Alison Ingenito – OptimumProp
Multi-family residential property management needn’t be a heartless pursuit. So emphasizes Alison Ingenito, who backs up her claim with a slew of anecdotes, including one about keeping together a disabled veteran and his dog.
That man may have taken some liberties on the housing front, Ingenito concedes. He was, after all, living in a no-pets apartment owned and operated by OptimumProp in northern New Jersey. The dog not being especially well-behaved, other tenants complained. Though the easy approach would have been ordering him to either vacate or surrender the dog that was his only companion, Ingenito opted to see the human—and canine—side of the situation.
“The man served his country, and all he had was his dog,” she explains. “Could we have evicted him? Of course, but instead, we found him a pet-friendly building.”
Then there was a more troublesome case regarding another man, this one with untreated mental health challenges and cutting a gas line with a machete. Ingenito collaborating with United Way and authorities, they were able to move the man into different housing where his issues could be addressed.
And for Ingenito, it was just another day on the job as OptimumProp’s chief legal officer since 2017.
“My husband says to me, ‘You have a great job. You never know what you’ll be doing,’” she tells Vanguard in August from Jersey City. “He’s right. It’s everything from filing a brief with the Supreme Court of New Jersey to dealing with complaints about a raccoon.”
Empathy for tenants
All of what Ingenito does supports what can be a delicate business model, even in the best of times. OptimumProp upgrades, one unit at a time, undervalued and distressed multi-residential properties in New Jersey and South Florida. The COVID-19 pandemic made it even more delicate, with so many tenants unable to cover rent due to their workplaces being shuttered and landlords barred from evicting.
But, Ingenito says, eviction is never her first option without reason. During the pandemic, she worked with advocacy groups to assist tenants, many of whom were of very modest means and coping with unprecedented problems.
For households earning just above the threshold for public assistance, she’d match them with lawyers well-versed in securing benefits. For others, she’d negotiate extended payment plans and try to be as flexible as practically possible. When a unit was over-occupied—a situation that’s only grown due to increased homelessness—she’d litigate if necessary but first try to find more housing.
A couple of years ago, she was the catalyst for New Jersey changing the law about who’s to be cited on municipal complaints. Deeming it unfair and even unconstitutional that an LLC member’s name rather than the owning LLC was listed, she successfully took her case to the appellate court after being denied at the lower levels. Though the state appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court, it was denied
“I get no more joy than when I get a call from another attorney who says that ‘Thanks to this precedent, I got a dismissal against my client,’” she says. “This drew the line: You can’t chase someone individually for something they are not liable for. That is unconstitutional.
A balancing act
Now, with the worst of the pandemic hopefully over, she says the firm again concentrates on refurbishing apartment buildings or complexes in need of upgrades and sprucing up the units where tenants willingly depart.
For those who have long lived in an OptimumProp property, their rent increases stay consistent with the consumer price index but once a unit is vacated and upgraded, the firm can charge more to the next dweller. As one might derive, it’s a modus operandi for which patience is indispensable.
“It’s a great balance that lifts, by increment, the value of the community,” she says. “We’re known for being years ahead of the industry and setting a higher standard that allows us to provide residents in B-class communities with A-class living.”
Though most of OptimumProp’s greater community is HudsonCounty and other parts of southern New Jersey, the firm commenced operations in Miami just after the pandemic began. There’s much potential there as well as in other parts of Florida, and Ingenito says the firm constantly looks for new opportunities, not just in real estate.
OptimumProp also spearheads business development projects. It recently secured a conditional license for cannabis cultivation and distribution in New Jersey, which took some legal maneuvering. Cannabis still illegal at the federal level, Ingenito notified her principals at the start that the rules of professional conduct precluded her from advising in anything illegitimate. Upon being told by the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics that the rules were changing to accommodate such discussions, she’s now overseeing the protocols. It, too, is a lengthy process, but one she says can’t be rushed.
“I appreciate the towns being cautious,” she says. “You hear of bottlenecks, but they’re necessary. Are you financially able to move forward? Can you pass background checks? New Jersey’s doing it right while other states spiked up and had the price drop from too many suppliers.”
And cannabis isn’t the only very regulated industry where OptimumProp is developing urgent-care centers are also in the plans, which has Ingenito brushing up on more rules and regulations.
But it’s all part of being the legal boss of an outfit committed to such diversification. For Ingenito, it’s a role she says seemed meant to be.
The British-born daughter of U.S. Navy man who met his wife overseas, she grew up in Toms River, New Jersey, where she attended community college before Kean University and settled into a career as a paralegal before realizing she could do more.
“The benefit of being a paralegal is seeing all types of law,” she says. “And seeing lawyers take credit for my legal briefs.”
So, she opted to become one, attending Delaware Law in Wilmington, Delaware and going in-house at OptimumProp. After experiencing the emotional ebbs of family and personal injury law, real estate law became her preference. By contrast, real estate was more about commercial transactions and, she says, the opportunity to be fair to all stakeholders.
“I thoroughly enjoy winning, but winning to me means everyone gets to win a little,” Ingenito says about the times she’s litigated. “Sometimes when standing before the bench with a tenant and reaching a compromise, the tenant even hugs me and says, ‘Thank you for doing this without it being painful.”
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