Real estate broker confronts Obama on housing

People in Real Estate: LuAnn Levine

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If, as Andy Warhol said, everyone eventually gets their 15 minutes of fame, LuAnn Lavine is getting hers.

Or at least five, maybe six minutes. In the week or so since she stood up in a crowd and asked President Obama how he planned to help the housing market, the Geneseo, Ill., real estate agent has been showered with media attention — here she is, asking her question in a clip on "NBC Nightly News," there she is on CBS’ "Sunday Morning." Here she is in a Chicago Sun-Times story, there she is on her local news.

Most improbably, perhaps, there she is in the lead sentence of influential columnist Maureen Dowd’s Aug. 21 piece in the New York Times, explaining why she sought out President Obama on his recent bus tour through western Illinois.

"Everyone was so hopeful with him, but Washington grabbed him and here we are," Dowd quotes what Lavine said in a New York Times interview a few days earlier. "I just wanted him to stay strong and don’t take the guff. We want a president who is a leader, and I want him to be a little bit stronger."

The widely syndicated Dowd column has rocketed around the Internet, and Lavine has spent days clearing away emails and fielding reaction from locals and reporters.

"It’s been a very unexpected, very surprising, big week," Lavine said.

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All she set out to do, really, was just go and see Obama, she explained. She entertained a vague desire to ask him a question when he held a "town meeting" at Wyffels Hybrids, a seed company in nearby Atkinson on Aug. 17, but she had no specific agenda. The main thing, she figured, was to get through the door.

"I got up at 2:45 a.m. (on Aug. 15) and stood in line to get my free ticket," said Lavine, who voted for Obama in 2008. "I got there at 3:30 a.m. and I was No. 34 in line. Once I had the ticket in my hand, I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m going to get to see the president of the United States — do I want to ask him a question?’ "

She tossed around a couple of ideas about the real estate market, but concluded they were too specifically about business issues, she said.

"They seemed like things the general public wouldn’t understand," Lavine said. So she decided to wing it if she were singled out by the president.

Obama spoke for about 15 minutes to the assembled crowd at Wyffels, explaining that he was asking Congress to extend the payroll tax cut, calling for the creation of more jobs to rebuild infrastructure, and urging Congress to pass more trade deals that would send American-made products abroad.

Then he called on members of the audience to ask questions.

First up, a farmer asked the President for fewer regulations and paperwork. He replied by urging him to contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture with his concerns.

Lavine, seated in the third row from the back, decided to go for it.

"I was raised to believe that if you want something, you don’t be shy," she said. "I kind of waved my hand, like, ‘Pick me, pick me!’ " she said.

He did.

Though she appears confident in the WhiteHouse.gov video of the meeting, she wasn’t, she said.

"If you know me, my voice was quivering," Lavine said. But she plunged ahead.

"I own a local real estate company here in Henry County, in Geneseo, so you know where I’m headed — housing," said Lavine, who owns the Re/Max Hometown Advantage brokerage.

"Every week, I sit at the kitchen tables of families who are here today, and I listen to stories of lost jobs, being upside-down in their house, asking for help, (asking) what programs are out there," Lavine said to the president.

"In May and June, my phone was ringing, I was busier than all get-out," she continued. She told him she thought she was seeing progress in the local housing economy.

But, she said, "since the debt-ceiling fiasco in Washington, the phone has stopped," she said. "We have no consumer confidence. Interest rates are a record low. I should be working 15 hours a day, but I’m not."

What are his plans, she asked, to "get the country out of where we are"?

Obama began to explain that his administration had made it a priority to set up programs to help families to stay in their homes.

"We have been trying to push the banks, push the servicers to make loan modifications that will allow people to stay in their homes," he said.

Then Lavine respectfully interrupted.

"Can I please say something?" she asked the nation’s chief executive. "The loan-modification system has been a nightmare," she said. "Short sales are a nightmare and the lenders are so tight and you have to be so perfect, and it’s not a perfect world."

The president acknowledged the size of the problem, replying that there have been a "couple million" home-loan modifications, but "the problem is the housing market is so big."

"We were starting to see things bottom and to see things to start to pick up," he told her and the crowd. "I can’t excuse the self-inflicted wound that was the debt ceiling (debate)."

A lot of banks have now recovered, he said. "They need to have slightly tighter lending criteria than they used to have, obviously, because that was a part of the reason that we had that housing bubble," Obama said. Nonetheless, he said, the banks need to be more willing to grant credit to individuals who are good risks.

In his view, "it will probably take this year and next year for us to see a slow appreciation in the housing market," he said.

He thanked her for her "very good question," and moved on to others in the audience.

Lavine said she wasn’t exactly sure what had just happened.

"I took a big, deep breath and said, ‘I’ve been talking to the most powerful man in the world, what have I just done?’ " she wondered.

And as the gathering ended and Obama’s bus rolled out of town, Lavine found herself a focus of attention.

"I had a line of press waiting to talk to me after the town hall," she said. "They wanted to know if I was happy with his response.

Was she?

"Well, he didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know," she said.

At her office, reaction awaited.

"My inbox of my email was full within five hours," she said. "Text messages were coming from fellow Realtors. They said, ‘LuAnn, way to go,’ a lot of congratulations, ‘you represented us well,’ ‘we’re so proud of you,’ and ‘you summed it up.’ "

She said she thinks her polite disagreement with the president is what continues to draw reaction, days after the event.

"He started to talk about the loan-modification program and I so kindly interrupted him — I think that’s what has gotten all the press, quite honestly," she said. "I felt I was saying to him, ‘No, Mr. President, I’m the one who’s out there at people’s kitchen tables and you’re not going to tell me you have a loan-modification program that you’ve put in place that’s working, because it’s only working for a small number of people.’ "

She insisted that she is, indeed, often at those kitchen tables.

"It happens once a week," said Lavine. "I’m sitting at someone’s kitchen table and listening to their story. They’re asking me, ‘What measures do I take? I’m upside-down.’ They may be saying, ‘My husband has taken a job and we have to sell our house, but maybe it’s not smart to take this job if we can’t sell.’

"Or they’re saying, ‘LuAnn, we can’t make the payments,’ " she said. "They’re saying, ‘Our debt-to-income ratio is too high and now we can’t get refinanced. We need to sell to make things more comfortable for us.’

"It’s a Catch-22 — they’re not late on their payments so the bank won’t look at them for a short sale," she said. "They’re stuck."

As she told Obama, the late spring and summer markets were moving along well enough until the debt-ceiling fight erupted and spooked consumers. "I was on vacation when the debt-ceiling crisis was going on, and on my first day back in the office a third of my sellers called and wanted to reduce their prices — six sellers in 24 hours," she said. "They were uneasy."

Buyers are uneasy, too, she said.

"All of their comments are, ‘In light of what’s going on, I’m uncomfortable and I’m going to pull back a little,’ " she said. "They say, ‘We’re going to wait and see what happens.’ My phone is pretty quiet these days."

Her town, Geneseo, is about 150 miles west of Chicago and near the Quad Cities area on the Mississippi River. Farming is flourishing, she said, but otherwise unemployment is an issue. In the Quad-Cities area, which suffered major flooding in the spring, joblessness stood at 7 percent in June, down from 8 percent one year ago but up from May’s 6.6 percent.

"I’ve been personally affected," she said. "I have to buy my own health insurance, and sometimes it’s been tough to make that payment. I have had some rough times."

She hopes she made an impression on Obama.

"It was five minutes — wow, that’s a long time to talk to the President, one-on-one," she said. "I wanted him to hear that here in middle-class America, where the corn looks healthy and you’re having this bus trip, people are struggling."

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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