Five Questions With Bess Freedman, CEO, Brown Harris Stevens

Five Questions With Bess Freedman, CEO, Brown Harris Stevens
Bess Freedman, CEO Brown Harris Stevens

During the COVID-pandemic, Brown Harris Stevens Chief Executive Officer Bess Freedman has participated in several webinars hosted by the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors and OneKey MLS and offered some frank assessments of market conditions, as well as her views on lockdowns and tax policies and their impacts on the market.

In preparing for this year’s Focus on Manhattan Supplement, HGAR felt there was no one better to update the readership of Real Estate In-Depth on where the New York City real estate market is heading in 2021 and beyond.

Freedman is Brown Harris Stevens first CEO and oversees the firm’s 55 offices and more than 2,300 agents across New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Florida. Under her leadership, Brown Harris Stevens has grown into one of the largest and most successful privately held real estate companies in the United States with annual sales of more than $9 billion.

She originally joined Brown Harris Stevens in 2013 to oversee business development. Her insights are frequently sought out by media including CNBC, Bloomberg, Fox News, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

She is the former Co-President of Brown Harris Stevens and was a Senior Managing Director of the Corcoran Group’s East Side headquarters. A former agent herself, Freedman achieved repeated membership in Corcoran’s Multi-Million-Dollar Club.

Before entering real estate, she practiced law as an Assistant State’s Attorney in Montgomery County, MD, and also worked at Legal Aid as an attorney. Freedman is a member of the Florida, Washington, D.C. and Maryland Bar, and worked in New York pro hac vice. She speaks Spanish and has lived in various cities including Washington, D.C., Miami, and Seville, Spain. Originally from upstate New York, she earned an undergraduate degree from Ithaca College and a law degree from The University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law, in Washington, D.C.

The mother of two is an advocate for social change through her work with several organizations and earlier this year was the recipient of REBNY’s Kenneth R. Gerrety Humanitarian Award for outstanding service to the community.

Real Estate In-Depth: Back in January on a virtual panel discussion hosted by the HGAR and OneKey MLS, you said that the vaccine’s impact on the market will be critical in New York City’s recovery. While you noted that the path would be difficult, you said, “New York City is going to do very well. It’s still a buyer’s market—an opportunity market—rates are low. But theaters are going to reopen, restaurants are going to reopen … I’m doubling down on my prediction for New York City in 2021.” How does that prediction hold up to current market conditions?

Freedman: I’ve given my predictions in interviews and now people are saying, “You were right.” I did believe strongly that the vaccine would be helpful obviously, once people got vaccinated and things started to open. And, I have to say I thought it would be a really good New York comeback, but it has been great. It’s even better than I expected it to be— the (sales) numbers, the response, things are opening and that’s great, but I will say that with a caveat because I still remain concerned because we are not out of the woods yet regarding the pandemic. Getting vaccinated should not be about politics. We should listen to doctors and science and take care of each other. And I don’t know how the hell we got to a place where this is like a political game where life-saving vaccines become political. I still don’t understand that. However, New York State is doing fairly well with vaccinations. We just issued a new guideline for Brown Harris Stevens for any agent, any employee or any visitor, if you want to come into offices, you have to be vaccinated. We have also brought the mask guideline back. We are being extra careful because I just want to be as vigilant as I can.

In terms of the mask guideline, if you are in any one of the Brown Harris Stevens offices, we ask that when you are walking around that you wear your mask. If you are sitting at your desk and there is nobody around, obviously we are okay with you pulling your mask down. But, when you are walking around and there are other people (nearby) we ask that you be respectful and keep your mask on, regardless of vaccination status. And we are asking that by Sept. 15 that everyone get vaccinated unless they have extenuating circumstances like they have some medical condition that prohibits them (from being vaccinated). In that case we obviously understand, you talk to HR, and we get it. But, if you don’t have that situation, then we insist you get vaccinated if you want to come into our offices.

Freedman later said that once the company reverts back to all full-time status at the office, the company will want all its staff to be vaccinated. “So, if there is an employee who for whatever reason just refuses to get vaccinated (without a valid medical reason) they will not have a future at Brown Harris Stevens because I can’t put (our workers) at risk. I have an elderly population, I have young Moms with kids here and I have to put health and safety above everything else. So, they will not have a future here if they are not going to get vaccinated,” Freedman said.

Real Estate In-Depth: Do the rising number of cases due to the Delta COVID-19 variant concern you and could the market endure another shutdown?

Freedman: The Delta variant picking up very much concerns me and I am worried about us going back into a restrictive economy and people getting very sick. That concerns me greatly and it would hurt us. We are still in a recovering economy. You know what’s going on with the eviction moratorium. There has been rental federal aid that was supposed to get to all these people that can’t pay their rent and out of $45 billion, $3 billion has gotten to these people. People are struggling. Landlords need to pay bills. If we go back into lockdown, we are going to be in trouble and it will not be good for anybody, health-wise, economically, everything. So, that is why I am being so aggressive with the vaccinations and safety, because I don’t want us to slip back to where we were, where we were locked down and could not show real estate for months. I have good friends that are in the restaurant industry and they closed their restaurants. New York is still in recovery, so if we went back into lockdown could we handle it? Of course, but it would not be good.

Real Estate In-Depth: With a new administration to be determined on Election Day, what are the key issues facing the city that you believe will be critical to solve in order to foster a true recovery?

Freedman: I have been a big supporter of Eric (Adams, the Democratic nominee for Mayor). I liked a lot of the candidates, but I really got behind Eric and interviewed him and I think he really has the right idea for New York City because he is such an inclusive leader. He will work with the legislators, he will work with the businesses, he will work with unions, communities and teachers. That is what we need. We had a divisive environment in New York and we were sending the wrong message. We were demonizing the rich. The legislature was trying to tax them egregiously and we got a lot of people to move out of New York and that hurt us. So, I think the new leadership will bring people back to New York City, will work together to create an environment where everyone can prosper. You want businesses to prosper. You want wealthy people to live here. You want to build affordable housing. You have to do all of those things and I think for New York City Eric is going to be the right kind of leader for us.

Crime is definitely an issue and the reason why Eric won (the Democratic primary) is because he put safety as his number one talking point because no matter who you are or where you live in New York City, what people care about the most is safety. If you cannot walk the streets and feel comfortable, people are not going to buy here, invest here, live here and raise children here. The crime situation has already improved because there are more police on the MTA (trains and stations) and they are being more vigilant, but we still have a way to go. Historically, we are a very safe city if you look at 1990 or even 2000, the number of robberies and murders have gone down tremendously. Did crime pick up during the pandemic? Yes, but if you look at it in context we are still historically very low. We are doing well, we just need to keep moving in the right direction.

Real Estate In-Depth: Do you think the press reports of a mass exodus out of Manhattan were overblown and are you seeing any of those transplanted New Yorkers coming back to the city?

Freedman: Yeah, I do think some of that coverage was overblown. What stories sell are bad news, something that is divisive. I think there was a lot of spin with that. Did we have people move out of New York City? We did. Part of that is factual. During the pandemic we were an epicenter for COVID and people left. And because of the tax policy, a lot of people left before the pandemic even hit because they did not want to pay these egregious taxes. So, we did have people leaving New York City, that is indeed true. But, was it a mass exodus? No, I think that is not a proper account. People did leave, but people have come back. We are seeing people come back in record numbers. The rental market is incredibly busy. People are coming back for schools and jobs. First-time homebuyers are here. The market is very good and we are seeing signs of people coming back from Connecticut, from Florida and from the Hamptons and putting their flag back up in New York City.

So, it wasn’t as crazy as it was described, but there was some truth to it. There were people leaving and now there are people who are coming back and we want that to continue moving in that direction. Hopefully with a safe city, a prosperous city, a city that has responsible tax policies, we will keep moving in that direction. We need all of those things to happen to keep the momentum.

Real Estate In-Depth: In 2020, Halstead merged with Brown Harris Stevens. How has that merger worked out? Also, recently you hired Chris Halstead, as executive sales director of brokerage operations for Fairfield County. In that announcement, your firm hinted on possible growth of those operations. Is your firm planning to grow in both Fairfield and Westchester and if so, how?

Freedman: The merger has gone incredibly well, even though we did it during the pandemic, but it has been a lot of moving pieces. We have an incredibly talented group of agents and leadership. So that has been going well. But, there have been bumps, of course, it’s never perfect. Chris Halstead, who is helping us in Connecticut, is a manager that is working with all the other managers. We think he is going to be a great leader for the company. And, we are always open to more growth in places that make sense for the company. We want to grow in quality, we are not just looking to grow. Growth is not the goal. We are interested in the quality versus quantity. When it makes sense, we will definitely expand. We were talking about an expansion idea this morning, so that is always open for us.

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