Real estate agents shift to healthcare and social services to help tackle Covid-19

Douglas Elliman and Compass brokers prioritize victims as pandemic rages

New York /
Apr.April 17, 2020 07:00 AM
 From left: Compass' Sara McNeil, Jessica Meis and Douglas Elliman's Darra Goldstein (Credit: Background by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

From left: Compass’ Sara McNeil, Jessica Meis and Douglas Elliman’s Darra Goldstein (Credit: Background by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Before she became a Compass agent in 2014, Sara McNeil earned a master’s degree in social work from New York University and worked at a mental health clinic. So when the coronavirus pandemic slammed her city, the Manhattan resident stepped up to help.

McNeil is volunteering for the state’s Covid-19 Emotional Support Helpline, which provides free and confidential support for callers experiencing increased anxiety.

“Some callers are lonely and struggling in isolation and want to hear a reassuring voice on the other end,” said McNeil, who is now splitting her time between working for Compass and volunteering for the state. “Others have major financial difficulties and are anxious about losing their jobs and homes. Some are completely overwhelmed with child care and homeschooling.”

For all of the brokers who have always felt real estate was their destiny, there are others who entered the business later in their careers. And a handful of those who previously worked in healthcare and social services are now returning to those fields to help New Yorkers get through the coronavirus pandemic.

The shifts come at a challenging time for New York’s residential real estate industry. State rules meant to help prevent the spread of coronavirus have placed severe limits on what brokerages can do and driven down demand for new homes, and layoffs and furloughs have hit hundreds of employees at major brokerages including Douglas Elliman, the Corcoran Group and Compass.

“We went from a robust market to an almost instant pause,” said Diane Ramirez, CEO of the residential brokerage Halstead. “You started to worry about it, but then the next thing you know, you’re absolutely shutting all of your offices down.”

McNeil, who joined the state’s helpline late last month, said her job is to make sure the anonymous callers know they are being heard as they try to get through these difficult times.

“There’s this constant anxiety and state of dread,” she noted. “They fear becoming infected. They fear getting their loved ones sick. A lot of them are just really struggling with the quarantine. They’re depressed.”

McNeil tries to let callers know when they are doing the right thing, whether it’s washing their hands, staying six feet from others or just getting enough rest. If a caller is considering suicide or going through another type of mental health emergency, she connects them with the Crisis Prevention Center or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for immediate support.

She said calls come in constantly during her shifts — a marked contrast to her work as a broker after the pandemic hit, which left business “at a standstill.” Compass recently laid off 15 percent of its workforce and expects revenue to drop by 50 percent over the next six months, though its CEO Robert Reffkin says the company can survive a slump of six to nine months.

But despite the glaring disparities in demand since mid-March, McNeil said the difference between social work and brokerage work is narrower than some might expect. “It really didn’t feel like such a big jump for me,” she said. “When you’re working in real estate, there’s an intimacy involved. You’re working very closely with people in their homes.”

Her former colleague Jessica Meis — who got her start in real estate in 2016 after 14 years as a physical therapist — made a similar move to help support New York’s coronavirus efforts. Meis is still at Compass and signed up to volunteer for the state as a potential hospital worker after Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on former healthcare professionals to help create a reserve workforce in the event of staffing shortages.

“It seems like such a big difference and, to be honest, it’s not,” Meis said, echoing her former colleague’s sentiments. “Because it’s really about helping people: listening to somebody’s needs and trying to figure out how you can help.”

Ready for the frontlines

Darra Goldstein, a Douglas Elliman broker in Southampton, has also made serving the afflicted her top priority, at least until the pandemic dies down.

She got her real estate license with the firm and moved from Manhattan to the East End of Long Island in 1998 and, after losing a close friend to breast cancer, has simultaneously worked part time for a breast surgeon at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital since 2009.

Goldstein said real estate is her primary income source and that healthcare is her “backup job.”

But her priorities flipped once the impact of the coronavirus in New York became clear. She has transitioned to working at the Southampton hospital full time as a patient-access associate.

“I will be doing healthcare for the next two months at least — as long as I’m needed,” she said. “I do have a couple of properties right now, but my partners can take care of that.”

So far, Goldstein has remained focused on helping breast cancer patients, whose needs did not abate as Suffolk County was inundated with more than 22,000 cases of Covid-19 through mid-April. But she might have to shift gears at a moment’s notice.

“The CEO of the hospital did come over and say, ‘This is where you are for right now, but be prepared to move,’” she noted. “The people in the ER or the OR or the ambulatory wing [are] just absolutely exhausted.”

Though some of the hospital’s older workers are nervous about switching to the front lines of the crisis, Goldstein emphasized that she will do whatever is necessary. “I’ve been an ‘essential worker’ since the beginning. I feel compelled to help,” she said. “So if I’m not needed in my department, I will go anywhere.”

For the time being, Goldstein said, she’s happy to work with Stony Brook Southampton’s breast cancer patients. While Covid-19 may be the top priority across the globe right now, she noted, that doesn’t mean other illnesses have let up.

Breast cancer patients “can’t wait two to three months,” she said. “There are patients who feel something, and we need to check it out because if it’s cancer, we can’t wait until this pandemic is over. It could mean another loss of life.”

More than money?

Long Island’s East End has emerged as a popular and controversial destination during the coronavirus crisis. Demand for rental properties skyrocketed months ahead of the typical summer rush as wealthy New Yorkers looked to escape the city.

The trend sparked a backlash among the area’s permanent residents, who worried about the new arrivals bringing the virus with them and straining local resources.

Normally, handling properties in the Hamptons would be right up Goldstein’s alley. Her recent house sales include a two-bedroom in Hampton Bays, an eight-bedroom in Water Mill and a five-bedroom in Southampton, according to her website.

Goldstein acknowledged that demand for homes in the area is high but stood by her decision to focus on healthcare. She said she’s willing to put herself at risk working in the hospital, but not to show houses. (In-person showings were initially exempted from the state’s workplace ban, but then included in late March.)

“The very wealthy New Yorkers are coming and renting multimillion-dollar houses,” Goldstein said. “Can I make a lot of money right now? Yes, but I’m choosing not to.”

Compass’ Meis, who worked with intensive care unit patients as a physical therapist, said that while the state has not yet called her to return to healthcare, she’s eager to jump back in if needed.

“I’m ready for it — now that I know that hospitals have the proper equipment,” she said, referring to protective gear for those working with Covid-19 patients.

At first she was anxious about signing up to volunteer, but she eventually decided that her own concerns about contracting the virus were secondary aiding those who were already infected.

“I just couldn’t sit on the sidelines knowing that my work could potentially save someone else’s life,” she said. “So I decided, you know what? I’m born and raised in Queens, New York, so if my people need me, I’m going to go out there and try to give what I can.”

Write to Eddie Small at [email protected]

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