Age of empires: Rubie Schron’s Cammeby’s makes national push
A look at the low-key billionaire as his firm expands into ground-up development — and beyond its home turf
By: Keith Larsen
During his days on “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump was talking with Rubin Schron about the $700 million sale of his family’s working-class apartment complexes in South Brooklyn to Schron’s Cammeby’s International Group. Trump, naturally, had to ask the tycoon’s thoughts on his smash-hit reality show.
“I don’t know what that is,” Schron allegedly replied. “I don’t own a TV.”
That tale, and dozens like it, form the myth of “Rubie” Schron, one of New York City’s largest residential landlords, a major national apartment investor — 28,000 units as of 2015 — and now an active developer who’s reshaping Coney Island with a three-tower project. For someone whose assets include the Woolworth Building and Industry City, though, the term “under the radar” doesn’t do Schron justice: You’d be hard-pressed to find an interview of the billionaire or even a recent photograph. He’s completely off the industry events and galas circuit, and for such a long career in real estate, has had remarkably few public fallouts with his partners. In the cutthroat world of New York real estate, where developers have attacked their peers with ice buckets, gone through billion-dollar divorces that played out on Page Six and even feared being taken out by their own siblings, Schron, now in his early 80s, is a rarity.
“For three decades, my dealings with Rubie have always been the same,” said Doug Harmon of Cushman & Wakefield, who has brokered several large deals for Schron, including the $250 million acquisition of the Monterey rental tower on the Upper East Side from Related Companies. “He does what he says, he honors his word, and he doesn’t sweat the small stuff.”
“I kind of see him like the Warren Buffett of real estate,” said real estate attorney Stephen Meister, who has represented Schron. “He lives a low-key lifestyle, and it’s about fundamentals.”
That ethos carries down to two of his sons, who are his likely successors. Avi and Eli Schron have been taking more of a front-facing role in the empire, pushing Cammeby’s into ground-up development — something Rubie largely avoided. The company is also expanding aggressively outside its home turf. In partnership with Jordan Slone’s Harbor Group International, Cammeby’s acquired a shiny apartment complex in Downtown Miami in March for over $400 million, a record deal. Months earlier, the pair bought a $1 billion apartment portfolio in suburban New Jersey.
“I would call them a real value-add investor,” said Slone. “The family has a great sense of intuition of what areas are going to do well.”
Simple, but significant
Schron’s Horatio Alger story begins like this: He was born on the Lower East Side to an Orthodox Jewish family, which used a $5,000 World War II-related government payment — Schron lost a brother to war-related injuries — to buy a small apartment building on Delancey Street. The Schrons managed the building, teaching Rubie the skills needed to act as a receiver and property manager for vacant apartment buildings foreclosed on by the government in the 1960s and 1970s, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In 1967, Schron launched Cammeby’s. Focusing on outer-borough apartments and opting to buy rather than build, he amassed, deal by deal, one of the most valuable portfolios in the city. His real estate strategy was unglamorous, but lucrative — he bet on rentals that qualified for the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program. (In 2007, Cammeby’s sold its Mitchell-Lama housing complexes in Harlem and Roosevelt Island for $940 million, among the city’s largest-ever multifamily transactions.)
In 1998, partnering with Steve Witkoff, Schron bought an asset that put him in the national spotlight: the Woolworth Building, a terracotta-facade skyscraper in Lower Manhattan that was once the world’s tallest building. He also paid $700 million for the Trump family’s South Brooklyn shopping centers and apartment complexes in 2003. And in 2013, he made a long-shot $2 billion play for the Empire State Building. A letter detailing the offer to the Malkin family stated that “Mr. Schron is ready to go to contract immediately” with a $50 million non-refundable, all-cash deposit. (The bid fell through when the Malkins put the building into a REIT, Empire State Realty Trust.)
In 2016, The Real Deal ranked Schron as the fourth-largest rental landlord in New York City, with nearly 12,000 units, just behind institutional behemoths such as Blackstone Group, Related and the LeFrak Organization.
“They do not care about publicity. But they do care very much about their reputation.” Jordan Slone, Harbor Group International
It’s likely that Schron’s holdings at the time were considerably larger, given the lack of transparency in public records, particularly for the kind of joint-venture deals Cammeby’s does. He often teams up in New York with Abe Fruchthandler; the partners own a stake in Industry City, the 6 million-square-foot office and retail development in Brooklyn’s fast-gentrifying Sunset Park.
In a recent tribute video, Schron said his relationship with Fruchthandler “goes back decades,” describing their business ventures as “adventures” and noting that Fruchthandler was a “shadchan” (matchmaker) for Schron’s daughter.
Cammeby’s low-leverage approach allows it to step in after more speculative investors have gotten burned. A textbook example is All Year Holdings’ Brooklyn portfolio, mostly midlevel apartment buildings in trendy Bushwick and Williamsburg. All Year, founded by Yoel Goldman, resisted foreclosures and fraud allegations, but fell to restructuring officers who seized control of daily operations in 2020. Its byzantine corporate structure proved such a challenge that one officer said the best use of their time was “to do a download of what’s in his [Goldman’s] head,” the Commercial Observer reported.
All Year filed for bankruptcy in late 2021. This March, Cammeby’s backed a venture led by healthcare executive Avi Philipson, the son of nursing home magnate Bent Philipson, to acquire the bankrupt portfolio for $60 million from All Year — $40 million in cash and $20 million in promissory notes. A source familiar with the deal said Cammeby’s is a minority investor. Avi Philipson did not return requests for comment.
Though Schron built his empire through acquisitions and savvy management, his sons have shown more of a willingness to take on ground-up projects. On the site of some of Trump’s former properties in Coney Island, Cammeby’s is developing Neptune/Sixth. Phase One— a medical office and retail building that spans 160,000 square feet — is ready to lease. The glassy, sleek building, which sits in front of a McDonald’s and around the corner from a DMV office, looks like it’s been airlifted from Miami and placed in the deepest enclave of South Brooklyn.
For the project’s second phase, Cammeby’s partnered with a young local developer, Sergey Rybak, to build a 499-unit development with a mix of studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, 30 percent of them designated affordable. The partners expect to complete the rentals by the end of 2025, and are on the hunt for financing.
An institutional landlord with a “boots-on-the-ground approach” is how Rybak described Cammeby’s.
“[Schron’s] family looks at long-term operations,” he said. “They look at where the shop is going to be in the building that will house extra appliances … they look at corridor widths, they look at freight elevators.”
Cammeby’s plans to install mechanical rooms for each residence in the hallway. The maintenance, or even a filter change, for the centralized air conditioning can then be done in the hallway, instead of in an apartment. Another example: Cammeby’s plans to install two garbage chutes. One will be for garbage and one for recycling, to reduce time spent scurrying around the buildings collecting rubbish.
And when the Schrons want something done, they get it done.
“They are very much to the point,” Rybak said. “There is no flip-flopping.”
Newmark’s Jean Celestin, who has worked on deals for Schron, echoed the sentiment.
“They are not going to change their mind after they tell you something,” he said.
As of 2015, Cammeby’s owned and managed over 28,000 residential units and more than 20 million square feet of commercial and industrial space, according to a securities filing. A year prior, Bloomberg estimated Schron’s net worth at $1.6 billion.
Cammeby’s portfolio has only grown since then. Its most prolific partnership nowadays is with Slone’s Harbor Group, a real estate private equity firm based out of Norfolk, Virginia, that has a $19 billion portfolio.
Slone, who met Schron through a mutual friend in 2009, said their first major deal was the 1.1 million-square-foot 4 New York Plaza office tower in Lower Manhattan. Three years after the $107 million deal, the building had nearly doubled in value, and Slone went to see Schron about whether to sell or refinance.
A rendering of residential towers within the Neptune/Sixth development (Zproekt Architecture)
“We really don’t like to sell buildings too often, but you know what, Jordan?” Schron responded, according to Slone. “I happen to think that that is an ugly building.”
Slone said it will sometimes partner in deals that Cammeby’s has sourced; in others, it asks Cammeby’s to join in. In September, the pair bought a 5,300-unit suburban New Jersey portfolio spread out across towns such as Rahway, Morristown and Phillipsburg. And Cammeby’s involvement in some deals might have been missed by even the most diligent readers of real estate trade publications. Cammeby’s invested in Harbor’s $1.8 billion acquisition of a national portfolio in 2017. Three years later, the Schrons invested in Harbor’s $1.85 billion purchase of over 13,000 multifamily units in the Sunbelt.
This March, the partners acquired an 816-unit apartment complex atop the Brightline train station in Downtown Miami for over $400 million.
The push to look outside New York comes after the state passed sweeping rent reforms in 2019, which put a squeeze on the amount of money landlords could make from rent-stabilized portfolios. (Avi Schron was involved in a lobbying group, Alliance for Rental Excellence NY, to advocate for landlords against the reforms.)
Run away from honor
Schron leads a largely insular life. He resides in a large — but far from the largest — home in Brooklyn’s Midwood. In his rare public appearances, he tends to wear the same glasses and black fedora or yarmulke. He is a fixture at the prominent Mirrer Yeshiva. His icon isn’t Big Bill Zeckendorf or Harry Helmsley, but rather the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer, longtime chair of Agudath Israel of America.
“He was my hero,” Schron said in a 2014 video commemorating an award he received in Sherer’s name.
During the award ceremony, he also explained why he tries to avoid the spotlight.
“If you run away from honor, the honor will chase you,” he said.
And while he’s mostly managed to avoid controversy, there are exceptions. Around 2009, Schron was involved in an ugly falling out with his former lawyer Leonard Grunstein and investment banker Murray Forman. The dispute centered around the ownership of SavaSeniorCare, one of the largest privately controlled nursing-home chains. Schron owned the real estate, and Grunstein and Forman controlled the operations. Schron claimed to have an option to buy the operating company for $100 million, but Grunstein allegedly called the option worthless and said Schron could use it “as toilet paper,” according to a complaint Schron filed in New York Supreme Court.
Schron claimed he fired Grunstein in 2009 after “abuse and intimidation” in front of his children, according to a complaint. The cases were eventually discontinued, and Grunstein later admitted to making false statements under oath. But the partners made a $14 million settlement with the Justice Department over allegedly soliciting kickback payments from Omnicare in 2010 to continue using its pharmacy services for 15 years.
More recently, Cammeby’s was named in lawsuits related to a fire at the Twin Parks apartment complexes in the Bronx, which caught fire this year resulting in 17 deaths. Cammeby’s bought the buildings in 2013 and sold them in late 2019 to a group of investors that included Rick Gropper’s Camber Property Group. Cammeby’s was dropped as a defendant from the lawsuits, and the city has not accused the firm or the current operator of any wrongdoing.
While high interest rates and recession fears worry other developers. Schron keeps at it. He has thrived in down markets, booms and the static in-betweens. His name will not be on a Midtown tower. He will not move into a penthouse in Columbus Circle, nor will he hold court at a REBNY gala. It’s a style that gets glossed over by news outlets in favor of branded luxury condos or anxiety-inducing supertalls. But it is a strategy that has worked for Rubie Schron.
“They [the Schrons] do not care about publicity,” said Slone. “But they do care very much about their reputation. Their track record as people, businesspeople and investors speaks for itself.”