Walk-NYC-sociologist gives pricey tours based on his knowledge

Sociologists often debate or lament their public role but one sociologist who has walked all of New York City 16 times makes money on giving tours:

Helmreich, who wrote “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City,” wants more than anything to share these lesser-known wonders of New York with others. He’s even willing to play tour guide, showing off his knowledge of the city’s more than 121,000 blocks…

Helmreich’s tour, dubbed “The New York That Nobody Sees,” can accommodate up to six people on an eight-plus-hour tour to any of the five boroughs. The cost: up to $1,500 per person, including meals, luxury transportation, travel expenses and signed copies of his book.

If a descendant of Italian immigrants wants to see the neighborhood his great-great-grandfather lived in when he came to America, Helmreich can show him and tell him about how it’s changed. If a real estate developer wants to know what the next hot neighborhood will be, Helmreich, a sociology professor at City College well-versed in gentrification patterns, can bring her to the precise block with the best housing stock ripe for a renaissance…

“The New York Nobody Knows” was such a hit that Princeton University Press signed him to write five more books, each one delving deeper into one of the boroughs.

Is he doing a public service through sharing his research knowledge or is he out to make money? Can he do both? It is not uncommon for academics to get involved with consulting or working with organizations. Yet, it sounds like the opportunities created by these tours are primarily for the wealthy and people who could capitalize on the information. Additionally, how recognized are his sociological observations by other sociologists and other scholars of New York City? Sociologists can seem to discredit more popular appeals – see the discussion around Sudhir Venkatesh’s The Floating City – even as many want to have broader recognition from the public.

More broadly, it would be worth hearing from more sociologists about the line between research and entrepreneurship. Is there a line where one has “sold out”? How can one do both?

Attempting to decrease the average age of American real estate agents

Efforts are underway to attract younger Americans to become real estate agents:

The National Association of Realtors says the median age of its members has inched up to 57, its highest level in 15 years. Agents 40 and younger were just 11 percent of its membership in 2013, down from 20 percent in 2003.

With this in mind, Warren Buffett’s real estate franchise unit, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, recently formed a task force called the REthink Council to explore the topic. Ten agents who are 35 and younger from its offices around the country will gather this month to brainstorm and come up with ways to make the profession more attractive to a younger demographic.

One member of the task force briefly explains what he thinks is happening:

At the time, though, it seemed pretty obvious to me why there weren’t more people my age who were doing this: It takes a lot to get started in real estate (before income starts to flow). There’s a lot of fear and apprehension — what if I don’t make it, what if it takes a while to make money, how am I going to pay my bills?

It was obvious to me then and it’s obvious to me now that there’s a major lack of businesspeople jumping in to real estate. We’re going to have one generation getting out and the next generation is not filling the hole that’s going to be there.

All of this could be very interesting given the projected trends that younger Americans still generally want their own spaces as adults but are more frequently living alone and often want to live in denser areas that offer more cultural and entertainment amenities. If a majority of real estate agents are older, can they still connect with younger buyers who want different things?

Also, this younger agent makes a real estate job sound quite entrepreneurial: you have to take risks, trust your selling abilities, and work hard to drum up business. I’m just speculating but I wonder if this is indicative of declining interest in individual entrepreneurialism. It is one thing to want to go into business with a firm but another to strike out more on one’s own as an agent.

Finally, what are the figures for how much a new real estate agent could expect to make within 1, 5, 10 years? With the glut of articles these days about the income different jobs can expect, how many new real estate agents succeed? Here is some recent info:

Only 2% of Realtors, a trademarked term used by the National Association of Realtors to which the majority of real-estate agents belong, earn more than $250,000 a year. The median annual income nationwide was $43,500 in 2012, up from $34,900 in 2011. The average commission rate for 2013 is projected to be 5.2% of total sale price, according to Real Trends, a Castle Pines, Colo.-based research firm…

Most hopeful agents need to save up before they begin. Studying for the broker’s license exam, which covers both national and state laws and regulation, can take weeks, says Bopa Touch, administrator at the Rockwell Institute, a real-estate training school in Bellevue, Wash. In 2013, the company almost doubled the number of students taking its three-week, $489 broker’s license course, compared with 2012, says Ms. Touch. Between registration fees and desk fees—an amount paid to the brokerage firm to cover operating expenses—most new agents spend $2,000 or more to get started, which doesn’t include months of living expenses necessary before commission checks start coming in. “They don’t realize how much money they need to start,” Ms. Touch says.

The median is not very lucrative…

Opposing gentrified suburban strip malls in order to give immigrants and others cheaper business opportunities

Plenty of suburban critics detest strip malls for their ugliness, auto-dependence, and effect on traditional shopping districts. But, Kaid Benfield argues they may need to be protected from gentrifiers as they offer cheap real estate that can be taken advantage of by immigrants and others.

And yet:  As these properties have declined, so have their rents, making them affordable to small, often entrepreneurial businesses.  Particularly as immigrants have settled in inner suburbs (where many of these fading commercial strips are), businesses owned and patronized by the immigrant population have occupied many of these spaces, in some cases alongside small start-ups owned by longtime community residents as well.

The risk is that, as we reshape these old properties with new buildings and concepts, the replacement properties will be much more valuable than their predecessors; indeed, that’s why new development is appealing to investors and how it is made possible.  Overall, that’s a good thing.  But small businesses either go under, unable to afford new rents, or relocate as a result.  The logical place to relocate in many cases will be vacant storefronts in other strip malls in locations less attractive to the businesses’ clienteles.  What to do?…

According to Ritchey’s article, Asheville’s strip malls offer a setting for synergies to develop and help connect entreprenurial businesses to each other:  for example, establishments offering diverse but complementary products and services can share a customer base, trade ideas, and cross-promote.  This strikes me as analogous in some ways to synergies available to start-ups in more urban “business incubators.”

It makes a lot of sense to me and, in many parts of the country, it is newer Americans who are benefitting the most from these opportunities.  For them, a successful business in a strip mall is the American Dream at work.  Three years ago, Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) and I wrote separate articles about a sort of organic economic revitalization being initiated by immigrants within the existing fabric of our older suburbs.

Interesting argument. Three quick thoughts:

1. Does this mean strip malls might be viewed differently in the future by suburban critics? While they might prefer strip malls are not built in the first place, this does seem like a good use of resources.

2. When people argue that small businesses are really important to the American economy, how many of these small businesses are in strip malls? Could the humble strip mall be one of the backbones of the American economy?

3. This is tied to larger issues about redevelopment in mature suburbs. In American metropolitan areas, many suburbs are built-out and have no large land parcels for new development. There is a lot of potential then for utilizing existing structures or knocking them down and doing something new. If people don’t like strip malls, what would replace them? How much density are suburban residents willing to accept in their neighborhoods or nearby?