Richard Richman

Real Impact

Thanks to a trailblazing, success-laden career in real estate, Richard Richman ’72 has risen to the very top of his profession.

By Ben McGrath

Winter 2009

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Last May, during a luncheon at Revson Sculpture Plaza, Richard P. Richman ’72 had a conversation with a woman concerned that her 23-year-old couldn’t find a reasonably priced apartment in Manhattan. Soon after, the woman, who lived on the Upper West Side, sighed about a new high-rise development going up in her neighborhood, and Richman was reminded of the difficulties inherent in his business, not to mention public policy. “The trouble is, everybody wants affordable housing,” he says, and then jokes, “but if we can’t build more housing because of sprawl in the suburbs, and we can’t have more density in the city, I give up!”

Richman is the chairman of The Richman Group, one of the nation’s largest owners and developers of rental property, and in the 20 years since he founded the company, he has seldom been in the position of giving up. The Richman Group maintains offices in 12 cities, has a financial interest in roughly 10 percent of the affordable housing developed in the United States each year, and conducts business in every state except Hawaii. “We have been equity investors in six apartment complexes in Wasilla, Alaska,” he says. “We were among the few people in the United States who actually knew Sarah Palin.”

Richman grew up in Great Neck, N.Y., in the 1950s, when Nassau County was the fastest growing county in the United States—its farms and estates transforming seemingly overnight into suburban tract housing. It was a natural breeding ground for a future real estate developer and financier, although Richman didn’t become specifically interested in the field until he arrived at Columbia in the early ’70s for a joint-degree program in law and business, and took a course in the new discipline of financing subsidized housing. (He now serves on the Dean’s Council at the Law School.)

While at the Law School, Richman also volunteered for the failed gubernatorial campaign of Howard Samuels, and through these efforts he met future real estate personalities such as Donald Trump and Stephen Ross, of The Related Companies. It was also the beginning of a long side-career in politics, and Richman has twice served as the Connecticut finance chair for the Democratic presidential candidate.

In his remaining spare time, Richman gives lectures to college students, stressing the importance of luck—“being in the right place at the right time”—and taking a long view of history. At Columbia, he read The Great Crash: 1929, by John Kenneth Galbraith, which, in the wake of the subprime mortgage collapse, has served as a helpful lesson about bubbles and business cycles. “I tell kids to Google the land boom in Florida in the 1920s,” he says. “That started the Great Depression. Things do repeat themselves.”

Early in winter, Richman attended a ribbon cutting in Yonkers for the new Croton Heights Apartments, one of his firm’s latest developments. “We are taking down the old federal public housing, which was, quite honestly, more about warehousing people than giving them great homes,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s a business where we change people’s lives. You take a young family and give them a new place to live.”

Ben McGrath is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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Richard Richman ’72