It didn’t take long to realize that the COVID-19 health crisis would have tentacles throughout the economy. With every industry working overtime to ensure business continuity and relief for workers, REALTORS® were fortunate to have an advocacy team in Washington with strong relationships in Congress, the regulatory agencies, and the White House.
Leading that team, since October 2018, has been Shannon McGahn. Before joining the National Association of REALTORS® as senior vice president of advocacy, McGahn served as staff director for the powerful House Financial Services Committee and later as a member of the White House transition team, working for Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Through the weeks and months of fighting to help REALTORS® through the crisis, it’s not only her Capitol Hill connections but also her life experiences that have propelled her, McGahn says. “My parents owned a small business when I was growing up in Ohio. I saw first-hand what it’s like to pour your heart into your job,” she says. “Sometimes hard work just isn’t enough. You need a little help from smart policies in Washington. That’s what your federal advocacy team is here for.”
In these unsettling days, as members across the country shelter in place and NAR plans for its first-ever virtual Legislative Meetings, REALTOR® Magazine talked with McGahn about NAR’s wide-ranging advocacy wins—and the challenges ahead. The conversation was in early April.
When the scope of the COVID-19 crisis became apparent, how did NAR marshal its forces?
For all the talk about a broken Washington, when this sudden and seismic crisis hit, Congress acted in an overwhelmingly bipartisan way.
Three rescue packages of historic size were signed into law in short order, and NAR snapped into a crisis posture overnight. With Washington, D.C., and Chicago on lockdown, our staff worked from their kitchen tables and living rooms to secure unprecedented benefits for REALTORS®, including access to unemployment insurance and loans for the self-employed and independent contractors.
NAR also banded together with scores of other organizations and churned out dozens of letters to Congressional leaders that helped secure many of these benefits.
We also initiated a comprehensive communications effort to analyze and disseminate this information to our members. And apart from our advocacy work, we relaunched our Right Tools, Right Now program to provide reduced-cost and free programs and services to our members.
Small businesses are the backbone of the economy yet always fare the worst in a recession, so speeding relief to them was critical. The real estate industry alone makes up 17% of the entire economy, so our business will help lead the national recovery. NAR’s focus for the foreseeable future will be to help our members and our country weather this storm. We’re working to achieve additional relief for our industry as part of Congress’ additional responses.
As our nation continues to absorb the terrible pain and loss of life from COVID-19, we are reminded that what inspires us all is the American dream of homeownership and our country’s unique ability to emerge stronger from any challenge.
In a typical year, we have about 10,000 REALTORS® in Washington each May for our annual REALTORS® Legislative Meetings, with state delegations visiting their representatives on Capitol Hill. As we look forward to the post–COVID-19 world, do you think these big in-person meetings will still be a part of advocacy?
Yes, I do. COVID-19 will change us, and it’s difficult to know just how right now. But I do know that this is a face-to-face industry. Last year we had a record-breaking 11,000 REALTORS® in attendance. We aren’t the only group that descends on D.C. in this manner, but we are the largest and loudest. In fact, I’ve had many members of Congress tell me they hear from the REALTORS® more than any other group. That’s a badge of honor as far as I am concerned. Our members aren’t your average citizens. They’re engaged in their communities—leaders with well-known names and faces. Members of Congress know our members, and they know we’ll be back. Homeownership is the foundation of the American dream, and we are here to support that dream.
Beyond visiting their representatives on Capitol Hill, what role would you like REALTORS® to play in advancing the REALTOR® agenda?
That’s easy—vote, act, and invest. How many times do you look at the screen on election night and see a race that’s too close to call? With 1.4 million members, our army of REALTORS® can literally change the outcome of elections. Also, staying engaged goes a long way. Call, write, and email your members of Congress. We make sure they know our issues, but the people who directly vote for them carry the most weight. Every REALTOR® has one representative in the House and two senators, so make sure you are heard by all three. And, of course, ensure that representatives who champion REALTOR® policy are supported financially.
As an advocacy organization, what are we doing differently than in the past?
Going forward, how do we remain relevant and effective as an advocate for REALTORS®? Washington runs on relationships. Our new advocacy team is more focused and has more resources. Working with smaller portfolios, we are able to invest in building closer ties with key aides and officials. When a real estate topic arises on the Hill, we want to be part of that discussion. Our renewed focus also helps us build bridges between the two parties and advocate for policies that truly benefit the economy and REALTORS®. We are serving the cause of homeownership, property rights, and prosperity for all Americans—not a political agenda. When you are seen as nonpartisan, it carries weight with both parties and the media. We are not red or blue; we are REALTOR® purple.
On top of helping our members navigate the COVID crisis, what are the top priorities this year for you?
We set out this year with a focus on three things: our commitment to fair housing; access to reliable credit; and investment in our communities. Real estate is influenced by just about everything, from broadband access to transportation to economic growth. It’s easy to come up with a laundry list of “asks,” and our advocacy team is in Washington 52 weeks each year supporting pro-REALTOR® policies and making sure that laundry list is always current.
When it comes to fair housing, the federal government has no greater partner today than the REALTORS®. Under NAR’s Code of Ethics, our members’ commitment to fairness goes further than federal fair housing law. Earlier this year, NAR rolled out our ACT (Accountability, Culture change, and Training) Plan to better educate and train our members on fair housing. The blueprint was in the works before Newsday’s report alleging discrimination on Long Island, N.Y. In fact, in mid-2019, we hired a new director of fair housing, Bryan Greene, who served for 29 years with HUD’s Office of Fair Housing.
It isn’t lost on any of us that we’re sheltering in place during our annual Fair Housing Month commemoration in April. We called this year’s campaign Fair Housing at Home. Nothing feels more precious this year than the safety of our homes, and we believe all Americans should have equal opportunity to a home of their own. We’re proud to be at the forefront of driving change on this issue.