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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Peter Fine

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-09-29

Peter Fine is a sociologist at heart, but he uses his brains and brawn to build affordable housing in New York City.

Why affordable housing?

"Perhaps it's because I grew up in a public housing development, or perhaps it's because of the values my father and mother taught me," Mr. Fine, principal of the Atlantic Development Group, said yesterday. "Perhaps it's because of the fine example set by Jewish philanthropists in the city, a way of giving back."

Or perhaps it's because he trained to be a sociologist, entering a doctoral program at New York University. Or perhaps it's because he toiled for five years as a social worker in the nonprofit world, helping the homeless find shelter and assisting people afflicted with HIV/AIDS.

Whatever the reasons, less than a decade after making the transition to the highly competitive world of real estate -- in partnership with Marc Altheim -- his company, Atlantic Development Group, has become one of New York's largest developers of affordable housing.

And what accounts for his success?

"If I'm a success today, it's heavily due to my father's influence," Mr. Fine said. "He's a continuing influence in my life. He taught me toughness, and the importance of hard work. At the same time, he really valued fairness, which I think is an important factor in succeeding in business. By working as hard as I do, I'm really honoring my father, Robert. And my mother, too -- Bette Fine was an extremely compassionate woman."

It is uncommon to find a high achiever talk in such personal terms -- especially in real estate, where people avoid revealing very much, for fear that their competitors could seize on a soft spot. But Mr. Fine doesn't evade questions.

That sort of candor -- as well as his work ethic -- has won him admiration among city officials. One of the city's main affordable-housing programs is known as the 421-A certificate program, which facilitates financing for such housing. The program works by linking affordable-housing projects outside the Manhattan core, with new residential buildings elsewhere in the city.
Developers of new residential buildings in Manhattan must provide either affordable rentals or condominiums in order to qualify for a tax abatement.

In the event that developers are unwilling to designate apartments as "affordable housing," They can still obtain abatements. How? Developers are allowed to buy such abatements through 421-A certificates issued by the city to developers like Mr. Fine, who have been given the certificates because of their commitment to affordable housing. Mr. Fine, of course, has a large stock of such certificates because he continues to build affordable housing, thereby earning even more certificates from the city.

This means that buyers who wish to build market-rate housing can dispense with setting aside any units as affordable housing. This also means that sellers of the certificates -- developers such as Mr. Fine -- can raise capital that helps meet construction costs for their own affordable-housing buildings.

The first such building Mr. Fine built for himself was on a vacant lot in the Bronx that he purchased at an auction held by the city. That lot, which was auctioned by the city, turned out to be right in front of a clubhouse for the Chingalings, a Hispanic motorcycle gang.

"They wondered who this white man was, wandering into their territory," Mr. Fine said. "And I wondered how did I ever get into such a situation."

In the event, he and the Chingalings got along fine. They were impressed with his plans to construct affordable housing. Mr. Fine built 72 apartments on the lot.

That development was followed by more than 35 other affordable-housing buildings in Manhattan. Mr. Fine now owns more than 4,000 units of housing. They consist of studios and apartments of up to three bedrooms. To qualify as a renter in most of these buildings, a family must be earning between $20,000 and $40,000 annually.

He's now building a $95 million, 330-unit apartment complex on West End Avenue and 61st Street. Some 220 of those apartments will be set aside as affordable housing. Mr. Fine also has five other construction projects in Manhattan and another eight in the Bronx, most with affordable-housing components included.

Affordable housing programs and other similar measures tend to be complex. Entire books have been written about them. But Mr. Fine is self-taught.

"I have always had a vision," he said. "I see things for today, the next year, the next 10 years -- and well after I am gone."

He hopes that the post-Peter Fine era will see his children join his business. The three of them -- Sarah, Robby, and Katie -- aren't quite 10 yet. His wife, Elizabeth, isn't planning to enter real estate, though, as Mr. Fine puts it, "She's been very supportive, very understanding about my drive and the dedication needed for the business."

"I understand that it's a long chain that brought me here," Mr. Fine said. "For me, that means commitment to Jewish continuity. It means commitment to family. It means commitment to the less fortunate around me. I suppose that, at the end of the day, I really am a sociologist."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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