Media Mentions

Real Deal: Meet the Landlord, Brenda Rosen

Brenda Rosen profiled in The Real Deal New York

Vital Stats
Name: Brenda Rosen
Age: 45
Title and Company: Executive Director, Common Ground
Hometown: Roosevelt Island
Currently Living In: Astoria, Queens

Common Ground is not a traditional landlord. What’s the organization’s mission?
The mission is to end homelessness for New Yorkers. We do that through the development and operation of housing for the low-income [population] and those with special needs. Anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of our tenants are formerly homeless with mental illness or have substance abuse issues or HIV/AIDS. There are no requirements for sobriety. You come in with the baggage you had on the streets.

How many buildings does Common Ground own?
We own 12 buildings and manage an additional four. The ones we own are in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn, as well as upstate New York and Connecticut. Overall, we oversee about 3,200 units. Out smallest building is about 60 units. It’s in Jamaica, Queens. Our largest is 650 units at 249 West 43rd Street. The average building is around 200 units.

How did Common Ground get started?
We started in the 1990s by rehabilitating former hotels in the Times Square area. The first generation of what Common Ground did was rehabilitating existing buildings, but over the last several years, we have focused on new development.

How did you get into real estate?
When I was 10, my family moved to Roosevelt Island. A week after moving there, there was a fire in our building. If it weren’t for the kindness of neighbors, we would have been homeless. But because they advocated for us, we [were able to] sleep on the floor of another vacant apartment. That experience made me decide that somehow I was going to work in a field that had to do with housing and helping people. I ended up going to law school and working as assistant general counsel for the Department of Homeless Services before joining Common Ground in 1999.

What’s been your strangest tenant experience?
We have a lot of tenants that have pets. A tenant in our Times Square building had a pet monkey. He [made headlines in 2009] after sneaking it through security at LaGuardia Airport. … Now we have a tenant at the Prince George building on East 28th Street who has a dog, a cat and two parrots. The dog always has to have sneakers on. He walks the dog and the cat together with a parrot on each shoulder.

What are the joys of the job?
There are people our staff has worked with that lived under an underpass for years and now they’re stable. There’s no day that you don’t think that it’s worthwhile.

Where does your capital come from?
Tax-exempt bonds, capital subsidies from city and state sources and funds raised from the sale of low-income housing tax credits. It’s a complex puzzle that’s pieced together.

What are the biggest challenges of your job?
Ensuring funding. Every year we have to advocate more strongly to ensure budgets are not cut. Every time the state budget is being put together and the federal government is doing its budget, we wonder whether services and Section 8 subsidies are going to be cut.

How much rent do Common Ground tenants pay?
The rents are capped at no more than 30 to 35 percent of a tenant’s income. A low-income rent, depending on the area the building is in, can range anywhere from $490 to $700 a month.

Are communities ever resistant to your buildings opening in their neighborhoods?
When they first hear we want to come in a build a property that will house formerly homeless individuals, the reaction can be, “No, that’s okay, we don’t need you here.” But we focus very strongly on design. Robert A.M. Stern was the architect at a building we opened in Connecticut last year. We opened a building in Brownsville, Brooklyn, last year that was designed by COOKFOX. We have a reputation for wanting to make sure that our buildings are cutting edge and sustainable. We want to be good neighbors.

Since you took the reins at Common Ground, how have the company’s plans changed?
We realized we had to expand further into working with families. We also realized that there’s a great need in New York for plain old affordable housing. … We’re also looking to work with for-profit developers to rent up and manage their low-income units. We’re working with the Gotham Organization right now. They’re doing a project on West 44th Street. We’re working to rent up the low-income portion of that building.

On the development side, are you looking at targeting any particular neighborhoods?
We’re looking to focus on the South Bronx, Brownsville and East New York. We’re hoping to break into Queens as well, but there’s definite community resistance.

By Katherine Clarke