My generation, as a whole, never suffered any real financial hardship until 2007. No Great Depressions, no World Wars. We grew up with all the perks and toys that came along with being natural-born citizens of the world’s leading consumer nation during the longest economic expansion period in history. Sure, there were wars and crises, but George W. Bush advised us to buy stuff as our way to help the war effort. Tough job but someone had to do it. So we sucked it up and went out and bought BMWs and Sub-Zero fridges. Take that, Bin Laden.
On a personal level, I can say that my life was pretty damn good prior to ‘07. In 1996, I married Pam, the love of my life, and launched into a six-year renovation of one of the last brownstones to sell for under a million dollars in Chelsea, Manhattan. We were both working full time, traveled extensively and had begun a family. “To paraphrase the popular song, the future, so bright you had to wear shades”.
Manhattan real estate started to boom and eventually became the construction bellwether for the entire nation, showing annual double- digit appreciation for the next decade. When Pam and I finished the full restoration of our brownstone, it was right in the middle of the construction boom. Our building had appreciated over 700 percent. So we got caught up in the fever like everyone else and bought the building next door. The banks were throwing money around like comedy club coupons in Times Square; it seemed downright un-American not to accept some of it. Pam and I decided to combine our recently finished building with the adjacent building, which was in major disrepair, to develop the first green, cantilevered condominium complex in Manhattan.
“Green design” was the new obsession of the architectural world and our project was all that and a tank of biofuel. Our development at 121-123 West 15th Street incorporated two geothermal wells, passive solar radiant heating, reclaimed natural materials, modular construction, a car lift to a private garage, and Nana doors in its ultra-modern design. It was the Green Dream on steroids. But the Rath Family Dream was even cooler, if I do say so myself. Our long-range plan was to develop this building for my expanding family, live there for a few years, and make some money selling the other condo units. Then, when the kids were old enough, sell our own unit, climb aboard our boat, and sail around the world together for a few years on a journey of exploration to look for a new locality to call home for our family.
Both dreams went up in flames one fateful day in November, 2006, two years into construction, when an event occurred that unearthed a major multi- contractor fraud on our site. That revelation put the project twelve months behind and $3.5 Million over budget on the eve of the housing balloon burst. It would eventually sink us thirteen million dollars in debt, destroy my credit rating for the rest of my natural life, tie me up in lawsuits, and force our home into foreclosure.
This is the story of our determination. How my family was battered, bruised, beaten, and left by the side of the road to die. Yet, how we managed to crawl to safety. Wiser, ornerier, and far less innocent. Turns out, the flames of failure didn’t destroy our vision. They only toughened it. Like tempered steel.
As we struggled to salvage our project, Pam and I went through many of the same ordeals millions of homeowners have recently gone through, except that ours were magnified a hundredfold. Why? Because of the staggering dollar figures involved and because this was Manhattan, which meant dealing not only with the typical array of banks, lawyers, and insurance companies, but also with entrenched rent-controlled tenants, politicians, the Department of Buildings, the Department of Transportation, OSHA, the New York Times, the Department of Housing, local “watchdog” types with too much time on their hands, high-stakes bankers, criminals, sophisticated conmen, arbitrators, and an array of highly specialized contractors, suppliers, architects, manufacturers, fixers and expeditors that would make your head spin.
Pam and I were not professional real estate developers. This was our home. We both worked full time and lived on the construction site the entire time, while raising three young girls. When everything went south, it affected us in a very personal way. We hope this story of our family’s perseverance through a decade of unbelievable challenges will serve as an inspiration to you any time you’re feeling overwhelmed, disillusioned, or beaten down.
If we could get through this, with our dignity and sanity intact, then anyone can get through anything. Seriously.