If your community had an ample supply of quality housing at a range of prices, it would attract the workers, teachers, and business owners who contribute to high quality of life and economic growth. If your community had a variety of public transportation options and well-designed road systems, it could lure commuters, shoppers, and restaurant patrons to its urban core. If your community had ample green spaces, vibrant community gathering places, and exciting festivals, it would appeal to the young families and small businesses that are a cornerstone to revitalization.
All of these factors—housing affordability, infrastructure, the environment, and commercial development—lead to dynamic and appreciating real estate markets that build business for REALTORS®.
Hundreds of REALTOR® associations of all sizes all over the country aren’t just wishing their communities had these features. They’re doing something about it.
REALTORS® sell more than just homes; they sell communities
“REALTORS® don’t simply help with the transaction of real estate; we help build communities,” says Josh Dix, government affairs director at the Charleston Trident Association of REALTORS®, S.C. “From the first-time homebuyer to the mom-and-pop startup business, we are here to make communities stronger.”
A strong community for a first-time homebuyer may include safe parks, and that startup business may be possible only with good public transportation for its employees.
It is with these development projects—from park renovation to affordable housing—that REALTOR® associations demonstrate their commitment to their communities.
Everyone wants a better community
“The better a community’s quality of life, the better it can attract businesses and jobs, which equate to commercial development and housing development. Jobs equal real estate,” says Andrew Sims, CEO, Raleigh Regional Association of REALTORS®, N.C.
Sims is so confident in his association’s ability to drive change that he added a community development component to its strategic plan for the first time for 2020. At first, his planning committee was confused. “Everybody just stared at it for a second. They weren’t quite sure what it meant,” he says.
It didn’t take long for Sims to lay out the argument that better communities mean a better real estate market and that sponsoring community development projects was a great way to boost the image of REALTORS® and promote the REALTOR® brand. But another strong argument for community development has to do with political advocacy.
“Community development and political advocacy go hand-in-hand from a strategic perspective,” says Sims. “You don’t want the only time that city managers see you to be when you’re complaining about something. When you walk into a community ready to give something—a park, help funding a commission, expertise—you build political capital in the background. You can say, ‘Hey, the REALTORS® helped you rebuild that park, so maybe we should be involved in the discussion about zoning ordinances.’”
Approaching a neighborhood organization, a community, or a mayor with that expertise—and the resources to back up those good ideas—builds strong contacts, association government affairs directors agree.
“I can’t be the guy who only comes around when I need something,” echoes Joe Farrell, director of public affairs for the Pinellas REALTOR® Organization in Florida. “Being at the table for issues or projects that aren’t mission critical to the association builds relationships and equity with stakeholders in the community for the future.”
One project Ferrell says his association is particularly proud to support is the Florida Dream Center’s Adopt-a-Block program, which works to keep neighborhoods strong by fixing homes that have fallen into disrepair. “Our directors made it a goal to be leaders in the community, for the betterment of the community, and our budget and our actions reflect that,” he says.
Grant funding for community development
For more than a decade, grants and resources from the National Association of REALTORS® have enabled even the smallest associations to take their first step into community development.
NAR awarded nearly $300,000 in placemaking grants in 2019. These funds enabled local REALTOR® associations to finance playground rehabilitation, pocket park development, public art installations, nature preserve creation, and much more.
“Placemaking grants are a great way to get started in community development because they are usually for smaller projects,” says Holly Moskerintz, NAR’s manager of community outreach programs.
A small park can seem like a huge undertaking at first, but Missy Vanderpool, RCE, AE of the 45-member Henderson Audubon Board of REALTORS® in Kentucky, found that the benefits far outweigh the effort. “After I attended a placemaking workshop, I reached out to our local Main Street organization to discuss creating a new pocket park,” she says. “We presented this idea to the city commissioners and let them know a grant was available to fund it. Several months later, we were part of the planning committee.”
As a direct result of the park, called The Perch, association leaders were invited to serve on the mayor’s visioning committee and Downtown Master Plan project, says Vanderpool. “This one $5,000 placemaking grant was a game changer for us and changed our standing in the community. It got us a seat at the table and made our community realize that REALTORS® are about so much more than selling houses. They learned that we are passionate about our communities and the people that work, live, and play in them.”
Community development comes in all shapes and sizes
Like so many quality-of-life issues that contribute to an area’s desirability, environmental stewardship is a top concern of residents in Woodstock, Ill.
The Heartland REALTOR® Organization in Illinois took a step toward making Woodstock an even better place to live by helping transform unused land into a public space for the community to gather and enjoy. Partnering with the city and the Land Conservancy of McHenry County, and using a $3,800 NAR placemaking grant, Heartland made the Pollinator Meadow Project at Emricson Park possible. But the benefits went beyond the community and nature.
“The pollinator project helped us rebuild some political bridges we had burned a few years back when we aggressively fought against the city’s plan to implement a landlord licensing program and business registration,” says CEO Jim Haisler. “When the mayor recently said the council would revisit the landlord registration program, he also announced he’d be working with the REALTORS® on it, which I think is because of our aggressiveness previously but also our assistance on their ecological desires.”
From parks and neighborhood beautification to partnering with cities on major transportation or growth initiatives, there’s a wide range of projects ripe for REALTOR® involvement.
Taking on major issues, such as affordable housing, often takes a more sustained and coordinated effort than building a community park, but the rewards are also higher.
When the city of Topeka, Kan., announced its Momentum 2022 initiative aimed at improving the area’s overall attractiveness and competitiveness, Linda Briden, CEO of the 620-member Sunflower Association of REALTORS®, knew she had to get involved.
“This was a perfect opportunity to show the community the talent, expertise, and resources that the REALTOR® organization could offer,” says Briden, who, along with two members of her leadership, gained seats on the initiative’s Quality of Place Work Group subcommittees focused on housing.
“Work on the subcommittees opened the association to a better working relationship with the city,” she says.
Briden received an NAR Housing Opportunity grant to perform an affordable housing study as part of Momentum 2022. “Because of the grant, I am serving on the Housing Study Steering Committee, and several of our members were asked to participate in a stakeholders discussion on housing needs from the REALTOR® point of view.”
NAR Housing Opportunity and Smart Growth grants open doors to opportunities and help promote REALTOR® expertise. NAR issued more than $280,000 in Smart Growth grants to state and local REALTOR® associations in 2019 and funded an additional $260,000 in Housing Opportunity grants. In addition, many state and local REALTOR® associations have their own funds for community development. Central Florida is one area hit hard by a lack of housing opportunity. Affordable homes for lower-income workers and veterans are scarce, creating what the local media has called an affordable housing crisis. In response, the Orlando Regional REALTOR® Association has accelerated its community development efforts on a range of fronts, including providing reliable housing statistics to government agencies, offering expertise on all housing-related issues, providing leadership to grassroots organizations, and promoting public awareness of the issues and championing solutions. “ORRA has become a highly visible, go-to expert on affordable housing issues as a result of our constant media interviews, community presentations, and panel participation,” says Cliff Long, the association’s CEO.
Revitalizing and restoring communities
Although community development may imply creating something new, it can also mean preserving something old. Restoring communities to their former glory, reinvigorating businesses, and attracting young families to areas once considered blighted has a tremendous effect on local real estate markets.
In Michigan, the state REALTOR® association takes an active role encouraging and funding preservation and revitalization at the local level throughout the state. The state association’s own placemaking arm, MI Great Places Inc., which funds the local planning, design, and management of public spaces, awarded more than $20,000 in grants in 2019 to REALTOR®-inspired projects.
One recent grant funded summer events designed to highlight the town of Manchester’s downtown redevelopment efforts and attract more activities, and, ultimately, more residents to patronize the new downtown businesses and consider moving to this newly vibrant community.
Smart growth, not rampant growth
To help the fastest-growing city in Alabama grow smart and not just grow wide, the Baldwin REALTORS® partnered with the city’s mayor to conduct a study of which type of growth appeals to locals. Using an NAR Smart Growth grant, the association is leading a visual preference survey and two workshops. The project relies on community and stakeholder collaboration to select a design for the preferred development concept. It will also focus on educating decision-makers, stakeholders, and the public about smart growth principles.
“No one is more vested in ensuring the proper use of land and growth than a REALTOR® organization,” says Sheila Dodson, RCE, CEO of Baldwin County Association of REALTORS®. “As the chief advocate of private property rights, we support such efforts for education and understanding for communities.”
Also experiencing a tremendous amount of growth—with several municipalities in the top 10 growing municipalities in the nation—is Charleston, S.C. This prompted the Charleston Trident Association of REALTORS® to take a leading role in growth discussions.
“We have become increasingly involved in our community over the past five to 10 years,” says Dix at the Charleston Trident Association of REALTORS®, S.C. “It is incumbent upon us to help guide our own development, because growth is not simply rooftops. Smart growth enables coordinated development, which is in the best interest of the local citizens.” In Charleston, growing smart means planning for a multitude of varying neighborhoods, enabling people to live closer to where they work to take pressure off roads and infrastructure. “Using NAR Smart Growth grants and the NAR Land Use Initiative Program helped us provide additional resources to municipalities so that we are growing in the best ways.”
Where to start?
Getting started in community development or taking your work to the next level should be, like all things at your association, a strategic decision. Luckily, there’s no shortage of success stories and expert AE advice to set you on the right path.