IN ONLY FIVE YEARS, the artists turned real estate agents at Bohemia Realty Group of Upper Manhattan have established dominant market share in the world's coolest neighbourhoods. The agency has grown from its two co-founders to over 140 agents, many of whom came to real estate from the tribe of artists that define Upper Manhattan as a global hub for culture, art and fashion.
THE WORLDS OF real estate and art collide at Bohemia. The group has carved out a lucrative niche in the selling and letting of residential real estate by being authentically, meaningfully and commercially connected to the community of artists that they know better than anyone. When we asked Bohemia’s co-founder Sarah Saltzberg, “Who are Bohemia?” the answer was simple. “We are Uptown”. By ‘Uptown’ Saltzberg is referring to two things.
Firstly, Uptown is a geographical area. Bohemia specialises in Uptown, the name given to the New York City neighbourhoods of Upper Manhattan that lie between 96th Street and 220th. These are neighbourhoods that star in hit TV shows and movies, the kind that people write songs about, like Harlem, Washington Heights, Manhattan Valley and the Upper West Side.
‘Uptown’ has another meaning, as it has long been a cultural and artistic hub for the world. It is a district that has accommodated artists from all over the globe, cradling and inspiring talent in theatre, music, fine arts and fashion. That legacy has given the area its unique soul.
To business people, there is no value to be found in ‘soul’ – it is an intangible concept better appreciated by artists and those who seek to understand the human experience. It seems fortunate, then, that Bohemia’s two co-founders were not business people but the types of artists and intellectuals who converge on communities like Upper Manhattan. Although a principal agent of Bohemia now, Sarah Saltzberg’s first love was the performing arts.
Saltzberg was living Uptown, working as an actress and trying to get funding for a show she had co-written for Broadway. After a mentor (Wendy Wasserstein – the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize) suggested that artists had done worse things than sell real estate for their art, Saltzberg qualified for her real estate licence and set out to find some clients.
“I rang the owner of my own building again and again. Hang-up after hang-up. I finally convinced him by saying, ‘You want me in these buildings. I live here. I know this community. I am the people who want to live in these buildings’,” Saltzberg recalls. “Eventually he [my own landlord] gave me a shot to rent three apartments in the building where I was living over a weekend and I did it, just out of my personal network of people I knew who were wanting to move into the city to work as artists.”
This break led to a major account of over 140 buildings. The original mission to fund the show was successful too – Saltzberg’s show made it on Broadway and ran for three years.
While starring in the show for two of its three years, Saltzberg became more and more drawn to real estate for all the reasons people fall in love with the business. “Everyone I know gets into real estate for the money, but you stay for other things: you stay because you love the art of a deal, or because you enjoy being with people for the emotional journey of transacting property, or you want to be a part of a community.”
Saltzberg and her business partner, Jon Goodell, decided to launch Bohemia Realty Group in 2012, seizing the opportunity to create a firm that integrated with the Uptown community. Bohemia has made an impact where the traditional, homogenous real estate businesses had not been able to capture the imagination of the unique Uptown residents.
The Bohemia approach to business is more about helping people to find enrichment. The website explains the Bohemian mission: “We have a three-pronged approach to improving quality of life: to service clients in an efficient, friendly way; to create a positive work environment for our agents and employees; and to enrich the community above 96th Street.”
When people and relationships come before the deal, the deal happens and it leads to more deals.
The website hosts an interactive map of the Upper Manhattan neighbourhoods with information about their history, culture and property as well as insider tips on where to eat and how to get around. A hyper-local focus is one of Bohemia’s greatest defences against market competitors and the forces of disruption.
“We have a site over here [in the United States] called Zillow.com that gives Zestimates, which are automated valuations of property and are notoriously unreliable,” said Saltzberg. “In our neighbourhoods, values will change greatly and you have to have lived here and immersed yourself to understand that sometimes you have to take it block by block [to understand changing property values].”
Bohemia’s 120 agents are deeply connected to their neighbourhoods, not only understanding the community but also contributing to that community in a meaningful way. “Ninety per cent of our agents live Uptown, and many of them were our clients who started part time and fell in love with real estate like I did. Many of the agents own cafes, bars and restaurants in the neighbourhoods,” says Saltzberg.
Being local residents and business owners in the Uptown community positions the Bohemia agents as insiders, arguably the best place to add value to all clients on the property journey. It also aligns agents with the community and encourages the investment by agents back into their community to contribute in ways that replenish the soul of the area, so that it isn’t lost in the wake of development and gentrification.
“As agents we have limited control over the transitions that occur in our neighbourhoods, but there is a lot that we can do to help make that change responsible,” says Saltzberg. “Our agents are finding ways to lead the community by using their talents to enrich [it] with things like teaching a ballroom dance class at NYU, a baby music class, yoga or a workout in the park.”
Community leadership has converted to market leadership for the team at Bohemia, with listing sites such as streeteasy.com verifying their market dominance of exclusive properties in Upper Manhattan.
The people-first approach to business is a powerful takeaway from the Bohemia example. When people and relationships come before the deal, the deal happens and it leads to more deals. “What we have found is that if you prove your worth with the portfolio [of landlord clients], the portfolio stays with you [when it is time to sell],” explains Saltzberg.
Bohemia Realty Group may be founded on a simple vision of artists serving artists in the community they love. But, Bohemia has a recipe that can help all real estate businesses to integrate and work with the communities they serve: local with global, human with brand, and people with profit.