In my mid-20s, with a full mop of hair and an equal head of idealism, I had the good fortune of working for the California Association of Realtors (CAR) from 1980-1982. A housing activist before that, I came to CAR to help work on an ambitious plan to help solve the state’s housing problem. I had a heady job description and was nervous about working for a powerful industry trade group, but I was impressed that they took a chance on me.
We didn’t break the back of the housing affordability crisis, but we successfully organized an independent coalition of lenders, developers, Realtors, labor representatives and nonprofits dubbed “Californians for Housing,” to advocate for more housing.
Life-long friendships were forged during this short but electrifying period. The unforgettable tribal intimacy gave me a genuine fondness for this crazy industry and a better understanding of the engaging struggle over housing. Soon after, I launched my journalism career writing about these same issues for California newspapers.
Current CAR CEO Joel Singer was a budding CAR researcher at the time with a striking vision for organized real estate. An economist and tenacious executive, he set a new standard for trade association leadership. His ultimate tribute may be his diverse and savvy management team, many who have been with Joel for 30 years and longer.
Last week, lots of memories came back to me.
I moderated a CAR panel of policy wonks — academics, government officials and think tank experts — at the Real Estate Summit: Reclaiming California’s Housing Future. Joel and his leadership team continue to fight the good fight, cajoling their membership to confront the big issues facing California.
I was impressed by the hundreds of Realtors who showed up, giving up a valuable work day, to understand the world a little bit better. The experts were smart and interesting (kinda), but I was most impressed by the comments and questions from the attendees. The smartest people in the room were in the audience — working agents who confront the consequences of bad policy every day.
Grassroots real estate is a diverse lot, with different points of view, hailing from assorted communities with varied ethos. What they have in common is the love of real estate.
A 30-something Realtor told the story of trying to help build pop-up housing for the homeless in his city. He shared his frustrations when the local municipality kept tearing the units down.
Another agent described how rich people were buying second and third homes in tony West Los Angeles. This privileged bunch are not leasing them out for short or long-term rentals, just letting them sit empty. She felt like this was wrong — “this is valuable housing that is wasted.”
Another Realtor gave a rousing speech about the problems with the homeless. She acknowledged the need for compassion, but she described the woes it creates for the rest of the community. She blasted local leadership for not getting its act together to solve the homeless quandary.
One Realtor complained about how small property investors were often left out in the cold when it came to local government actions. Their investments and their hard work are usurped, she argued, when arbitrary rules are enacted.
This crowd has an abiding belief in private property rights, less as an ideology, but more from their practical grasp of the dangers from eroding them.
Another agent ranted about the ills of rent control. She was frustrated that the panelists said the solution was building more housing, but pointed out that new rent control rules would kill home construction.
Currently, a California state law exempts new construction and single-family homes from rent control and permits a landlord to raise the rents when an apartment is vacated. Proposition 10, dubbed the Affordable Housing Act, is on the ballot in November and would close those protections.
The CAR crowd, and Realtors in general, often tilt more right than left on these issues, but in the detail, you find a committed group of people who see the world from all sides and from the ground up, not the top down. Plus their varied stories explain vividly why the housing mess is so difficult to clean up.
Local realtors experience firsthand the consequences of bad policy and have empathy for those who suffer from local and state actions, or inactions. Generally, agents are not big shots, they are working people who understand what is really going on in their own communities.
They are grassroots real estate at its best.