OG Gold Mine Series: Who is Sam LeFrak?

Few men are wildly successful at creating affordable housing. But Sam LeFrak is a legend, celebrated as a master of mass housing that changed NYC and the surrounding area for the better. He could look at an unassuming plot of land and see an entire ecosystem that would support families, and he had the tenacity and patience to see his dreams through.

How exactly did he do it? 

Razor-Sharp Focus On Decent & Affordable Housing

“I like to serve the mass, not the class.” - LeFrak

Carrying buckets of water and nails for workers at construction sites at the age of eight, Sam LeFrak was born into a family of developers. His great grandfather was a developer in France, and after his son and children moved to the USA they also entered the real estate business. LeFrak built his first 16-story building as a college student, and after World War II went on to take over The LeFrak Organization family business and build out their trademark two-bed, two-bath spacious apartments. He believed that housing should always be safe and close to subways, schools, and shopping for accessibility and opportunity. With men returning to the US after years abroad in war, LeFrak was catering to the needs of most families in the country.

He could look at what others would call a wasteland and envision the entire engineering of a city within a city. His secret to keeping down costs was taking advantage of any reasonably priced land he could find close to subways, schools, and shopping. He utilized quick production methods and mass supplies purchases, and kept almost everything in-house -  from engineering to financing. 

His other secret was being incredibly convicted of his mission. To those who didn’t like the look of his structures, he retorted, “I’m not building the Taj Mahal. I’m building middle-class housing for people to live in.” 

And build he did. His over 90,000 apartments in and around NYC and New Jersey are a testament to the innovative vision and follow through that coursed through his veins. But LeFrak didn’t just build; he envisioned and created a sustainable ecosystem that provided for his building needs in a dynamic way. 

“We do everything in-house: engineering, architecture, insurance, financing. We make our own cement; we have our own sandpits and gravel pits. We even own a forest. I had the biggest brick plant in the East here, until the day I could buy brick cheaper and truck it in. Then I closed the brick plant, but I'll reopen it if prices get too high,” LeFrak once commented.

The City within a City on a Baron’s Estate

“Sam was a brilliant builder and creator…” - Donald Trump

The origins of creating his legendary LeFrak City, was noticing the potential of a historical piece of central Queens swamp land, a former country estate belonging to the real estate barons Jacob Astor and William Waldorf Astor, who had purchased it from the eighth president of the United States - Martin Van Buren. Land ownership of this incredibly notable, elite property would be a remarkable attainment for this first generation American developer. It was perfectly situated just 30 minutes from Manhattan, at a time when more and more city workers were heading to Long Island during the expansion of the Long Island Expressway to achieve affordable housing despite the long commute into the city. LeFrak petitioned zoning to allow for his construction of a mixed-use apartment complex complete with offices and stores, and negotiated the land purchase with the English heirs. After patiently waiting out the five years it took for approval, he put his education in engineering to good use, and began his dream project.

LeFrak City is known to this day as a suburban lifestyle oasis in central Queens that offers affordable housing to middle-class families. From within its own superblock, residents can use its swimming pool, playgrounds, and basketball courts as well as post office, food store, outdoor movies, library, tennis courts, and churches. This housing complex doesn’t just offer your traditional residential community amenities! It’s truly its own world (with each section named after a continent and buildings within sections named after cities or countries respective to it).

Using Gains for Research

Sam LeFrak was also known for his dynamic philanthropy. He developed numerous endowments such as classrooms, concert halls, gymnasiums, and a terrace and art gallery at the Guggenheim Museum, and was recognized for his long-term support of the United Nations. His hobbies included oil and gas exploration (Lefrak Oil and Gas Organization), art collecting, the entertainment industry (the Lefrak Entertainment Company) and underwater archaeology, leading him to fund the search for Noah’s Ark (blocked by the Turkish government) and the successful search for the Titanic. 

LeFrak died at age 85 in 2003 and will forever remain a legend of affordable housing.