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School Days

Tim Heffernan has been on the board at his Woodside, Queens, co-op for two and a half years and has served as president for the past 18 months. A 39-year-old journalist, he grew up in Miami, attended an experimental college in California, and now works for The Wirecutter, a publication recently acquired by The New York Times that evaluates products for consumers. Heffernan is not fazed by the responsibility of running the 442-unit, 53-year-old property.

Habitat: How did you come to live in this co-op?

Heffernan: When my wife and I walked into this building, I said, “This reminds me of apartment buildings in Miami.” It’s a beautiful building.

Habitat: Why did you join the board?

Heffernan: I was working from home as a freelance journalist, so I could do it. I was a bit younger than the average member, many of whom are retired.

Habitat: You eventually became president. Is running the board difficult?

Heffernan: Not really. I was familiar with running things because I went to an unusual college in California called Deep Springs, where the student body was in charge. We would meet weekly to discuss student-body business. We were 18, 19 years old, and we were given a lot of responsibility right off the bat. The student body governs itself, sets its own ground rules, enforces them, discusses them at incredible length every Friday night. As a student, you would also sit on one of three committees.

Habitat: How does that apply to what you do on the board?

Heffernan: You end up having really intense discussions about things that will affect people’s lives very directly. You’re having them with fellow students who come from a huge range of backgrounds, from a range of political viewpoints, from multiple religions, from different economic classes. The point is it’s not a homogeneous student body. You have to learn how to debate without being petty or personal about stuff. You pick up ways of being a constructive member of a deliberative body. That’s what a board is in a lot of ways.

Habitat: As a result of that, when you joined the board, did it seem familiar to you?

Heffernan: It’s not like a direct one to one, but certainly those skills that I began to learn there – as you get older and begin to work and make decisions for yourself about your future – all that background training is really helpful.

The other thing that was important for me [about Deep Springs] is that it’s a working cattle ranch, so you end up picking up a lot of practical life skills and practical knowledge. That came in real handy when we replaced our boilers. I had, broadly speaking, familiarity with mechanical systems, a familiarity with how easily you can screw something up royally. The first time I drove a backhoe, the mechanic said, “This vehicle weighs 18,000 pounds. Do not expect it to stop the way a car stops.” I kept that in mind and then I promptly backed it into a tree.

Throughout our lives there are dozens of instances where we say, “I’m glad that I learned a little bit about electricity, or plumbing, or painting, or taking care of a vehicle.” If anything I can say is a direct line [to my work] on the board, it’s learning to work with tradespeople. Given my background, I very easily could have gone through life going from a good high school to a good college to some sort of white-collar career. Learning from a very young age to work with, learn from, be able to speak the language to or with tradespeople is really, really valuable. A lot of people are not comfortable with that.

Habitat: What was your greatest challenge on the board?

Heffernan: The major project over the last year – and that I became president to supervise – was replacing our boilers. The boiler replacement and upgrade to dual-fuel took, start to finish, probably 18 to 20 months, including a refinancing. We ended up refinancing for $1.9 million in late 2015, which saved us about a quarter of a million dollars per year in interest.

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