From left: The New Jersey Apartment Association’s leadership team includes Executive Vice President Nichole LoPresti, Executive Director and CEO David Brogan and Vice President For Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Nicholas Kikis. The organization recently moved its office to Trenton from Monroe Township in Middlesex County, placing it directly across from the Statehouse amid its continued focus on government affairs. — Photo by Aaron Houston for Real Estate NJ
By Joshua Burd
The New Jersey Apartment Association has changed its address, but there’s nothing unfamiliar about its new home in Trenton. The organization and its in-house team, previously based in Middlesex County, have long been a key voice in state politics and policymaking, advocating on behalf of a membership that owns and manages some 230,000 rental units.
Now, it’s a stone’s throw from where legislation and regulations are crafted, debated and enacted.
“From an advocacy perspective, just imagine having to drive 30 minutes to get to Trenton, whereas now I can literally be in the Statehouse in 30 seconds,” said David Brogan, NJAA’s executive director and CEO, during an interview at the historic, three-story brick building at 162 West State St. that houses its new office.
Brogan, who has led the group since 2014, said the move to Trenton from Monroe Township was “the next logical step” after substantial membership growth and efforts to raise NJAA’s profile in recent years, noting that it joins the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Realtors and other top trade associations that are based in the capital. And it comes in a time when its role in public policy has been as important as ever: The organization is less than a year removed from a 22-month, statewide eviction moratorium during the COVID-19 crisis, a stretch in which apartment owners lost rent revenue but still had to cover their business expenses, as NJAA repelled legislation that it said would crush its members by allowing restrictive, drawn-out repayment plans by tenants.
Ultimately, it was part of a coalition that backed S3691, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Brian Stack and enacted last summer, which phased out the eviction ban and created new protections for tenants who owed back rent. It also created another $500 million in rental assistance funding to help both residents and landlords.
“I give credit to Senator Stack … because he had to balance the demands and desires of both the tenant advocates and the industry,” Brogan said, later adding: “This is a legislator who is a mayor and also is well known as a tenant advocate. And he saw the reality that the eviction moratorium couldn’t go on forever, but he also saw the need to protect tenants for the rental debt that was accrued during the pandemic and, for low- and very low-income tenants, giving them an extra few months of protection as we pulled out of the pandemic.”
NJAA’s in-house team of six — whose leadership also includes Nichole LoPresti, executive vice president, and Nicholas Kikis, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs — remains vocal in the pandemic’s aftermath. Brogan said there is still a need for rental assistance beyond the more than $1 billion from the state’s COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program, launched in 2020, and the subsequent funding from Stack’s bill, as landlords and tenants continue to pick up the pieces.
“I think right now the industry as a whole is in recovery mode,” Brogan said, noting that COVID “doesn’t suck all the oxygen out of the room the way it did a year or two years ago.” Yet the crisis will loom large even after the moratorium, as a state Supreme Court order allows renters who receive an eviction notice to file for assistance and get a 60-day stay on their case.
“We’re trying to get back to some sense of normalcy as an industry,” he added. “I think our members are doing that. We were thrust into the pandemic, just like everyone else, (but) we had to provide housing and we had to maintain that housing, so we had a very difficult balancing act. And I think our members and our industry really stepped up to the plate, really rose to the occasion as it pertains to balancing those two things.”
Brogan spoke with Real Estate NJ in mid-September about NJAA’s new office, the industry’s recovery post-pandemic and the ongoing role of advocacy and education. Below are excerpts from the interview, edited for space and clarity.
Real Estate NJ: It was a difficult two years on many levels. What has it been like for your members as they’ve moved past the tension and financial pain of the eviction moratorium? How long will it take for landlords and their tenants to recover?
David Brogan: I think this is something that is not going be fully resolved for a number of years, because if I filed for an eviction today in Essex County, I probably wouldn’t get a court date until February. And then, whether the state comes through with additional rental assistance, we’ll have to wait and see. So I think it’s going to take another couple years before we fully recover from the losses that were incurred and deal with the tenants that haven’t been paying and are still protected under state statute and the guidelines put out by the Supreme Court. It’s going to be a process.
RENJ: Is that process at least underway, relative to tenants catching up on rent or beginning to work out agreements with their landlords?
DB: Absolutely. And I think a lot of our members did a great job at working with their tenants on repayment plans. That’s No. 1. No. 2, filing for rental assistance is not easy, so our members worked with our tenants to file for that rental assistance. It helps everybody — it helps the tenant and the landlord — so it’s a win-win situation, but we’re still kind of working our way out and dealing with the residual financial impact of the pandemic.
RENJ: Securing rental assistance funds from Trenton was a major win during COVID, but you’re also proud of how NJAA supported its members on a day-to-day basis. Explain how.
DB: Clearly, this is the first time anybody in our generation or slightly above or below had gone through a global pandemic. And we were doing things on the fly, trying to provide our members with the most up-to-date information possible. In the first year, from March of 2020 to December 31st of 2020, we put out over a hundred updates with various pieces of information. When you’re running a membership association, you want to demonstrate the value to the members. You want to demonstrate that you’re there for the members and that you’re a resource for the members. And I think we did that.
RENJ: So you were probably talking to the rank and file a little bit more frequently than you would in a normal time.
DB: I would say that we had a lot more interaction with our members on a day-to-day basis than we ever did before and … seeing how important the association was during the pandemic, it made me reflect upon the true visionaries who saw the need for an organization that focused solely on the multifamily industry. People like David Legow (of Legow Management Co.), Jonathan Gershen (of The Gershen Group), Michael Goldberg (of Goldberg Realty Associates), Jeff Smith (of Kreigman & Smith Inc.) and Michael Haydinger (of First Montgomery Group). These were some of the key people who saw government affairs in Trenton as being a priority.
The organization did a great job prior to us coming here. But, starting in 2014, I felt like we raised the bar. My goal has always been to elevate the organization in every aspect. We (Nichole, Nick and I) wanted an organization that was commensurate with the impact that the multifamily industry has, not only on housing, but also the state’s economy.
RENJ: Which brings us back to the importance of being in Trenton. Aside from the location, what else were you looking for in a new office?
DB: In a general sense, we wanted an office that reflected the staff now. We wanted an office that felt comfortable, because I know (many) people are saying that they want to work from home now, but if you create a comfortable work environment, they’re going to want to come to work. And I think we’ve created an environment that really promotes critical thinking and coming up with new ideas. When you’re in a stuffy cubicle or in an office with no windows, ideas don’t flow freely. When you see the light that comes into this office, you see the way that we’ve decorated the office — and I’ll give Nichole a hundred percent of the credit for that — it’s a very comfortable office, it’s an office that you’d want to go to. That was important to us. It wasn’t just being close or being in Trenton, but it was about creating an environment that promoted a positive work ethic and environment.
RENJ: You’re also focused on education, as you have been for many years now. Tell us how things are going on that front.
DB: From the day I got here, I saw education as the place where we could see the biggest growth and the greatest importance outside of advocacy … and it’s twofold: It’s education on laws and regulations that come down the pike. We just had a Fair Chance in Housing Act seminar. So far, we’ve educated over 600 people on that law. That’s good for the association and, from a member perspective, it helps them in staying compliant.
The second part of education is professionalizing the industry, and that is a very important role that we play. And it demonstrates to the Legislature that we’re different from the slumlords out there. A slumlord is not going to spend money on soft skills for their leasing professional, for designations. We have national designations through the National Apartment Association for leasing professionals, for maintenance technicians, for apartment complex managers, for portfolio supervisors. And we’re providing all of that education to professionalize the industry. I think that’s really important because it’s a unique industry. You could come in without a college degree and move up the ranks — you could do it on the maintenance side of things, you could do it on the leasing side of things. And as you get to know and understand the industry, you can go up the ladder, and I think it’s a great industry for growth and development.