameworks that development practitioners must master and employ with stakeholders to create a development that is regenerative in its outcomes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There is a prophetic narration in the muslim tradition “لأ يومن احدكم حتى يحب لجاره ما يحب لنفسه” which roughly translates to “One cannot be a person of faith until they want for their neighbor what they want for themselves.”
So I think to myself — what do I want? I want for my family to have a community where they are respected, have opportunities and can thrive in. The reason this is relevant is because this is what we, at Hexah, are looking to create more of — more opportunities and options for our community.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the shortage of affordable housing. Lack of affordable housing has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities. I know this is a huge topic, but for the benefit of our readers can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
If we take the example of Austin, it went from a sleepy college town and the capital of the state to Silicon Hills. Population grew at a rate of 20% between 2000 and 2015, and continued at a high rate. Housing in naturally affordable parts of town (read east Austin and communities of color) rose in prices because it was serving the unmet demand — seriously gentrifying those areas over time.
I believe the community was late in acknowledging the looming crisis but, when it did, it came up with multi-pronged solutions.
City housing subsidies
Zoning changes to allow for more density
Density bonuses for providing a certain percentage of income restricted units
Nationwide, cities have used one or two of the above. Austin is one of few cities that has utilized all of the above.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
As I mentioned earlier, there are three potential solutions: subsidies, density bonuses and zoning changes. Most of the players that have been around a long time only use one or two of these tools and have been using those same tools for a long time, effectively getting the same outcome over and over. These outcomes are filling a need but are impossible to scale to fill the entire need.
Then there are for-profit developers who use the density bonuses to provide a very small fraction of affordable units. Market-rate developers that have created units in the last 15–20 years have only created around 200 affordable units in total using density bonuses in downtown Austin.
We make an impact using subsidies, density bonuses, and zoning changes to add density but now we’re adding some of our own tools to the process to turbocharge affordability. These include cross subsidization, tax exemptions and federal funds — to, in one instance, produce over 200 units within one development. What we are able to do in one development that may take two to three years, that same amount of units took multiple other organizations over 15 years to deliver — because our lasagna of deal-structuring tools has more layers of pasta and spicier sauces.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
I’m most proud of our exponential growth — from the direct impact in the community to growth within our team’s expertise to the growth of our employees individually. Our culture can be best described as one of growth. We are constantly pushing our people to develop their skills; to not limit themselves.
We have people on our team like Nhat Ho, a former student of mine at the University of Texas at Austin that helped me start and grow Civilitude Engineers & Planners. Nhat grew from an intern in 2010 to the current President of Civilitude. My vision was to create a clone of myself in Nhat but I quickly realized that he had many strengths that I didn’t.
I am proud of people on our team like Alejandra Flores who started as a Project Engineer and became the youngest Principal in our history. She is a driven leader who would be successful anywhere, but I am proud that we are able to remove barriers to her growth and others like her.
We are not a perfect group of companies. We have a lot to improve on, but when I started all of this I was committed to not getting in peoples way. I never wanted to be the barrier for anyone’s growth, I wanted to expedite it by giving opportunities and sharing resources. I am most proud of all of this. Our people are what make our group special and I am so grateful for all of them.
In your opinion, what should other home builders do to further address these problems?
Home builders need to recognize how the needs of younger and future generations are going to change as far as what their housing needs and desires are. Will they want a large home with a back yard or will they be happy with a townhome? Smaller units but within a community with close proximity to services, jobs and play? Builders should create housing opportunities that fulfill the needs of different people. In addition, they need to play an active role in feeding the policy loop and helping refine bonus calibrations so we don’t swing from one extreme to the other with policy changes.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?
Support multiple solutions: The community could continue to support and strongly endorse the tools described above vocally at city council meetings. There are more creative solutions that can be explored. For example, partnering with land-asset-rich entities like churches, school districts, community colleges, etc.
Understand NIMBY/YIMBY perspectives: The community continues to be polarized around these topics. For example, NIMBYs are allegedly driven by racism and classism but publicly voice concerns like strained infrastructure, neighborhood character and impact on quality of life and property values. YIMBYs are allegedly overly simplistic in their alleged conclusion that increasing housing supply will address affordability and fail to consider the economic, social, cultural, and political impacts of their advocated policies on communities of color and the working class. There is room to learn from each others’ perspectives without being polarized.
Support a revamp of the land development code: Many of the city codes used in larger metropolitan areas like Austin tend to make affordable housing more difficult. Many of these were written before the population booms most larger cities have seen in the last couple of decades and prioritize vehicles over housing and pedestrian activity.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws which you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
With inclusionary zoning not allowed under the Texas Local Government Code, cities offer density bonuses, fee incentives and regulatory fast lanes to incentivize the market to develop income-restricted units. If I had the power, I would like to see reasonable calibration of the density blues and other incentives to generate substantial amounts of income restricted units. Policy makers, city staff and community advocates are often too worried about giving too much away and end up with attractive bonuses that are either never used or produce a negligible amount of units.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Surround yourself with people who can fill in the knowledge gaps: As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t and don’t know everything. Some people are innately better equipped and experienced to handle different aspects of the work that we do than I. So it’s important to surround yourself with people who can support you and the company by excelling at the things they are good at.
A lot of the work is finding diamonds in the rough: Surrounding yourself with the right people is the first step, but as a leader building my own company, I also had to learn how to see their potential. A lot of the leaders at Civilitude, Capital A Housing, etc. were working on other things, but I knew that they could have a larger impact working toward our vision and have been fortunate to be able to bring those diamonds to work together.
Sometimes trusting the wrong people is a lesson in itself: Entrepreneurs have to make a lot of decisions and, at times, delegate some of those decisions. Unfortunately, we may end up trusting people who weren’t necessarily reliable or dependable in the end. This is a lesson that we all learn at one point or another in our entrepreneurial journey and it’s a valuable lesson.
It’s okay to be “scatterbrained”: I am always looking for ways to find solutions for complex issues. This means that I am constantly thinking about everything all at once. I’ve learned that in a lot of ways, this is a great trait to have because when you think more, you do more. It also ties back to the first point — if you surround yourself with the right people, they will understand how to work with your multiple streams of consciousness.
Not everyone will get it: When you have a vision, you will make decisions based on that vision…even if no one gets it at first. But, the vision is what centers you to move and act strategically so it comes to life.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Two ideas come to mind.
Rush to doing good and investing in those around you and the larger community. There’s a prophetic narration in the muslim tradition that says, and I’m paraphrasing, to continue and plant the tree you were about to plant even if the Last day is upon you. I subscribe to the idea that one stays the course in doing good with the right intentions even if results are not immediate.
Sit down and listen before standing up and shouting. Everyone has a story and lived experience. Too often, there are biases that are exaggerated in the media, and social media in particular, and there can’t be enough emphasis on the importance of looking past someone’s exterior and understanding their triumphs and trials, goals, desires, aspirations and quirks, even.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
As I mentioned above, I have been fortunate to surround myself with amazing people — from my team members to non-profit and city leadership that we collaborate with. I’m very introverted but I’m able to make up a lot of ground in developing a relationship with someone over a short genuine conversation during breakfast or lunch — one on one. I’d love to connect with Melinda Gates and Mackenzie Scott because they are making a difference with their giving. And I’d love to share how my vision can make a large impact in our communities.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.
About The Interviewer: Jason Hartman is the Founder and CEO of Empowered Investor. Jason has been involved in several thousand real estate transactions and has owned income properties in 11 states and 17 cities. Empowered Investor helps people achieve The American Dream of financial freedom by purchasing income property in prudent markets nationwide. Jason’s Complete Solution for Real Estate Investors™ is a comprehensive system providing real estate investors with education, research, resources and technology to deal with all areas of their income property investment needs. Through Jason’s podcasts, educational events, referrals, mentoring and software to track your investments, investors can easily locate, finance and purchase properties in these exceptional markets with confidence and peace of mind.
Starting with very little, Jason, while still in college at the age of 19, embarked on a career in real estate. While brokering properties for clients, he was investing in his own portfolio along the way. Through creativity, persistence and hard work, he earned a number of prestigious industry awards and became a young multi-millionaire. Jason purchased a California real estate brokerage firm that was later acquired by Coldwell Banker. He combined his dedication and business talents to become a successful entrepreneur, public speaker, author, and media personality. Over the years he developed his Complete Solution for Real Estate Investors™ where his innovative firm educates and assists investors in acquiring prudent investments nationwide for their portfolio. Jason’s sought after educational events, speaking engagements, and his popular “Creating Wealth Podcast” inspire and empower hundreds of thousands of people in 189 countries worldwide.
While running his successful real estate and media businesses, Jason also believes that giving back to the community plays an important role in building strong personal relationships. He established The Jason Hartman Foundation in 2005 to provide financial literacy education to young adults providing the all-important real world skills not taught in school which are the key to the financial stability and success of future generations. We’re in a global monetary crisis caused by decades of misguided policies and the cycle of financial dependence has to be broken, literacy and self-reliance are a good start. Visit JasonHartman.com for free materials and resources.