Affordability, lack of inventory, taxes, and fees were among the top issues for state and local REALTOR® associations before the pandemic. COVID-19 has intensified those issues in many areas, while adding a slew of new concerns for real estate brokers, property owners, and consumers. With strict limits on in-person advocacy, associations are using virtual collaboration platforms, digital tools, and National Association of REALTORS® resources to advance the interests of their members and communities.
A recent NAR survey of association executives and government affairs directors found that the No. 1 priority at the state level was taxes, as legislators are considering real estate–related taxes to make up budget deficits from the ongoing economic slowdown.
For local associations and members, housing availability and affordability are front and center in 2021. In fact, members’ concern about housing was up 12 percentage points from the prior year’s survey, while tax issues dropped 23 percentage points. Meanwhile, issues related to COVID-19—such as ensuring real estate remains categorized as an essential business—are also on advocacy agendas.
Here is a look at how four associations are driving their advocacy programs in a challenging economic climate.
New OrleansIncreasing the supply of housing—particularly affordable homes—is the top advocacy issue for the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of REALTORS®. “We have very low inventory, and prices are skyrocketing,” says Kelli Walker Starrett, the association’s senior vice president/director of governmental relations and NAR’s 2020–2021 GAD Institute chair.
To mobilize her association’s 6,200 members, Starrett has launched a “check-in” program that provides access to NAR’s toolkits for workforce housing initiatives and other REALTOR® advocacy resources. “We have put our members on the mailing list for NAR’s On Common Ground as an entry point for other programs,” she says. “We also send new members a welcome letter outlining REALTOR® Party programs and services.”
As a tourist- and convention-oriented city, New Orleans has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Hurricane Zeta caused additional issues in November. While eviction moratoriums have protected renters who lost their jobs, some housing providers have been facing financial concerns as a result, Starrett says. Unlike most other cities, New Orleans collects property taxes in advance, rather than for the prior year, she notes. “That means there is less immediate pressure on municipal revenues for 2021, but that is something we will watch in the future.”
One of the challenges in the association’s advocacy work is keeping members engaged when they are working from their homes. “Our association is working hard to give them information they need for their businesses, as well as for our advocacy priorities,” she says.
For 2021, the association has launched a new program that matches individual members with local elected officials for online conversations. “We want to be in the forefront when discussing issues related to housing and the local economy,” Starrett says. “REALTORS® are good at networking and adapting to changing circumstances, and we will continue to use virtual platforms to present our views on issues such as affordable housing.”
San Francisco Bay
David Stark, government affairs director for the 6,000-member Bay East Association of REALTORS® in Pleasanton, Calif., is concerned about how local governments will respond to the loss of revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have seen aggressive tenant protection measures that could drive family-owned housing providers out of the market,” he says. “Local governments are also eyeballing real estate transactions as a wonder drug for their financial ills.”
Housing availability is another challenging issue for the suburban community, which is located midway between San Jose and Oakland. “We will be working with local governments on the need to produce more housing, because the COVID remote work trend has exacerbated our supply problem,” he says.
On the positive side, the association was successful last year in advocating for real estate to be deemed an “essential” business, and there continues to be intense member interest in public health and safety rules, Stark says.
To keep members engaged and informed, the association sends out a weekly government affairs newsletter that covers top issues and includes advice for interacting with local leaders. “Logging on to a virtual meeting is a very different experience than bringing hundreds of people to a city commission chamber,” Stark notes. “Talking one on one through a screen is also more difficult than over a cup of coffee.”
As a result of the pandemic’s spike in work-from-home arrangements, Stark says, the association is working to educate homeowners and policymakers on issues such as reducing residential greenhouse gases and requiring electrical service upgrades while building support for 2021 advocacy priorities.
Stark says NAR’s Advocacy Everywhere program is a “go-to tool” for mobilizing members and consumers on community issues. The association also used the Campaign Services program to help elect several pro-homeownership mayors and a county supervisor last year. “Kudos to our membership for staying engaged in advocacy,” he says. “They are the real power of our program.”
Shifting to virtual education and advocacy outreach has been a blessing in disguise for the REALTOR® Association of Pioneer Valley in Springfield, Mass. “Being able to hop on a video call is far more efficient than driving 45 minutes to a town meeting,” says Brendan Bailey, chief of staff and former GAD. “We have also adjusted our town monitor program, where our political coordinator arranges for members to speak with officials and be eyes and ears on the ground.”
For 2021, Bailey expects to focus on housing availability, smart growth, and rental-related issues when talking with local leaders in the western Massachusetts region. “For instance, we will meet with Amherst town planners to be sure the REALTOR® voice is heard in upcoming discussions about affordable housing,” he says.
Bailey notes the importance of educating local officials about the tight housing market and building local coalitions that support greater diversity, equity, and inclusion through new residential development. “We discuss systemic things like zoning laws or lot-size regulations that impact the pricing and availability of homes,” he says. “We have also discussed the importance of housing near transit lines that allows workers to ride a bus into the city.”
The Pioneer Valley association is using a Consumer Advocacy Outreach grant from NAR and a supplemental grant from the state association to survey members and determine major issues affecting their areas, such as rural broadband access and restrictions on accessory dwellings that limit the housing supply.
Once American Strategies—a prominent political strategy, campaign management, and public relations consulting firm—analyzes the survey responses, Bailey plans to develop mailers and new landing pages to help members learn about advocacy efforts in their counties. The association is also generating a database of members who are interested in specific issues.
“We have embraced the digital side and are using a lot more video to promote our advocacy work,” Bailey says. “I also send a regular email to brokers and office managers with the subject line ‘TOOLS FOR SUCCESS’ that they can copy and send to their agents. That plug-and-play approach can be a very effective strategy for reaching association members.”
Easing condominium restrictions, boosting lower-cost multifamily housing, and piloting small “container homes” are among the ways the Miami Association of REALTORS® is addressing South Florida’s housing shortage.
“Supporting first-time homebuyers is at the top of the list of our members’ priorities this year,” says Danielle Blake, chief of advocacy for Miami REALTORS®, which serves more than 50,000 members in three counties. “Despite low interest rates, they need financial assistance.”
With land in short supply in the region, condominiums are typically the most affordable choice for first-time buyers. However, Federal Housing Authority loan limits, condo association insurance issues, and expiring Housing and Urban Development building certifications have limited their availability, according to Blake.
“About 60% of our active market is condominiums, and we have been addressing these types of issues for more than a decade,” she says. “This year, we will be talking with our congressional representatives [and] leaders at FHA, HUD, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac about the flawed models and regulations that limit access to condos by the elderly, as well as our highly diverse population of first-time buyers.”
To engage members, the Miami association is using VoterVoice’s “13 Months of Advocacy” strategy, which includes email surveys, member stories, “virtual fly-in” meetings, and awareness campaigns for elected officials. That initiative has been supported by a 2019 NAR REALTOR® Party mega-grant. The association also created a consumer-facing platform to help its members and potential buyers quickly assess eligibility and qualifications for homebuyer programs.
“One of our most exciting initiatives is our container home project, which looks at repurposing shipping containers for affordable housing,” Blake says. “We built one using an NAR grant and situated it on Miami-Dade County-owned land. Along the way, we have learned so much about the barriers to affordability, and we can apply that knowledge to our advocacy work in the future.”