By Orlando Lee Rodriguez
You never know where life will take you.
For Robb Pair, a travel aficionado who has been to over 40 countries, it was a 1998 trip to the Big Apple with his wife that changed the course of his life.
“The whole reason I came to New York, is we got married,” said Pair at his renovated Harlem townhouse office on Lenox Avenue. “I said ‘Lets go have fun in New York for two years and go back to Virginia and have kids.’ But my wife and I fell in love with New York and we fell in love with Harlem.”
So he stayed, but not after first living on the top floor condo of the Worldwide Plaza in Midtown.
“My wife had gotten used to that lifestyle pretty quickly,” he said. “When I told her we were moving to Harlem, the look on her face was not one of acceptance. I told her, ‘move to Harlem, let me build a home there, and in six months, if you say go, we’ll go.”
“That was in 2001. We have four boys born and being raised here and she won’t let me leave. She fell in love with it quickly,” he said.
But for Pair, it was at the time a risky move and not a very popular one, as more of the movement back then was in then multiple budding neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Pair said Brooklyn is great, but it was not for him.
“All due respect,” said Pair. “I love Brooklyn, but you don’t come 500 miles from Virginia to not live in Manhattan.”
So Pair became a pioneer of gentrification in a neighborhood where a political structure akin to a fiefdom had tried its best to resist any significant influx of outsiders.
But in Harlem, Pair found success. First, running a contracting business, Harlem Lofts Construction, that developed long neglected properties. He got his New York broker license in 2003 and formed Harlem Lofts Brokerage Inc., representing investors looking to enter the then sizzling, but mine-filled field of the Harlem residential market.
“For me, it just was the right place,” he said. “The stars aligned for me in Harlem.”
Pair’s was the first Harlem-based brokerage to become a member of REBNY and the National Association of REALTORS. But then the downturn hit and he was forced to make changes.
In retrospect, that was a blessing in disguise. “The best thing that happened to Harlem was the downturn in the economy,” he said. “When that happened, all the investors left. So we sat here for two years and only worked with end users for the first time.”
“We changed our business model. Instead of selling to an investor that is pulling up with Jersey plates, tinted windows, not even getting out of the car and buying for the cash flow, we had people who really took an interest in the community.”
Those long-term buyers, Pair said, many of them families looking to stay in Manhattan but get more space for their money, have brought with them a demand for services that are now prolific in an area where it was once a challenge to find a workable ATM.
Now, within a stones throw of Pair’s office, are restaurants, bars, banks, department stores, two brand new charter schools and very soon a Whole Foods supermarket.
“I respectfully disagree with people who don’t support gentrification in Harlem,” said Pair. “I am a big supporter. I love it.”
But for people who want to get in on the changes happening in this latest Harlem renaissance, the wait may be a while. Particularly for those desiring one of the area’s coveted townhouses. Pair said he has dozens of cash buyers waiting in line to pounce on quality properties as soon as they become available.
“The inventory is low because, if 25 townhouses have sold, I’m telling you that 20 of them never made it to the market,” said Pair.
“The way we have our buyers teed up, they’re going to come in and make an offer the minute we have the listing. And they are giving them the price that they want. So we never even get the exclusive and it never gets listed, it just sells and goes to contract,” he said.
Pair said he doesn’t want his agency to be the biggest, just the best. Currently he has nine full-time brokers and is looking to grow to a staff of 15. The key, Pair said, is focus and specialization, as his agents are all experts on local property types.
“You can’t be everything to everybody,” he said. “You have to decide what you want to be, and you want to be the best at that.”
Pair is very active in the local real estate community and just became president of the Manhattan Association of Realtors. He also teaches at the New York Real Estate Institute and is active in REBNY.
He coaches baseball, basketball and soccer to his kids’ teams and still enjoys travelling. “I went to Yemen, Eqypt and Fiji last year, but that’s a hiatus for me.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time with the kids, but … when the little one gets older we’re going to start traveling more. Most of our investors are from overseas. I’m going to Tokyo in June to have dinner with an investor.”