For Sean Burton ’97, building housing and helping to govern Washington, DC’s airports means a balanced life

You might say that Sean Burton ’97 has an interest in getting things off the ground, whether they’re companies, real estate development projects, or airplanes. He’s a cofounder and the CEO of Cityview, a Los Angeles-based real estate and investment firm focused on developing housing in cities. He also spent eight years on the Board of Airport Commissioners in Los Angeles and served as its president. Nominated by President Joe Biden to the board of directors for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Burton has been in that role since being confirmed by the US Senate in 2022.

Sean Burton
Sean Burton '97

Burton says that balancing his work in the private sector with a commitment to public service has always been a priority. “My time at NYU Law helped me realize that no matter where I’m working, I need to be involved in my community,” he says, “I think for the rest of my life, I plan to be engaged in public service in some sort of capacity.”

In this Q&A, Burton talks about the path that took him to NYU Law and the lessons he’s learned as CEO through the ups and downs of the real estate market.

How did you first become interested in the law? Were there any experiences at the Law School you found particularly impactful?

I studied economics and policy when I was in college [at the University of California, Irvine], and while still there, I ended up working [on Bill] Clinton[’s presidential] campaign. Before I’d graduated, I was offered a job to work with Hillary Clinton on her healthcare task force—I actually had to [mail] in my final papers to graduate because I had already headed to Washington.

I got to work on really compelling things with a lot of interesting people. And the people that I was most impressed with were lawyers. They were analytical. They were hard-working. I thought, “What a great training ground [law school] would be for whatever I decide to do—whether that’s to be a lawyer or in business or politics or policymaking.”

At the Law School, I had [Professor of Law Emerita] Helen Scott for Corporations, and she became a mentor of mine and has been so wonderfully supportive. My third year, I did an externship with the Manhattan prosecutor’s office and that was really terrific practical, in-the-trenches experience.

But the most impactful thing about my time at NYU Law was that I met my wife! We were actually assigned to argue against each other in our 1L Lawyering course. She was a Root Tilden scholar, and I think the fact that we were both educated [at NYU Law], developed our sense of the importance of public service—we have to take the skills that we have, and the relationships we have, and use them to do some public good.

How did you come to help found Cityview? How has it changed in 20 years?

When Cityview was being formed, the thesis was that there was going to be this movement of a new generation—which turned out to be the largest generation—of Americans who wanted to move to urban areas and cities to live near their jobs and culture and restaurants. We decided to create a company that would make those kinds of investments in cities and help create the housing desperately needed in those areas.

When we started, we had small allocation from a pension system—enough to do two or three real estate deals. Now we’ve done about 140 deals. We started out just in Southern California, now we’re all over the western half of the country. We went from four employees to now about 150, including our affiliate property management company. It’s been really fun to build a team and a culture of people, while striving to do a great job for our investors.

My favorite part is going to see the housing in development. You take a dilapidated office building or a retail center that isn’t in its best years, and you create 300 or 400 units of housing that helps to benefit the whole community. And so, you see this positive impact on the community, the people who live in your buildings and your investors, many of whom are pensioners, like teachers and firefighters. And that’s really, really satisfying.

What lessons have you learned as CEO?

When we started out, I was the chief operating officer. In 2008, when the financial crisis hit, our CEO quit and I took the job. It was a little like being named captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. But I learned a lot of important lessons about how to work in hard markets. In fact, I think your best growth happens in crisis.

First, you have to really stay positive and keep the team motivated. It’s very easy to get depressed based on all the challenges that you have with lenders and project delays. One way I try to do this is just by being present and available. I try to be there for the day-to-day.

Another important lesson is communication. You can’t communicate enough in times of turbulence. We have a philosophy at Cityview that we want any bad news to travel fast. We build trust with our investors when we share what is happening and we allow more people to be involved in a solution if we don’t try to hide a problem.

Tell me about your public service work. Why has it been important to give back?

The balance is important to me. I feel strongly that Cityview does good work for people. But it’s also important to work within existing structures, guiding [organizations] through, sometimes, board membership. As president of the Board of Airport Commissioners in LA, I’m proud to have worked to help bring public transportation to LAX, which will make it easier for people who live in Los Angeles, and for tourists to visit. It should be fully operational next year.

Working now on the federal level is really interesting because I’ve been engaging a lot more with Congress. It’s given me a window into national airport and transportation policy, which I find fascinating. Politics and policy stay interesting to me. And It’s been amazing and gratifying to hear senators talk about some of the work we did in LA as they are contemplating their policy choices.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Posted February 21, 2024.