WASHINGTON, D.C. — Realtors are lobbying their legislative agenda en masse this week during an annual meeting at the nation’s capital, and they want Congress to pass healthcare legislation that would allow trade organizations and some other groups to bundle members together to seek better rates on insurance.
Their congressional wish list also includes a familiar rallying cry — keep national banks out of the real estate brokerage business — as well as a request for Congress to challenge the federal banking regulator’s authority to approve banks’ real estate development plans.
Preserving the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners and expanding the Federal Housing Administration mortgage program to a larger group of borrowers are also priority issues for the Realtor trade group, which has about 1.3 million members.
Marcia Salkin, a senior policy representative for the association, said the group’s healthcare legislation, which is intended to lower the cost of healthcare for the many Realtors who are independent contractors and individually seek out their own healthcare, has “gone where no (Small Business Health Plan) bill has gone before — to the Senate floor.” Even so, it was a close call, with an 11-9 vote by the Senate Health, Education and Pensions Committee to support the bill in March.
Salkin spoke Wednesday morning during a federal priority issues briefing at the Realtor group’s annual Midyear Legislative Meetings and Trade Expo event.
The Realtor association is known well in Washington for its powerful grassroots lobbying efforts — the ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Realtors on a given issue by reaching out to the members through electronic communications. Realtors sent out about 150,000 letters to members of Congress in May 2005, Salkin said, following up with association leaders’ fly-in lobbying missions to Capitol Hill and a fresh round of 253,531 Realtor letters this month.
“I think a lot of you saw more of D.C. this year than you ever thought you would,” she said.
There are separate versions of the legislation — one in the House and one in the Senate. The House version passed with a 263-165 vote. But the legislation is by no means a done deal.
Jerry Giovaniello, senior vice president and chief lobbyist for the National Association of Realtors, told Realtors attending the briefing that Realtors are “right where you were two weeks ago” with the healthcare legislation, and that is “not good,” though there is still hope that the legislation will eventually be passed. Unions and corporations already have the ability to band together to seek group plans from health insurance companies, while trade associations have so far been locked out, he noted.
Lynn King, a senior policy representative for the association who also briefed Realtors on legislative priorities, read an 1809 quote from Thomas Jefferson about his worries in allowing the expansion of bank powers. “You are in very good company,” she said. King said that Realtors are pushing for passage of legislation that would ban national banking companies from engaging in real estate brokerage activities.
Also, King said that the Realtor group is working to “keep the heat on the OCC (Office of the Comptroller of Currency)” by asking Congress to prevent the regulatory agency from making controversial decisions that allow banks to participate in real estate development activities.
During visits to Capitol Hill this week to meet with legislators, groups of Realtors are vocalizing the group’s agenda directly to members of Congress and their staff representatives.
Ray Addison, a member of the Central West Tennessee Association of Realtors who works at a Coldwell Banker office in Jackson, Tenn., said he met with two Tennessee congressmen to discuss Realtors’ legislative priorities. The healthcare plan, he said, “may not happen this year but I hope it happens soon. We are making progress on it.”
The association is also promoting the need for affordable homeowner’s insurance coverage in disaster-prone areas.
That issue hits home with Deborah Valledor, a Realtor for The Team Advantage Realtors in Miami. “One of the biggest concerns (in Florida) is homeowner’s insurance. It is becoming really unaffordable. For the lower end of the spectrum, people are not able to buy. Others are having to bite the bullet.” Property taxes have jumped up with home-price inflation, and new homeowners are paying a disproportionate share of property taxes because of a state cap on the level of appraised property value of properties that has held property taxes in check for longtime homeowners. Insurance and property taxes can amount to more than the cost of a mortgage in some instances, she said.
Tini Sawicki, broker-owner for Realty World Sawicki in Amherst, Mass., and a member of the Realtor Association of Pioneer Valley, said there is also a problem with the availability of homeowner’s insurance in some coastal regions of the state. “A lot of people around the Cape can’t even get insurance,” she said.
Kimberly Allard, broker-owner for Century 21 Professionals and a member of the Plymouth and South Shore Association of Realtors, said Massachusetts legislators and staff were receptive to the delegation of Massachusetts Realtors who visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday. “We are pleased to see they’re interested and informed. On most occasions they’re already aware of the issue.” While the healthcare legislation is a key priority for the national association, housing affordability is a pressing issue in Massachusetts, she said.