Sheina Levin co-founded and co-owns the Crown Heights based ABBA Realty Associates, Inc. a full service real estate firm specializing in the rentals and sales of quality properties throughout New York City.
1. What’s the story behind the name “ABBA”?
I got into the nonprofit niche by accident. One day I got a call from a woman named Barbara Cohen, from the UJA-Federation of New York. She said that she needed 30 apartments within the next month, and asked if I could provide it. I agreed to take on the challenge. When I completed the contract, I asked her how she knew to contact me. Remember, this was in 1993, before cell phones. It turned out that because my license was under Abe New, my broker at the time, it appeared at the top of the alphabetized list of brokers. So when it was time to get my own license, I decided to make my name as close to the top of the list as possible. Hence the name ABBA, which is my son’s name as well.
2. Why did you decide to go into this business?
Back in 1993, not many people were working in the rental real estate market. Most brokers sold properties to million dollar corporations. My husband had sold a condo development to an owner of a real estate company upstate, who agreed to make the purchase if I agreed to work for them. The commission was great, so I couldn’t refuse. I left my job as a production manager and obtained a real estate license.
The industry tanked in the late 80s and early 90s, and the real estate market was a real disaster. Because nobody was buying, my husband realized that renting was the way to go. My husband found a job as a real estate agent under an established company, but after their business closed, he decided to open our own.
I was a mortgage broker by that time, but quit my job to join him. We began by specializing in servicing individuals with disabilities, since that’s what my husband had been doing with his previous job. I was raised to give back, so helping the needy and underprivileged fit into my sense for justice. I liked the idea that my career would be about more than just business.
3. What is it like to work with your husband?
It’s definitely a challenge to work with one’s spouse. But it has its rewards too because we’re on the same page, working toward the same goals. My advice to those looking to find a start-up with a spouse is to make sure that each spouse knows his or her responsibilities and that strong boundaries are maintained.
4. How is Abba Realty different from other Real Estate companies?
Abba specializes in a niche market of apartment rentals throughout Brooklyn, upper Manhattan, Washington Heights, Harlem, and the Bronx, although we do sometimes orchestrate commercial and home sales as well. Real estate is a very service-oriented business, so we make sure to support and assist our clients throughout the entire process, staying in touch with clients long term to make sure that we maintain their satisfaction.
As a full service rental agency, we cater to both free market and non-profit clients. In addition, I work with large nonprofit organizations such as Ohel and the UJA, assisting them in finding specialized apartments within a specified budget. For example, Ohel will call us up and say that they need ten one-bedroom apartments in the Flatbush area that can accommodate disabled individuals, for under $1200 a month. With that information, I approach landlords I work with to match up the organization with the apartments they are looking for. Because I have been doing this for many years, I have a reputation amongst landlords and organizations as being the go-to person for this specialty in all of the boroughs. I also give workshops in my specialized field.
5. Are you currently working on anything interesting?
I assisted in brokering a large 175-unit homeless shelter in Brooklyn, which is being developed right now and is set to open in January 2015. I continue to work in the nonprofit sector because I really feel satisfaction in assisting the population of people facing disabilities, health challenges, and domestic violence. I feel that this is a very compromised demographic that really needs the public’s involvement and support. I am also currently involved in several Crown Heights projects, and specifically one that will benefit our own low-income population.
We are also currently working with investors to purchase smaller, six- to ten-family buildings for a new portfolio of buildings in still untapped Brooklyn markets for my niche clientele.
6. How does your position as a frum woman affect your work in the industry?
My religion is my identity in my industry. Anytime I conduct business or speak publicly, I present myself as a religious Jewish woman. One client told me that she gave me the exclusive listing for her building because I am a G-d fearing person. I guess my G-d fearing mentality is apparent—I am always saying “Thank G-d!”
7. What do you think is the secret to your success?
Success in real estate comes from the will to persevere during rough times, because this industry, like any other, has its ups and downs. The goal is to get through the lean months or years, which I was able to do because I developed a niche in which I became an industry leader. In addition, I am well known amongst the nonprofit community because I took the time to learn and understand the needs of individuals with disabilities and domestic challenges, as well as the needs of the landlords. I also take the time to educate both these tenants and landlords. It is an ongoing process.
8. What is the best piece of advice for someone looking to start a business in real estate?
Just go for it. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and cold-call people. To be in business you have to be gutsy, a risk taker, and unafraid of failure. Research what you want to do in order to have the knowledge it entails. There are many rewards to owning your own business, but it takes time, effort, and hard work. Today there is a terrible expectation for everyone to be successful by their late twenties. But don’t doubt yourself. Do not give up. Believe in what you’re doing and don’t be afraid to fail. Hashem runs the world on His schedule, not yours.
For any mothers out there looking to start a business, I say this: It is a great challenge to juggle both work and family, so make sure to create a schedule that will prioritize your family. If the family is neglected and suffers as a result, your work and business will suffer as well. Remember if you are meant to succeed, you will!
To learn more about starting your own business or any other business-related matters, please contact CHYE at www.CHYE.info or on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/CHyoungEntrepreneurs. To join the Mentor Program through Crown Heights Young Entrepreneurs, and to receive mentorship from business leaders, click here.