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Florida REALTORS® Give the State’s Most Vulnerable a Legislative Voice

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a nine-minute video must be…priceless.   But in Florida, the 170,000-member REALTOR® Association is putting a value on ‘priceless,’ one vulnerable household at a time.  Using a Level 3 Housing Opportunity Grant, Florida REALTORS® created a compelling video to convince state legislators to fund Florida’s Affordable Housing Trust Funds at the maximum levels.

The idea for the video came up in discussion with other nonprofits that join Florida REALTORS® in lobbying, year after year, for full funding of the Affordable Housing Trust Funds, says Cheryl Lambert, Florida REALTORS®‘ Secretary and Immediate Past Chair of the Attainable/Workforce Housing Committee.  “We were all used to sitting down and explaining to people how important these programs are, but that only gets you so far. And then I said, ‘It would be great if we could just show them the difference these programs make in people’s lives!'” 

With guidance from NAR staff, Florida REALTORS® applied for and received a Housing Opportunity Grant of $15,000.  “The level of thought required by the application was significant, but worthwhile,” says Danielle Scoggins, Senior Public Policy Representative of Florida REALTORS® and author of the grant application. “With a project this complex, it’s better to have all the planning done on the front end.”    

To find individuals to appear in the video, Florida REALTORS® tapped their 25-member Attainable/Workforce Housing Committee.  “We got them all together on a conference call, and said, ‘We’re looking for folks who’ve benefitted from the state’s affordable housing programs, who’ll be willing to share their stories with the legislature,'” recalls Scoggins.  Committee members got to work and after a careful selection process, followed by scheduling, filming, and editing, the final video will be presented to state legislators this September as they begin to prepare for next session. 

The video features an introduction by the Director for Housing and Community Development in the City of West Palm Beach, who emphasizes that the various programs made possible by Florida’s State and Local Government Housing Trust Funds serve the state’s most vulnerable populations: those experiencing homelessness, the elderly, and veterans. Then come the stories, from different regions, highlighting different populations and the success of several different affordable housing programs.  There’s an older woman from West Palm Beach who lived in her car for two months, in poor health but holding down a job, before she was helped into a stable home by one of the programs.  A young woman who lost her mother and her home at age 19, becoming solely responsible for six younger siblings as well as an infant of her own, credits another state program with helping her to stabilize her family through the purchase of a home; she is now an officer on the Tallahassee police force.  A U.S. Army veteran from Clearwater tells of her heartbreaking inability to find an affordable apartment after she divorced from her husband; elderly residents of a state-subsidized senior residence in Hernando, one of them a former REALTOR®, share stories of retirement savings eaten up by medical bills.     

“I can’t watch the video without crying,” confesses Scoggins.  “It puts a human face on these issues, and will certainly help our state legislators understand the powerful impact of these programs on real citizens—their constituents—around the state.” 

The first completed segment of the project was unveiled at the 2016 Florida Housing Conference.  The final video will complete the larger advocacy project that the association will be rolling out for state legislators this September: a major Affordable Housing Economic Impact Study commissioned by Florida REALTORS®, and a set of one-page infographics customized for each of the one hundred and sixty legislative districts in the state.  Members of Florida REALTORS®‘ energetic Key Contact program, which teams a REALTOR® member with each of the state’s 120 Representatives and 40 Senators, will be sharing the materials with their assigned legislators.  The video, which will be made public in the near future, will send a powerful message to those making decisions about funding the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Funds.

To learn more about how the REALTOR® Party is supporting Florida REALTORS®‘ advocacy to secure affordable housing for the state’s most vulnerable populations, contact Senior Public Policy Representative Danielle Scoggins, at 850-224-1400 x2504.

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Indianapolis REALTORS® Spearhead Expanded Public Transportation Funding

The Indianapolis metropolitan region is the 33rd largest in the nation, yet funding for its transit services ranks way down at 86th.  For years, the 7,500-member Mid-Indiana Board of REALTORS® (MIBOR) has been working to shrink this gap, and with two recent REALTOR® Party Issues Mobilization Grants, it has just succeeded.

MIBOR Vice President of Government and Community Relations Chris Pryor states that the REALTORS® are committed to improving transit for greater access to jobs, education, healthcare, recreation and housing.  But it’s more than a simple quality of life issue for the community, he says: “Adequate transit is also the key to keeping greater Indianapolis economically competitive, in terms of being able to attract business and accommodate a talented workforce.  Transit is a critical factor in the region’s future prosperity.”

In 2009, MIBOR was instrumental in forming the Central Indiana Transit Task Force, which identified significant need for increased transit services in the region, and then developed a plan for an expanded bus network and the creation of three new rapid transit lines.  Establishing a local funding source for the improved infrastructure required the blessing of the Indiana General Assembly, a process that took five attempts in six years before finally passing in 2014.  The next step was getting a local referendum passed to adopt a 0.25% income tax that would be dedicated to funding mass transit.  A major Issues Mobilization Grant funded a coalition effort called ‘Transit Drives Indy,’ a campaign combining phone banks, radio and online advertising, and a website urging voters to pass the ballot initiative for a dedicated transit fund.

On Election Day 2016, the referendum passed with nearly 60% of the vote, winning 19 out of 25 city council districts.  Already, MIBOR and its coalition partners were looking ahead to the final  hurdle:  ensuring that the Indianapolis City County Council would vote to approve the tax. 

MIBOR had secured a second Issues Mobilization Grant to support the coalition’s post-referendum strategy, which focused on getting pro-transit voters to apply pressure to city councilors to enact the tax.  After a few intensive weeks of targeted patch-through calls from constituents, the City County Council approved the tax in a vote of 17-to-8.

Lacey Everett, MIBOR’s Government and Community Relations Strategist, says “The campaign we put together was key in getting us over the top, and we couldn’t have done it without the support and resources of the National Association of REALTORS®.  Beyond the funding, the Issues Mobilization team was a great sounding board for lots of ideas, and responded quickly to challenges that arose during the campaigns.”  By 2018, she says, the newly established transit fund will begin building a system that will double employment within a half-mile of frequent routes; triple service to families in poverty, seniors and households including someone with a disability; and expand economic opportunity by providing access to three urban college campuses.  

Pryor notes that the urgency of the region’s transit funding needs was heightened by the nationwide power shift following the elections, which made federal funding that the region had been expecting, uncertain, at best. “Although we still don’t know whether we’ll be receiving a Federal Small Start Grant, at least Indianapolis will be able to move ahead with its much-needed transit plan, once the new tax kicks in this fall.”

To learn more about how mid-Indiana REALTORS® are helping to promote economic development and a greater quality of life in their region by taking the lead on supporting mass transit expansion, contact Chris Pryor, MIBOR’s Vice President of Government and Community Relations, at 317-258-5805; or Government and Community Relations Strategist Lacey Everett, at 317-956-5252.

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Land Use Initiative Lends ‘Horsepower’ to Greater Northwest Indiana Zoning Challenge

The Greater Northwest Indiana Association of REALTORS® (GNIAR) has been successful in tapping in to various REALTOR® Party resources in the past few years, including Placemaking Grants, RPAC Major Investor Event-Based Fundraising Grants and Level III Smart Growth Action Grant that is now supporting a county-level Parks Master Plan Update.  But when GNIAR Chief Operating Officer Joe Wszolek read in a local paper about proposed commercial zoning regulations in the town of Munster this past February, he knew a different kind of support was needed, and fast. 

The ordinance was put forth in response to the sensitive issue of a commuter rail line coming from downtown Chicago to Munster, IN, which Wszolek describes as one of the region’s premier communities.  While the council member who introduced it was clearly trying to keep Munster from becoming the same commercial franchise as other towns on the line, the REALTORS® recognized it as artificially restricting free enterprise.  “The intention was understandable,” says Wszolek, “but its effect would ultimately be negative, rather than positive.  It would be detrimental to the mom-and-pop businesses that it was trying to protect.”

Wszolek had read about the REALTOR® Party’s Land Use Initiative program, and immediately contacted Maggie McShane, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at his state association, who helped to get the ball rolling.  Once the request was granted, GNIAR sent the proposed ordinance to Robinson & Cole, the firm retained by the National Association of REALTORS® to review and comment on land use issues.  “We were on a really tight deadline, and I didn’t even know if it would be possible,” says Wszolek.  “Not only were they incredibly responsive, but they highlighted areas of concern that I hadn’t even recognized as issues.”  In the meantime, GNIAR reached out to the local homebuilders’ association and a network of statewide retail businesses, to join together in voicing opposition to the ordinance.

Wszolek presented the Town Council with a letter from 2017 GNIAR President Nathan Reeder, clearly stating the association’s concern that the proposed regulations would have a negative impact on property values and real estate marketability in Munster; as well as expressing GNIAR’s desire to help the council and other stakeholders to develop an alternative course of action.  He followed up with the memorandum provided by Robinson & Cole, detailing its findings: the first section outlined various grounds on which the proposal could be susceptible to legal challenge; the second raised issues that could be harmful to the town, should it adopt the proposed ordinance.    

At the next Munster Town Council meeting, much to Wszolek’s surprise, the council member who had introduced the ordinance made a motion to reject it, citing objections from the REALTORS® and numerous business owners.  She took the opportunity to comment that her proposal wasn’t intended to be ‘anti-real estate,’ but, rather, an attempt to create the best possible atmosphere in Munster.  The proposed ordinance was defeated by a unanimous vote.

Says Wszolek, “It was the best possible outcome, and we couldn’t have done it without the high quality review and technical support provided by the REALTOR® Party.  We were able to maintain a helpful, non-adversarial stance, and our involvement was well received by the Town Council.”  As the GNIAR logo says, he adds, “We are the voice for real estate in northwest Indiana: we have all sorts of resources available, and we’re happy to sit down and craft a solution for the benefit of all.”

To learn more about how the Greater Northwest Indiana Association of REALTORS® is protecting property values and the marketability of real estate in its region, contact Chief Operating Officer, Joe Wszolek, at 219-795-3600.

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Washington REALTORS® Help Revitalize Downtown Bellingham

In 2015, a neighborhood in the city of Bellingham, Washington, received a few fairly modest, highly creative additions intended to improve the quality of life and build community. They included a painted concrete ‘soapbox’ for anyone to preach from, and a hanging garden adding vibrant greenery to the side of a multi-storey car-park: signs of life that signaled the slow but steady revival of the city’s downtown district, the vitality of which had been drained by the arrival of shopping malls in outlying areas several decades ago.

The 534-member Whatcom County Association of REALTORS® (WCAR) had supported the placemaking competition that brought these colorful improvements to the city streets. The following year, in 2016, a Level 3 Smart Growth Action Grant kicked its involvement up a notch: as a major sponsor of a placemaking event that drew 24 competitors and more than 500 community members, resulting in five new projects and paving the way for even more. WCAR positioned itself as a distinctly positive force in Bellingham’s urban renewal.     

WCAR Executive Officer Perry Eskridge credits Past President Cerise Noah as being the one with the vision to engage the REALTORS® in revitalizing the city center. “She was at a Downtown Bellingham Plan meeting when the placemaking concept was pitched, and recognized it as a good project for the REALTORS®,” says Eskridge. “She also realized that if we succeeded in getting a REALTOR® Party grant, we’d need a community partner to help implement the program, so she forged a partnership with Sustainable Connections, a highly effective local organization that got the job done, and made it great fun for the community.”

Rose Lathrop, Sustainable Connections’ Green Building & Smart Growth Manager, organized a colorful competition that attracted dozens of proposals to add life to Bellingham’s North State Street corridor, a high-profile downtown location suffering from outdated infrastructure and lack of public funding. The event was called “KAPOW!” and the super-hero theme packed a punch of creative energy. Eight projects, chosen for their creativity, innovation, potential to be realized and social impact, were presented to an enthusiastic crowd at the Mount Baker Theater in a rapid-fire pecha kucha format, which allows each competitor just under seven minutes and twenty PowerPoint slides to convey a concept. 

WCAR 2016 President MaryKay Robinson, who served on the committee that chose the finalists, notes how fun it was to watch the parade of dynamic, well-organized proposals, of which three were granted the Mayor’s Choice Award, the juried Superhero Award and the People’s Choice Award. “We had funding budgeted for those three awards,” she explains, “but the great thing was that two audience members felt compelled to fund two others that had appealed most to them. So we actually had five winners!” Among them are a coin-operated all-weather dance space; a giant sidewalk hopscotch game; and a bicycle maintenance, map and repair station. WCAR opted to finance the State Street light installation, part of a solar system scale model that will bring a more human, pedestrian element down the length of the North State Street corridor, says Eskridge.      

Lathrop agrees that the event was a tremendous success, and reports that the process has also inspired the city of Bellingham to make additional investments on State Street, including re-striping for reduced lane widths and traffic calming measures. Based on the strength of the 2016 event, she is now planning a KAPOW! placemaking event for this year focused on Birchwood, a  neighborhood separated from the rest of the city by both economic barriers and physical divides, notably a ravine and an airport.

Beyond the enlivening benefits for the city, says Eskridge, the placemaking events and projects shine a positive light on the REALTORS® as they invest back in to the community. “It’s good to be a part of the good things happening here in Bellingham, and we’re very grateful to the REALTOR® Party for its support of our efforts.”

To learn more about how the REALTORS® of Whatcom County are helping to revitalize areas of downtown Bellingham, Washington, contact Perry Eskridge, Executive Officer of the Whatcom County Association of REALTORS®, at 360-671-5477, or WCAR 2016 President MaryKay Robinson at 360-734-7500.

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Huntsville REALTORS® Build Partnerships and Promote Diversity in Northern Alabama

Recognizing that minority representation in its leadership didn’t accurately reflect the diversity of its membership, its community and the real estate industry at large, the Huntsville Area Association of REALTORS® (HAAR) has embarked on a determined initiative to encourage the engagement of minorities in its leadership structure. Under the direction of 2016 HAAR President Kathy Mann, the first African American woman to serve in the position, the association is using a Diversity Grant from the REALTOR® Party to help revive the local chapter of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB), the historic organization founded by African-American industry professionals in 1947. In partnership, the REALTORS® and the REALTISTS®, as NAREB members are known, are moving toward a stronger future in northern Alabama.

Mann explains the impetus behind HAAR’s support of NAREB: When she became president of HAAR, one of her goals was increasing its minority membership involvement and leadership. A work group was formed to help find solutions to getting more minority members engaged with the association and how to help address issues in the community such as improving minority homeownership and affordable housing. “Four years ago, I learned about NAREB and attended a national meeting. I loved what it stood for, and what it was accomplishing as a national organization focused on economic opportunity for all,” she says. The work group decided that revitalizing the local NAREB chapter that already existed would be the perfect solution. HAAR member April Parker was elected as the new president of the Huntsville Association of Real Estate Brokers (HAREB,) which now numbers fourteen members.

HAAR Chief Executive Josh McFall says that at the board level, the association is constantly looking to get new people involved. “NAREB is a great channel to expand our leadership with professionals of diverse perspective and experience,” he says. “We’re proud to be able to support our local chapter with outreach and training that will help its members succeed and, hopefully, join our efforts.” In July 2016, Parker, Mann and McFall worked together to apply for a Diversity Grant from the REALTOR® Party to support leadership training and community outreach for the local REALTIST® board, activities that coincide with the NAR Core Standards requirements.

When the grant was received, Mann and Parker hit the ground running. They’ll soon be launching a membership drive among contractors and other professionals associated with the real estate industry, to increase participation in HAREB. In early November, HAAR supported a regional NAREB leadership event in Birmingham, which was attended by eleven of the fourteen current HAREB members, and where Parker shared information with her fellow leaders about partnering with local REALTOR® Associations. She has planned training sessions throughout 2017 that will cover leadership principles and practices, business etiquette and professionalism, how to set up a business, and tax and finance issues. All the training will be hosted at the HAAR offices. The HAAR Board of Directors has also granted one HAREB member ex-officio non-voting status on its board, giving the new leader valuable insight into the governance of the REALTOR® Association.  Says Parker, “We’re bringing together a group of passionate people.  As we reach out to real estate professionals in our community, they’re excited about these opportunities, and the inclusion. Several of our HAREB members are already serving on HAAR committees!”

For local consumers, Parker has developed a two-part series on homeownership and credit-worthiness that was so well received at a local church, that HAREB has been invited to present it at a local college, and to high school seniors and their parents at a local school. “That’s our goal,” she says, “reaching the community that our members will serve. Thanks to all we’re able to do with this grant from the REALTOR® Party, they’ll be prepared, and so will we.  I’m so grateful to Josh, Kathy and HAAR for recognizing the importance of NAREB being part of the REALTOR® Association.”

To learn more about how the REALTORS® of Huntsville, Alabama are strengthening their community by supporting diversity in their industry, contact HAAR President Kathy Mann at kathydmann@gmail.com, HAREB President April Parker at aprilparker@usa.com, or HAAR Chief Executive Officer Josh McFall at 256-536-3334 or josh@hbrmls.com.

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Massachusetts REALTORS® Energize to Fight Energy Audit

According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Massachusetts has been the single most energy-efficient state in the country for the past five years, a rank of which the 24,000-member Massachusetts Association of REALTORS® (MAR) is justifiably proud.  But when a bill in the state legislature this past session threatened to require an energy audit to produce an energy score for all houses being listed for sale, MAR leapt to the defense of the state’s homeowners.

Annie Blatz, MAR’s 2016 President, is quick to point out that protecting the environment is a priority for its members, and that the association supports sound policies and programs aimed at protecting and conserving energy.  However, she notes, REALTORS® oppose any policy that arbitrarily restricts private property rights. “Massachusetts housing stock is among the oldest in the country at an average of 54 years. A mandated mechanism that rates homes in terms of their perceived energy efficiency would impose an unfair advantage on older homes entering the market.”

The concept of required energy audits and scores has actually been in the air for years, explains Robert Authier, MAR’s CEO.  “Our Government Affairs Department has been successfully tamping it down, but this summer it really gained traction, and we needed to mount an aggressive effort to derail its momentum.”  MAR turned to the REALTOR® Party for help launching a media campaign and grassroots advocacy response that helped to convince key decision makers that voluntary programs with enhanced incentives was a preferable approach to improving residential energy efficiency.

A $25,000 Issues Mobilization Grant from the National Association of REALTORS® was matched by MAR’s own Private Property Protection Fund.  “The application process was easy,” says MAR General Counsel and Director of Government Affairs Michael McDonagh, who has tapped in to REALTOR® Party funding for other Government Affairs projects in the past, but never one as urgent as taking the energy audit language out of the energy bill.  “It wasn’t overly burdensome, which was key, since a lot of us were out of the office, in the trenches up on Beacon Hill,” he recalls.  “The staff at NAR was great, and expedited the process so that we got the funds right when we had to go in to overdrive.”

With online, radio and newspaper ads, MAR’s campaign applied pressure to the various districts represented by the three state senators and three representatives on the conference committee considering the final energy bill.  “We worked with our local associations to mobilize constituents of those districts to reach out directly to their legislators, and the response was powerful,” says McDonagh.  “It was the advocacy of our locals that made the difference.  We heard from a number of legislators that the message was heard loud and clear, and in the end, we won the day.” 

That message focused on the value of working with the state’4 major electric and gas utilities to find ways to encourage all homeowners to complete voluntary energy audits, and to improve the existing incentives for energy efficiency upgrades.  MAR has already been partnering with Mass Save®, a statewide program financed largely by a modest surcharge on utility bills that offers substantial giveaways, rebates, discounts and loan programs for upgrades from light bulbs to HVAC equipment.  “By engaging our 24,000 members to enlighten their clients about the benefits of having an energy audit, and all the savings available through Mass Save®, the utilities can reach a significant number of homeowners and energy consumers,” notes Authier.  “For our members, it provides a great opportunity to touch base with past clients, and to add value to their service to new buyers too.”

“At the end of the day, REALTORS® care about the environment, and want homeowners to invest in their properties,” concludes Blatz.  “By working closely with the utility companies and programs like Mass Save®, MAR is helping to advance both these causes.”

To learn more about how Massachusetts REALTORS® mobilized to protect their state’s homeowners from mandatory energy audits and scoring, and how they’re working to maintain Massachusetts’ ranking as the most energy efficient state in the U.S., contact MAR’s Michael McDonagh, General Counsel and Director of Government Affairs, at 781-839-5520, or Eric Berman, Director of Communications, at 781-839-5507.

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Kickstarting Efforts to Make Macon Better was as Easy as ABC

When it comes to identifying the issue that prompted the 400-member Middle Georgia Association of REALTORS® (MGAR) to host a public forum on affordable housing last December, the simple answer, says Arizona White, Chair of the association’s Affordable Housing Committee, is that “There is so much need!” 

The need for information, education, employment and for focused attention on all issues of poverty as they correlate to access to fair and affordable housing was clear to the committee, says White.  With a poverty level near 23.5% in Macon-Bibb County, she explains, the resulting cycle of blight, crime and hopelessness affects the entire community.  MGAR decided to take the ambitious step of addressing all the issues under one roof in a single three-day span, with a goal of connecting Macon residents to available resources, and building collaborative partnerships to tackle targeted challenges.  Qualifying as a Fair Housing Partnership Project, the forum received $5,000 from the REALTOR® Party’s Diversity Initiatives Grant program, and was presented jointly by MGAR and key local agencies, government officials and the local newspaper as “Macon A Better Community: The ABC’s of Transforming a Community through Empowerment and Collaboration.”                                                                              

The forum took place in early December 2015, on the campus of Wesleyan College.  Free and open to the public, it drew more than 150 participants on each of the three days, with session topics ranging from entrepreneurship and community development to career and college planning; a local jobs fair; and workshops for homeowners, homebuyers and senior citizens.  For real estate professionals, there were sessions on helping clients to prevent foreclosure and grant programs available to first-time home-buyers. 

A special invitation-only “Collaboration, Community and Commitment” session was moderated by Dr. James Beverly, a local representative to the Georgia State House who was instrumental in developing the forum.  Bringing legislators, community leaders and various local agencies together to formulate action plans addressing critical needs within the community, this is where big strides were made, says White. 

One of the major issues discussed, for example, was the fact that nearly 300 homes in Macon have no working indoor plumbing; before the close of the session, MGAR and the Macon Water Authority had stepped forward and formed a partnership to address the issue.  “If you think about all the implications associated with the simple lack of running water, from healthcare to education,” White points out, “and multiply that by 300, it’s huge.  So we’ve worked out a plan to elevate that level of basic sanitation in Macon, which will bring the whole community up with it.”  The first step, already underway, is to identify the owners of all the properties in question; then, the partnership will work with plumbing companies to have indoor plumbing either repaired or installed. 

In matters of plumbing and beyond, momentum created by the forum has been strong, and feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with many participants congratulating MGAR and its partners on offering opportunities to do more than just talk about the issues.  In engaging its city in facing the many facets of blight and poverty head-on, the association is clearly a significant part of the solution.

To learn more about how the REALTORS® of Middle Georgia are taking the lead to help their community improve access to safe, fair and affordable housing, contact Arizona White, the Middle Georgia Association of REALTORS®‘ Affordable Housing Committee Chair, at 478-972-0517, or Association Executive Sandy Davis, at 478-471-7336.   

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Charrette helps Austin REALTORS® Imagine Their Community

It was a classic stand-off of Texan proportions, between a big developer and a suburban neighborhood.  A 31-acre, twelve-building office park not far from downtown Austin had been bought by a Dallas-based developer, who sought to re-zone and re-develop the property along higher-density mixed-use lines, in keeping with the city’s recently adopted 30-year growth plan, known as ‘Imagine Austin.’  The property’s neighbors, already concerned about traffic congestion, saw only tall buildings, increased traffic and no benefit to themselves in the proposal. 

Lawn signs went up in protest.  The controversy became bogged down in tense negotiations and eventually came to loggerheads.  From the beginning, there was a great deal of REALTOR® interest in the project, known as ‘Austin Oaks,’ says Andrei Lubomudrov, Policy Analyst of the Austin Board of REALTORS® (ABoR;) in fact, the northwest Austin neighborhood in question is where a high concentration of ABoR members live, and the City Council Member representing it is a REALTOR®, herself. 

The opposing parties agreed to engage in a charrette, an intensive collaborative design and planning process in which all stakeholders have a voice.  In a gesture of good faith, the developer asked that the city Planning and Zoning Commission undertake no further work on the application, and the owner also committed $88,000 in funding for the charrette.  ABoR secured a Smart Growth Action Grant of $15,000 from the National Association of REALTORS®, which it contributed in the interests of reconciling redevelopment goals with the values of the community.  This is the second charrette in as many years that ABoR has sponsored through Smart Growth Action Grants; the first helped to create a vision for a stretch of Austin’s underdeveloped South Central Waterfront, and shone a spotlight on the need for zoning updates as the city rewrote its land development code. 

A national expert and local professionals guided the process of the Austin Oaks charrette.  Over the course of several weeks, a number of community information meetings and ‘Vision & Values’ workshops were held to gather opinions and ideas that would inform the central element of the charrette: a week-long design workshop at the end of January 2016.  More than 250 neighbors participated in this intense phase, and in another show of good faith, the owner of the Austin Oaks property came down from Dallas to spend the charrette week working with neighbors and designers.  The week began with a day of background information, including presentations on traffic, environmental conditions, demographics, real estate market trends and zoning.  A baseline plan, reflecting what could be created on the property under current zoning, was drawn to serve as a reference.  In the days following, the design and engineering team worked feverishly to present alternative plans based on the community values determined by the preceding workshops, revising them according to public feedback until a general consensus was reached.  In the end, a strong majority of neighborhood participants accepted additional development impact in terms of square footage and traffic, to ensure that the ‘Preferred Plan’ includes real community benefits like parkland, bike lanes and a trail along the creek. 

“What impressed me most was the way the facilitator emphasized fairness and trade-offs: shorter buildings mean a bigger overall footprint; preserving heritage trees would mean taller buildings; and so on,” says Lubomudrov.  “The brilliance of the process was the constant striving for a balance of competing priorities.  Not that it was easy—but, as an approach, it really worked.”  He points out that the transparency of the public process is an important point of leverage, and that both sides are expected to abide by the design that emerged from the collaborative effort.  Having NAR as a sponsor kept the charrette from being solely developer-funded, and thereby increased its credibility, he adds.  “Having this significant contribution from a group without a direct stake in the process made it more even-handed; even ABoR has no direct stake in the site, beyond wanting good growth-planning for Austin.”

To meet certain time restrictions of the Zoning & Planning Commission, the charrette had to take place in fairly short order, even though the redevelopment of Austin Oaks will take years, thanks to a number of existing leases. “It’s been a contentious process, but I think it will all be worth it in the end,” says Lubomudrov. 

To learn more about how the REALTORS® of Austin are finding ways to help communities reach compromise in optimizing their development, contact Andrei Lubomudrov, Policy Analyst of ABoR’s Public Affairs Department, at 512-454-7636.

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In Atlanta, Chili and RPAC Go Hand-in-Hand

Sometimes a great cup of chili is just a great cup of chili; but for the Atlanta Board of REALTORS® (ABR) these past four years, it’s been the means of attracting increasing levels of investment in the REALTORS® Political Action Committee (RPAC)—and an increasingly good time!

Since 2012, the 5,700-member board’s event calendar has featured a Chili Cook Off for RPAC investment.  What began as a modest event with modest expectations has exploded into a rollicking sell-out party with eager sponsors (like the local Gordon Biersch Brewery) and a waiting list to enter the friendly competition. As Lorieal Green, ABR’s 2015 Governmental Affairs Committee Chair, explains, “Because I served on NAR’s Housing Opportunity Committee, I already knew the impact receiving a grant could have.  The 2015 RPAC Fundraising Grant helped move this event above and beyond what we had achieved in the past.  It was a perfect storm of great people working together on innovative ideas with extra funding to ensure those ideas would come to life. And fortunately, the weather cooperated!”  Indeed, the early November rain stopped just in time for tents, booths, and tables to be set up in the parking lot of the ABR campus, ready to welcome 30 chili teams and more than 360 hungry and discriminating chili “judges.” 

By the end of the evening, ABR had raised more than $20,000 for RPAC: $5,000 beyond its goal, and more than twice what it had in previous years, with nearly twice the attendance.  Team entrance fees were scaled according to booth location, and all the most desirable spots sold out first.  Each admission ticket came with three tokens to vote for the Best Chili, and additional tokens were available for purchase.  The Best Booth was determined by anonymous judges who roamed the event, secretly assessing each team’s creative efforts. 

Michael Fischer, who chaired last year’s Fundraising Sub-Committee of the Governmental Affairs Committee and serves as ABR’s current GAC chair, describes the Chili Cook Off as a celebratory event in the RPAC calendar, one that is lots of fun and not so high-pressure.  “Our goal for the 2015 Chili Cook Off was to continue growing the event, capping off our successful year with a final fundraising push.  For 2016, our focus will be on ramping up public relations, so we can better disseminate our purpose and goals to the membership,” he says, noting that, “Though it’s an internal event, we’ve got teams and sponsors from all over the industry, from lending institutions to law firms to foundation water-proofers: the Best Booth last year went to a pest control company.”  The challenge he faces in increasing attendance is not interest—word spreads fast!—but venue capacity and parking.  He’s considering having a shuttle run from a local elementary school to handle the overflow at the upcoming October 27 event.  

In 2015, the $5,000 RPAC Fundraising Grant from the REALTOR® Party provided major donor recognition in the form of personalized beer steins that were presented along with the Cook Off Awards, a DJ who kept up a lively beat and a videographer who captured all the good times and good taste of the evening.  “The video has been a really important take-away, and a great PR piece,” says Fischer.  “We’ve been able to leverage the footage in so many ways.”  Jen Booth, ABR’s Public Relations/Board Services Coordinator couldn’t agree more.  “I love having this video,” she says.  “We screen it as part of a continual loop on the TVs in our lobby, and at New Member Orientations.  Anytime people are in the seats in our classrooms, we’ve got it playing on the A/V system.  It shows members and industry colleagues having fun, networking and investing in RPAC all at the same time.”   The video is featured on a dedicated “Chili Cook Off” page on the ABR website, a platform for event publicity and information.

Governmental Affairs Director Robert Broome points out that in terms of having developed a fundraising event that is truly fun for all, the ABR Chili Cook Off is wildly successful.  “The excitement and attention translates into more members understanding the importance of RPAC to the real estate industry, so the long term benefit is huge.”

2015 ABR CHILI COOKOFF from James Futch on Vimeo.

Watch the video at: https://vimeo.com/148755063?utm_source=email&utm_medium=vimeo-cliptranscode-201504&utm_campaign=28749, and to learn more about how the Atlanta Board of REALTORS® is cooking up red-hot results for RPAC, contact Governmental Affairs Director Robert Broome at 404-732-0631.

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Bronx-Manhattan North Association of REALTORS® Uses Placemaking to Spur Pride and Positive Engagement

What started as two people talking about how to spend $2,200 to improve the atmosphere of a bleak urban space, resulted in a vibrant public arts project that is now valued at $50,000, attracted a visit from a Supreme Court Justice, and, most importantly, has spurred pride and positive engagement in its neighborhood.  

Eliezer Rodriguez, Association Executive of the Bronx-Manhattan North Association of REALTORS® (BMAR) explains that he’d learned about the REALTOR® Party’s Placemaking Grant program at a Smart Growth training seminar at the National Association of REALTORS®.  “My immediate reaction was ‘Of course! Why wouldn’t we?!'” he recalls, upon hearing about the modest grants intended to create places to bring people together.  He reached out to several Bronx Community Boards, and challenged them to come up with a project in response to the opportunity; one representative sprang forward. 

That was William Rivera, then chairman (now district manager) of Bronx Community Board 9, who had already launched an ambitious neighborhood improvement project, the first of its kind in the Bronx.  Rivera took Rodriguez to the underused stretch of street adjacent to the Soundview/Morrison Avenue train station that was slated to be developed into a pedestrian plaza, a collaborative project between the New York City Department of Transportation and a neighborhood non-profit, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice.  “There was this awful-looking wall…” says Rodriguez.  Standing there looking at it, they realized it could be transformed into a theater of sorts, projecting a vision that would leave viewers feeling good about where they were.   

In fact, decades before, the neighborhood had spawned a number of renowned ‘aerosol artists’ who had gone on to earn international reputations.  Though busy and in high demand, the members of TATS CRU were easily persuaded to return home to take on the project, free of charge; BMAR applied for and received a Placemaking grant of $2,200 from the REALTOR® Party for materials; and the mural was soon a work in progress.  As Rivera explains, “This particular neighborhood has so much to be proud of: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is from Soundview, and so is hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa.  It is distinguished by the subway itself, and by its shaved ice vendors.  We asked the artists to celebrate all these elements, and they went to town!” 

The community came out in force to support the artists as they worked, watching and cheering every day over a two-week period this past summer as the wall came to life.  “The mural is wonderful,” says Rodriguez.  “It says, ‘This is your community.  These people come from your community.  Take pride in it.  Preserve it.'”  The unveiling of the new work of art coincided with the annual Morrison Avenue Festival in mid-August; in attendance was honored guest Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose likeness is prominently featured on the mural.  Rodriguez notes that Soundview’s most famous native daughter spent about an hour at the event, chatting and friendly, and clearly proud of her neighborhood.   

Because the mural is highly visible from the train, BMAR has received calls of interest from other local boards and from people who don’t even live in the neighborhood, but who simply travel through on their daily commute.  “They see what we’ve done, and ask ‘How do we do this, too?'” says Rodriguez, adding, “I want everyone who made this possible, all REALTORS® across the country, to know that this $2,200 investment in our neighborhood has realized not just a significant monetary value, but incalculable benefits of placemaking and community building.  We got so much more than we ever expected from the grant, and we are so grateful!” 

On the heels of this success, BMAR has stepped-up its engagement with the community even further: it is now working with a Smart Growth Action Grant from the REALTOR® Party to involve increasing numbers of community stakeholders in planning the development and growth of this Bronx neighborhood.

To learn more about how the REALTORS® of the Bronx-Manhattan North are helping to build pride in their neighborhoods, contact BMAR Association Executive Eliezer Rodriguez, at e.rodriguez@bmar.org or 718.892.3000.

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