Three's Company
Young alums hope to take on two tough problems in the City of Oberlin: affordable housing and flat retail sales.

by Kris Ohlson
Photos by Mike Wilkes

Ben Ezinga '01, Naomi Sabel '02, and Josh Rosen '01, developers of the planned $15-million housing and retail complex.

For two years Oberlin students Josh Rosen, Naomi Sabel, and Ben Ezinga would walk past the deserted Buick dealership on Oberlin's East College Street and think—either to themselves or out loud—that someone ought to make better use of the shabby spot. The area seemed like a dead zone, a place where the town had slumped in upon itself.

Then one day a For Sale sign appeared.

None of the three recalls exactly when their thinking changed from someone should do something with the space to we could do something with the space. By spring of 2001, however, just before Josh and Ben would graduate and Naomi would finish her junior year, they had formed a corporation called Sustainable Community Associates (SCA), playing Rock-Paper-Scissors to determine who would be president, chairman of the board, and CEO. (Each of them insisted on being Rock, so they settled on a coin flip.)

"So many Oberlin students take their talents, education, and energy elsewhere instead of using them in Oberlin," says Josh over the clatter of plates in Oberlin's Black River Café, SCA's ad-hoc corporate meeting room. "We wanted to make a difference here, and that's how it started. We said to each other that if we stuck this out and believed in ourselves, we might be able to make something happen—although in our wildest imaginations we never envisioned what that something would turn out to be."

Now, four years later, the trio is close to breaking ground on a mixed-use real estate development on the three acres surrounding the old Buick dealership, just east of the Apollo Theatre. The East College Street Project (ECSP) will have 49 residential units—some for sale at market rates, others for rent—with about 40 percent of the units set aside for low- and moderate-income residents. A family earning under $30,000, for example, would not spend more than 30 percent of its income on rent and utilities.

ECSP's ground floor will have 12,600 square feet of commercial space, enough for four or five new businesses, all independently owned. Some of the space will be reserved for business incubation. And of course, the building will be intensely green; plans call for solar panels, a green roof, and geothermal heating to reduce utility costs.

The total investment in the project will be—listen for the drum roll—approximately $15 million, funds that Josh, Naomi, and Ben have raised from private, governmental, and philanthropic sources.

They've also gathered around them a cadre of boosters, people willing to listen to their ideas and elucidate the fine points of new market tax credits or contamination cleanup. Many of these boosters were skeptics at first, misjudging the Obies as bright and ambitious young do-gooders with unattainable goals. After seeing repeated demonstrations of grit on the part of SCA's principals, however, the critics became believers.

"I was surprised by how hard they worked to bridge the gap between their inexperience and what they needed to know," says Ann Meyers of Meyers, Roman, Friedberg and Lewis, the Cleveland law firm that has been SCA's general counsel for the past two years. "They've studied the legal, political, regulatory, and other aspects of this project in ways that amaze me. I'm used to having more experienced clients who make a lot of assumptions and don't do that kind of research. Josh, Naomi, and Ben have made believers out of me, so much so that I'm deferring a portion of my fee."

Donors to the so-called "$50,000 Club" include the City of Oberlin (the first time in years that the city has actively participated as a financial partner on a development project), Oberlin College, and the Oberlin-based Hallock Foundation, each having contributed funds for predevelopment studies.

Other supporters have put even more on the table: the complex public-private financing structure crafted by the alums includes $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (how many other 20-somethings have been a line item in a federal budget?); $300,000 from Ohio's Department of Development; $3.5 million in tax credits from the Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit that supports affordable housing initiatives around the country; and $2.4 million from various philanthropic sources. SCA is also working with the city of Oberlin to finance $600,000 of public improvements through tax increment financing.

Still more supporters work further behind the scenes: those who provide the entrepreneurs rent money, cook them meals, buy plane tickets for their travels to meetings, and jump to take care of relatively small expenses that suddenly become huge and daunting.

Josh, Naomi, and Ben possess an engaging combination of characteristics that win people over. Passion for doing something good. Determination and flexibility. The hubris to challenge conventional wisdom and the humility to listen to good advice and adapt their plans. A willingness to plunge into new bodies of knowledge and emerge as experts. And humor—they take the project seriously but are quick to laugh at themselves. They're quick to laugh, period, because they think part of doing business well is having fun.

And gratitude, almost a sense of awe about the generosity of people who have helped them.

"We spend the vast majority of our time in over our heads," says Ben. "One of the most inspirational things is how people come out of the woodwork to help. You start to realize what a good thing it is in the world when people are willing to go out of their way."

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