Building in Sustainability

No matter how we’re defining it, associations are embracing the many long-term benefits of sustainability for their members and their communities.

By Robert Bittner, a Michigan-based freelance author and journalist.

“Sustainability is a new topic to a lot of members and a lot of association leaders,” acknowledges Amanda Stinton, director of leadership and sustainability for the National Association of REALTORS®. “It’s also pretty abstract.”

For instance, some of the language used in talking about sustainability can be fraught with social and political baggage, which can sidetrack discussions. “If we walk into a room of REALTORS® and say the words ‘climate change,’ we will turn off half the crowd,” says John M. Sebree, RCE, CEO of the California Association of REALTORS®.

Despite the challenges, REALTOR® associations across the country are embracing a wide range of approaches on what it means to be sustainable. In the process, they are improving energy efficiency, reducing long-term costs, building for the future, and impacting the lives of their members and their communities.

Leading From the Top

Stinton notes that the goals of NAR’s sustainability group are to help build sustainability awareness and provide resources for member associations. Currently, she and her team are developing a one-hour online sustainability course, scheduled for release in the third quarter of this year. “We’re also trying to help increase sustainability awareness through a joint initiative with the National Association of Home Builders, called ‘Home Performance Counts,’ ” she says.

Perhaps one of the group’s most influential resources so far is a comprehensive report on industry sustainability efforts published in January. The report, which categorized these efforts under the key pillars of environment, social, governance, and resilience, is known as ESG+R. “It’s a great snapshot of what’s happened over the past 12 months,” Stinton says, “but it’s also a good tool for associations to use to gather ideas and spark local conversations.”

Member Resources

Kimberly Pontius, RCE, CAE, CEO of Aspire North REALTORS® in Michigan, enthusiastically agrees. “If you don’t know anything about ‘green’ or sustainability or resilience, the ESG+R report is a great place to start,” he says. In fact, the report was the catalyst for his association’s own sustainability committee. “It was something tangible I could put in the hands of the board of directors and say, ‘This is the new value proposition for our industry,’ ” he says.

Aspire North is now pursuing several programs that address elements of the report’s four pillars. “For example, right now we are in the process of training [members] on septic systems, which speaks to the topic of resilience,” Pontius says. “Once you get about halfway up the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, unless you live in a metropolitan area, everything’s on septic. There are people moving here who have been used to a city sewer system, and they don’t understand the importance of maintaining a septic system.” Through its members, associations can help fill those kinds of gaps.

Associations are also helping members respond to buyers’ increasing interest in learning about a property’s green features and other factors affecting sustainability. For example, New Hampshire REALTORS® wanted to ensure its members could better earn the trust of buyers and sellers during real estate transactions when the conversation inevitably turns to energy efficiency and renewable energy. Its sustainability working group launched in 2017 to provide members with resources and educational opportunities regarding renewable energy and “green building.” The group has established a resources webpage, hosted a two-day NAR GREEN designation course multiple times, and held two symposiums. It now oversees a column in the association’s quarterly magazine and is creating sustainability-related content for the association’s annual conference in September.

“It was the intention from the beginning that this working group was to help our members be as educated as possible in this space,” says Dave Cummings, director of communications for NHAR. “That’s why it falls under the Professional Development Committee, not public policy; we’ve been intentional about not wanting it to be an advocacy group.”

REALTORS® can find huge value and benefit in promoting the energy efficiency features of a property. That’s especially the case when those REALTORS® are using green MLS fields, says Stinton. Yet too often these fields are overlooked or underutilized. “Sometimes there’s a disconnect when it comes to MLSs actually activating and members using those fields,” she says.

It’s an area worth exploring, adds Stinton, since “REALTORS® who do use those fields are able to share the value of a property’s home performance story and cast a wider net, allowing these features to be more easily searchable and accessible to folks working with clients who prioritize sustainability, energy efficiency, and green features.”

Sustainability In Our Own Spaces

At Minneapolis Area REALTORS®, “Sustainability is one of our core values,” says CEO Carrie Chang. “Because of that, our Environmental Initiatives Committee is driving a lot of the thinking for the association’s priorities, making sure that sustainability is part of our strategic plan.”

But MAR wanted to go a step further. “We wanted to demonstrate the functionality and beauty of sustainability right here in our own space,” says Chang.

The association recently determined that its building and property—which are owned outright—could be made much more functional. While it was looking at exterior improvements, expanded outdoor space, and an enlarged parking lot, “we asked how we could accomplish those goals in a way that stewards the land and showcases sustainability best practices,” says Chang. “When members are gathered here, we want them to see in action some of the things they might learn in a class or read about.”

The project was complicated by the property’s location within a watershed district, but that turned into a silver lining. “We reached out to the district to learn more about partnership opportunities and how we can be better water stewards,” Chang says. “We were able to secure $25,000 of grant money from the watershed district to help us improve our property in terms of runoff, drainage, irrigation. That set us on a path of looking at everything we could do regarding water conservation.”

Now, MAR has porous pavers on its patio. It has a rainwater harvesting system so that its roof runoff is channeled into two large underground cisterns, which can then be used for irrigation. In its landscaping, it chose native and prairie grasses, which are dominant in Minnesota and don’t require as much watering and management; their root systems also help to combat erosion. “We’re a relatively large local association—almost $8 million in annual revenue, almost 10,000 members—so a project like this does require some amount of scale,” admits Chang. “But the real challenge is defining the value proposition of a project like this. It can’t just be about beautifying the space.”

While Chang expects to see a reduction in the association’s water utility bills and some potential city credits for stormwater fees, assessing a project’s overall return on investment should go beyond weighing the financials. Chang believes it’s also about making a difference within the community, determining “how we, as leaders of the industry—as REALTOR® members trying to help homeowners—can bring sustainability to life for our community through our own property.”

From that perspective, the association is already seeing a meaningful return for building on its core values. The property, Chang says, “is a living, breathing example of what we try to teach people in classes.”

The Advocacy Piece

While some associations focus on exemplifying sustainability through developing member training and resources or taking innovative approaches to grounds and building improvements, others are in a position to lobby for change with state and local governments.

The California Association of REALTORS® has put advocacy for the housing sector at the forefront of its sustainability efforts since the early 2000s, according to Sebree. For CAR, that means focusing on the effects of the state’s changing climate: heat waves, wildfires, floods, persistent droughts, and rising sea levels. “From a legislative perspective in California, sustainability is linked to almost every policy related to new development and always under consideration as we seek to improve the efficiency of existing units,” Sebree explains.

In response, CAR has appointed a sustainability, climate change, and resilience task force to examine pending legislation and weigh the association’s possible responses. Recently, the task force also began to explore an expansion of the state’s Residential Environmental Hazards booklet, last updated in 2011, to include information related to the effects of climate change that pose a general hazard to most California property owners. “CAR is very supportive of solutions that add value to communities, while increasing resilience and improving quality of life,” Sebree says.

Such advocacy takes dedication and perseverance. It can be a challenge to avoid the hot-button reactions that often accompany the words “climate change,” but Sebree says that shouldn’t stop the conversations from happening. “That didn’t stop me from being a delegate to the U.N. Conference on Global Climate Change when I worked for Florida REALTORS®, because I felt there was a place for us at the table,” he says. Now, Sebree is seeing a growing openness to discussions that explore “issues as they relate to the real estate versus engaging in the political debate on the larger issue” of climate change.

A Bigger Definition

While “sustainability” may often refer to environmental concerns, NAR’s ESG+R report takes a broader view. It defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Kim Cox, CEO at Ozark Gateway Association of REALTORS® in Missouri, couldn’t agree more. “My first thought when I think of sustainability is the sustainability of our association in our community,” she says. “We provide local jobs. Our conference center provides a place for groups to come together. We are often a light in our community, and we want to keep that going.”

To help ensure the association’s future within its community, in 2018, OGAR built a 1,500-square-foot office building and completely renovated a 2,600-square-foot attached conference center, incorporating as many sustainable features as possible, including solar shades, energy-efficient appliances, and LED lighting. In addition, Cox says, “We recycled our construction waste, giving it all to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore so those supplies could go to other people in the community.”

Along with these more typical steps, Cox says, “We try to do things that encourage each other and lift each other up,” which helps to sustain the membership. “For instance, we created a REALTORS® benevolence fund to help people financially who may be going through something unexpected or traumatic. We launched it in 2009, and the fund is still active today. So far, we have helped over 30 members, mostly with medical-related applications.”

“Make a Difference Monday” has also become a popular way of supporting both the community and the association’s members. “Mondays can have a negative connotation,” Cox says, “so we encourage members to do something that changes that. It can be the smallest of things: We might post something on our members-only Facebook page to remind them to help a client, help a co-worker, network with peers, maybe paint something around a client’s house, or mow a yard. It’s a reminder that we are here to help.”

That First Step

NAR’s Stinton points out that, while sustainability may seem overwhelming and unwieldy, associations can take any one of several actionable steps to make a difference. “Create a committee or task force,” she suggests. “Seek out grant opportunities from the national association. Engage members through education. And then consider adding sustainability into the strategic-planning process. For both the operation side and the member-engagement side, these are activities that could help pepper sustainability throughout an association’s work.”

At the same time, it can be “easy to go in with a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of big ideas and then not necessarily have the resources to carry those out,” says NHAR’s Cummings. “So, create manageable goals for yourselves and then dive in with a lot of energy and see if momentum can build from there.”

It also comes back to the members. Chang recommends consulting members who are passionate about sustainability; not only can you benefit from their expertise, but their perspective might lead to unexpected solutions. “I think sometimes this work doesn’t get done because people assume it’s too expensive or too difficult or they think about one tactic—like, for example, solar panels—and they glom onto that, versus really thinking about a more holistic approach,” she says. “Your knowledgeable members can help you see the whole picture.”

Abstract or not, sustainability initiatives are a part of the job, she adds. “If we’re in the business of real estate, then the economic value of the real estate our members are helping clients transact will erode over time—literally and figuratively—if we don’t take care of it,” she says. “Transactions are only as good as the properties we have to transact. If the inventory is poor because it’s not stewarded, not taken care of, then the whole business model is threatened. That’s why sustainability is so important to REALTORS®.”

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Additional Resources

Sustainability

NAR provides leadership and strategies for sustainability that benefit members, associations, and communities.
Home Performance Counts

Home Performance Counts

To learn more about Home Performance Counts, visit homeperformancecounts.info.

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