Meet The Immigrant Developers Making Their Mark On The Nation's Capital
This decade’s real estate boom has dramatically changed Washington’s urban landscape, creating bustling neighborhoods barely recognizable from what they were a decade ago.
The city’s recent growth has also fundamentally transformed the makeup of the industry that builds it, creating new opportunities for aspiring developers to move to D.C. from other countries, start a new life for themselves and make their imprint on the capital of the free world.
Over the last month, Bisnow has interviewed six immigrant developers, hailing from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Israel, Iran, India and Brazil. They have vastly different backgrounds but share an ambitious, entrepreneurial spirit that has helped them overcome the challenges they face in growing their companies.
They have generally kept a low profile, eschewing the marketing and public relations efforts many of their peers pursue, instead choosing to quietly contribute to the growth of their new home city.
Many of the developers graduated from flipping single-family homes to building midsized multifamily projects and, in some cases, high-rise buildings with hundreds of units. Their projects are having a substantial impact on a city whose development was long guided by a handful of influential real estate families.
“Historically in the city, we’ve had a lot of large developers as the players on top of all of these deals, but as things have changed, more millennials have gotten into the game, and we see a lot of solo practitioners doing deals,” D.C. Building Industry Association CEO Lisa Maria Mallory said. “When you see it opening up with smaller entrants, you’ll naturally see people who have come to this city or this country looking for opportunities, and this is a great way for them to invest.”
The immigrant developers trying to break into D.C.’s real estate industry have faced roadblocks from language barriers to racism, but they persisted. They all saw the U.S. as a place where they could succeed if they put in the work. They were willing to spend extra hours pushing difficult projects across the finish line, growing their companies and building lives for themselves.
“If the question is whether to spend your time in exchange to get the benefits, we’re all willing to spend that time, energy and sweat equity,” said Acumen Cos. Chairman Abiud Zerubabel, who was born in Ethiopia.
“When the institutional guys don’t want to spend days looking for a site on weekends and holidays, we’re taking advantage of that,” he said. “That’s an opportunity. This land allows you to do that. It’s the land of opportunity. The opportunity is always there, you just have to spend the time and energy and effort.”
‘Looking At The World From A Different Perspective’
Born in Tehran, Steve Etminani’s family left the country during the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s, when he was 9 years old. They moved to London, where Etminani spent nine years at boarding school before coming to the U.S. to study at George Washington University in D.C.
He entered the D.C. commercial real estate industry in the 1990s at a time when it was dominated by a handful of real estate families and large institutions, he said. Etminani began as a development analyst in the D.C. office of JPI Cos., a multifamily builder out of Texas. Then in the late 1990s, he joined Post Properties, launching the D.C. office for the Atlanta-based REIT.
Being an Iranian immigrant in a largely white industry, Etminani said he felt there was a ceiling that he would not be able to overcome.
“The company I worked for was a Dallas-based company and looking back, every single partner was a white Baptist,” he said. “Anyone who wasn’t a white Baptist didn’t have a chance to be a partner.”
At the time, Etminani said his confidence led him to brush off any perceived slights, but looking back, he said he remembers instances when racist comments were directed at him.
“In hindsight, I can see certain people were clearly a little racist, quite frankly, and a little biased,” Etminani said. “Some individuals just had coded words where it was ‘Oh, our cultures don’t align.’ I’ve heard that more than a few times.”
While his background presented some roadblocks, Etminani said it also gave him a perspective that others at his company didn’t have. Growing up in Tehran and London, he said he saw the potential for urban development in major international cities. But in D.C., many developers were still spending much of their time developing garden apartments in the suburbs.
He said he pushed JPI and Post Properties to build what became two pioneering multifamily projects for the city: 1499 Massachusetts Ave. NW and the Jefferson at Penn Quarter.
“The fact that I was a big-city guy and had lived in cities all my life, going into neighborhoods in D.C. was very natural and comfortable for me,” Etminani said. “Most of my competitors were in Bethesda or McLean, that was the closest they’d get to the city. It was looking at the world from a different perspective.”
Ultimately, he decided to branch off and start his own development shop, founding RCP Development Co. in 2005. He said he had grown tired of working at big firms and was looking to pave his own way.
“It was frustrating working for a large organization, especially Southern organizations who didn’t really understand how development is done in this city,” Etminani said. “Deep down, I’m an entrepreneur. I like to control my own destiny. So I started my company with the idea of teaming up with big companies to tackle larger projects.”
RCP in 2017 completed a 227-unit project at 82 Eye St. SE, in partnership with Greystar. This year, it completed the 13-story, 539-unit Novel South Capitol building, a partnership with Crescent Communities. Etminani said he is in the early stages of planning two new apartment projects in D.C. and Arlington.
‘America Rewards Hard Work’
After receiving his bachelor’s degree from NYU, he moved to the West Coast and started an IT company with his friends, but it soon failed and he moved back east. He worked for a real estate consulting firm in D.C. while earning his master’s at Johns Hopkins’ Carey Business School. In early 2006, he founded Dantes Partners.
The development firm started out by building one- and- two-unit projects before moving onto larger deals. In his early days in real estate, Binitie said he had trouble feeling like he fit into an industry that didn’t have many people who looked like him.
“The challenges I had starting were challenges of assimilation,” Binitie said. “It had to do with people understanding me given the fact that I had an accent and people accepting me because I am not from a D.C. family.”
Ultimately, Binitie said he was able to embrace his identity and not worry about the perceptions of others.
“I had to tell myself a very long time ago that I had to be very comfortable being me,” Binitie said. “The color of my skin is not going to change. Where I’m from is not going to change. My accent is not going to change. I came to the realization that people are either going to accept me for who I am or they are not.”
Binitie was able to build a strong reputation for himself and take on larger projects that have made a significant impact on the city. Dantes Partners moved from building small housing projects in its early days to constructing multifamily buildings between 20 and 100 units, and it is now working on even larger developments.
The developer is now partnering with the Community Builders on the 462-unit Bruce Monroe/Park Morton project, which has been stuck in court for over two years following an appeal. Dantes broke ground last year on Delta Towers, a 179-unit affordable project on the H Street corridor.
“We’ve definitely grown faster than I imagined,” Binitie said. “When I sit back, it’s been pretty remarkable the trajectory we’ve been on over the last several years. A lot of that comes back to what my father always told me, which is ‘America rewards hard work.’”
‘The Advantage You Have Is Your Willingness To Go The Extra Mile’
Zerubabel learned the entrepreneurial mindset from an early age. His father started several businesses, including restaurants, auto shops and coffee exporters, and he owned residential properties, giving Zerubabel a glimpse into the landlord-tenant relationship.
After arriving in New York City at age 16, Zerubabel, who goes by AZ, began working for the family’s landlord to help him lease and manage units. At 17, he began master leasing blocks of units from the landlord and renting them out by the bedroom to college students, pocketing the profit created by charging a higher price per SF.
Zerubabel moved to D.C. in 2008 when he was 23. Operating as Urban Investment Group, he began buying up distressed residential properties during the Great Recession, renovating them and renting them out by the bedroom. He started developing condos in 2011, and then in 2015, he expanded to midsized multifamily properties.
Many of the residential projects he built were in the Logan Circle, Shaw, Columbia Heights, Park View and Bloomingdale neighborhoods, all fast-growing sections of Northwest D.C. that experienced rapid value appreciation during the last several years.
Zerubabel said he has carved out a niche for himself by pursuing projects just below the scale at which large real estate firms play.
“A lot of immigrants have been doing the middle-market projects that we’ve been doing for the last five years,” he said. “We’ve now found a niche we can fill the gap between the middle-market opportunities where there’s a lot of competition and the institutional-sized projects.”
Many of the urban infill projects Zerubabel builds come with more hurdles than a greenfield site in the suburbs that a larger development firm might gravitate to. He said his willingness to put in the hours to navigate complex projects has helped him overcome the challenges he faced by being an immigrant in an industry that favors insiders.
“It’s easier to get things done if you’re in the know or you have the relationships or you have the brand recognition; people gravitate toward you,” Zerubabel said. “When you don’t have that, the advantage you have is your willingness to go the extra mile, take the headache and the brain damage that the other guy who has access to all these things doesn’t want to do.”
He merged UIG with investment platform Acumen Capital in 2016 to create Acumen Cos. Today, the 33-year-old Zerubabel serves as chairman of Acumen Cos. and has multifamily developments underway in Bethesda and Northeast D.C. He is planning his first hotel project in Chinatown.
While the size of the projects his company builds has grown, Zerubabel said he still feels that the larger, established developers receive more recognition from the press and local officials than companies like his.
“We don’t get any buzz for doing affordable housing,” Zerubabel said. “We put 20 units here and 40 units there and nobody gets that. Because if you’re a big developer and building over 1,000 units, you get all this coverage and the mayor’s breaking ground [with you]. But in a given year you’re producing 200 units and nobody’s noticing because it’s 20 units everywhere. That has been a challenge, but we don’t do it for recognition.”
‘Work Hard And Be Honest With People’
Eder Barbosa, born and raised in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, moved to D.C. in 2003 at 26 years old and began working for a hardwood flooring company.
Six months later, he founded his own flooring business, Brazilian Floors, which he still owns and operates. The flooring business exposed Barbosa to the world of renovating homes, and in 2006, he founded ERB Properties and started flipping single-family houses. He then began working on building relationships to grow his company.
“It’s always hard in the beginning, but all you need to do is work hard and be honest with people so you can create relationships,” Barbosa said. “I created a lot of good relationships through the years, and that’s why we have the company we have today.”
Barbosa moved from renovating single-family houses to building two- to four-unit condo projects, and around 2014 he decided to expand to building projects of up to 20 units. He has built three multifamily projects in Petworth and one in Friendship Heights, in addition to a host of smaller condo projects throughout the city.
“I decided to move onto bigger projects because instead of doing four two-unit projects, it made more sense to do one eight-unit project so we can handle more work with fewer job sites,” Barbosa said.
‘You Can Control Your Own Market Here’
The son of Indian parents, Sanjay Bajaj moved to the United States when he was in elementary school.
He received his bachelor’s degree in information technology from Virginia Tech and then spent several years at IBM and as an independent consultant. Bajaj invested in hotel properties during his IT career, including the Comfort Suites in Leesburg.
Bajaj began developing residential properties in 2011 through his company, Diversified Investment Services, and two years ago he founded a new development firm, District Growth. He said he saw an opportunity to develop in urban neighborhoods where the land hadn’t been gobbled up by large real estate families.
“In D.C., a lot of old school players don’t control acres of land like they do in the suburbs; in D.C. if you pull a few parcels together you can do a big project,” Bajaj said. “You can control your own market here. There are a few big players, but you can still go out there and change a street.”
On the wall in Bajaj’s Capitol Hill office, a whiteboard features a chart with the addresses of more than two dozen projects on the left hand side and several columns for him to check off when a development reaches a certain milestone, such as approvals or financing.
The chart has now spilled onto a second board. But he hasn’t always been juggling this many projects at once.
He began his development company by focusing all of his efforts on a few developments at a time, making sure he perfected the process before taking on a larger workload. He said this type of slow growth was necessary for him to succeed, and he has seen other developers who have failed because they were too eager to scale up.
“A lot of people came into the business and want to be millionaires overnight,” Bajaj said. “That’s not possible. It’s not tech. It’s real estate. You have to have patience. It takes time. You’ve got to do it right, and you’ll grow.”
His company has completed developments in Brookland, Petworth, Columbia Heights, Ivy City, Langston, Capitol Hill and Buzzard Point. It recently finished a 16-unit apartment building at 3110 Georgia Ave. NW that will become D.C.’s first property managed by Kin, the family-oriented co-living concept from Common and Tishman Speyer.
The company is planning a 300-unit project on a 2-acre site at the corner of Rhode Island and 13th Street to be built in phases, with the first consisting of 60 condos. While it will be his largest project to-date, Bajaj said he plans to keep pursuing smaller projects as his company’s bread and butter.
“We like our niche of smaller projects,” Bajaj said. “We’ll probably keep doing that rather than competing with the big boys … There’s a lot less competition in the 15-to-40-unit space.”
Projects of that size can often fly under the radar, and Bajaj said he has never seen the value in trying to develop a publicly recognizable brand for his company.
“We don’t spend a lot of money on ads or fancy websites or agents and all that,” he said. “We keep our overhead low but don’t take shortcuts on construction or try to cut corners … We keep it low-key. We give people what they’re paying for.”
‘You Have To Provide For Yourself In A New Country’
The son of a salesman and a kindergarten teacher, Isaac Pinto was born in a small town in Israel’s Negev Desert. After serving two years in the Israeli Army, he started a business exporting car cosmetic products. He attended business school and law school while running the cosmetics company, and then at age 25 he decided he needed a change.
Pinto sold the cosmetics company and began doing small real estate projects in Tel Aviv before he moved to D.C. in 2016 to launch a new development company, he said. He partnered with two longtime friends based in D.C. who were also looking for something new: Asi Ohana — also an immigrant from Israel — had just sold a successful bus company and Richard Green had just retired after 25 years at Marriott International.
The trio formed Urbanico Realty Group, with Pinto serving as managing partner.
The company started with smaller two-to-three-unit projects. Pinto said learning to build these kinds of projects in Tel Aviv after growing up in a small desert town was challenging, but it became much harder when he tried to develop real estate in the U.S.
“You move here and the difficulty doubled itself 10 or 20 times, so you really need to prove yourself,” Pinto said. “Every morning you need to wake up and build yourself or you’re going back to your country because you can’t survive here. You have to provide for yourself in a new country.”
While trying to build his company, Pinto was also working to perfect his conversational English, and he said the language barrier presented challenges in the early days.
“I’ll never forget the first weeks or months of going to meetings,” Pinto said. “Real estate is a very detail-oriented business, it’s very technical, and a lot of words you do not understand and cannot say, and you try to put yourself in the best position, but it’s challenging.”
Urbanico moved from small, two-unit projects to pursuing developments with more than 20. The company recently brought a Kennedy Street NW property through entitlements for a 26-unit project and then sold it before construction, but it is now preparing to break ground next month on a 21-unit building on Kennedy Street.
It also has two neighboring projects on the 1200 block of Bladensburg Road NE, near the H Street Corridor, that total about 80 units, with a planned groundbreaking in June.
“The beginning wasn’t easy, but that’s part of the fun, that’s part of the challenge,” Pinto said. “We knew it was going to be challenging but we wanted to do it anyway. There is something very exciting about moving to a different place and building something new from scratch.”
CORRECTION, DEC. 18, 10 A.M. ET: Isaac Pinto previously had a business exporting car cosmetic products, not cosmetics. This story has been updated.