Black Positive People : Black Power: Ex-MLB slugger becomes Affordable Housing titan

Knowledge Seed

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THERE are times when Maurice Vaughn, the former major league baseball player universally called Mo, is treated like a businessman — usually when he is deep in talks to buy ratty apartment buildings and make them habitable again.

Then there are times when he is treated like catnip — usually by women, like the ones who spotted him strolling through the cleaned-up courtyard of one such apartment complex in Brownsville, Brooklyn, called the Plaza, that Mr. Vaughn and his partners bought in 2007.

“How ya doin’ Mo Vaughn,” they crooned in near-unison. “Mo Vaughn? Mo Vaaaauuuuugghnn.”

Mr. Vaughn, 42 — and married with a 5-year-old daughter — cuts an unlikely figure in New York’s real estate world, not just because women are drawn to him, or because he is 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds under his custom-made suit, Donald Pliner loafers and diamond studs. Charismatic and massive, enduringly famous and comfortably rich, he brings a dose of glamour to the decidedly unsexy world of low-income housing.

This is where Mr. Vaughn, a star slugger for the Boston Red Sox who quit baseball in 2003 after a lackluster run with the Mets, decided to build what he called his “afterlife” from the ashes of his baseball career. His six-year-old company, Omni New York LLC, is on its way to becoming a major player in the low-income housing world. It has acquired 4,000 apartments, most of them in New York State’s scrappiest neighborhoods, housing the poorest of tenants (98 percent of them qualify for Section 8 rent subsidies).

In a city obsessed with the gilded cocoons of the rich, the company has forged a reputation for turning around properties once deemed untouchable in the caste system of New York real estate — like the Plaza, where drug dealers once openly sold their own brand of heroin, guarded by pit bulls whose food was laced with gunpowder.

Mr. Vaughn, both teddy-bearish and intimidating, is the leader of an unlikely triumvirate. His Omni partners are a Russian expatriate named Eugene Schneur, 38, his lawyer and friend since baseball days, and Robert Bennett, 46, who has years of experience financing low-income housing. The firm began buying in 2004, focusing on so-called acquisition rehabs — older properties in various stages of decrepitude, often with absentee landlords and teetering finances.

Since then, it has bought and rehabilitated 23 sites in New York, Massachusetts and Wyoming for a total of $503 million. Other deals worth $205 million for 1,000 units, most in the Bronx, are scheduled to close in September.

“Is he a big deal in New York real estate? He’s becoming a big deal,” said Harold Shultz, a senior fellow with the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a research group.

“It’s unusual to have someone famous; usually this field is small operators,” Mr. Shultz added. “But Mo, he was serious.”

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