The real estate business is multifaceted and involves more than just building, buying, and selling property. It is also major news and often the topic of conversations as people try to predict the end or continuation of the real estate investment bubble and discuss such personal and pressing issues as high rents, condo conversions, interest-only mortgages, housing for seniors, and environmentally conscious building. In a field that intersects business, law, hospitality, sales, politics, community affairs, taxes, and so much more, there is a proliferation of professional opportunities. The Cardozo alumni featured here have built legal and real estate careers that are personally fulfilling and creative, and provide positive solutions for affordable housing, “green” building, community renewal, and financing and investment strategies.
For someone with no background in real estate, Eugene Schneur ’98 has learned the business quickly. As cofounder and comanaging director of Omni New York LLC (ONY), a real estate company that revitalizes and develops economically distressed communities, Schneur has gone from practicing law as a mergers and acquisitions attorney at Olshan Grundman Frome Rosenzweig & Wolosky LLP, to renewing housing projects.
Schneur and his partner, Maurice “Mo” Vaughn, a former first baseman for the New York Mets, cofounded ONY in June 2004. Vaughn was a client of Schneur’s; then, one day they spoke about other opportunities, especially real estate.
“There is an overwhelming need for affordable housing in New York, and we knew there was a business to be built here,” Schneur said. “It was an interesting concept, but I knew nothing about the affordable housing market. I had to start from the ground up.”
They took a chance and now are reaping the rewards. In June 2007, ONY closed on the Noble Drew Ali Plaza, a dilapidated 385-unit housing complex in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood. The complex has suffered from years of neglect and has been overwhelmed by poverty, violence, and drugs. ONY will spend $23 million putting in new kitchens, bathrooms, and floors in all of the units—a total overhaul of the apartments—as well as installing approximately 400 security cameras, a new roof, windows, boilers, and elevators.
“I always knew I would transition to the business side one day, but I never thought I would be in the affordable housing business,” said Schneur, who was born in Russia, came to this country when he was seven years old, and grew up in Brooklyn. “It’s been extremely fulfilling to watch our company grow and also know that we are improving the lives and living standard of so many.” The company also works to resuscitate neighborhoods and will partner with community and neighborhood groups to provide social services.
Since December 2004, ONY has acquired and rehabbed, or is in the process of rehabbing, 1,147 units of affordable housing in the New York metropolitan area, purchasing properties the company can keep for at least 15 years. All of the properties they acquire—mainly Section 8 properties (subsidized housing for low-income families and individuals)—have been neglected or troubled by social problems. The projects are financed through bonds and low income housing tax credits. “We are in this for the long term,” Schneur said. “Our goal is to provide well-managed affordable housing in neighborhoods that are in need of it.”
The company has grown to include 20 employees, with an additional 60 who work at the properties. ONY has also completed the construction of 40 new units of affordable housing in Seneca County, New York, and is renovating 95 units in Gillette, Wyoming.
“I don’t do legal work per se anymore, but my legal training is invaluable in this business.” Schneur said. “I took a huge risk by leaving the practice of law, but it’s definitely paying off.”
After some bumps along the road, Gerald Migdol ’79 is now in a position to help others, and he is doing just that as the founder and president of the Migdol Organization, a real estate company based in Harlem that is dedicated to community renewal. Migdol buys and develops mismanaged, problematic properties, often ones with legal problems. “I’m in the business of giving back to others,” he said. “We are a resource for the people of the neighborhood. What we do is what the community needs and wants. It’s a win-win situation.”
He always knew he would work in real estate—it just took some time getting there. A native New Yorker and the son of a plumber, Migdol learned the building trades early on. He attended Queens College, but got caught up in the spirit of the 1960s and took breaks from school. Nine years after he first started college, Migdol graduated and entered Cardozo. “Even though I knew I would never practice law, it was important for me to have those credentials in order to be taken seriously in the business world,” he said.
After law school, Migdol started buying property. Because of accumulated loans and the market crash in the late 1980s, he was forced into bankruptcy and went to work for a large, national real estate company. “This is where I learned about rebuilding inner city complexes that had fallen apart, and I learned how to rebuild with class and style.”
He began buying property again and focused on Harlem, forming the Migdol Organization in 2002. “I wanted to make Harlem a home,” said Migdol, who has an apartment above his Harlem office. “I’m an entrepreneur by nature. It was more natural for me to create my own business.”
As an advocate for affordable housing, Migdol has the interests of low- and middle-income residents, especially civil service workers, in mind. “Those who have to work in the city, like our police officers, firefighters, and teachers, should also be able to live in this city,” he said. Migdol has offered these workers discounts in his residential buildings.
In 2004, he started the Migdol Family Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that provides essential items to local families, such as clothing and food. The foundation has started a scholarship program for local schools as well as an asthma-prevention program called AsthmaCare.
Migdol is also branching out and working on a big Section 8 project in the Bronx, which has 210 units and land to build more affordable housing, most likely for seniors. “My whole family has embraced the idea of giving back. We can do a lot from our vantage point,” he said.
Migdol recently honored Kris Talese Bellamkonda ’07, a Cardozo student killed in a hit-and-run accident in Harlem last year. Bellamkonda was also involved in the Harlem real estate market and owned a building just a block from Migdol’s office. Migdol has placed a plaque on one of his buildings in Kris’s memory. “The plaque is for what he stood for and what he was,” Migdol said.
Although Migdol is not practicing law, he does offer pro bono legal services through his organization. His son, Aaron ’07, will take the lead expanding the legal offerings after graduating from Cardozo. “He has the same heart and desire to help,” Migdol said.
Interest in affordable housing is a common thread found among the Cardozo graduates featured in this story. According to Susan Robbins ’83, general counsel for The Community Development Trust (CDT), the only real estate investment trust (REIT) in the United States dedicated to investing in affordable housing, “The lack of affordable housing in this country, especially in many metropolitan areas, is a huge problem. Many investors are converting their properties into market-rate housing, which is where CDT comes in,” Robbins explains. “The company’s mission is to preserve and expand the affordable housing supply.”
Although CDT is a private REIT, a tax designation that reduces or eliminates income taxes for corporations investing in real estate, it functions much like a public company with a board of directors. In her position since CDT was founded in 1998, Robbins oversees the legal department and is responsible for matters related to board work, corporate governance and compliance, debt and equity transactions, and corporate finance and operational activities.
“CDT’s structure for investment in real estate is similar to that of a mutual fund,” Robbins said. “CDT combines the capital of investors to acquire or finance affordable housing, while also earning returns for its shareholders.”
Partnering with state and federal housing agencies and nonprofits that are dedicated to affordable housing preservation, CDT has provided capital to ensure the long-term affordability of some 23,000 housing units across the country. “CDT’s intent is to structure mission-driven investments that benefit its investors, but the real beneficiaries are the families and individuals who are able to retain their affordable homes,” Robbins said.
Before joining CDT, Robbins was general counsel for Local Initiatives Managed Assets Corp., a nonprofit and national secondary market for community development loans. Much of her experience was at MBL Life Assurance Corporation, where she was responsible for a variety of real estate, corporate, and finance transactions. “The work was very similar to what I’m doing today,” Robbins said.
Although Robbins had some exposure to the real estate world growing up—her mother is a real estate broker and her father owns an engineering business—she had no plans to work in the field. “Going into law school, I thought I would focus on law for the disabled,” she said. But, through a legal internship at Citibank, “I got more involved in real estate finance and my career path slowly evolved.”
“I learned that it’s okay to change your focus 100 times before you end up in the right place. In the real estate world, ‘location, location, location’ is the motto, but my advice is to network, network, and network. You never know what opportunities will be presented to you.”
In addition to financing, real estate development often requires community support, and that is where Randall Toure ’90 comes in. As vice president of community development for Forest City Ratner Company (FCRC), an owner and developer of real estate, he is responsible for cultivating and enhancing the company’s diversity goals and leads the team working with MWBE (minority and women business enterprise) contractors and vendors to ensure their participation in FCRC projects.
As part of the Atlantic Yards Development Group, Toure led the negotiations and is responsible for the implementation of the Atlantic Yard Community Benefits Agreement, in which the local community is guaranteed that their interests will be protected as FCRC’s massive Atlantic Yards project, a mixed-use commercial and residential complex of 17 buildings near downtown Brooklyn, evolves. The project, which was approved in December 2006, spans 22 acres and includes plans for both affordable and market-rate housing, commercial and office space, and an arena called the Barclays Center, which will be the new home of the New Jersey Nets basketball team. FCRC chose legendary architect Frank Gehry, who was born in Brooklyn, for the project’s design, which will also consist of eight acres of publicly accessible open space.
“There is a critical need for affordable housing in Brooklyn,” Toure said. “The Atlantic Yards project will create 4,500 rental units, half of which will be dedicated to low- and middle-income residents, helping to alleviate the serious shortage.” Senior citizens will be given priority for 10 percent of all rentals.
According to Toure, the project will also create 15,000 union construction jobs, thousands of permanent jobs, and $1 billion in city and state net tax revenue. As a community liaison, one of Toure’s tasks is to ensure that small businesses and those run by women and minorities take part in the project. “We are providing opportunities for small businesses and creating jobs on a section of land that has sat undeveloped for 50 years,” Toure said.
The project is currently in the demolition stage, and while plans call for a 10-year period for completion, the arena and two buildings are slated to open for the 2009–2010 basketball season.
FCRC is the New York affiliate of Forest City Enterprises, currently the nation’s largest publicly traded commercial real estate company. According to Toure, the company is involved in cutting-edge work around the country and is committed to sustainable, or “green” building, noting that Atlantic Yards is a green project. “Buyers will begin to demand it, and the more developers get out front on the issue, the more the industry will be pushed in this direction.”
Toure arrived at his current position after six years as the director of community relations for Assemblyman Roger Green, through whom he met Bruce Ratner, president and CEO of Forest City Ratner. While at Cardozo he took part in an affordable housing clinic, which led to a job after graduation with Dellapa, Lewis and Perseo, a law firm specializing in not-for-profit housing development. From there he became executive director of the South East Queens Clergy for Community Empowerment, a coalition of organizations dedicated to addressing pressing local issues, with the AIDS epidemic and affordable housing at the top of the list. “I put everything I learned in this position into my work today,” Toure said.
Irv Hepner ’79, who concentrates on complex real estate leasing, financing, and development programs as counsel in Kaye Scholer LLP’s Los Angeles office, says ending up in real estate law was an “accident.”
“I was an architecture major in college, and although I was great at the engineering part, I was never happy with my designs,” Hepner said. “People assume this is how I ended up in real estate, but that’s not why
Hepner entered law school after graduating with a degree in architecture from Yale and was pleasantly surprised to find that he really enjoyed it. After graduation he spent about three years working at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in New York. “I just liked the real estate people and gravitated toward them.”
Hepner now spends some of his time working as an outside real estate lawyer for the city of Los Angeles, where he has worked on structuring and implementing leasing agreements with airlines for terminals at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). “LAX is one of the most important airports in the country—especially for its Asia-Pacific routes—and airlines are constantly vying for a presence here,” Hepner said.
LAX is in the beginning stages of a major expansion and modernization of its facilities. “A large capital investment needs to be made,” Hepner said. “There is always a struggle about who will pay for what, and the leases have become a focal point because they generate important revenue for the
In addition to working on a wide variety of financing transactions, Hepner also serves as counsel for real estate matters on a large wind-energy project in Kern County, CA. He recently helped to put together the largest such contract signed by a US utility, for 1,500 megawatts of electricity, enough to power approximately one million homes.
Before joining Kaye Scholer in 2001, Hepner was the chief US legal officer for Westfield Holdings Limited, the exclusive manager, developer, and advisor to Westfield America, Inc., which is the second-largest owner of regional shopping centers in the United States.
Hepner, who was in private practice in New York for 18 years before moving to California, also does a lot of pro bono work. He is on the board of The Westview School, a school in Los Angeles that his daughter attended, and has helped with land acquisition, construction contracts, and financing for a new school building. He also helped found, and is the CFO of, Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland, a nonprofit organization committed to fostering the rebirth of Jewish life and culture in Poland.
“There is a Jewish renewal movement taking place in Poland right now, led mostly by a younger generation of Jews who are trying to get in touch with their Jewish heritage,” he said. “They don’t have much in the way of infrastructure, so we are raising money to help support their efforts.”
While some fall into the real estate business by chance, others have a more direct path. For Mitchel Maidman ’88, there was a choice between joining the family real estate business in Manhattan or forging his own career path. As president and chief executive officer of Townhouse Management Company as well as managing partner of Maidman & Mittelman, LLP, he chose to do both.
Before attending Cardozo, Maidman studied at Yale Law School and began buying land in New Haven, CT—some of which the company still owns. “I don’t know what I thought I would do when I graduated from law school, but I became more and more focused on real estate,” Maidman said.
Maidman, who also currently serves as vice chairman of the Men’s Division of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, went to work as a litigator at the New York City real estate law firm Dreyer and Traub, LLP, which represented many developers, including Donald Trump. In the mid-1990s, after about 10 years at the firm, Dreyer was absorbed by another law firm. Maidman took this opportunity to start Maidman & Mittelman, LLP, which specializes in real estate and general litigation matters, and also serves as primary counsel to Townhouse Management Company, his family’s real estate business.
While he doesn’t practice real estate law at the firm—his partner (and cousin) handles that part of the business—he did get more involved with the company his grandfather William, originally a dressmaker, founded in 1933. Maidman’s father, Richard, serves as chairman of Townhouse, a diversified real estate company that acquires, develops, and manages residential, commercial, retail, and mixed-use properties throughout the New York metropolitan area. The company currently owns and operates nearly 70 buildings.
Townhouse has grown under Maidman’s leadership. In 2003, through a partnership with Marriott Execustay, Marriott’s corporate housing program, Maidman led Townhouse’s construction of The Aurora, a 32-story, 133-unit mixed-use corporate-housing and luxury apartment building on 37th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan. The building is the first ground-up corporate housing development for Marriott Execustay.
While the first 25 floors of the building are leased to Marriott, the top seven are full-floor luxury loft condominium apartments. Townhouse developed the property and manages the building for Marriott, and Maidman, his wife, and two children live there.
The partnership, which developed after an introduction by his wife, a real estate broker, has been successful, and he continues to work on constructing and acquiring other buildings for Execustay. The Chelsea, an 18-story, 204-unit apartment building located at 160 West 24th Street, was also purchased for the company, and all of the units in the building are leased to them.
While the company’s main focus is on residential properties in Manhattan, it also owns property in Connecticut, including a Walgreens drug store, and continues to branch out. “We are always looking for new real estate investment opportunities and to build and expand,” said Maidman.
With more than two decades of transactional work under her belt, Nancy Cleveland ’81, a partner in Saul Ewing’s Wayne, Pennsylvania office, has a practice built around traditional real estate deals with a focus on commercial office and retail projects and large-scale residential communities. However, she also calls sustainable building “the hot commodity in development right now” and predicts that much of her future work will be in this area.
“Sustainable building is on a roll, and hopefully technology will bring the cost of it down so that it makes even more sense. Now that some of the heavy hitters are getting involved, there’s a better chance the movement will take off.”
As an attorney who works on various and often complicated transactions, Cleveland is skilled at handling everything from negotiating the acquisition of land, to construction contracts, sales, or leasing, and functions as primary counsel from the beginning to end of numerous projects.
Cleveland arrived in the real estate transactional arena in a roundabout way. After graduating from law school, she worked at Rosenman & Colin LLP (now Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP) in New York. “I worked in the litigation group for about three months and realized that I had made a big mistake,” she said. “Litigation was not for me, but luckily I had an opportunity to do some bankruptcy work, which gave me exposure to transactional work.” When the firm expanded its real estate group, she made the switch.
After law school, Cleveland helped edit Cardozo’s Arts & Entertainment Law Journal (AELJ), which she founded during her third year. “We started inquiring about starting a new journal and no one said ‘no’,” she said, describing the AELJ’s creation. “Article solicitation was difficult at first—there wasn’t exactly a thundering noise at the door—but the journal has become a success.” She recently returned to Cardozo to celebrate the AELJ’s 25th anniversary. Cleveland also has personal ties to Cardozo: she is married to Robert Cleveland ’82, general counsel at a private equity fund manager.
Prior to joining Saul Ewing, Cleveland worked as inhouse counsel for a public utility company, and before that she spent 13 years in private practice. “Real estate law is so diverse and I’ve worked on every kind of real estate development you can imagine,” Cleveland said. “I’ve reinvented my practice numerous times.”