Eric Benaim is a home-borough boy.
“I was born and raised in Queens my whole life, and I really wouldn’t live anywhere else,” said the entrepreneurial Long Island City resident, who has turned familiarity with his home turf into business success.
In 2008, Benaim and Ted Kokkoris co-founded Modern Spaces, a brokerage that has grown from a single storefront in Long Island City to a 45-broker operation stretched along the shore of the East River, from Astoria to Williamsburg.
But it was a number of successes in the new developments popping up just across Roosevelt Island from Manhattan that gave the startup its momentum.
“Long Island City is just four minutes from midtown Manhattan, and it’s a thriving community. For years, there’s been this stigma that there are no amenities in Long Island City, but that’s wrong. We have three supermarkets, probably 100 restaurants, there are museums and galleries — we have a comedy scene,” he said. “You can really live here and not have to leave the neighborhood if you don’t want to.”
Modern Spaces isn’t the 34-year-old’s first business venture.
From 1996 to 2000, he produced and promoted electronic music dance parties through his company Zero Tolerance Productions. A typical event involved bringing in 20-30 DJs from around the world, booking a warehouse or nightclub for the evening and selling, in some cases, as many as 11,000 tickets.
“That was probably my best education,” said Benaim, who graduated from a Queens high school before completing two years of college.
Zero Tolerance Productions was a success, but by 2000, “I kind of wanted to get out of the whole crazy kind of nightlife thing,” Benaim said. He launched an event planning service, called Bright Sight, with a vision of specializing in corporate events and fundraisers.
The company was getting off the ground when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 put a damper on Benaim’s business model.
“No one wanted to party anymore,” he said.
At the encouragement of family, he got his real estate license and started working with Ardor Realty, and after six months moved to Citi Habitats.
“To be perfectly honest, I hated it in the beginning,” he said. “I thought it would be the job to do until the economy got better and I could get back into doing events.”
But that’s not how it turned out.
After six years with Citi, he left to work at Nest Seekers in Manhattan when the luxury condominium Arris Lofts opened up in Long Island City. He put the skills he’d honed as a nightlife promoter to work, marketing the development to friends and connections throughout Queens. “Being the Queens native and stuff, I always had this vision for what Long Island City would be,” he said. He remembers selling 18 apartments in the first two days, and even bought one himself.
Before long, Benaim was opening a Long Island City office for Nest Seekers.
Two years later Modern Spaces launched, at a historic juncture.
“We opened in August, and at the end of September Lehman Brothers crashed,” Benaim said. But the cloud had a silver lining for outer borough residences. “A lot of people got nervous and wanted to downsize their apartments, so we shifted to walk-ups, the lower end of the market, and we kind of barely got by.”
Today, the company is more than getting by. Modern Spaces has offices in LIC and Astoria, and recently opened in a space shared with a coffee shop in Williamsburg.
Benaim estimates they control 70 to 80 percent of the market share in LIC, and they’re doing a lot of business in Astoria. Before long, he hopes to make a mark throughout Brooklyn. And, once the Williamsburg office is on stable footing, he hopes to hang a shingle in a lower Manhattan neighborhood — somewhere where the company’s culture, which includes a strict “no suit” dress code, would fit in.
Benaim credits his success in the emerging neighborhoods to a grassroots, neighborhood-focused approach. “I’m always knocking on doors, getting to know business owners, neighbors, just everyone in the neighborhood,” he said. “You need to get involved in a community. You’re not just selling a luxury apartment. People want to know where that luxury apartment is. You need to sell them the neighborhood.”