UNTIL THE downturn of 2008, the worst real estate recession that many multifamily executives had ever seen was in the early 1990s, when the federal government —through the Resolution Trust Corp.—took over thousands of troubled assets. That experience offered operators dozens of takeaways. Here are five that will help you get through today's downward spirals.

1. Focus on Your Inventory. Multifamily operators must put their properties first, especially during a downturn, says Brian O'Neill, founder and chairman of King of Prussia, Pa.-based O'Neill Properties Group, a multifamily builder and owner with 1,758 units built and in the pipeline. "Separate your inventory from the best to the worst," he says. "Get rid of the worst because it won't get better, and focus on the best."

2. Look for Deals. If you're in good financial shape, you can get solid assets at a bargain. "Where there's adversity, there's opportunity," says Larry Connor, CEO of The Connor Group, a Dayton, Ohio-based firm that owns 14,000 units in North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas. "Over the past 12 months, we've done more than $400 million in acquisitions because there are still people or institutions that need to sell for any number of reasons."

3. Be Transparent and Aggressive. If debt is maturing soon, you need to work with your current lenders while looking for new ones. "Be transparent and forward with all of your equity and debt participants so they assist you to get through this," O'Neill says.

4. Send the Right Message. As employees read the headlines, they get nervous about their job and the direction of the company as a whole. "The biggest thing with people is uncertainty," says Cindy Clare, president of Kettler Management, an apartment owner and manager with 12,000 units in the Washington, D.C., metro area. "We've been able to grow, and that sends a message to our staff that we're strong. When you're shrinking, it's all about letting people know what's really going on and what you're going to do."

5. Retain Your Best. O'Neill thinks downturns give businesses an excellent opportunity to evaluate and tweak their own teams. He is not alone. "Promote leaders and eliminate people who clog up the system," Connor says. "If someone can't adapt, they have to get put out of the way."