Foreclosures, minimum wage, and Generation Y were among the varied issues discussed at last week’s Workforce Housing Forum. But the theme of REALTOR® advocacy for affordable housing for working Americans permeated nearly every speech, panel, and breakout session.
Every meeting room, hall, and ballroom at this National Association of REALTORS® event echoed the call to real estate professionals in attendance: We need your voice.
NAR President Moe Veissi started the day’s events acknowledging that, while REALTORS® understand the value of the American Dream, they need to communicate it in different ways.
“There’s another part of this that we don’t pronounce as much as we should,” Veissi said. “You’ve got to tell them that there’s more than an economic benefit to owning a home… the people who live in that home are healthier.”
Illinois Housing Development Authority Executive Director Mary Kenney encouraged forum attendees to help shift the way the public discusses new housing solutions for the nation’s workers.
“Together, we are changing the dialogue from affordable housing to maintaining a competitive workforce,” she said. “We need to work together to help educate our legislators about the needs of our communities.”
In presenting the latest findings from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies where he is managing director, Eric Belsky noted that seeing numbers in a different way can help lawmakers understand the urgency of a situation. He said that when it comes to workplace housing problems, policymakers don’t get the full picture by looking at the conventionally-used median wage figures.
“Entry-level [workers] are the people who are trying to get a leg up in life,” Belsky said. “By any measure, though, this is not the kind of way that we want to run the country.”
After these speakers, an industry panel created the opportunity for a dialogue on the issues of advocacy between various stakeholders. Paul Bishop, NAR’s vice president of research, laid out some of the problems plaguing first-time home buyers at the feet of regulators in Washington.
“There are a number of regulations in the balance that could make it harder for first-timers to get into the market,” he said, specifically calling out the move toward requiring high downpayments for loan approval. “The level of the downpayment is not the primary determining factor of home ownership success. We need to be looking at a little more sophisticated view.”
The government’s representative on the panel, Department of Housing and Urban Development Regional Administrator Antonio Riley, didn’t disagree with the notion that federal agencies can stand in the way of home ownership. He said a White House conference revealed that the proliferation of agencies meant some low-income housing providers had to triple up on inspections and other administrative duties. To mitigate the problem, Riley said pilot programs have been launched wherein the various housing agencies partner to reduce bureaucracy.
“We have to better align these various federal programs, and we are fortunate to have [federal agency leaders] who understand that the federal government must modernize itself,” he said.
Riley went on to say that, as someone who works in national government, he isn’t able to “go too far in advocacy,” so he depends on the voices of those in industry to carry the torch of sensible reform.
“What we need is for people to tell the story as these rules and regulations are pending,” Riley said. “For you, the REALTORS®, your people are the ones conducting those transactions so your advocacy nationally is very much appreciated.”
The theme seemed to solidify in the more real-life applications presented in the forum’s breakout sessions. In one session titled Neighborhood Stabilization and Foreclosure Solutions, Letitia Clark George of the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of REALTORS® showed how partnerships between community groups and the real estate industry paid dividends in local government. George’s local association partnered with the nonprofit Broadmoor Development Corporation to help revitalize an up-and-coming neighborhood that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. After a great deal of struggle and success, George noted that the corporation’s former president is running for New Orleans city council and the association has shown they know how to get the ear of local politicians. Still, she added that their job is far from over.
“We have to constantly push the elected officials to remember housing… They forget about housing and they forget that rebuilding these communities helps with education. It helps with crime,” George said. “A big part of my job is making sure there are REALTORS® present on these task forces and these boards. Anytime we talk about housing development, there needs to be a REALTOR® or housing expert there.”