By Christian Brazil Bautista
When Sherwin Belkin, a co-founding partner at law firm Belkin Burden Wenig & Godlman, talks about public housing in New York City, he speaks with knowledge that comes from a lifetime of involvement in the issue.
“I was born in a rent-controlled apartment in the Bronx. When I was ten, we moved to a Mitchell-Lama co-op in Coney Island. When I got married, I lived in a rent-stabilized apartment with my wife in Brooklyn. We then lived in a private home in Westchester. And now I live in a condo in Manhattan. So
I’ve gone through all the forms of housing. It’s what I do,” he said.
His expertise, which he cultivated through stints with the now-defunct Conciliation and Appeals Board and an appellate court, has ensured a long career that’s approaching its third decade.
Belkin has made a career out of representing clients in front of administrative agencies like the Office of Rent Control and the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. He has also successfully challenged such organizations in all levels of the State Supreme Court, which provided him a reputation as one of the city’s experts in regulatory real estate law.
While he sounds like he had mapped out a career in real estate law from the start, his vocation was more a product of circumstance rather than a targeted path.
“Well, I didn’t always know I was going to be a lawyer. I was not one of these people. For a long time, I thought I would be an artist or a cartoonist. That’s what I enjoyed,” he said.
“I went to college. I was a political science major. I still wasn’t sure what to do. When I graduated from college, I applied to social work schools. I applied to go for a master’s in political science. And I applied to law school. Ultimately, I decided to go to law school. When I got out of law school in 1976, it was a very difficult job market. Kind of like it is now.”
His first two jobs involved assisting judges and regulators in cases involving rent regulation and landlord-tenant law.
“I suddenly had tremendous expertise in rent regulation, real estate and housing law. And at that point, I said, ‘Let’s make use of that.’ That’s how I ended up in the field,” he said.
The result was his firm, which was established in 1989. He attributes Belkin Burden Wenig & Golman’s success to their partiality in the eternal struggle between landlords and tenants.
“In New York City, I think you need to kind of pick your side,” he said. “Our firm, on the residential side, only represents owners, developers (and) sponsors. We don’t represent residential tenants.”
Immediately after making the statement, he veers out of topic to decry what he calls a misconception about landlords.
“I use the word owner. I don’t like using landlord. To me, landlord is like from feudal days of knights and lords. It just makes the landlord sound like an evil person. You can go back to old novels. You can go back to silent films, and you’ll see the evil landlord throwing the person out of the apartment.”
He claims that this bias extends to the courts, producing one of the biggest hurdles to performing his job. “I think you go into court understanding, depending on the judge, there may be predilections to be tenant-protective. Going before administrative agencies, there may be predilections to be tenant-protective. The statutes that I operate under are all tenant-protective statutes,” he said.
He’s tipped the scales to his side by operating with a level-headed strategy. Belkin is perhaps more of a negotiator than a litigator. He’s always looking for a solution that benefits both sides.
“I’m a big believer in negotiating and coming to a resolution that is good for both sides. And I do that a lot. Because going to court, going to administrative agencies, there’s always a risk.
“It can be expensive and nobody knows what the outcome will be. Even if you’re positive that you have the facts on your side and that you have the law on your side, you still never know what the ultimate decision will be.”