Helping people find affordable housing

March 2007

Integrating career success with altruism is a dream for most people, but attorney Steven Weiss ’87, MBA ’88, JD ’91, gets to practice the dream every day.

A founding partner of Cannon Heyman & Weiss, LLP, Weiss and his partners have built an extremely successful law practice representing clients who provide affordable housing for people who might not otherwise have the means to be homeowners. To do this, the firm focuses on facilitating real-estate “syndications,” business deals in which investors get tax credits for financially backing developers of property for affordable housing.

Around 70 percent of the firm’s business is representing developers; 30 percent is representing investors (syndicators). “It’s an extraordinary opportunity–creating opportunities for people to have places to live,” says Weiss. “Very few law practices can give you this feeling of contribution.”

Weiss first learned about real-estate syndication while practicing at a Buffalo law firm that handled similar kinds of syndications for the oil and gas industry. “I’ve really been doing this kind of work since graduation,” he says. After working on real-estate syndications for a number of years, he and some friendly competitors in Albany decided to form their own practice focusing on the specialty.

Thus, Cannon Heyman & Weiss, LLP, came into being in 2001. Since its inception, the number of employees has grown from seven to 24. Weiss says his firm’s success is a function of “business acumen as much as legal ability.” To that point, he credits his UB law and business degrees, as well as professional mentors, with teaching him how to understand the business of practicing law.

Business acumen notwithstanding, Weiss’s legal abilities have offered hope to people whom society often can overlook. Weiss mentions a project on which he worked that provided housing for homeless veterans. The deal supported the renovation into apartments of an existing, unused building in a Veterans Administration campus. According to Weiss, the project was a perfect solution for a group of working poor who were trying to make their own way in life, offering tenants easy access to a nearby VA hospital and rehab, vocational and social services.

“These are people society tends not to value,” he says. “But they need places to live, opportunities to work. I think about a guy I got to meet, a double amputee who had a great perspective on life, and I think about the definition of ‘quality of life’ and what this project could give him: dignity, hope, and a chance to learn a new vocation.”

Weiss’s practice involves federal law, so he is able to participate in projects across the country. That gives him a great means to find out how things are done elsewhere and bring new thinking back to Western New York. A high-profile project recently completed in Buffalo came about in just such a way: Weiss had worked on a project downstate that involved tax credits for an economic development project. Later, a lawyer who was trying to save Buffalo’s historic Asbury Methodist Church approached Weiss, who helped structure a similar project to syndicate tax credits for the church’s restoration by recording artist Ani DiFranco.

Likewise, Weiss represents on a national basis a group–Artspace Projects–that creates, fosters and preserves affordable space for artists and arts organizations across the country. When representatives from Buffalo approached Artspace to consider a project, Weiss encouraged the venture. “We helped structure a deal that makes sense for the city and for Artspace,” says Weiss. “That kind of experience is really enjoyable.”

Weiss’s expertise has lately taken him into the political arena, even though, he insists, “I’m not really very political.” During New York’s 2006 gubernatorial race, Weiss offered his knowledge to candidate Eliot Spitzer. The campaign enlisted the help of Weiss and his partners on a speech dealing with issues relevant to affordable housing. During those efforts, Weiss says, “I developed some good relationships with very bright people” associated with the campaign.

After Spitzer’s victory, the governor-elect’s transition team asked Weiss if he would join two committees, one that would help develop the state’s policy agenda for housing and the other to serve on the housing interview panel. The policy committee ultimately established guiding principles and short- and long-term goals, and identified opportunities on which the new administration could focus attention. Weiss met with Governor Spitzer and New York State Senate Leader David Paterson along with the others on the policy committee to present the committees’ recommendations. During his presentations, Weiss managed to realize a WNY agenda of his own: “I spoke on behalf of Upstate and Western New York,” he notes. “We finance deals differently here, and I think Western New York will be able to benefit from unique financing.”

Written by Grace Lazzara