For a long time, LGBTQ couples looking to buy a home or rent together often found it to be an anxiety inducing experience. Heck, I remember when asking for a hotel room with just one bed was met with raised eyebrows. Here in Philadelphia, the John C. Anderson LGBT-Friendly senior apartments were brought into being because seniors were having difficulties finding homes that would allow them to live openly and honestly. Times have changed, but many of us still feel more comfortable dealing with companies that have ties to the community and with people that we won’t have to explain things to. Enter The Avenue Team, a real estate team (brokered by Copper Hill Real Estate) recently co-founded by Jeff Shablin (who you may know from Optimal Sport Health Club) and this week’s Portrait, Brian Figgs.
I understand that you’re from the Greater Philadelphia Area.
Yes, Phoenixville. It’s about 45 minutes out of the city.
And I happen to know that it’s famous for “The Blob” because the iconic scene where everyone is running out of the movie theater was filmed at The Colonial Theatre on Bridge Street. They have the annual “Blobfest” coming up in July.
[Laughing] Yeah, that’s true, Phoenixville has come a long way since I was growing up there.
I used to work with someone who had a murder mystery company right below the Colonial Theatre which is how I knew about the Blob. That and I worked with someone at channel 57 who actually owned goo that made up “The Blob.”
That’s cool. Yeah, I don’t know if you’ve been there lately but downtown is really booming now. Phoenixville has really changed, you should check it out.
I will. So tell me a little something about the family, big family? Small?
Small; I have two sisters, both older than me.
So you’re the baby of the bunch.
Yes, and I admit I was spoiled as the baby. But we were all pretty close growing up, still are. My oldest sister lives in North Carolina and has two girls, and my other sister, the middle sister, lives in Phoenixville still. She has two boys.
So you’re an uncle times four!
Yup, and they each have a dog.
So what was life like growing up in Phoenixville?
It was good, though things downtown were not very lively back then and the main drag was not very nice. We actually lived in Kimberton which is a small little town just outside of Phoenixville, but we had a Phoenixville mailing address. Kimberton was more country-esque.
What did the folks do?
My dad owned an auto shop in Collegeville. My mom didn’t start working until I was in about middle school, when she began working at the elementary school as a teacher’s aide.
I interviewed Cody Daigle-Orians last week and both his father and grandfather were mechanics but he didn’t know a thing about cars. How about you, would you be able to change a tire?
No, [laughing] not at all!
How would your mother have described you as a kid? Sporty? Nerdy?
Her favorite! No, just kidding, kind of… My sisters would say I was the favorite! I was pretty outgoing.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an architect. I started school as an architect but then I changed majors to study industrial design, so I still have a design background, and then I got my MBA in Business Administration.
What school did you go to?
At the time it was Philadelphia University but now it’s called Thomas Jefferson University. When I started it was Philadelphia Textiles, and about a year in they changed the name to just Philadelphia University, and recently they changed it again.
What were some of the extracurricular things you liked to do?
I don’t know, [laughing] it’s hard to think back that far! I was on the track team in high school.
Well, that’s a sporty moment!
Eh, it was just something to do. Mostly I liked just hanging out with my friends.
What was your first job after college?
I was a project manager for a retail display company. That was my first real job. I started it about 6 months after I graduated because I wanted to take the summer off. I did a cross country road trip with my friends.
Wow, from here to California and back?
Yup, well, actually from here to California and then on the way back we were in Denver when I got a call that my grandma was passing away so I took a flight straight home.
What was a highlight of the trip?
The whole experience was amazing, you know, seeing how the middle of the country lives versus the way we lived.
I did a gig in Saugatuck, Michigan, and who knew, it turned out to be the most amazing town. I was blown away by what a cool, progressive city it was. What was a place that you were pleasantly surprised by?
New Orleans. It was my first time going there and I didn’t know what to expect, but I loved it. I’ve been back several times since then for both work and fun. Sorry, I think I side tracked you. You had asked me about my first job. It was the worst! I started in March after I had graduated college and come back from the trip, and I only lasted 8 months. I hated it! I hated the man that I worked for. He was horrible; at one point he asked me to clean his shoes because he had stepped in gum. Oh, he was nasty. Fortunately, I got another job right away at a company called Sparks in the Northeast doing the same thing, project manager for a retail display company. I was there for 10 years. And then I went to a company in NJ.
So what did your job entail?
I’ll give you some for instances: so one of my clients was Steve Madden, you know, Steve Madden shoes, and if you go into one of his stores and see all the tables and shelves displaying his shoes, those are the displays that I was responsible for getting made and sent to the stores.
Nice. So before we get into what you’re doing now, let’s jump into your coming out story.
I was the kid that… I guess most people just assumed I was so I’d get called out on it, and yet when I actually did come out there were people who were like, “What? I would have never thought…” I made some gay friends who I kept separate, so I led a bit of a double life, and then I was like, “I’m over this” and I told a mutual friend named Liz. I knew she had a lot of gay friends, so I felt safe. She was the first person out of my gay circle that I told. That helped me a lot, mentally, to get over that hurdle. After that I started telling other people, my best friend from high school, then she helped me tell a bunch more of our friends. I eventually told my sisters and then my parents. The way I told them was I wrote them a letter and had them sit in the room with me while they read it.
That sounds like a scene from a movie! I picture their faces as they’re reading the letter and you waiting for a response.
It does, and my sisters were in the room too!
Even more theatrical! I can imagine your parents being like, okay, why is everyone sitting down and what is this manifesto that we’re reading? Are we being served court papers?
I know! But it helped me get through it, by writing it down. And they handled it very well. They told me they loved me and supported me and all that, but then it was a little weird because they then didn’t talk about it for the next year. Like, at all. And I was dating someone, so it was awkward, I finally said, “Why are we not talking about this? Have you told any of your friends? Have you told anyone else in the family?” Not long after that, they started telling people and it soon became a non-issue. There have only been one or two people that I suspect might not be thrilled, but no one’s ever said anything, everyone has been supportive.
How did you meet Jeff?
Through my friend Liz who I mentioned. My parents had a house at the shore, so I grew up going to Ocean City every summer. They still have it and now I have my own, but anyway, I worked down there in the summer, basically since I was about 14 and all through college. I did everything from working as a dishwasher at Uncle Bill’s, which is a famous pancake house down there, then I worked in a parking lot, then I was a lifeguard, and then I started working at restaurants as a waiter and that’s where I met Liz. We were 15 when we first met, and years later she introduced me to Jeff and his partner Yul. I’ve known them for about 15 years now.
How did you transition from store displays to displaying homes?
Well, you know I started as an architect major and I’ve always loved design. If I go into a house with a client, I can see a vision of what it could be. A lot of times I’ll go home and draw up the plans for them. Around 2016, another friend that I also grew up with from down the shore — he owns the brokerage company that we work for — I had a meeting with him and told him about my interest in real estate. He told me what I needed to do and walked me through it so that I was able to get my license.
At first I tried to do it part-time, but you can’t be successful that way. So when Covid hit and I got laid off, I went all in, full time doing real estate. Because we were in the throes of covid, I had to figure out how to get my name out there and start marketing. I started doing weekly walks that I posted on Instagram using a name a friend suggested, New Digs Figgs which I used as my real estate name. I called it “Weekly Walks with New Digs Figgs” and I got a crazy amount of attention from that. And from there, whenever people saw me, they’d start talking about real estate. It’s been great, we’ve been able to build clients just from word of mouth. I’ve always had a passion for real estate and home design, and now I get to do what I love.
Yeah, and it all started when I was in Miami with Jeff and Yul and my partner Mike. We were on the beach and Jeff asked if I wanted to form a team! And that’s how The Avenue Team got started. Now we have two other team members, Nick Selvaggi and Adam Valone. It’s amazing how quickly we’ve grown, our sales last year were 14 million and we’re already at 12 mil this year!
And you have an all gay crew.
Yes, we do! I like the fact that we’re a place where LGBTQ+ couples looking to get a place can feel comfortable being themselves.
Especially these days where we seem to be going backwards towards discrimination becoming mainstream once again. What’s the best thing about being on the team?
Being able to take vacations! I joke, but in truth, it’s kind of true because real estate can be a 24/7 thing where you just can’t get away. So having someone else who can show a house for you or help a client is a big deal.
I don’t know a lot about real estate other than what I’ve learned from Phil on Modern Family. Do you bring your designer eye to help with staging and that sort of thing?
[Laughs] Oh my God, Phil Dunphy, that’s funny. And yes, I do, I just did a vision board for one client who asked me for my opinion. Now they want me to choose everything for them down to the paint colors!
What other things do you do that are above and beyond?
One thing we pride ourselves on is that if a client calls us, we respond right away. There are a lot of realtors who don’t do that. We stress customer service at all times.
That’s great. Okay, let’s try some rapid fire questions. First pet?
My first pet was a turtle named Buzz. Every Christmas and every birthday I asked for a dog, but we couldn’t get one because my mother was allergic. My sister had a turtle too. I finally got a dog during Covid, her name is Billie.
As in Billie Jean King?
Nope, Billie Holiday. She’s Billie Holidog.
What is your favorite winter activity?
Staying inside by the fire. Or I like Skiing every once in a while. I hate the cold though. I am a summer (beach) boy.
Window or Aisle?
Window. I love to sleep on a plane. I don’t know what it is about a plane that gets to me, but I’ll fall asleep before the plane leaves the runway.
What was the color of the last room you painted?
It’s the room I’m in now: peacock blue.
Tell me something fun about your partner Mike.
He is a graphic designer and very talented, and a fun fact is that he came up with our Avenue Team logo, which we love.
What is the scariest thing you’ve ever done for fun?
Scuba Dived in the Great Barrier Reef.
Favorite game to play as a child?
Kick ball. Everyone on our block always played kick ball in the cul de sac.
If you were to be on a reality TV show which one would you be on and why?
[Laughing] Duh.. Million Dollar Listing Philly. Because the Avenue Team is making moves!