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A note from RISMedia Founder, President & CEO John Featherston on the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11:
"I wanted to share with you some thoughts as we reach the somber milestone of the 20th anniversary of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001—a day that changed our lives forever. As we look back, we see that through the darkness of the unspeakable tragedy of September 11, 2001, came countless stories of courage and unity, from across the country and, true to form, from within our real estate community. We saw the industry come together to volunteer, raise funds and support one another, and we saw the New York real estate market roar back to recovery after many had predicted there would be no return in those early days.
"To commemorate this important moment in history, when nearly 3,000 souls were taken from us that terrible day, now two decades ago, we interviewed many leading New York-area real estate executives, who worked or lived close to Ground Zero in 2001. As we look ahead, these events will forever be woven into the fabric of history. Let us honor those who were lost and remember to appreciate all that we have."
Nearly 20 years ago, a day began like any other. Bright, crystal blue skies illuminated the streets of New York City as passersby enjoyed a crisp 65-degree breeze from a cold front blowing through the East Coast that week.
The sprightly weather falls in stark contrast to the dark events that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States—which resulted in 2,996 deaths in NYC, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania; the destruction of iconic architecture; and utter despair and vulnerability felt deeply around the world as dense, black smoke shadowed Manhattan, suffocating the light.
A Look Back at the Day
Twenty years later, the memory of the day is etched in the minds of countless individuals globally, but those who worked and lived near Manhattan at the time recall those moments with sharp vividness. We interviewed real estate giants located in NYC and the surrounding areas for a glimpse back at the day: how the community and industry came together, how it reshaped real estate, and what life and the markets are like now, 20 years later.
Diane Ramirez, chief strategy officer for the New York office of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New York Properties, lived just four blocks north of the Twin Towers; in fact, she had a front-row view of the towers from her living room window.
"I was with my daughter-in-law and our eight-month-old granddaughter the morning of the attack," Ramirez recalls. "We felt the explosion of the plane hitting the tower building through our floor. The next view from our windows was flames from the building and papers flying out of the windows."
After the first plane hit, Ramirez remembers the ensuing pandemonium on the streets below as police officers and secret service members ran toward the building. While news outlets had begun their coverage, the full scope of the events had not yet been realized.
"The news was on the TV and we all thought it was a small plane that crashed into the building," says Ramirez.
Across the world, people scrambled to find out if friends and family in the vicinity of the attacks were alive and safe.
That morning, Joe Rand, chief creative officer at Howard Hanna | Rand Realty, had dropped off his best friend, Tom, at JFK for a return flight to his home in Los Angeles. For several hours, Rand was in the dark about his friend's well-being. Did he get on one of the planes that crashed? Was he safe?
"It wasn't until early afternoon that I found out that he wasn't on any of them," says Rand. "His flight was diverted to St. Louis…but for most of that day, I assumed he was gone."
For others, like Bess Freedman, CEO of Brown Harris Stevens, and Scott Durkin, CEO of Douglas Elliman, the news seemed so unfathomable that the initial reaction was utter disbelief.
"We kept seeing people in small groups turning and looking at the sky, and we said 'they must be filming Law & Order,'" says Durkin, who was walking the streets of SoHo with his husband, on their way to vote that morning.
Freedman was in the midst of moving into a new apartment on 86th Street, and when the movers told her that a plane had hit the World Trade Center site, she and her husband were in disbelief.
"We imagined maybe it was just a small plane—an accident," she recalls. "But then the movers said to us that this was an act of terrorism. Like the rest of the world, we were numb, shocked, horrified and gutted."
Richard Haggerty, CEO of the Hudson Gateway Association of REALTORS®, Inc., and president and chief strategic growth officer of OneKey® MLS, who was at a conference in Lake Placid with the New York State Association of REALTORS®, remembers being in a hotel lobby that morning, engrossed in news coverage.
"I came down the stairs at my hotel and dozens of people were grouped around a TV in the lobby, and I saw the plane go into the second tower," says Haggerty, much like Freedman and Durkin who had heard the news and rushed to a nearby television to see what was happening, witnessing another hijacked plane crash into the South Tower. "The images that appeared on TV over the next two days were almost incomprehensible and surreal, and contrasted sharply with the peaceful scene from the night before."
"However, what also emerged over the next days and weeks was a grim determination to rebound and rebuild," adds Haggerty.
Picking Up the Fragments: A United Community
Following the crisis, there was a renewed sense of community. The attacks on the United States were deeply personal, and Americans rallied to support each other in this time of need.
Ramirez recalls being evacuated from her building with her family with "just the clothes on our back," and it was through the altruistic acts of neighbors, friends and family that those affected by the crisis were taken care of without hesitation.
"We lived with friends and family Uptown for days, and then were given homes by great New Yorkers who opened their unoccupied apartments to families in need like us," she says.
Ramirez says the real estate community stepped up as well, with her own brokerage calling landlords and homeowners who might be able to assist displaced families.
"It was so strange to be among the families that were taking care of us for over a month at no cost to us—just the kindness of great New Yorkers," says Ramirez.
Freedman also witnessed real estate professionals coming together to convince developers and clients that Downtown would be coming back bigger and stronger—which it did.
"The images, the pain, the loss…it will never go away," says Freedman. "It made us bond together. There was a sense of unity."
According to Haggerty, real estate associations played a significant role in aid and recovery, with the National Association of REALTORS® initiating a nationwide fundraising effort that collected more than $8.4 million "to provide urgent housing-related assistance for those struggling in the aftermath."
"Funds were raised and distributed within 100 days to ensure families remained in their homes," says Haggerty. "That effort led to the creation of the REALTORS® Relief Fund, which to date, has collected and disbursed over $33 million in aid in connection with 108 disaster recoveries."
Several weeks later, after evacuation and shut-down orders were lifted, Durkin recalls efforts to revitalize local businesses that struggled amid closures.
"Barbara Corcoran, who I worked with at the time, wanted to help the city and downtown restaurants that had been shut down for so long. So she took the entire company out to dinner one night," says Durkin. Corcoran reserved 14 downtown restaurants in order to serve the 700 brokers invited that night in an effort to give hurting businesses a boost.
A Market Resurgence and a Focus on Safety
An event that left the community reeling in the initial aftermath would likely have devastating impacts on an economic level, but for housing, it did not.
"Remarkably, 9/11 had a minimal impact on the housing market, which recovered almost immediately," says Rand. "We all expected the general market to crash because of the shock and horror of the event, especially in markets like New York that were likely targets of terrorist attacks. But the market recovered quickly, probably because the attacks came right in the middle of a growing bull market in housing, which continued unabated for another six or seven years."
Durkin says that after the attacks, the world fell in love with New York again.
"The market really took off much more than we expected," he says. "Collectively, deep down, we felt it was going to be a down market, and it was quite the opposite."
According to Freedman, a lot of development happened, especially in the Downtown market, which had a lot of underutilized buildings that were "ripe for demolition or development into new housing."
"New York is a great city and 9/11 showed the world the true grit of this city and its citizens. The pride we felt in coming back was felt throughout the landscape and people wanted to be part of it," says Freedman.
Haggerty experienced much of the same, proving wrong those who told him Manhattan would never recover.
"Lower Manhattan came back stronger than ever," he says. "If there is one word that will always describe New York, it's 'resiliency.'"
And "stronger than ever" didn't just have a figurative meaning. In the years to come, developers looked at buildings in a new way. For one, Ramirez says codes were reviewed to make certain that people would be safe in their homes and elevators. Aside from the broad heightened security, overall building design changed as well.
According to a commentary in The Conversation, written in 2016 by Shih-Ho Chao, associate professor of Structural Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Texas Arlington, the attacks on Sept. 11 led to a review of several building elements, as the construction industry borrowed designs that could withstand earthquakes to prevent the type of building collapse that we saw with the Twin Towers.
"Until those attacks, most buildings had been built with defenses against total collapse, but progressive collapse was poorly understood, and rarely seen. Since 2001, we now understand progressive collapse is a key threat," wrote Chao in the commentary. "And we've identified two major ways to reduce its likelihood of happening and its severity if it does: improving structural design to better resist explosions and strengthening construction materials themselves."
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the International Code Council (ICC)—the primary developer of construction industry building safety codes and standards used throughout the U.S.—made the following changes:
The Structural Engineering Institute, The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) also made post-9/11 building recommendations.
Then and Now: A Look at Shifting Trends
As lifestyles have changed, so too have housing trends in the past two decades. There are crisis-related correlations between the Sept. 11 attacks and the modern-day surge of COVID-19. Durkin points out that the safety and comfort of the family unit was paramount then, just as it is now.
"Buyers came back in full force needing three-, four-, five- and six-bedroom apartments," says Durkin of the 9/11 aftermath. "They realized they needed to have a place for their entire family, even purchasing multiple homes for fear of being caught short."
"Similar to COVID, it dictated what everyone needs to have in a home in order to protect and nurture the family, and offer the family unit a place of safety should something happen," adds Durkin.
That multi-generational housing trend has continued on during the pandemic, but there have been dramatic changes over the years in terms of style as well as demographics, with a younger population flocking to the city.
"The trends have been toward more modern, sleek, open design. The downtown market has attracted the younger New Yorkers with the more trendy restaurants, shops and clubs coming into this area," says Ramirez.
While the COVID pandemic has changed migration patterns, with homeowners prioritizing more privacy and space and leaving behind their urban landscapes, for many, New York City will always be home. Haggerty says that while headlines would have the world believe that large swaths of the population have vacated the city, that's not entirely true.
"Residential real estate in the city has bounced back very quickly," says Haggerty. "The recent census data indicates that the New York city population has surged to 8.8 million. New York is still the place to be."
"You would think that people wouldn't want to live as close to where it happened," says Durkin. "Quite contrarily, it became a sacred place. People came from all over the world."
The Waves of Crisis
History has shown that during moments of crisis and despair, the community comes together. Haggerty reminds us that there will always be challenges that must be confronted. And while we cannot predict what is to come, these real estate professionals have found that past experiences lend a hand in preparing for the future.
"One thing I have learned is that worrying will not keep anything from happening," says Ramirez. "So my philosophy is 'Live life fully, feel deeply and love completely' (and trust in God)."
Ongoing conflicts such as the United State's withdrawal from Afghanistan and a turbulent political climate, for many, may have reopened old wounds of concern and fear.
"When you look around the world at groups like Hamas, the Taliban and Boko Haram, they all have explicitly genocidal intentions and I think that should be worrying and concerning for everyone," says Freedman. "Human shields, suicide bombers…all of this is antithetical to humanity."
"The tragic evacuation from Afghanistan is too current to translate into any serious specific concerns surrounding terrorism," says Ramirez. "Sadly, as a native New Yorker, we all know our city is a target."
However, the industry reminds individuals that the events of Sept. 11 led to a tightening of security, and even 20 years later, preparedness is at the forefront.
"After 9/11, the U.S. seems to always be on high alert and exceptionally cautious in order to protect people," says Freedman. "Our guard will never go down as long as these terrorist groups exist."
And whatever next challenge the waves of crisis bring, the real estate industry is confident it can weather any storm.
"I remember the feeling in the air while walking the day after 9/11—people felt so destroyed. Within the week, it seemed like New Yorkers did what they always do: they got back to work, held it together and remained strong," says Freedman. "Crisis always offers an opportunity, and 9/11 forced us to be much more diligent."