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Initiative-Based Advocacy

January 1, 2009

GADs from across the country say their legislative and regulatory battles are growing. From the U.S. Congress to local city halls, politicians are being asked to answer for a multitude of problems stemming from the real estate lending crisis. Many areas have shrinking property and transfer tax revenue, growing numbers of vacant and foreclosed property, and increasing rates of homelessness—all of which lead to increased regulation and legislation of home-owners, homebuyers and homesellers, and real -estate practitioners.

Over the past two years, as both the local ASAE public chairperson and national chairperson for -REALTOR® lobbyists, I’ve had opportunities to learn about the challenges of the current economy. Here are the ways in which I think GADs can win—or at least get a leg up on—those battles.

Step up to the plate
Real estate lobbyists in Chicago have been facing considerable challenges from affordable-housing advocates. Fueled by the belief that their low-income constituencies got shortchanged in the last housing boom, they are advocating for aggressive inclusionary zoning (planning ordinances that require a share of new construction for low-income citizens) and condominium conversion reforms. Additionally, in response to issues relating to the mortgage crisis, community activists and political leaders have identified license law and other avenues to promote their reform agenda.

Unfortunately, such ordinances and reforms can often deter developers and lower surrounding property values.
The solution? Get proactive. A traditional governmental affairs agenda with a steady eye on legislative and regulatory policy is no longer enough. Members are demanding more, and today there are ample opportunities for association lobbyists to seek out regulations and legislation to promote. A proactive agenda, including independent research, legal analyses, and public opinion surveys, may be your ticket to an even more effective advocacy program, which can be valuable when it comes to marketing membership benefits.

Proactive advocacy at work
At the Chicago Association of REALTORS®, we have gained much more visible support from members through our advocacy initiatives than through our legislative victories. With tight messaging, member buy-in, volunteerism, and incremental success, we built subcommittees and coalitions—all energized by the notion of governmental affairs and advocacy. These members are now enthusiastically sharing our message throughout the city.

The Illinois Association of REALTORS®, led by CEO Gary Clayton and Governmental Affairs Director Greg St. Aubin, has been successful in -using advocacy initiatives to both fight for and against public policies impacting REALTORS®. Launched in 2006, the dues-funded IAR Advocacy Program funds media and public awareness campaigns on -local ordinances and ballot issues that clearly demonstrate how REALTORS® are integral members of the community. It also funds independent research to strengthen advocacy efforts and provides consumer resources REALTORS® can give their clients and prospects. Since its inception, the fund has produced brochures and campaigns, such as:

* What Your Clients Should Know About the First-time Homebuyer Tax Credit, which details the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the $8,000 first-time-buyer tax credit.

* Are You Having Problems Paying Your Mortgage? Learn How to Avoid Foreclosure and Keep Your Home. This brochure helps families understand risky mortgages that can lead to foreclosure, provides counseling resources for consumers, and outlines the bene-fits of using a REALTOR®.

* Don’t Go It Alone: Choose a REALTOR® as Your Real Estate Partner. This is a great self-mailer for buyer and seller prospects that highlights the experience and expertise that comes with using a REALTOR®.

The Advocacy Fund equips local GADs and statehouse lobbyists with independent research, legal analyses, and public opinion surveys on a host of topics that affect our industry. These tools ensure that REALTOR® positions and messages are imbued with a high level of professionalism and effectiveness, thus enhancing the REALTOR® perception among elected officials.

ACT locally
A proactive advocacy program can be effective for any size association, but there are clearly publishing and staffing costs to consider, as well as workload issues. So why should your REALTOR® Association engage in initiative-based advocacy?

Here are a few reasons from our experience:

1. REALTORS® like initiatives
REALTORS® really like volunteering for a specific cause that is important to them, rather than a broad government affairs committee. Initiatives create opportunity for a project to become more about members’ efforts and wins for the association, rather than just those of the staff. It can teach them grassroots skills and also more technical aspects of their own industry. Members working on our Affordable Building Code initiative say they’ve learned more about construction and are turning that experience into valuable information for their clients.

2. Initiatives are local
AEs and governmental affairs departments must ascertain the key issues in their own communities. Effective initiatives not only are focused on issues critical to local real estate, but those issues members can understand and feel passionate about.

3. Initiatives create energy
Even when you’re engaged in initiative-based advocacy, you still have to watch the bread-and-butter issues that are important to your industry. That said, your conversations with legislators take on new life when you can bundle your issues and talk about the proactive items you are working on. In most circumstances you may find that legislators will spend more time with you—even if they know you are opposed to some of their agenda—when they hear innovative ideas and can envision partnership opportunities.

Your association’s initiatives will also create local and even national coalition opportunities that will expose your ideas to other groups. Some of these groups, including NAR, may have grant funding for your program.

4. It’s better to be “For” something
Elected officials and regulators value groups that provide new ideas and innovations, rather than simply rallying “against” issues. In initiative-based advocacy, you are presenting solutions, framing the message, and crafting it for your audience.

5. Build accountability and results
Focused initiatives provide opportunities to create real accountability and show members results. Members will see reasons to volunteer and contribute to RPAC. They will find value in their membership and in the professional staff and volunteers who are engaged on the issues. In a time when every member matters and resources are scarce, your -efforts for members can really get a boost with transparency and accountability, as proven by a good advocacy initiative.