With a stuffed plastic garbage bag slung over his shoulder, the curly-haired Santa Claus delivered presents a day ahead of schedule at various Siegel Suites apartment complexes in the Las Vegas Valley on Monday.
Accompanied by three “elves,” Santa accepted hugs and high-fives as he made his rounds, handing out gifts to kids living in the extended-stay facilities in response to letters they had written weeks earlier addressed to the jolly fellow at the North Pole.
The man behind the red suit and beard was Mark Lenoir, a 50-year-old, 6-foot-5-inch former professional basketball player who is now a goodwill ambassador for Siegel Cares, a growing charitable initiative of the company that runs the 28 Siegel Suites locations in the valley and 25 others nationwide.
In one exchange overflowing with Christmas spirit, Lenoir surprised Bobby Little and his 8-year-old daughter, Tiffanie, with an unexpected blessing.
Just weeks earlier, the single dad and his daughter were living in his car on the streets of Las Vegas before being offered shelter at the Siegel Suites Cambridge complex.
So grateful was Tiffanie to have a roof over her head that she didn’t ask for anything in her letter to Santa.
“That was the Best gift anyone can do for us,” she wrote. “Thanks Siegel suites Cambridge for putting a smile back on my face.”
But when Santa showed up, he had a bicycle, a helmet and a complete Christmas dinner for the Littles, who are now caught up on rent at the complex after working with management there to get back on their feet.
“She said it was the best day of her life,” Lenoir said. “All she wanted was a home.”
Siegel Suites largely caters to poor and transient residents. Police, social workers and other authorities are regular visitors at many of the complexes, dealing with the anxieties and emotional overflows that beset those who are often just one step away from living on the streets.
But CEO Stephen Siegel, 47, who started his business in Los Angeles and bought his first Las Vegas property in 2004 after moving to Nevada, rejects any notion that he is some sort of modern slumlord. He says he built the business by giving people “a new start, second chance.”
“Our customer is America,” he said in a recent interview in the Siegel Group’s headquarters on Paradise Road. “Everywhere we’re full, and there’s a demand for our product. We are true affordable housing.”
The numbers appear to bear that out. Furnished units, with utilities and cable TV included, rent for as little as $169 a week. The minimum stay is 30 days. The apartments also don’t check credit or charge first and last month’s rent upfront, making them a desirable refuge for those struggling to get a leg up.
They also testify to the profitability of providing such low-end housing options.
In addition to the Siegel Suites complexes, parent company The Siegel Group lists more than 50 other retail, office and industrial properties, undeveloped land and hotels among its holdings. According to its website, the company has “acquired, repositioned, developed and managed hundreds of real estate assets … with a market value exceeding $2 billion.”
Vivek Sah, director of UNLV’s Lied Institute for Real Estate Studies, said Siegel Suites occupy a unique niche in the housing chain by providing a “realistic option” for people with temporary jobs or poor credit.
“They’re kind of like in between hotels and apartments, except hotels may not have that ‘home feel,’” Sah said. “These niche products provide value for people either new to town or people who are between positions.”
Not a charity by IRS standards
Siegel Cares, the charitable wing, which started out as an ad hoc effort to help residents who were struggling, has in the last year morphed into a more formal arrangement, with two full-time employees, including Lenoir.
It’s not your typical corporate-run charity. For starters, it’s a business division of the Siegel Group, the holding company for Siegel’s real estate empire.
Michael Crandall, senior vice president of the Siegel Group, said the charitable arm has operated for years before becoming a formal unit last year.
“We started and grew Siegel Cares very organically,” Crandall said. “We have always loved to help people in the community and give back. We’ve been doing it since before Siegel Cares was even a thing. … We never really think about the tax write-off or the business structure of it.”
Siegel said he became interested in giving back to the community at age 14 when he was in Los Angeles, after getting in trouble for fighting. He chose to feed the homeless for community service.
When he saw the large numbers of people lining up for soup kitchen meals, he said, he knew he wanted to make helping the less privileged a part of his life.
“We created Siegel Cares to just have a brand that’s out there for what we do,” he said. “To me, it’s always about going directly to the person and not going to an organization.”
Siegel Cares spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, Crandall said.
Much of that involves giving to tenants at Siegel properties.
For example, Lenoir has been handing out bagels to families at the Siegel Suites Twain II complex in central Las Vegas since Thanksgiving. The bagels are leftovers from Bagelmania at Twain Avenue and Swenson Street, a bakery and deli that the Siegel Group acquired last year.
Then, there are the Christmas gifts.
Lenoir handed out gifts at eight Siegel Suites locations Monday, surprising more than 30 children who were drawn from those who submitted Santa letters. He also surprised several families with groceries and a month’s rent.
The rent takes up all their money. We try to work with them the best way we can; we don’t want to put kids out on the streets.
Eugenia Hunter, assistant general manager at Siegel Suites Twain II
Working with other groups
Siegel Cares partners with other organizations on philanthropic ventures.
Recent cooperative efforts include health fairs and barbecues for homeless young people, hygiene kits and toys for the homeless, donations to organizations for veterans, help with making custom shoes for disabled seniors, shopping for toys and packaging more than 800 turkeys and other meals to distribute to those in need.
Terry Lindemann, executive director of Family Promise, said her nonprofit sometimes places families at Siegel Suites if the group’s shelter is at its capacity of 20.
“It’s not our preferred choice, but in our community right now, our shelters are full. There’s not much affordable housing,” she said. “To get someone off the street, sometimes it needs to be in an extended stay.”
The company also often works with tenants who get behind financially to help them avoid eviction.
“The rent takes up all their money,” said Eugenia Hunter, the assistant general manager at Siegel Suites Twain II. “We try to work with them the best way we can; we don’t want to put kids out on the streets.”
Hunter, who started at the company as a housekeeper and worked her way up to management, illustrates another unusual aspect of the Siegel Group: its hiring and promotion practices.
Tammy Kimball, general manager at a Siegel property in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was hired out of the Hope for Prisoners program, which gives inmates a second chance at life when they get out of prison.
The hiring of Lenoir is another example.
Siegel met Lenoir in 2008 at the Western Hotel, where the former University of Utah basketball player worked security. Lenoir, who also played professionally in Europe, said he initially thought Siegel looked suspicious and was keeping an eye on him before the two struck up a conversation.
Before the night was over, Siegel had offered him a job as head of security at Gold Spike, a casino he had recently acquired.
‘A divine moment’
Lenoir later left to work security at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas but last year was asked to be involved in Siegel Cares.
“That was a divine moment,” Lenoir said. “To be able to sponsor and work with families, I get emotional. But there is no better feeling.”
During one of his recent bagel-distribution rounds at Twain II, Lenoir strolled past glittery Christmas stockings hanging from one unit door and knocked.
“Do you like bagels?” he asked the woman who opened the door, 31-year-old Michelle McCaigue. “We appreciate you guys, and we want to make sure you have happy holidays.”
In the courtyard, her children played with toy dinosaurs. Lenoir handed them all multicolored backpacks.
She and her three kids had faced homelessness before, she said, and Siegel Suites has been forgiving when the rent is late.
“They handle with care the fragile,” she said. “I can still maintain a stable home for our kids, and that’s the ticket.”
Asked what her little ones wanted for Christmas, McCaigue said they, too, were thinking about the family rather than themselves.
“Shawn was going to ask for mommy to get a job,” she said.