By Masha Zager
Across the country, associations and their members are contributing time, energy, money, and expertise to improving their communities, and, by default, their livelihood. To that end, several have launched so-called Quality of Life (QoL) programs to focus their efforts and draw attention to their cause.
“The quality of life is why most of us live here,” says Terry Tolman, chief staff executive of the Realtors® Association of Maui. The island’s real estate market would suffer if the quality of life—which encompasses everything from good schools to clean beaches—diminished. Or, as Tolman puts it, “It’s a small ecosystem, and if some of the wheels come off, it affects everyone.”
Tolman’s sentiment reflects the beliefs of a growing number of Realtor® association executives who have involved their organizations directly in community matters such as smart growth (as opposed to uncontained development), environmental issues, affordability, and diversity.
Typically, QoL programs focus around sustainable growth issues, ranging from traffic congestion to sprawl. Although haphazard development has generated an antigrowth backlash in many parts of the country, Realtor® QoL programs promote responsible, environmentally conscious growth as preferable to either uncontrolled growth or no-growth policies.
Bryan Wahl, government affairs officer of the Washington Association of Realtors®, which started the first statewide QoL program, says that Realtors® in his state often found themselves on the defensive against antigrowth forces. “We needed to establish an agenda and be able to share the positive aspects of growth and start making progress on these issues,” he explains. Their nonpartisan agenda has brought people together across the political spectrum.
Issues vary from place to place. For Maui, in the midst of a drought, water conservation is essential. In Washington state, Realtors® fought a proposed increase in the real estate excise tax. The Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors® in North Carolina works to preserve open space. Yet, one of the most urgent QoL issues everywhere is the lack of affordable housing for young and moderate-income families. As a Massachusetts Association of Realtors® study showed, even upscale housing loses value when there is a shortage of entry-level housing. All of the associations we spoke to believe that securing affordable housing is key to maintaining the quality of life in their communities.
Setting an agenda
Associations have many opportunities to set and promote a QoL agenda. The Massachusetts Association of Realtors®, for instance, developed policy positions from conferences and commissioned research papers. Then the organization worked with other groups to draft and lobby for legislation. The Washington Association of Realtors® conducted polls to identify issues, launched a vigorous public-relations effort, asked political candidates to sign a “QoL pledge,” and tied political contributions to candidates’ stands on QoL issues. Maui’s association has held a series of one-on-one meetings with elected officials and helped set up a community land trust. Meanwhile, the Wilmington association has focused on creating alliances with other organizations and participating in long-range regional planning efforts.
What all of these efforts have in common is leveraging Realtor® expertise about how public policies affect quality of life. “We’re the canaries in the coal mine,” says David Wluka, who heads the QoL initiative for the Massachusetts association. “We know why people do and don’t move here, which is very valuable information for making public decisions.”
Benefits all around
QoL programs have led to many practical accomplishments. To name just a few examples, Maui’s community land trust will make more housing available to moderate-income families; towns in Massachusetts have begun to change their zoning laws; and elected officials in Washington state now have housing issues on their radar screens.
But the programs bring other, subtler, benefits as well. Associations are participating in—and leading—the public debate. Members are running for office, serving on boards and commissions, joining committees, giving presentations, and even educating customers about local issues. Addressing issues of common concern is helping alter the stereotypes of Realtors® and raise visibility overall. “The public perception is changing,” Wluka says. “The level of credibility rises because you’re not selling anything, you’re just offering yourself as a resource with good information they can use.”
And even if Realtors® participating in the programs aren’t selling anything, what they learn increases their business skills. Wluka notes, “We as Realtors® are very good at selling houses, but we don’t always know how the house got there in the first place. Unless you understand how the land gets developed or not, you don’t have a full sense of your own business.”
How QoL programs work
In states such as Massachusetts and Washington, the state QoL program not only addresses statewide issues but also makes policy analyses, technical resources, and even funding available to the local associations. The local associations then choose which issues to address in their own communities.
Local associations also can create their own QoL programs, even if their state association doesn’t have one.
Perhaps one of the most important things to keep in mind is to avoid unrealistic expectations. QoL is about conversation and consensus building, not about solving problems unilaterally. As Eric Berman, director of communications at the Massachusetts Association of Realtors® says, “Not everyone has to be an expert; rather, you must keep the discussion going.”
How to start a Quality of Life program
QoL veterans offer this advice to associations that are considering starting a program:
* Don’t reinvent the wheel. If boards and committees already exist or are being developed in your community, join in.
* Start out small, focusing on no more than three or four issues.
* Build on early successes to grow the program.
* Communicate both challenges and successes to the membership.
* Solicit input from your membership.
* Seek guidance from the NAR and, if available, from the state association. The NAR’s Smart Growth Web site (REALTOR.org/smart_growth.nsf) offers extensive resources for use by local associations.