Where Other Developers See Obstacles, She Sees Possibilities

Toby Moskovitz

The Opportunity Zone Expo Podcast
Where Other Developers See Obstacles, She Sees Possibilities


Jack: Welcome back everyone to the OZExpo podcast. I'm your host, Jack Heald, and I'm delighted to have with us today, Toby Moskovitz who is the founder and CEO of Heritage Equity Partners. Toby, welcome to the OZExpo podcast.

Toby: Thank you for having me, Jack.

Jack: It is great to have you. So I always like to start my shows this way. I like to know who I'm talking to and where they came from. So here's the question. Who are you, where did you come from? How did you get here?

Toby: My name is Toby Moskovitz, one of the few female developers in New York. I call myself an accidental developer. I actually started out in the venture capital industry investing in startup companies. And in the end of 2008 through a series of events, really fell into real estate when some of the family offices that I had been working with advising on direct investing, found themselves with money stuck in real estate development deals. In a neighborhood where I had sort of grown up because my grandfather and my father, both immigrants, started a business in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the 1970s. And because of how the piece of gentrification played out in New York, when I hit the market in 2008 or 2009, a lot of the job sites in the downturn, were in this neighborhood, which I knew well.

So, over the last 10 years I've been working primarily in the outer boroughs of New York City in Brooklyn and Queens. I'm now starting to focus in the Bronx. And these are former industrial areas that has some zoning change to encourage the development of residential, multifamily, rental and mixed use. And typically we're in neighborhoods that were transforming and had a big component of gentrification involved really, you know, bringing new activity and improvement to neighborhoods that either were falling down economically because of shrinking manufacturing base in the city of New York, or for other reasons. We’re right for transformation and economic growth.
And these were areas that today, in what the city of New York and the state of New York has done, are generally, we'll call it being classified as Opportunity Zone neighborhoods areas.

Jack: Right.

Toby: For investments, I have a 10-year history of going into emerging neighborhoods and you know, investing and developing across asset classes as residential, hotel and office, really as a neighborhood developer. Moving into the market at a time when most people were pulling out for a whole range of reasons.

Jack: Well, it's interesting that you jumped in there because when I was doing my research, I saw you had a background in finance and I was going to ask you, so where were you in 2008? Did you read, do you remember the day Bear Stearns died?

Toby: I was actually sitting in my office. I had just started a business. My business was supposed to be about helping wealthy families and entrepreneurs invest in new operating businesses. And I found myself in a place where basically they were telling me, “We love you, we love what you're doing,” which was about creating, I call the direct investment platform different than families putting money only into private equity or venture capital funds, allowing them both financial and expertise resources into direct investing with other entrepreneurs.

So for example, if there was a family that has some expertise in real estate and another, well, you wanted to do something with smart energy systems, the two families would get together and co-invest. Potentially work together to grow the business they were investing in. And I found myself in a place where we had just launched a business, watching the world fall apart.

Jack: Yeah.

Toby: And thinking about what I would do with myself. And I basically did a pivot, which you have to do as an entrepreneur. And I went to find out what I could do to add value for my clients' family offices that I had gathered around me, discovered what was going on, which I now when I tell the story, I see, I lived the Big Short and I don't know if you've seen that movie.

Jack:   Oh yeah. I traded index futures at the time. So.

Toby: So you were also living the Big Short.

Jack: You are also living the big short. Which character?

Toby: I essentially was an outsider because I had been doing mostly venture capital investing. You know, I'm a fixer and a problem solver by personality. Effectively we got involved helping families. It is a whole range of financial assets to unwind those commitments and try to create liquidity. And the last piece of it was real estate. Real estate moves a little more slowly and these families are invested in a whole range of development projects in New York, getting calls from the developer saying, send us $2 million, $5 million and we'll send it to the banks and we'll pay our extension fees and we'll get everything moving in order to release additional funding for the completion of our buildings. And when I did a little digging, I discovered that in fact these were banks that were on a watch list that are all sorts of other issues because of a broader economic downturn.

And even if my clients put up that money, the banks were not in a position to continue to fund. So that, you know, there were many reasons why things went south. Of course a whole range of asset classes specifically in New York and the outer boroughs. It was a very heavy concentration of second-tier banks from other states that have come in to fund development. And when the market turned, they simply didn't have the balance sheet and the liquidity to keep funding. So that was the moment that I stepped in. I was a novice in real estate. I didn't have a legacy baggage with regard to my perception of the situation or deal that I had to work through. I went out and really tapped into my network of private families to play the role of lender and equity investor in these deals to keep them moving and allow them to continue to get funding. And that's how I got into real estate.

Jack: You were not handicapped by knowing that what you were doing couldn't be done. And so you did it.

Toby: Very well said. And I think I consider myself the venture capital in the real estate business both with regard to sort of that moment in time and moving forward with regard to the deals and the neighborhoods that I focused on really going in as first mover. When the land prices in a universe that's very much driven by comps, didn't yet have those comps, you have to be a little more creative in where you found your debt and the equity. And I've continued to do that over the last 10 years in the outer boroughs initially by neighborhood and then moving into different asset classes and really creating that first comp.

Jack: So take us now into the advent of the Opportunity Zone program. How did that dovetail with what you were already doing, kind of sounds like it might have and how are you taking advantage of the program and how does Heritage Equity Partners play in that particular space?

Toby: In New York over the last 10 years, I was really one of the early developers to go into emerging neighborhoods and it played itself out about a year-and-a-half ago when I found myself looking for new areas to expand into and sort of focusing on the Park in Brooklyn, which is if the neighborhood my family moved to when they left Leesburg. A lot of money had pointed to commercial development, a whole transformation of beautiful pre-war warehouses into tech office space and new forms of light manufacturing and virtually zero new construction for the residential -- you know, people who might want to live in the area. So individuals working for a company in Sunset Park, which what we call now industry city. They would be taking two and three trains to get to work. So I went to find a site, found a great site of former gas station, which I purchased in July of last year. And that site has sat on the market for a couple of years. People looked at it, but nobody really moves. And then as soon as I got it under contract, I started getting calls, and I spoke to one of the brokers. He called me and I said, “What changed from yesterday to today? And he's like, “Well, don't you know, this neighborhood is in an Opportunity Zone.” And I'm like, “What's that?”

Jack: Oh.

Toby: It’s interesting and sort of tells you a lot about are my business, that I actually bought the site before I even knew that it was in an Opportunity Zone or what an Opportunity Zone was. And that led me to further explore.

Jack: It made good business sense. Yeah

Toby: Yeah. It just makes good sense. More than that is that I'm not new at what I call Opportunity Zone investing. I've been developing in these neighborhoods that are, you know, on the edge or require a little more effort in terms of building them out, figuring out how to finance them and getting them fluids. I've been in this business 10 years. That is really the driver and why I found myself in a situation where I'd go to a site that ended up in an Opportunity Zone. And I certainly very quickly got myself up to speed on what an Opportunity Zone was and how I could benefit from it. But ultimately, to your point, it has to be a good deal. I think Opportunity Zones are just a driver for new kinds of investments and new kinds of capital partners. If anything, Opportunity Zone investors introduced a new level of issue and challenge for developers with regard to hold time.

Jack: Yeah.

Toby: Which is an issue that needs to be address then a potential gap that has to be filled.

Jack: So before the show we were talking about impact investing, which is something, well obviously it's a core driver of the Opportunity Zone program, but it's something that is particularly of value to me. And as I found out to you as well, talk about what it means to be an impact investor in regard to your work and Opportunity Zone investing.

Toby: I got started as what I would described as an impact investor pretty early in my foray into Williamsburg. I found myself in a neighborhood where, about 20 years earlier, my family had owned a business. And people knew my grandfather, they remembered my family and I was randomly visiting one of my neighbors at a development site. And while I was there, a local high school assistant principal walked in and I was introduced. And it turned out that particular high school was sort of like a trade school. The kids were learning something called CADD which was Computer Aided Design. A lot of they were growing up in families from disadvantaged economic backgrounds. It was in New York, they weren't only from the neighborhood, they were coming from all over the bureau. They were desperately looking for someone like myself that was a developer, who could help create internships and other kinds of programming. A lot of these kids were going ultimately to the University of Albany for architecture school and into other forms of design, architecture, planning careers that utilize their knowledge of CADD.

I was really engaged and excited to hear about the school. Four years ago, I basically adopted a school where we over the last four years have run a series of programs starting with very simply bringing in professionals. So, we would try to bring in young entrepreneurs, architects, engineers, city planners come in and talk about how CADD is used in a career. So just to give the kids a chance to associate with the professionals. And then in the second half of the year, in the spring, we always do a design competition where I take one of my buildings and we give the kids a chance to work in teams to design the space, mentored by whichever architecture firm I'm working with is. I've done this with Gensler, a very large firm, and am doing it in this year with H.W. Can. And then at the end of it, we have a judging design competition where the kids are literally presenting a very sophisticated portfolio and we give a cash award. So that was a really interesting opportunity to think about how my role as a local developer could impact a single school and the students that we've touched and also engage them in the development happening around them.

Toby: So it wasn't just that they would walk past my buildings because the school is literally a walking distance from where I build. But they'd be part of the design development process. And it told me a lot about how really, I wouldn't say easy, but how straightforward it is to be aware and cognizant of your surroundings and want to be someone who gives back. And I've been extremely focused on that from that time launched a whole other range of programming, including an office development that I owned and they would call Bushwick. I was literally setting up something like an incubator where we teach local high school kids how to be participants in a hackathon. So trying to facilitate entry level tech jobs for kids in the community. I think, moving forward, one of the critical things for me when I come into the neighborhood is really taking the time to understand, who was here before me, what's going on?

How could it my project and my, my role as a developer contribute something not just to my project and getting my project built, but also to help grow and improve quality of life for the people around me. And I think it's a really important part of what happens next as money continues to blow into these communities where there are individuals who have lived there for decades. Some of them are coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to really try to give them access for us in Brooklyn, certainly we build in our buildings somewhere between 20 and 30%. Right? Well, we come into middle-income apartments, but I've heard that no housing is affordable without a job. And as new industries come in, specially tech and smart manufacturing, other businesses are shrinking and a lot of blue collar jobs are disappearing. That's a really critical way for developers to add value to the community.

Jack: I really liked that story because it implies that coming into a neighborhood with a new development that you're taking the attitude of becoming literally a neighbor as a part of the neighborhood rather than a new structure, a new building, but literally becoming a neighbor. So where did that come from? Talk to me about your, your background. One question I wanted to ask you, was in my research or you went to Touro College, is that how you pronounce that?

Toby: Yep. Got a bachelor of science.

I actually grew up in a strictly orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. I attended an all girls college and originally wanted it to go into medicine. I waited a little too long in my college career to go volunteer in a hospital and realized that that wasn't necessarily the right place for me. And then ultimately pivoted when I ended up living in Israel. After I finished college, I decided to pursue my MBA. And while I was doing that, bumped into a biotech company that allowed me to really join my two interests. One was my history, my background in the medical space with my interest in technology. And especially when I was living in Israel, the 1998 it was really in the heat of the venture capital boom and the first phase of the innovation growth that happened in that country. So I did a brief internship at this biotech company and ended up meeting the founders of one of the first early stage venture funds in Israel.

And I worked for them for a couple of years and that sort of lead to…

Jack: So that's how you ended up in venture capital.

Toby: That's how I ended up in the venture capital business. And, what I mentioned earlier, that training, looking around the corner, thinking about the next step, thinking through what happens next has been a real critical part of my evolution and how I've approached real estate. Bringing a little bit of a different perspective than a lot of my competitors and others in the market of what led me to the play the role of developer in emerging neighborhoods, which is really what it needs to be an Opportunity Zone and develop. I like to think that I've been doing Opportunity Zone investing before my 16-year-old daughter would say it was a thing. Yeah. And now it's become a thing and you know, develop that skill and it's a different kind of expertise. You really to have to deeply understand how to identify neighborhoods that are right for transformation and how to bring the resources to be, or when you were the first or second I'm doing that.

Jack: What gives you that edge that you are able to do that? I hear some things that I suspect, but I don't want to lead the witness. I want to know what you think.

Toby: I always love being led as a witness, but I've given a great talk, which if you Google my name, you'll find it's titled "How to Survive as a Man in a Woman's World". And you know, the idea is all about owning who you are, owning your strengths, owning your weaknesses. And I think in particular as a woman in real estate, without an old boy’s network, without coming up in an industry with a very strong network in place, I had to create it from scratch and it forced me to work a little harder to find things other people weren't interested in. And prior to this legislation and incentives for people to put money into these emerging neighborhoods, that was sort of where I ended up. And thinking like an outsider and the willingness to look at things a little differently and not chase what everybody else wants to chase or was interested in buying, it really started out as a weakness and I turned it into my strength.

Jack: The obstacle is the way, I like it. So tell us a development story. What's your favorite development story so far?

Toby: What is my favorite development story so far? So my favorite development story is about residential development sites in Brooklyn in the beginning 2009 and like 2011, 2012. Everybody saw the comps. Everybody understood the opportunity and land prices started to double every 24 months. So, I had to go find a new game where I was going to be first and wasn’t competing with everybody else. I found myself standing in an area that I actually remember growing up. It was part of Williamsburg and have not been rezoned residential. So it was an industrial waterfront. And there was a series of buildings there with businesses that were sort of petering out. Owners that spent a lot of time complaining about the fact they haven't gotten into residential and thinking about what to do and hoping beyond hope that somebody would wake up and allow them to build apartments.

Toby: And this was a new area that Mayor Bloomberg had not rezoned. You that ultimately, whether it was industrial or a new form of business, a vibrant growing neighborhood needed both a place to live, play and work. Sure. And I bought the site, a commercial site. No one had ever built speculative office in Brooklyn since the 1940s. I bought it because I had recognized as a former venture capitalist. Some other sites that I own had little tech companies tucked away in odd places that there was an interest to work in a neighborhood. There just simply weren't places to do it. I approached the city with this crazy plan. I said right now the zoning allows you to build two times a lot, which is just a two-story building. If you add something we call community facility, which is a very limited use, you can go up to almost five times.

I said, let me go ahead and build five times, but let me put in jobs. They could all be office or commercial use. And the city looked at me and they basically said, no, the RNA tenants, no one's going to do it. And they asked me a lot of questions that they probably shouldn't, didn't have the right to ask me about. Where I was getting the money from and who the tenants were. Because a lot of zoning changes that happened over the decades in New York City ended up being wasted resources where people made everyone crazy. He came with a plan and then ultimately couldn't finance it, couldn't build it. I instead of listening and hearing no, I said there must be another way. And I went to the community, I engaged with the local community board. I engaged the whole council members and other local leaders and convinced them of my plan and came back to the city with that support, which it’s really never been done like that.

Everybody always went through the process. We know, got lucky in that I was able to find some potential patents to at least we're able to say yes, we would contemplate being in Brooklyn. And then in the middle of all this, there was another very significant developer that actually, you know, moved into Industry City, that area that I mentioned. So I wasn't the only one saying that there was a demand and a desire and an interest for people to work in the bureau of Brooklyn. Ultimately, we really made history by getting the approval and also getting the building built. The first speculative office buildings in the outer boroughs since the 1940s and many others since that time have followed our lead in terms of this specific zoning protocol. And so that was a great moment both for the city of New York, for the bureau of Brooklyn and the neighborhood of Williamsburg and certainly, from an economic perspective created a phenomenal amount of value bringing in innovative use and an innovative full process to an area that people simply weren't focused on it. So everybody said, industrial? Let's go to commercial. Nobody thought of increasing the zoning as a commercial use.

Jack: So where does this ability to think through and around obstacles come from? Is it merely because you've been a woman operating in a man's world? Or is there something in your background? Family culture. What makes you different in this way? How did you get there?

Toby: I've not thought a lot about that. I think one of the thing I'd mention is I'm actually a single mom.

Jack: You just seek the hardest way to do things, don't you?

Toby: I think sometimes life seeks you out. Life lands in your lap and then you got to figure out how to you handle it and what you do with it. And I think one of the most important skills of a developer is to be resilient. And life handed me a lot of things I've had to learn to deal with. You made me laugh when you said, “I seek out the hardest thing.” I think life throws you curve balls.

Jack: Yeah.

Toby: Being a successful human being, and certainly being a successful real estate developer, really required a lot of resilience. I felt that over the years. And I also think I have a very specific view of immigrants. I am a first-generation American and my dad was born in a German displaced person camp. His parents, certainly my grandparents, survived World War II. They were of Polish descent. Certainly lost a lot of family members. Part the success of this country are people who come here and have nothing to lose and have chosen to make a better life for themselves. And don't take no for an answer.

And you know, we’ve seen it over the last hundred years, throughout this country. You see it in New York today, the families who came from Korea and built grocery stores, Portuguese families who went into the coffee business. And, you know, a real history of constant transformation of a melting pot of entrepreneurship. And hard work. People that have chosen to make a better life for themselves. And I think immigrant mentality is something that's critical. I think it's a big part of my story. When I give my talk, "How to Survive as a Man In a Women's World," there are 10 lessons and one of them is always be an immigrant and act as if you have nothing to lose. I think that's a big part of my success and a big part of the growth than this very unique energy in New York City and in particular in the borough of Brooklyn.

Jack: There is my sound bite right there. That's the one.

Toby: Okay. And by the way, as it, as an investor in Opportunity Zone, those are all immigrants who were coming into neighborhoods. We're looking at transformation. We're thinking about how to make things better for ourselves and for the people around us. And people call me and say, “I'm looking at a deal in Atlanta. I'm looking at a deal in Florida.” They say, “What has your partner developer done in emerging neighborhoods? Do they know how to create something from nothing?” Because that's hard work. That's really hard. And you know, you’ve got to find people who have done this before and know how to go into emerging neighborhoods and create a sense of place, a sense of a sense of space. And then ultimately a sense of purpose for a community.

Jack: Oh, I want to pursue that. We won't go deep. But I thought that really strikes a note with me. How do you create a sense of place and a sense of community? What are the principles? Not the nuts and bolts, but what are the principles of doing that?

Toby: I think the principle of this is really what led me to build one of the first hotels in North Williamsburg and certainly the first office building. It's really responding to a neighborhood. A neighborhood has a pulse. It has a spirit. It has a need, and I think I've been very good at reading that. The Woodbridge Hotel was a perfect example. We got a lot of calls for tenants in our residential buildings who weren't native New Yorkers, saying “Mom and dad are visiting from XYC city or XYC country. Do you have a short term rental?” And I said, wow. Short term rental, that's a hotel. We use our hotel to host local community board meetings, local gatherings. a whole range of, okay. So if it's a whole range of meetups for all sorts of people in the community, really turning it into a center of life.

Um, and the same thing is true with our Woodbridge development. Okay. And you know, going into a neighborhood like Industry City and recognizing that there's tremendous amount of money pouring into commercial development, job creation, but there really were no local places, you know, new construction buildings coming online. So it's physical bricks, but it's also the design. I do a lot of traditional architecture, not a big fan of glass. And then as well, a sense of community. I was one of the first developers in Brooklyn in my residential buildings to build communal, shared workspaces. So these are spaces where people in the building could work and hang out, can engage with each other. It was really trying to create a sense of community, even in the traditional residential buildings.

Jack: I would love to talk about this for hours. You're singing my song now, but we're going to move on. What's the craziest idea anyone's ever brought to you?

Toby: People bring me crazy ideas, but usually mine are the craziest.

Jack: What is the craziest idea you've ever heard.

Toby: I have a son who's now 14. When was young, he saw that I was raising money and I knew how to find investors. He came to me and said, “Ma, can we buy a football team?” And I started explaining to him about profit. I started explaining to him about return on investment. And I said, you do some research and come tell me what the business plan is. And he went to do his research and he came back and he has found the list Forbes had a football team. Then how much did people pay for them and what they will work. And he basically said, “Ma, I don't think this is a good investment.” And he described words that effectively were talking about something as a vanity invested, you've heard that term.

Jack: Right.

Toby: So he said, “Well, I don't think it makes sense. So no football team, but what can we do in sports?” He came to me a day later and said, “Ma, you're building a hotel. Let's make a sports hotel.” And he actually came up with a great concept, but I'm not going to share too much about because we're working on it now. We're looking for a site, we hope in the South Bronx. So not too far from New York City to build what we will be by that time a third hotel, an idea that my son came up with when he was eight years old. So it was, it was crazy and brilliant and sort of came out of the brain of a kid who loves sports and wanted to engage with his mom and something she was passionate about. And it’ crazy, but it's executable. That's the plan right now.

Jack: Okay. Time for me to ask question my favorite question. You are queen of the world for one day and one day only and you get to fix one problem and one problem only. What's that problem and how do you fix it?

Toby: Okay, I think will figure out how to take every kid growing up in an environment where they haven't been exposed to a productive day of work and let them experience that. I think that'll fix a lot of problems in this, certainly in the city of New York and absolutely in this country.

Jack: Brilliant Answer. Well Toby it has been a fabulous conversation. One of my favorite so far. Without question.

Toby: And I hope I'm going to have a chance to meet you. Are you going to be at the conference?

Jack: I am going to Vegas. Yeah I sure. I will look you up.

Toby: I look forward to seeing you then.

Jack: Any last words for us before I let you go?

Toby: I think this is a very exciting moment for the country. It’s going to unleash a tremendous amount of money that's been sitting in investments. So I'm very excited for the next five, 10 years to see the future and what America can become. We've had a great ride until now, so it can only get better.

Jack: Well I think that's a great way to end the show. Toby, of folks who want to get ahold of you or Heritage Equity partners, what's the best way for them to do that?

Toby: So they can email me. toby@heritage-equity.com. Yes. equity.com. We also have a website Heritage-Equity.com with details on our project or track record or focus on Opportunity Zones and there’s a contact us button there as well.

Jack: Alright.

Toby: And if not, they call me the Queen of Williamsburg. So stop by the Williamsburg Hotel. I'm often times there. I have red hair. Very easy to spot. Sitting here in the restaurant and have a coffee. Come join me for a cup of coffee.

Jack: I love it.

Toby:…of one of the greatest neighborhoods in New York City.

Jack: Well, my youngest daughter is a Brooklyn resident, so, uh, I will send her.

Toby: Tell her to come on and say hello.

Jack: I will do it. Well for Toby Moskovits. I am Jack Heald for the OZExpo Podcasts, we are grateful you joined us here today. Thanks for listening and we will talk to you next time.

Announcer: This podcast is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal tax or investment advice. For specific recommendations please consult with your financial, legal, or tax professional.

Powered by Froala Editor