Business: Big Man at Campus

As the CEO of Campus Apartments, David Adelman helped transform West Philly. Now he’s helping college kids all across the country live the luxe life. Tanning bed, anyone?

IT’S A PLEASANT afternoon for a stroll through West Philly. Not 10 feet from the Campus Apartments office, Adelman begins, “See those buildings?” He points to a nearby Sansom Street strip of almost two dozen houses. All have the company’s signature facade — a coat of beige paint and a front door “Campus Apartments” plaque — except for two units covered in chipped maroon paint. “Those two buildings aren’t ours,” says Adelman, frowning. “We offered to paint them for free, just to clean them up, to make the street look nicer, but the landlords said no.”

We turn left. Adelman walks quickly, the tail of his dark overcoat not quite catching up with his calves. He’s a stocky five-foot-10, but moves with fluidity; a yoga instructor visits his Haverford house twice a week to work on his “flexibility.” On one hand, his dark hair proves a complimentary juxtaposition to his blue eyes. On the other hand, that same thick hair is moussed back into the beginning stages of a mullet.

He talks quickly, pointing out each of his units as we walk by, like a proud dad. I can’t keep up. “Which one’s your favorite?” I ask. “That’s like asking me about my favorite kid,” replies Adelman, who’s got housing of every kind: mid-rise buildings, brownstones, townhouses, garden-style apartments. We duck into his new and swanky 4200 Pine condos, built with Penn’s faculty and graduate students in mind, where the only remaining vacancy is a $745,000 unit. Adelman simultaneously inspects, guides and micromanages. “Why aren’t the smoke detector covers up yet?” he demands of Nick Zaferes, the V.P. of development and construction. He surveys another room. “Where’s that piece of trim?”

When it’s time to go, Adelman’s driver — “Uncle Frank” to Adelman’s two young daughters — picks us up in a Suburban, offering Fiji water bottles and some Trident gum, which Frank buys in bulk at BJ’s. There are at least a dozen packs sitting in the backseat console, in four different flavors; Adelman is addicted to hydrating and, apparently, fresh breath. As Uncle Frank circumnavigates the campus, Adelman continues to show me his properties. It would be easier for him to point out what he doesn’t own.

We get dropped off at the Campus Apartments accounting office, just across the street from his digs next to the frat boys. “You should have seen this building before we moved in. There were chalk outlines on the floor,” he says wryly, holding the door open for me. “All these things started happening, a momentum built, and people started caring. It was great, because we weren’t the only ones pulling the oar.”

ADELMAN MAJORED IN finance and political science at Ohio State, but he knew a thing or two about real estate. Growing up on the Main Line, he spent his summers, not at the sleep-away camps his friends went to, but working alongside longtime family friend Alan Horwitz, founder and chairman of Campus Apartments. Horwitz bought properties from families in West Philly, fixed them up, and rented them out to area students. “During those days, properties were available all over the place,” says Horwitz. “There was no competition — people didn’t want to deal with student housing.”

Adelman — who says he’s as close to 64-year-old Horwitz as to his own father — soon parlayed sweeping sawdust into learning about leases and renovating old buildings. A quick study, he invested his $2,000 bar mitzvah money in one of Horwitz’s properties at 45th and Pine. Eventually, Adelman knew enough about proper housing that in his senior year at OSU, when a slumlord ignored his request to add electrical outlets to his off-campus house, he marched to Columbus’s building codes office and returned with warnings of violation papers. (He got the outlets.) This passion for properties — and an anal retentiveness for accountability — explains why Adelman deferred Temple Law School and instead opted for the Campus Apartments offices at 41st and Walnut on his first day in the Real World.