The political divide in America presents an opportunity for REALTORS® to coalesce their influence around a largely bipartisan, unifying issue: access to housing. That reality has bolstered the efforts of leaders from REALTOR® associations in Colorado, Maryland, and Washington, who highlighted their organizations’ recent advocacy wins at a Thursday session called “The Nuts and Bolts of Advocacy” during the virtual 2021 REALTORS® Legislative Meetings.
These associations, which received REALTOR® Party grants to support their advocacy activity, ran successful campaigns in the last couple of years to buoy local real estate–friendly candidates and statewide housing equity and affordability initiatives. REALTOR® Party Director Kevin Brown said the National Association of REALTORS® will be focusing more of its efforts on supporting state and local association issues. “The REALTOR® Party is effective at all levels because of our grassroots strength,” Brown said. “There’s a lot at stake for REALTORS® moving forward.”
Here’s how the three state associations promoted their members’ needs to lawmakers.
A Wake-up Call for City Council
In Spokane, Wash., the City Council passed progressively restrictive building laws in recent years that hampered the city’s ability to construct affordable housing, said Darin Watkins, director of government affairs for the Spokane Association of REALTORS®. But in 2019, important seats were up for reelection—the mayor, the president of the City Council, and several council members—which presented an opportunity for REALTORS® to help shape the future of Spokane’s housing policies.
The mayor’s race was particularly important: The 10-year incumbent “had not achieved any positive results for the housing sector” during his tenure, said Washington REALTORS® President Tom Hormel, who lives in Spokane. “Members were asking, ‘What can we do when we’re facing this [entrenched] leadership?” The two associations joined forces and, with NAR’s support, developed an answer to that question: a campaign to back outsider candidates whose housing positions were more malleable.
Hormel served as the spokesperson for the campaign, developing talking points and publicizing the REALTOR® stance on housing issues to local media. He learned a lesson in this role that can apply to any real estate pro: “Reporters are going to ask you the same question in multiple ways, trying to get the sound bite they want from you,” Hormel said. “Know where you want the conversation to go and what you want to say. Steer a question that’s completely off-topic back to your talking points.”
The campaign also included mailers, door-to-door canvassing, and digital advertising.
In the end, REALTOR®-backed candidates won the mayor’s race, two City Council seats—and “a new level of respect from elected officials,” Hormel said. “For the first time, the Spokane REALTORS® and Washington REALTORS® said we weren’t going to let things happen to us; we were going to take control and elect candidates that have our interests at heart.”
Watkins added that the Spokane association is now preparing for five county commissioner races in 2022 and two more City Council contests in 2023.
Affecting Change Through Community Stakeholders
As affordability pressures worsened last year, the Maryland REALTORS® association successfully lobbied for a slate of state measures to expand mortgage down payment assistance, encourage affordable “cottage cluster”–style housing, and close the racial homeownership gap.
Recognizing that key state lawmakers, including House and Senate leaders, supported housing equity and affordability initiatives, Maryland REALTORS® launched its Open Doors to Stronger Communities campaign. The effort centered on collecting housing stories from state residents through surveys and focus groups. “These stories help lawmakers understand the struggles we go through with clients every day,” said Susan Mitchell, director of government affairs for Maryland REALTORS®.
Interviews with renters of color also helped the association better understand the barriers to homeownership these prospective buyers face as well as what they need from assistance programs. The association collected more than 100 personal stories and 500 signatures for housing policy petitions, and sent out 1,335 postcards to state lawmakers over the course of the yearlong campaign. The Maryland REALTORS® also released consumer-facing ads on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, educating people about the policies the association supports. “An educated constituent is our best advocate,” said Maryland REALTORS® President Dee Dee Miller.
The association took the results of its research to Maryland House and Senate leaders and worked with them to develop a package of bills to increase affordable housing production, help state residents create a home buyer’s savings account, and offer greater housing assistance. The bills passed earlier this year.
Opportunity for the Next Century
As the Colorado Association of REALTORS® was celebrating its centennial last year, it launched a campaign called A Century of Opportunity, encouraging policies to create more housing equity. “Housing policy is really hard to change,” said Liz Peetz, the association’s vice president of government affairs, adding that an influx of wealthy buyers moving to Colorado from high-priced coastal areas has had an effect on state lawmakers’ policy priorities. “Affordability is more dire than it’s ever been.”
The Colorado association teamed with Habitat for Humanity to hold focus groups in rural and urban communities throughout the state and learn residents’ biggest affordability hurdles. They used their findings to develop a package of four bills, which the state legislature eventually passed:
- Require financial literacy education in high school curriculum. “High schoolers now learn about building a good credit score, shoring up savings, and preparing for homeownership,” Peetz said.
- Require the Colorado Division of Housing to deliver annual expenditure reports to hold the state accountable for how it spends housing dollars.
- Create the Building Credit for Renters pilot program, which enables renters to report their rental payments as a way to build credit.
- Create a $13 million grant program to help local communities develop more affordable housing, including repurposing commercial property and building more accessible dwelling units.
“It’s difficult to keep lawmakers on track when you’re advocating for legislation,” Peetz said. But “REALTORS® need to be creative and proactive about doing something that could spur the next decade of housing policy.”
Follow all of REALTOR® Magazine’s coverage of the REALTORS® Legislative Meetings at magazine.realtor/live.