Q & A with Jack Linefsky: A Presidency Like No Other in the History of NJAA

When the NJAA gathered together in January 2020 for its annual membership meeting, there was no possible way we could have imagined what the year would bring. Our NJAA family has been stretched to the limits as we responded to the now nearly year-long COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily for us here at NJAA, Value Companies’ Jack Linefsky took the helm as president at that annual meeting and has guided the organization through tough decisions, major changes and even unexpected benefits. We sat down (virtually) with Jack to get his insights on what the first year of his presidency was like and what he’s looking forward to in 2021.

Jack, clearly your first year as president of the NJAA was unprecedented due to COVID-19. In looking back over the last year, provide me with an overview of some of the tough decisions that NJAA had to make in the early days of the pandemic. What were you most concerned about as Association president?

Everything related to the pandemic was tough, especially in the beginning. We were constantly making decisions based on information that was changing every day, sometimes even every hour. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was most concerned about cancelling our Conference & Expo. We had no idea how long the stay-at-home order would be in place or what our future would hold. Our convention is one of our pinnacle events, it’s been happening for 30 years now, and to make the decision to cancel was truly heart wrenching. But we made the right call. By cancelling when we did, we saved the Association a considerable amount of money in deposits and fees. And as we later learned, the Atlantic City Convention Center was converted into a field hospital by May so cancelling the 2020 Conference & Expo proved to be one of the best decisions we made for the future of NJAA.

Throughout the pandemic, NJAA worked hard to support members with guidance documents that detailed strategies for ensuring resident and staff safety; details on local, state and federal assistance programs; and explainers on what new COVID regulations meant for members. These documents are all available on our website for download/print/publication. What has been some of the feedback you’ve received on the resources we provided?

It’s been an invaluable resource. When I spoke at my inauguration speech at the Annual Meeting, I referenced the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Throughout the movie, we watch as George Bailey sees what would have happened in his town if it hadn’t been for all his good deeds throughout the years. And I liken this story to the Association.

What would happen if NJAA wasn’t here to stand alongside our members to fight the most challenging year of our lives.

Gubernatorial Executive Orders have been, and continue to be, issued and amended all the time. State agencies are publishing regulations around how to handle work and residential spaces alike. But with so much information getting thrown at us regarding the pandemic, it often was (and continues to be) hard for business owners and property managers to ensure they had all the up-to­ date information they need and that they were interpreting the information correctly. Thanks to the Association’s hard-working staff, NJAA had a direct line to the decision makers creating these rules and regulations and ensured we not only had the best available information, but they put it in one place so that our members can do what they do best – ensure that those who live in our apartment communities are safe and happy.

When the world stopped at the beginning of the pandemic, NJAA members continued to show up for its residents, handling issues and addressing workforce concerns. Discuss some of what the NJAA members were dealing with at their properties and businesses at the start of the pandemic? How are they handling these issues now?

Everyone was facing a rush getting a hold of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and disinfectants when we first learned of COVID-19. But I must thank our vendor partners who were there for us every step of the way in those unsure times. They secured the supplies and services our Owner Members needed to run the properties safely, and they continue to do so.

I really think the longstanding relationships built between the Owner and Vendor Members here at NJAA helped create that seamless transition from providing everyday regular services to providing services related to COVID-19.

Today, as time is going on, in some ways, pandemic-related activities are easier. But some are harder. It’s now second nature to wear masks, distance appropriately, ask COVID-screening questions before entering an apartment and utilize technology to complete service requests and rent payments. So that part is easier. But as the months wear on, things are getting harder, too. We’re getting squeezed in every direction. People are not able to make rent payments, and we get that. But we have to keep our properties running and ensure the safety of our staff and tenants alike. We still need the PPE, and we still need to maintain properties. And, because we do take the CDC guidelines and State of New Jersey mandates so seriously, property operations, at times, can be understaffed as we isolate team members who have been in direct contact with someone testing positive for COVID. Our members are forced to do more work, often with less staff, and with a smaller operating budget. It’s hard.

You make an interesting point. NJAA members are on the frontlines. And folks are generally at home in their apartments now more than ever before. Are property operations essential? How do NJAA members answer that call?

Yes. We are essential workers. And many people are at home working and/or educating their children in their apartments. At this point, to be honest, everyone feels on edge. They are frustrated and tired. Our job as housing providers is to provide even better service in this period of time and assure our residents that their home is safe. We go that extra mile. Our residents know we are always there for them.

What do you see as pressing issues facing the multifamily industry as we move into 2021 and beyond?

Our most pressing issue is the legislative policies we see coming down the pike. The legislature has been considering policies that would affect how we operate our businesses in perpetuity, even though we know the pandemic will come to an end.

I feel some legislators are overcompensating for the stories of bad acting “slumlords” that they’ve heard in the past. The response isn’t even-handed. To borrow from our executive director David Brogan’s terminology, the multifamily industry is an ecosystem and we need to all work together to be successful. Our members are sometimes vilified as being a “big bad landlord.” But, just like everyone else in the pandemic, we are working to pay rent, mortgages and taxes. We take the need to provide safe homes for our residents seriously and continue to do so, but the bottom line is, our revenue has been severely impacted. What we need in 2021 is more direct rental assistance. By providing rental assistance to those that need it, we’re lifting the burden off the entire multifamily ecosystem.

As you just mentioned, New Jersey’s legislature has been extremely active in an attempt to respond to the pandemic. How do you think NJAA has worked with the legislature and the media to get the message out about what the industry has been dealing with due to this crisis? Is the message resonating?

New Jersey was one of the hardest-hit states in the nation when the pandemic first really became a thing. And, as a result, New Jersey’s multifamily industry was one of the first to feel the domino effect of everyone working from home, the missing rental payments and the chronic stress and fear of what COVID-19 really even was. From the very beginning, before it was even a national effort, NJAA has been pushing for direct rental assistance.

Thanks to our government affairs team at the Association, we’ve been working around the clock to speak directly with regulators and policymakers at every level and advocate for direct rental assistance. We want to be a valuable resource for our decision makers. We are here to provide the practical view on property operations so we can create the most efficient and useful rental assistance plan in the nation. We want to do everything possible to keep residents in their homes. Frankly, we have a vested interest in doing so. We’ll work with state agencies, local municipalities, and anyone else that can make this goal a reality.

In addition to the direct contact with decision makers, we also weigh in with the media to get our message out. From national to local coverage, we will continue to work with reporters to give our opinions, provide expertise and make our members’ voices heard!

In May 2020, NJAA launched a new online educational program. I understand that you’ve participated in almost all of the classes that NJAA has hosted online. What are your thoughts about this new way of educating NJAA members? What are some of the classes or presenters that you particularly enjoyed?

I think the switch to virtual education is the best unexpected benefit the pandemic has given us here at NJAA. We’ve been able to educate more people than we ever have, and it opens up every single class to all corners of the state. We’ve been able to book speakers and educators we normally would not have been able to fly in to New Jersey for an in-person session. We love bringing this quality education to everyone’s doorsteps. We retooled quickly and I thank our education team for their incredible hard work to make this a reality.

You’re right, I’ve attended almost every virtual class offered and think this is the wave of the future. In years past, we’ve had motivational speakers like Rommel Anacan join us in person at our convention, but we were only able to hear from him once or twice a year. But, thanks to our new virtual education format, we hear from speakers like Rommel, that live across the country, many times a year! I have to say, I’ve really enjoyed all the classes and learned tons of new things. From our signature courses like Fair Housing to hearing from experts on all things related to COVID, it’s all been great!

As we settle in to 2021, what are you most excited or hopeful about? What are you most looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to emerging from this crisis as a stronger organization. I am heartened by the fact that we were able to sustain the loss of revenue from the Conference and other favorite events and still continue to provide the value and service our members have grown accustomed to. Kudos to my predecessors in this role who made sure we were financially strong in the face of a totally unprecedented event like this.

In terms of what I am most looking forward to, I can’t wait to get together again in person with the NJAA family at our next convention – it’s going to be great!

You are one of the most positive people I’ve ever met. Tell me how you’ve remained so positive during these crazy times?

In life, you can deal with whatever challenges you face in a positive or negative way. We are all in this together. I heavily rely on the support of my family, colleagues and the NJAA team. I recognize we are all working together for the common good. I am truly looking forward to brighter days tomorrow!

I hear you’re the king of selfies- is this true? Who are some of your favorite people you’ve taken selfies with?

I have over 80,000 pictures on my camera roll – I do enjoy capturing moments in life! I love to capture a moment in time and have the opportunity to look back on it in the future. My family is, by far, my favorite people to take pictures with!

You’ve been a member of NJAA for a long time. What are some of your favorite NJAA moments from the past?

The best moments always go back to sharing with colleagues and vendors. The camaraderie and the ability to reflect and share information with each other is what makes us so strong. My favorite moments, and there’s many to look back on, all occur at our events. From the golf outings to the convention, I love when we have time to get together.

It was former president Brent Kohere who asked me to join and nominated me for the executive committee during his presidency. Brent was a mentor and friend to me. I like to take a page out of the playbook of people I respect, and Brent was someone I certainly respected and learned a lot from. Brent left us way too soon and everyone who had the good fortune to work with Brent realizes what he’s done for the industry. He’s always led by example and I hope to do the same in my remaining time as president.

Any last thoughts?

I look forward to this year. We’ve weathered the storm and I know the Association is stronger than ever before. We are in a great place in this chaotic world and I am optimistic that we will be seeing each other in person soon – and I look forward to that day!

From AIM – Apartment Industry Magazine NJAA, January/February 2021, Leadership