If REALTORS® have struggled with the concept of environmentalism, it’s not because they don’t love the environment. Quite the contrary.
I spoke to NAR President Steve Brown about it back in September 2013, as he was preparing to begin his presidency. “When we sell real estate, we are selling the environment,” he said. “Who has more of a stake in passing along a clean, safe environment to future generations?”
Still, how do you tell a 90-year old client that her biggest asset has been ruled a habitat for a protected species? How do you run a stable, profitable business when your area is experiencing mega-wildfires, severe storms, or long-term drought? How do you balance your desire to be environmentally responsible with your staunch belief in property rights?
Those were the conversations taking place at NAR’s first environmental summit, July 29–30, in Washington, D.C.
NAR has standing committees that recommend policy and advise its leaders on a range of environmental issues. But for Brown, whose passion runs deep, the summit was an opportunity to take a long-range view—to consider what real estate may look like in 10–20 years and engage members in thinking about what the organization might do to get ahead of some of these issues.
For the roughly 40 participants, Day 1 of the summit was akin to a college course on environmental policy, complete with an extensive pre-conference reading list and talks by experts on water supply, energy sources and security, building science, insurance, and public opinion. Read Rob Freedman’s coverage of the day, which included a presentation by former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.
What Matters Most?
Day 2 was about priority setting. From a list of environmental issues, participants selected what they considered the most urgent issues for the industry. The top three concerns were
- Loss of property rights
- Natural disasters
- Rising energy costs
Weighing environmental priorities: Dan Hatfield of Texas and Michael Labout of Colorado
Small groups debated the role NAR might play in tackling each issue. The list of potential activities was long — from participating in community risk assessments to studying the value of energy efficiency features to facilitating “honorable retreat” from vulnerable coastal areas. One group suggested a million-member challenge encouraging REALTORS® to have their own home energy audited. Another said it was time for a national disaster insurance fund; everyone would support the fund, but those who lived in areas deemed more vulnerable to disaster would pay more. In the afternoon, small groups focused on three other issues: water, aging infrastructure, and transportation costs.
To ensure lively and informed small-group discussions, Brown built diversity into the group. There were commercial and residential practitioners, REALTORS® and association executives. Every region of the country and a range of political views were represented, and many summit attendees brought experience in dealing with environmental topics. Among the participants, for example, was William “Bill” Lucks, GRI, a commercial practitioner who served as the Delaware Association of REALTORS® representative on a state commission on sea-level change. Illinois residential practitioner Laura Stukel, who developed NAR’s Green MLS implementation guide, was there, too—as was Terrie Suit, CEO of the Virginia Association of REALTORS®. Suit was previously the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security for the state of Virginia and brought an insider’s view of the disaster recovery process after catastrophic weather events. Other participants included John Rosshirt, CRS, GREEN, who teaches smart-growth principles and currently chairs NAR’s Smart Growth Advisory Board; Max Gurvitch, chair of NAR’s Land Use, Property Rights, and Environment Committee; and Dan Hatfield, ALC, chairman of the Texas Association of REALTORS® and past president of the REALTORS® Land Institute.
If there were differences about the role of NAR and government, there was one point around which the room coalesced: the fundamental belief in being good stewards of the land. “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children” was a phrase I heard many times over the two days. There was also strong agreement on the need to balance environmental concerns against other factors, such as affordability and the rights of property owners.
Playing Your Part
Whether you attended the summit or not, if environmental issues are affecting your business today or you believe they will in the future — and you want to take some measure of control — Brown’s message to you is to get involved.
1. Become educated about the challenges facing your community and learn which organizations and government agencies are already working on the issue.
2. Be aware of the programs available through the NAR. For example, since 2008, the association has offered a Green designation to teach the principles of energy efficiency and sustainability. Designees receive regular updates and are part of a Green network.
The association also operates a dynamic smart-growth program where state and local associations can turn for such services as:
- Analyses of proposed land-use ordinances and regulations
- Polling about growth issues
- Grants to support local place-making initiatives
On Common Ground, a quarterly magazine for practitioners and policymakers interested in smart growth, covers the wide spectrum of environmental issues — from alternative energy sources to transportation planning. You can peruse the full text of issues dating back to 2010 at REALTOR.org. The summer 2014 issue, “Our Environmental Future” includes articles on building for resiliency, sea-level change, green MLS, and water conservation, among other topics.
3. Lead by example. A healthy environment and a vibrant, growing economy are not mutually exclusive goals, and you can play a role in achieving both in the way you operate your business, engage in your community, and interact with and educate your clients.
The summit wrapped with a promise that the discussion would continue at NAR’s annual meeting in New Orleans, Nov. 7–10. “Whatever our political beliefs, we’re all concerned about our environment,” Brown said. “The time is now to take a more active leadership role.”