Jason Haber heads his own, newly minted real estate brokerage in New York, and he has Moammar Gadhafi to thank for it.
Not that the infamous Libyan dictator knowingly inspired the Manhattan agent to found Rubicon Property, but Haber said his perspective on life and business took a significant turn on the day when he told Gadhafi, in effect, to take a hike.
Haber’s in-your-face response to the Libyan government’s attempt to rent a Manhattan townhouse for Gadhafi during a United Nations visit in 2009 generated an avalanche of media attention and an outpouring from the public — and from one woman in particular — that changed him, he said.
As a result, in September he and his brother, Cory, co-founded a "social entrepreneurial" brokerage with a real estate business model tied directly to philanthropy. But he had no idea this was in his future when he fielded an e-mail over Labor Day weekend in 2009.
"It was from somebody who said, ‘We’re looking for a townhouse in Manhattan for a visiting Dutch (United Nations) delegation," said Haber, who at the time was an agent for Prudential Douglas Elliman.
"I had a townhouse on East 78th Street for rent for $28,000 a month. It had been the Brazilian consulate, a very elegant home, and they wanted to know how much, how many rooms — just basic stuff. We traded a couple of e-mails back and forth."
About that point, he recalled, "It started to get a little strange."
Haber said the e-mailer began to ask about the backyard and roof deck and whether it could be tented — not a tent to hold a reception, but a pitched tent where someone could live, he said.
"They started to get forceful, very aggressive," he said. "There were people already living in the top floor of the building, and they insisted that we would move them out."
They weren’t Dutch diplomats, of that he was certain. He insisted on speaking with them directly.
"I could tell from the moment they spoke that they weren’t Dutch, that they were Middle Eastern," he said. "I said, ‘I have to know who you are,’ and they said the house would be used by Col. Gadhafi."
The caller pushed him to set the terms of the deal and insisted on having the entire property, Haber recalled. Her aggressiveness chilled him, he said.
And he knew he wasn’t dealing with "a visionary leader and a fighter against al-Qaida" — he later learned that the Libyan operatives had described Gadhafi in this way to some other New York real estate agents they had approached and who, he later learned, apparently didn’t know who Gadhafi was.
"They picked the wrong guy with me," he said. "I did my graduate work at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and I knew a few things about foreign politics.
"So I said, ‘You can have the townhouse, the whole thing. All you have to say is that you’ll send Megrahi back to Scotland, and we have a deal." Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, a Libyan-born man convicted of planting the bomb that exploded on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270, had been released from a Scottish prison and returned to Libya in August 2009.
There was a pause on the phone line, Haber said.
"Then the line went dead," Haber said. "I never heard from them again."
And that, he thought, was the end of it. It became an anecdote shared with a few colleagues. One of those colleagues, however, mentioned it to a reporter at the New York Post, which published a story — headlined "Get lost, Khadafy!" — that set off a stampede.
"It got picked up everywhere," Haber said. "It became the lead story on FoxNews.com. I did interviews for ‘Good Morning America,’ ‘The Situation Room’ on CNN, ‘Fox and Friends,’ MSNBC. I did interviews on the BBC twice. I did an interview with a Dutch newspaper."
Haber’s encounter with the Libyans was timely. Al-Megrahi had been returned to Libya several weeks earlier. Authorities cited "compassionate grounds" because he had prostate cancer and was expected to die within months. Upon his return, al-Megrahi was met as hero, and the Scots’ decision set off an international uproar.
In addition to the media coverage, Haber received thousands of e-mails and got a telephone call that affected him deeply, he said. It was from a rabbi in Beverly Hills, Calif., whose husband had died on Pan Am 103.
"She said the victims of Flight 103 never got any sense of justice — that the guy had served 12 days in prison for every person he killed — and she was grateful that someone could at least do something," Haber said.
"She sent me a letter, which now sits on my desk at my new company, and it talks about how we’re supposed to handle ourselves in business dealings and add meaning to our professional lives — that there are more important things than making money."
After the media attention faded, Haber couldn’t shake the impact of her letter. "I sat down with my wife and my family, and I said, ‘How can we make this meaningful? How can we make it something that will have a greater impact than a two-day news story?’ " he recalled.
He and his brother, who has a background in corporate housing, decided to found a brokerage that would integrate a direct relationship between real estate sales and a charity — but which one?
"We decided on three criteria," Haber said. "One, it had to be an issue where, wherever you are in the real estate spectrum, you have to have universal agreement on its benefit.
"Two, it had to be a fixable problem — not anything that was incurable or beyond our technical capacity.
"Three, it had to be measurable — we had to be able to measure our success," he said.
They settled on providing clean drinking water to parts of the world that are desperate for it.
"We take it for granted in this country — we clean our streets with clean water," Haber said. "But 43,000 people a week die from diseases contracted from unclean water. It’s a huge crisis."
So Rubicon Property, as they named the brokerage, decreed from the get-go that it would donate funds from each commission to Charity: Water, a New York organization devoted to bringing clean water to developing nations.
So far, he said, because the brokerage is new, it has had only two closings, though he said several are scheduled in March and April and he expects to contribute considerably more funding, based on a formula geared to the size of each sale.
"Each well costs between $5,000 and $10,000," he said. "So far, we’ve provided water for 20 years for 300 people."
The message seems to resonate both with agents who want to be work for Rubicon and with clients who want their listings associated with the cause, he said. The firm now has six sales agents, plus Haber.
"We started with one $900,000 listing six months ago and now we have more than $30 million in exclusive listings," Haber said.
In addition, the brokerage sponsors events that spotlight the work of Charity: Water, he said.
"On Feb. 15, we got 100 brokers to come to an open at one of our exclusives," he said. "And they got a lecture about Charity: Water. They were there to see the apartment, but they also were there to learn about something substantive.
"And when you come to one of our open houses, there are signs about the clean-water crisis in Africa," Haber said. "What we’re finding is when people leave the open house, they think about that apartment. It stands out."
He believes that the Rubicon Property model could work elsewhere.
"We want to franchise this," he said. "It will work in markets around the country. Franchising it is phase two — we’d like to put it into urban centers around the country."
Haber said the real estate business needs something to connect it more positively in consumers’ minds.
"What’s that story — that real estate agents get up every morning and say, ‘Thank God for used-car salesmen?’ " he said.
"We’re low in public esteem, but we play such an important role in finding people the right home at the right price," he said. "It’s an important job and it should have higher prestige than it does.
"We think our clients should go out at night and say to their friends, ‘My real estate agent does this … what does yours do?’ "
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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