Dive into Local Politics
by Dan Rafter
Legislative impact: New political advocacy strategies help even small associations battle harmful New regulations and taxes.
Clyde Goodbread was asking a lot from the 290 members of the Amelia Island-Nassau County Association of Realtors , Fla. Goodbread, executive vice president of the association, needed members to agree to a nearly 100 percent increase in their yearly membership dues to hire a full-time government affairs director.
The association's problems with local government (proposed new real estate taxes, increased development fees, and sign ordinances) had been getting steadily worse. "We were failing to stay one step ahead of legislation that harmed our members or inhibited development," Goodbread explains. "What we needed was an additional staff person to handle government affairs."
The members of the association agreed. They approved the dues increase, and Sherry Stein, the association's new GAD, started in September 2004.
"Before hiring Sherry, I tried to handle both the administrative duties and the government affairs work," Goodbread recalls. "That was so time-consuming that it was impossible for us to be proactive."
Since her hire, Stein had worked with several government bodies to convince them that real estate professionals, like most residents, are worried about maintaining the quality of life in the community without preventing newcomers from finding affordable housing.
This type of political action on the local level was the goal behind the National Association of Realtors' 2004 comprehensive redesign of its grassroots training programs to include several innovative techniques enhancing the advocacy prowess of Realtors . The new program was designed to get more associations and members involved in local politics, and it's working.
One arm of the program helps associations find, hire, and afford a professional government affairs staffer to be their voice in local politics. Nearly 70 local Realtor associations serving 54,000 members have taken part in the GAD Share program--in which associations pool their resources to share one staffer.
Trent Wright handles government affairs for three Idaho associations that collectively have about 31,000 members. One of his most important successes of 2004? The defeat of a measure that would have enlarged the local airport impact zone to include a subdivision of more than 400 residents. Homeowners would have seen a dramatic drop in the value of their property. Wright worked to change the wording of the legislation to significantly reduce the impact on homeowners.
Another goal for Wright's government affairs outreach program is to increase the awareness and participation in the Realtors Political Action Committee as well as the clout of RPAC among local political candidates.
A significant amount of Wright's time is spent educating members about RPAC. "I tell them how politics affects their business and their bottom line. I name a few examples of local regulations that could have been very costly to them if they had passed. Then I profile the elected officials that we supported who worked to defeat these regulations."
Wright says members respond best when you talk about the impact of politics on their wallets. Legislation that has direct negative impact on a Realtor 's livelihood is often what ignites political action.
One example of a pocketbook issue is a wetlands preservation proposal Mindy Fernandes, director of government relations with the Metropolitan Consolidated Association of Realtors in Troy, Mich., faced from the local township board. She knew it would hurt local real estate practitioners. The Ray Township Board of Supervisors sought legislation that would redefine wetlands, forcing builders and developers to struggle to find developable land in the township. This would deplete housing stock and impact affordability. If approved, the legislation would have served as a template for nearby townships.
Fernandes enlisted the help of a land-use attorney provided by the National Association of Realtors who found 11 possible legal problems with the new wetlands initiative. Armed with this knowledge, Fernandes and her association's members attended township meetings and voiced their informed concerns. After a year of political action by the association, the township approved an updated ordinance that included all the changes Fernandes and her association members recommended. Fernandes gives a large portion of the credit to NAR's Land-Use Initiative, which provided the Troy association its land-use attorney.
"Our association members were happy to see that we were able to make a difference in our local communities," Fernandes said. "Everyone saw our members get involved. It is so important for us as an industry to speak with a unified voice."
Member involvement is key in any successful government affairs outreach program, says Idaho's Wright. Members, as residents of the communities in which they work, have tremendous impact when they lobby local legislators to prevent restrictive housing laws or strike down policies that limit a community's growth.
Personal visits to lawmakers are a popular approach among associations of all sizes.
The members of the Snohomish County Camano Association of Realtors in Everett, Wash., hold a Hill Day every year to build closer relationships with elected officials--modeled after NAR's own annual lobbying day in Washington, D.C. The association's board of directors meet with each member of the county council at the local courthouse to discuss issues important to their association.
Russell Hokanson, the association's executive vice president, credits these personal relationships with the modification of many local regulations that would have been harmful to real estate.
"A year ago, we proposed that the county's comprehensive growth plan include a statement that any new zoning ordinances result in no net loss of housing or of land available for new housing," says Hokanson. County council members agreed and inserted the language over the objections of a number of special-interest groups in the area that sought to limit development.
"Successes like that are so important, and really verify the need for us to stay involved politically," Hokanson explains. "And not only does the Hill Day help us achieve our legislative goals, it helps us unify internally. We can demonstrate to our members what we've been doing and what we're working on. We can tell our members, ÔIf you can be a part of this, it will only help strengthen our industry.'"
Success stories like these are inspiring other local associations. The Missoula County Association of Realtors , Mont., hired its first government affairs director last October. Local government officials have already requested that this director give a yearly presentation to the city and county about the state of housing in Missoula. Executive Officer Mae Hassman hopes this is only the first step in building a stronger relationship between real estate professionals and their local government.
"This position is so important for our association," explains Hassman. "We can now have a single unified voice, a person to represent the collective voice of our members. We now have a face that government officials can identify with our association."
When it comes to political change, local associations of every size can have great power; they just need to use it.
Advocacy Meets Technology
NAR's ActionCenter has 148,355 registered Realtors who sent close to 350,000 electronic messages to members of Congress in 2004--150,000 on the banking issue alone. This electronic advocacy center includes issue briefs, automatically sends legislative alerts to members, and offers prewritten e-mails on important issues that members can send under their name to their federal representatives in Congress.
Similar electronic mechanisms at state and local associations have helped thousands of members become directly involved in the political process closer to home. Several state associations
are using a software program called VoterVoice to send a driving message, or Call to Action, to members who can then log on and communicate directly with elected officials on critical legislative issues affecting real
Why Political Involvement Matters Now:
Townships and counties have always created policies and ordinances affecting real estate, so why are so many associations getting involved today? Struggling state economies are increasing pressure on localities to find new sources of revenue to fund programs and services previously supported by state subsidies. Couple this economic slump with unprecedented housing demand and growth, and there's more reason than ever for associations to boost their local political involvement.
Many of the battles against political action harmful to local real estate markets are similar across the nation. To read about associations and their political successes, visit the regional news section of REALTOR Magazine Online at REALTOR.org/rmodaily.nsf/news/regionalnews.
Benefits of Political Involvement
-- Increased ability to defeat legislation and regulation that would harm members' businesses.
-- Increased community awareness that Realtors fight for homeowners' rights.
-- Increased political pull and status within the community.
-- Increased visibility, which draws in new members and boosts the bottom line by attracting companies that may want to buy ads in the association publication or sponsor events.
-- Pleased members, who love that their association is involved because it increases the credibility of Realtors.
Free Analysis of Local Legislation
NAR's Land-Use Initiative helps state and local Realtor associations in their public policy advocacy of (or opposition to) land-use issues. Upon request, NAR will provide expert analysis of the legal, planning, economic, and environmental issues surrounding legislative and regulatory proposals, for free.
In addition to reviewing land-use measures that have been proposed, the program will also look at reports and studies on which future legislation or regulation may be based. For more information, visit http://www.REALTOR.org/sg3.nsf/pages/landinit.