Sal Becovic, RPBG Director

It’s pretty much impossible to have a conversation with Sal Becovic and not get caught up in his exuberance, enthusiasm and general zest for life. He is as passionate about his business as he is about his personal life, and he is happy to tell anyone who might be interested how he came to run one of the largest apartment portfolios in the RPBG network.

But Sal’s story is really the story of the immigrant experience. Sal is a first generation American whose parents arrived in this country with almost nothing yet, against all odds, were able to build an impressive real estate portfolio with not much more than their own resilience, determination and grit. These values were passed along to their four sons, all of whom have all gone on to have successful careers of their own. Sal – son number three – took over the Chicago portfolio his parents first put together and has since greatly expanded it. This says a lot about Sal’s own skills and abilities, but you won’t hear him take any of the credit. Instead, he says all credit goes to his parents and the invaluable lessons they taught him.

Sal’s story is really the story of the immigrant experience.

So it should come as no surprise that Sal likes to start his own story with theirs. At a young age, Sal’s father, Husein – an Albanian Muslim – decided his future was not in Yugoslavia, the country of his birth, but in America, the country of his dreams. Paris, France was actually the first step in his journey to America. Husein and his wife Ese spend five years in Paris in the mid-60s, working as a union painter and a cleaning lady. In 1968, they finally got the opportunity to come to the United States, leaving the City of Light for the City of Broad Shoulders, settling initially in Uptown.

For anyone old enough to remember, Chicago in 1968 was a very turbulent place, making the Becovic’s move all the more challenging. And Uptown was hardly anyone’s first-choice residential location. But when you are a new immigrant, with few resources and limited language skills, you take the opportunities you get and make of them what you can. This is a story that has been told over and over, in Chicago and across the country.

Husein and Ese may not have had a lot of money, nor much of a grasp of the English language, but they had a few things that allowed them to thrive in their adopted country. First, they had hard skills – painting and cleaning. Second, they were not afraid to work. And third, they were too grateful to have finally made it to this country to spend a lot of time complaining about the many challenges they faced.

When you are a new immigrant, with few resources and limited language skills, you take the opportunities you get and make of them what you can.

If there was one big plus to moving to Chicago in 1968, it was the booming economy. Husein and Ese quickly got jobs. Husein worked days as a union painter, and Ese worked nights as a cleaner, both in the city’s bustling downtown. To this day, Husein will remind Sal when they drive down Lake Shore Drive that one of his first jobs was as a painter at Lake Point Tower when the landmark structure was first being built.

After five years of steady work and some modest savings in the bank, Husein decided to take the plunge and figure out a way to work for himself. His answer? He bought a 17-unit building in Albany Park that had seen better days. He moved his family into the building and started improving it bit by bit.

Husein and Ese knew that they could not risk quitting both of their jobs. Ese continued to work as a cleaning lady, ensuring that the family would have a steady income and health insurance while Husein worked on improving the building.

“Lady, what are you doing living in this neighborhood? You should move out!”

Fortunately for Sal’s parents, the gamble paid off and the portfolio grew. By the late 70s, Husein and Ese had moved with their growing family into a larger apartment in another building they had purchased in the 6000-block of North Winthrop Avenue. Sal grew up in this apartment and remembers it fondly.

For Husein and Ese, however, the Edgewater neighborhood was still pretty rough. Owning and managing a building there was not for the faint of heart, especially when you also lived there with young kids. Sal tells the story of a night in the early 80s when a domestic dispute erupted in the building and shots were fired. Ese called the police and demanded they make an arrest. The police response was something along the lines of, “Lady, what are you doing living in this neighborhood? You should move out!” No arrests were made, and the police quickly retreated.

Sal describes his parents and his whole family as modest people who were, literally and figuratively, fully invested in their community. This is a philosophy that Sal has learned to his core, and still applies to his business and his life.

But “moving out” was not an option for a family that still struggled with the language, and with few viable work alternatives. Besides, they were part of the community now too, and were determined to make it a better place.

But for Sal, growing up in Edgewater was a great experience. He remembers being part of a vibrant community and playing with the other neighborhood kids who represented almost a United Nations of races, ethnic groups and traditions. And Sal always felt like just another kid on the block – no different than anyone else.

That tells you a lot about how Sal was raised. Sal describes his parents and his whole family as modest people who were, literally and figuratively, fully invested in their community. This is a philosophy that Sal has learned to his core, and still applies to his business and his life.

As he quickly found out, helping your dad and running the show are two very different things.

In 1999, Husein had a serious stroke that ended up confining him to a wheelchair and made it impossible for him to do the day-to-day work of managing his properties. Fortunately, it did not diminish his mental capacities, and both Husein and Ese Becovic are alive and well today.

The entire family pulled together and got through this difficult time, and the family business survived and thrived. In 2003, Sal took full control of the Chicago operations of the family business, having graduated from Northern Illinois University.

As he quickly found out, helping your dad and running the show are two very different things. Sal said he spent much of the next decade focused on learning every aspect of the business and getting completely comfortable managing the portfolio his dad had amassed.

But, with the experience he gained, and with the buying opportunities that followed the Great Recession, Sal began acquiring new properties in 2013. Once again, the portfolio began to grow, and Rogers Park played a big role in this expansion. Since 2013, Sal has more than quadrupled the portfolio unit-count, and he’s not done yet.

Sal first came to RPBG after meeting Jay Johnson and Tom Heineman. He has great admiration for both men. He credits Jay for being an inspiration in his professional life after seeing the improvements that Jay has brought to the “north of Howard” area of Rogers Park, despite the many challenges and setbacks he faced along the way. And he admires Tom for his devotion to his Eastlake neighborhood and the investment he has made in his building and his community.

Sal says the pandemic’s silver-lining is the new sense of purpose and energy it has given him, and the new appreciation he has for the critical role he plays as housing provider.

Of course, Sal couldn’t pass up the opportunity to credit our amazing President, Mike Glasser, for being the ultimate networker and tireless leader of our group. It is fair to say that Sal has really embraced the entire RPBG organization and all the great people who make it what it is. Sal says that RPBG provides a wealth of information and is a prime example of how a group of committed individuals can do well by doing good. He points to the many property owners in the group who have dedicated themselves to the improvement of Rogers Park. He believes he is now following in their footsteps.

When not running his portfolio of real estate properties across the North Side, Sal is a devoted husband and father to his young son. Sal also tells me he almost got into broadcast journalism before moving definitively to the family real estate business. He will probably regret giving me this information since he has to know I’m going to hit him up for Newsletter contributions down the road!

Finally, Sal believes that the coronavirus emergency has actually helped him understand better how important his work is, and how important strong and vital neighborhoods are to the city and its people. Sal says the pandemic’s silver-lining is the new sense of purpose and energy it has given him, and the new appreciation he has for the critical role he plays as housing provider to literally thousands of individuals in hundreds of apartments all across the North Side.

I think I speak for everyone at RPBG when I say, we are lucky to have someone of Sal’s abilities and community dedication as part of our group. I, for one, always come away from any interaction with Sal feeling just a little bit better about our community, our world and our future.