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REALTORS®  Legislative Live Blog

On Common Ground, Winter 2018: The New Neighborhood

There is currently a big focus in both the private and public sectors on re-examining and re-doing existing buildings and communities. New shopping malls are not being built—but underperforming malls are being redeveloped. To meet the demand for affordable homes in existing neighborhoods, accessory dwelling units are being added into the mix of housing options. Cities are retrofitting their streets to meet growth by making them more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. The new neighborhood—whether a community newly constructed or an older place reimagined.

Data from Traverse REALTORS® Proves Invaluable to Downtown Development Planning for Affordable Housing

In the highly desirable downtown neighborhoods of Traverse City, Michigan, affordable housing is scarce. Bounded by a beautiful bay of Lake Michigan on one side, and Boardman Lake on the other, the city's land base is already largely built, and development is further limited by zoning that restricts building height to 65'.  According to Kim Pontius, CEO of the 900-member Traverse Area Association of REALTORS® (TAAR), this presents challenges for the economy of the city, whose largest employers are located downtown; for the surrounding counties, which rely on the urban property tax revenue; and for the REALTORS®, who aren't able to respond to the demand for affordable housing where it is needed.

With a REALTOR® Party Smart Growth Action Grant, TAAR helped the city engage a specialized consulting firm to create a 3D economic model demonstrating the potential tax revenue from various possible development configurations. "This is just the information needed to assist developers and the City Commission in making good decisions for the community," says Pontius, noting that the municipal budget didn't allow for this level of analysis. In fact, it was the City Manager and the head of the city Planning Department who brought the project to TAAR's attention, and asked for funding assistance: the REALTORS® of the Traverse City region have earned a strong local reputation, when it comes to Smart Growth projects. The $15,000 grant covered about half the cost of the analysis, and the balance was funded by the city and county. 

The report itself was dramatic and clear. "I've been involved in economic development and transportation planning long enough to know that the whole world changes when you begin looking at situations in 3D, instead of 2D," says Pontius. Urban 3, the firm we hired, has tremendous expertise in addressing all the issues and conveying results with powerful visuals." The Asheville, NC-based firm spent several months collecting data, then developed its report, using colorful three-dimensional graphics that revealed beyond question where the highest tax-value development could occur. Joe Minicozzi, principal of Urban 3—and a very engaging speaker—presented his findings to a broad audience on four separate occasions, all of which TAAR helped promote: at a downtown theatre, at a local school auditorium, at the opera house and at a Rotary Club meeting. 

The report, called "Building Potent, Lasting Value in Traverse City," is posted on the city website, and that of TAAR, as is a link to Minicozzi's presentation. 

"It was no surprise that the highest taxable value by far is in the heart of the city," explains Pontius. "What Joe did was to show just how much higher, while attempting to enlighten the audience that going vertical is the only way to capture ample tax revenue for the city and county to prosper." Using examples of other cities that have limited building heights, Urban 3 showed how such restrictions will ultimately defeat the prosperity goal.  The report drills down and reveals that 52% the land in Traverse City is actually un-taxable, and therefore not part of the revenue stream, and shows the critical difference between a parcel's true cash value and assessed taxable value.  

Pontius reports that TAAR's support of the project has only strengthened the association's healthy working relationship with the municipal and county governments. "The head of the Planning Department and the City Manager can't say enough good things about the help the REALTORS® have provided," he says, adding, "It's clear we're continuing to serve the best possible future of the city. Now that the report exists, the data will be an ongoing critical reference. Meanwhile, it's planted seeds, and gotten people thinking."

To learn more about how the REALTORS® of greater Traverse City, Michigan are helping to educate planning commissions at the city, county, and township level, contact Kimberly R. Pontius, CEO of the Traverse Area Association of REALTORS®, at 231-947-2050.

Greater Lansing REALTORS® Help Elect a City Council Candidate for Much-Needed Change

East Lansing, Michigan, home of Michigan State University, is a town with serious budget troubles. Escalating legacy costs had been kicked down the road for years, explains Mark Dickens, Vice President of Policy and Operations at the 1,000-member Greater Lansing Association of REALTORS® (GLAR), adding that the City Council, mired in various divisive issues, had long focused on the generation of tax revenue, rather than solving the root problems. When two seats on the Council came up for election this year, with two incumbents fighting to retain them, GLAR was ready to help the fresh new candidate who was willing to listen to voters, and open to bringing about much-needed change.

The fact that Aaron Stephens is still a student at Michigan State was beside the point, says Dickens. 

"Aaron may be young, but he impressed us from the beginning," Dickens reveals.  The political science major, a life-long Michigan resident, scored the highest on GLAR's preliminary questionnaire for candidates, and was the only one of the three in favor of working with the university, and the Chamber of Commerce, to tackle the problems facing the city. GLAR applied for and received its first-ever REALTOR® Party Independent Expenditure Grant, which produced three mailers and an online advertisement for Stephens. "NAR held our hand through the whole process," says Dickens, noting that "NAR's Campaign Services team was unbelievably helpful. Once they had our information, they just ran with it!"

The election season saw a lot of mudslinging, and the REALTORS® endured some heated abuse after their PAC filing report was published by a critic on Facebook. "We stayed well out of the mud, and so did our candidate," says Dickens. "The REALTORS® were being referred to as 'outsiders'! If the people living and working in your neighborhoods, helping people buy and sell homes and make it a better place to live and do business are 'outsiders,' then you've got a real problem," he adds, wryly.

"Over the weekend prior to Election Day, in the worst Michigan weather imaginable, our candidate knocked on more than 2,500 doors. He was the only candidate reaching out to voters that way, and the voters responded," says Dickens. Because Independent Expenditure Campaigns in Michigan are not allowed any contact with the candidate, Stephens didn't actually learn about GLAR's support until he was shown the fliers featuring his picture and platform when he was out campaigning door-to-door. Although the GLAR Board Members had agreed to endorse Stephens, the secretive nature of an IE campaign meant that they were also surprised by the staff-driven effort.

Their candidate won a seat on the City Council by 379 votes. 

"We had been told, 'Good luck trying to change anything in East Lansing!'" says Dickens, "but if anything, this campaign has made us even more determined to try. Aaron already has two City Council meetings under his belt since the election, and clearly understands the challenges. He's just the person to take them on. We're very proud to have helped him get where he is, because he's going to help East Lansing." 

In two years, continues Dickens, the mayor's seat will be up for grabs, and GLAR is working with the Chamber of Commerce on a strategy. The election has also strengthened the REALTORS®' relationship with the university. "If we can't make a town with 50,000 students vibrant, there's a problem," says Dickens, "but now we know we can: NAR has given us the opportunity to achieve something for this community that was, until very recently, only a dream."

To learn more about how the REALTORS® of Greater Lansing are working for positive change in East Lansing by taking an active role in municipal politics, contact Mark Dickens, the association's Vice President of Policy and Operations, at 517-325-9046.

Summit County REALTORS® Use Education to Prevent Wildfires & Costly Legislative Mandates

Wildfires are a serious threat to Colorado's Summit County, where more than 23,000 homes are within the Wildland-Urban Interface, a government-designated zone indicating high wildfire potential.

"Insurance companies have told us that Summit County is 'Ground Zero' for wildfire risk, despite never having had a major wildfire," says Sarah Thorsteinson, Chief Executive Officer of the 580-member Summit Association of REALTORS® (SAR). To this dubious distinction, in 2013, the Governor's Taskforce on Wildfire added several troubling recommendations: that there be a disclosure at the point of sale that a home is at high risk for wildfire; that a website be created rating individual properties for wildfire risk; and that costly mandatory mitigation measures be put in place, along with an additional property tax. Concerned about the expense to property owners and would-be home-buyers, and the stigma this could mean for certain homes on the market, the REALTORS® set out to prove that voluntary programs could be just as effective in curbing wildfire risk. So far, the state government has allowed counties time to do just that, but the legislative threat has remained real.   

"Our Board of Directors recognized the need for us to be proactive," says Thorsteinson.  SAR developed a campaign whose three goals are: to educate the public to encourage voluntary mitigation of individual properties; to prevent mandatory requirements that would prove costly and detrimental to homeowners; and to continue building the positive image of REALTORS® as professionals who care about the community.  

For several years, the Summit Association and the Colorado Association had been sharing the expense of producing a mailer publicizing Summit County's popular free chipping program. The service encourages property owners to clear defensible space around homes and bring the potential wildfire-fuel to the curb, where the county workers collect and chip it several times per fire season, converting it to bio-fuel.  

In 2016, SAR created a Defensible Space Fund to help local families safeguard their properties. The fund was promoted on the mailers, and REALTOR® members began getting calls from the public. "Mitigation is not cheap—clearing can cost up to $300 per tree. And, understandably, people are afraid they will have to clear cut their properties," says Thorsteinson. "But, in fact, creating a defensible space around a structure can add value to a property by admitting sunshine and increasing views." In 2017, the REALTORS® were able to fund the mitigation of three properties. At the same time, a Game Changer Grant from the REALTOR® Party allowed SAR to publicize the county chipping program on television and radio, making the public even more aware that without voluntary mitigation, the government recommendations could be instated.  REALTORS® handed out work gloves and protective eyewear at local events, and volunteered to help seniors with clearing.

The REALTORS®' efforts are making an impact: the Lake Dillon Fire & Rescue Squad recently presented an award to Thorsteinson recognizing the association's work.  Local arborists and tree services are promoting the SAR Defensible Space Fund, and several have joined the association as affiliate members. Perhaps most telling is that when Thorsteinson had the opportunity to testify before the state legislature's Wildfire Matters Review Committee recently, rather than revisiting the threatened mitigation mandates, committee members asked if she needed seed money to replicate SAR's programs across the state. "It's been a real win!" says Thorsteinson. "We are thrilled to have been able to run such an effective campaign, and are so grateful to the REALTOR® Party for all its support."

To learn more about how the Summit Association of REALTORS® is leading the way in educating property owners about wildfire prevention and mitigation, contact Chief Executive Officer Sarah Thorsteinson, at 970-468-8700.

The REALTORParty.Com Launches Dec. 29

On Dec. 29, NAR will launch a new website, REALTORParty.Com, replacing the REALTOR® Action Center.  The new REALTORParty.com will be a holistic website that provides advocacy materials for state and local REALTOR® Association staff, and facilitates two-way opportunities to engage individual REALTORS® and associations in the REALTOR® Party. Learn more.

It is Not Too Late to Influence Congress on Tax Reform

Thanks to our members’ engagement, REALTORS have helped positively influence tax reform in some key areas.  For example, both the House and Senate have agreed to maintain deductibility of state and local property taxes up to $10,000, and to maintain Section 1031 tax-deferred exchanges in their present form for real estate investments. Take Action Now!

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