The Closing: David Kramer
The Hudson Companies boss on building on Skid Row, competing in Sudoku tournaments, and his firm’s “arranged marriage” with Related
David Kramer is the president of Hudson Companies, one of the city’s largest affordable housing developers. The firm, which employs 50-plus people in its Greenwich Village office, ranked as the fourth most active developer in the five boroughs in 2018, with 1.9 million square feet across 10 projects, a recent tally by The Real Deal showed. Hudson has gained a reputation for pursuing large-scale projects since Kramer took the helm in 2011. Outside of affordable housing, the company has its share of market-rate developments, including the controversial luxury condo project at the site of the former Brooklyn Heights Public Library — which has a projected sellout of $478 million. In the Bronx, Kramer expects to wrap construction on the first building at his 1.1 million-square-foot mixed-use project La Central later this year. Hudson struck one of its biggest deals in the late 1990s to co-develop the nine-building Riverwalk housing complex on Roosevelt Island in a partnership with the Related Companies. That venture is ongoing. Kramer spent seven years working on low-income housing projects on L.A.’s Skid Row and in Venice, California, after landing a fellowship with the Coro foundation in the late 1980s. The native New Yorker and Yale graduate now lives with his wife and family in Brooklyn Heights.
DOB: September 16, 1965
Lives in: Brooklyn Heights
Hometown: Upper West Side
Family: Married with three children
How did you get into affordable housing? I trace the entire arc of my career to a letter I wrote to the editor of the New York Times that got published in 1987. It was a response to an editorial about the drinking age, which the state increased from 18 to 21 just as I had turned 18.
What did your letter say? “Let’s raise it to 40, we’ll save even more lives.” It got published the day my application to the Coro foundation was due, and so I casually taped the letter to my application, writing, as if this was a weekly occurrence, “And here’s my letter to the [Times] editor from today.”
And that was your big break? I strongly believe that got Coro’s attention. I started working for [nonprofits] in L.A. just as the affordable housing industry was taking off, because Reagan’s 1986 tax law had created the low-income housing tax credit. Neighborhood groups all over Los Angeles were creating nonprofit organizations, and there were jobs available. But there wasn’t a lot of experience. I walked in — and with some New York City fast talking — got hired to be a project manager at the Skid Row Housing Trust.
What was Skid Row like back then? How does it compare to the homeless crisis here in New York now? New York City ain’t nothing like Skid Row in the 1990s. There was body after body after body on the sidewalks. I’m amazed that there’s now a Smorgasburg a block from my biggest project in Skid Row.
What brought you back to New York? I met my wife while I was out there, and she knew I wanted to go back to New York. Then the Northridge earthquake happens in January of ’94 at like 3 a.m. Earthquakes are scary to begin with — when they happen in the middle of the night, they are terrifying. All of a sudden, car alarms go off and you hear the glasses in your kitchen shattering. Afterwards, Stacy said, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
How did you end up at Hudson? We put everything in storage, had a big yard sale and traveled for four months. When we came back, I turned 30 and was living in the second bedroom of my mother’s two-bedroom co-op in Lincoln Towers. I was unemployed and pretty close to penniless, and I became concerned, was anybody going to hire me? I didn’t really know how for-profit companies thought. But I had promised my wife that I was going to make more money than working at Venice Community Housing Corporation. So, luckily, I interviewed at a company that did both market-rate and affordable housing, and that was the Hudson Companies.
Did you move out of your mom’s place after that? I found a rent-stabilized apartment on West 55th Street. I was like, I have to get a job and my own apartment and not live with my mother. That was success at that moment.
You grew up in a rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side. Did that shape your view on affordable housing? In New York City in the ’70s, we all got mugged repeatedly. You didn’t want to walk on Amsterdam or Columbus Avenue. I don’t think I was familiar with the real estate industry, or the fact that there was affordable housing.
What did your parents do? My mother was a social worker for 45 years with the Jewish Board. My father was a disabled American veteran. His last job was as corporation counsel for the city of Long Beach. So he did a lot of public work. He was the least-disabled disabled person you’ve ever met. He had prosthetic arms and hooks, and he had this line, “I can do everything except tie my shoelaces.” And he was great at making people feel comfortable.
How did he lose his arms? His arms were blown off in the war. He was lying on the battlefields of Germany, having been blown off a tank, at the age of 18 — muddied and bleeding to death. A medic comes upon him, looks down and recognizes his big nose. And it’s his older brother’s best friend. Neither one knows that the other one is there. And that medic looks at the dog tag and says, “Maishe, what are you doing here?” And my father looks up and says, “Hesh, is this where the Kings Highway bus stops?”
I can see where you get your sense of humor from. He was a smartass. And I’ve been accused of such. My father got a Purple Heart in the Army, but he also got this amazing parking pass. So he passes away in 1982, and who gets to park the car but his two sons? I thought, “Oh, it’s the federal government; it’ll take ’em years before they know that Kramer’s died.” And literally five seconds later, we get a letter: “Please return the parking pass.”
What impact did his death have on you? It was the most significant moment of my life. I put my head down, and worked, and made sure that I was still going to have a happy life.
Where did you go to school? I went to Collegiate, a fantastic private school paid for by my grandfather. Neither of my parents really made much money.
Did you know [Savanna’s] Chris Schlank and David Dishy [of L+M Development Partners] when you were at Collegiate? Like it was yesterday.
What do you remember about them when they were younger? Schlank had a huge Jewfro, and he was not a serious young man. Dishy was the John Kennedy Jr. of our year. He was popular and the actor of the group.
Were you in the school theater? I’m a huge Broadway musical enthusiast. I can’t sing or act worth a damn, but I’m big in the shower. My parents started taking me to Broadway shows at a young age. I get like 23 real estate emails a day, and about six Broadway emails a day.
Do you have to discipline yourself? Life is a balancing act, right? You have Broadway shows, and then you have to run a company. So hopefully between fantasy football, musicals and my other interests, I’ve got the balance right.
And you do puzzle competitions, right? Sudoku and KenKen? There was a big sudoku tournament that I finished eighth or ninth in maybe 10 years ago. The last five or six years, I’ve been a real KenKen fan. I go every year to this big tournament, and I had my greatest finish ever in the past year: I came in fifth. If you look at the data scientists and 18-year-old girls who finish in the top three, I’ll never make it to the podium. But coming in fifth is almost as good as it gets. It’s like a lifetime achievement in KenKen.
Are you competitive outside of the games? You know, I don’t think I have to win. I like a good contest. I’ve heard other people call me competitive, and I give them a look like, “What are you talking about?” I think that’s sort of lost its meaning. If you’re a real estate developer in New York City, what does it mean to be competitive? We’re all ambitious and driven.
Where do you live now? Brooklyn Heights. We’ve been in a brownstone for 16 or 17 years.
What do you think about the city’s plan to replace part of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade while they repair the BQE? I say if you’re concerned about construction on the BQE, check out some beautiful condominiums at Hudson’s One Clinton Street a few blocks inland.
You drew some heat in the press for conversations you had with Alicia Glen while negotiating with the city on that project. This was a complicated, high-profile city project that involved affordable housing, a STEM lab, the Department of Education and a new library. The contract that we were negotiating in the home stretch, that’s what you do — you talk to EDC. So no, I don’t think there was anything the least bit inappropriate about that conversation.
Were you surprised by the controversy around it? You know, I hate the word “controversy” because you could have four neighbors say we hate this project, and all of a sudden it’s “controversial.” There’s never a development project that’s embraced. It started when I did affordable housing in Venice. People would scream at me and say I was ruining the neighborhood, and that I was responsible for their property values. And then three or four years later, they’d say, “Oh, Dave, I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time. It wasn’t such a big deal.” At this point, I have thick skin.
You also drew criticism when Hudson was selected for the project, because you’ve been a big donor to De Blasio. The truth is, I was friends with Bill when he was a City Council [member] a long time ago. I’ve always thought he was smart and funny, and I’ve contributed to him when he was running for public advocate. I think the job of elected officials is, you want to raise money. And you’re usually raising money from people who are actively engaged with the city. Which is why people in real estate contribute, and people on Wall Street don’t contribute — because they don’t care about local matters.
How did you hook up with Related on Riverwalk? It was an arranged marriage. We didn’t know each other; we hadn’t worked with each other before. And when we started, we weren’t quite sure how it would work. It’s been a 20-year relationship that expanded to us taking over all the retail on Roosevelt Island together.
Did you know it was going to be a 20-year project when you started? No. We almost sent in a resignation letter. I mean it didn’t seem as sexy to be designated to work with Roosevelt Island [in the 1990s]. I drafted a letter saying, “No thanks, love and kisses, Hudson.” But I was chatting with some colleagues, and they said that seems like too good of an opportunity to turn up. So I put the letter away. But getting there … we didn’t start construction until December 2001.
What would be your dream project to work on? To quote Frank Lloyd Wright: “The next one.”
—Edited and condensed for clarity.