Inman has selected Kenya Burrell-VanWormer, 2018 chair of the Houston Association of Realtors, as its Real Estate Person of the Year. Burrell-VanWormer made waves this past year taking a controversial public stand against a proposed dues increase from the National Association of Realtors.
Standing up to powerful forces, Burrell-VanWormer showed leadership, fortitude and thoughtfulness in engaging with a controversial and important subject for the real estate industry.
“I’m honored to be selected. In all sincerity I was just doing what was right by our members. That’s what I was charged to do being chair of the association,” Burrell-VanWormer told Inman in a phone interview this week.
“But for you all to recognize what we did as a team to bring this message forward, I’m truly honored and humbled and appreciative of the opportunity, so thank you.”
In late March, NAR proposed raising dues for its more than 1.3 million members by $30 in 2019 with additional built-in increases of 2.5 percent per year beginning in 2020. The trade group said it would use the increased funds to boost its political advocacy spending and pay for a Realtor-owned transaction management platform for members, building maintenance and renovation, and programs devoted to professionalism, financial wellness, and strategic business innovation.
In April, HAR’s board of directors voted to formally oppose the proposal, which was rejected by 97 percent of its members. Instead, HAR proposed that funds from existing programs — including NAR subsidiary Realtors Property Resource (RPR) and a windfall from NAR’s investment in DocuSign — be used to increase NAR’s political advocacy. In April and May, Inman published two open letters to the industry written by Burrell-VanWormer as well as a response from NAR.
“While I respect the difficult situation NAR is in, I think true leadership means asking questions and not going along to get along. I believe it also means that you look to the member and think about what is in his or her best interest. Without members, none of us would be where we are,” Burrell-VanWormer wrote.
At NAR’s midyear conference in May, the trade group’s leaders chose to postpone a vote on the proposed 2.5 percent annual increases (that proposal is now off the table). At NAR’s board meeting at that event, Burrell-VanWormer — also an NAR director — made a motion to refer the $30 dues increase proposal back to committee, but the motion was defeated and the board passed the dues increase with 80 percent of the vote.
Inman interviewed Burrell-VanWormer to learn why she stood up to NAR, how she and her association dealt with Hurricane Harvey and what advice she has for agents’ success.
Could you tell us a little bit about how you got into real estate?
Sure. Real estate was not my first career, but it was definitely a career that would offer some flexibility and an opportunity to be able to create my own financial destiny. I had a really good friend who was getting her real estate license, and she said, “You know, you should consider getting your license.” I took a leap of faith and decided to go into real estate full time 17 years ago.
In that [time], I’ve been able to do quite a bit, from residential sales to working for a national homebuilder to working with one of our luxury firms in town, the title side, and now working on the financial side in the industry.
What did you do before real estate?
I worked for Continental Airlines, which is now United Airlines. I left the company as a recruiter that was responsible for the western division of the U.S. recruiting flight attendants, airport agents and mechanics. So I was traveling a lot.
When did you take on the role of chairman at HAR?
It’s a one-year term as chair and I was installed this time last year. We just installed our 2019 officers this past week. So I will officially be in this role until December 31.
I imagine that you’ve been traveling a lot this past year. Is that the case?
Travel? (chuckles) It’s been a busy year. I think I really was a road warrior in every sense of the word, from the conferences that we attended as an association to traveling to different associations across the state to represent the Houston Association of Realtors. I’m very appreciative for the opportunity to represent our association and to learn. That’s something that’s really interesting about our profession is that there are always opportunities to learn, to network and to meet others.
Do you find when you go to these real estate conferences that people think of HAR in a particular way? What do they ask you about?
What’s really interesting is when you walk into a room with our CEO, Bob Hale, you think someone’s walking over to speak to you and see how you’re doing — they’re just pushing you out of the way to talk to Bob Hale because he’s such a visionary. Traveling with Bob this year has been like traveling with a rock star.
Truthfully, it’s unbelievable what he’s been able to do to really position our association to be one of the best in the country, if not the best. The technology, the professional development, our ability to attract consumers, and to keep our 39,000 members informed and engaged is something that you don’t find in every association.
Is there something you wanted to accomplish as chair?
What I really wanted to accomplish is to make sure that I represented our members. I believe that is something that I was able to achieve this year. When you have 39,000 Realtor members in an association and you are the chair it is your job to make sure that voices are heard, and that you represent the members as best you can.
I imagine that members don’t all think alike and have the same opinion. So how do you handle that when you have conflicting asks from different members?
That doesn’t happen here. (laughs) Just kidding. No, that’s what’s great about having a diverse board and diverse membership is that it’s good that we don’t all think alike. It’s good that we all have different opinions. We welcome that. We always say, “Hey, we can agree to disagree at this point.” But at the end of the day, if there is an issue that we have in-house, and we don’t agree, we do decide as a group [that] we’re going to walk out as unified voice and we’re going to leave what happens in the board room and we go about our business.
There’s nothing personal about not agreeing with someone. And that’s something that we take pretty seriously. We’re professionals and we’re all adults. The last thing we want anyone to think is that something is personal because it’s not personal. It’s just a difference in opinion.
What made you decide to publicly question NAR’s proposal to raise dues?
Once we received that proposal, the first thing we did was go to our members and ask their thoughts on what a dues increase would mean to them. Because at the end of the day, a dues increase doesn’t affect HAR, it affects the members that we serve. [We] sent a survey out to our members and our members responded. Sometimes it’s hard to get surveys back, but when it affects your pocketbook, we had their attention.
After polling our membership, we found out that they didn’t want this and they wanted to know what we were going to do about it. Once we met and discussed the results of that poll and did a little more research about it, we decided that this was something that we couldn’t stand for and that our members wanted us to speak out and to make sure that NAR was aware that they did not support any type of dues increase. That’s when we took the position.
Before you wrote your opinion pieces did you reach out to NAR privately?
Absolutely. As soon as we decided to speak out against the dues increase, the first thing we did was contact our leadership, and that was our state leadership and our national NAR leadership.
What sort of response did you get back?
That’s interesting. We had several conference calls with our state leadership, including their CEO and leadership team. They were not in support of us not being in support of the dues increase. That was made abundantly clear to us.
We had called to discuss what we thought would make sense and why we were against it. Then, after having conversations with our state leadership, Bob Hale had several conversations and we had several emails back and forth with the leadership team and with the CEO of NAR. So every step of the way that we decided to communicate our dismay, we had our leadership team involved in the conversation.
What was it that made you go public after that response from them?
We felt that if our members were against this dues increase, there were probably other members that were against a proposed dues increase, and the only way to find out if there was additional support was to go public. Really the only venue that we had for going public and reaching other Realtors was through your resources at Inman News. That’s what actually made the connection for us to be able to reach out to different associations and other members across the country who were not thrilled about a proposed dues increase.
We were looking at the reallocation of funds. I think what we were able to do was to really help members understand that there are other ways of creating that type of opportunity for financing. If you have the funds somewhere else, use those funds. Reallocate if needed, but don’t go to the member first. We were just trying to protect the member.
What do you think your public opinion pieces accomplished?
I think it’s accomplished the fact that if you don’t agree with a proposal, whether it’s from your local, your state or your national association, that you have the right to speak up and speak out. And that’s the exactly what we did. I think it really brought awareness to members … in a very respectful way. Again, none of this is personal. It’s just a difference in opinion.
Were you surprised when at NAR Annual they said they were tabling the graduated dues increase?
Surprised and optimistic that enough noise was made for them to listen. So that was a win.
What are your current thoughts about how NAR is spending its money?
I understand there’s oversight with a finance committee. One of our executives is on the finance committee with NAR and, unfortunately, he wasn’t asked to participate again in 2019. That may have been because of the position that we took on the dues increase. So I would like to think that they have the right people at the table making the decisions on the budget going forward.
In terms of reallocation, one of the [places] you were proposing that the money come from was RPR. What do you think about the recent decision to end the RPR-Upstream partnership?
It was a bit of a surprise, but it wasn’t a surprise, if that makes sense. I just think that this is another example of them being prudent now with the funding. I think it’s just a matter of them really looking at what they’re investing in a little bit closer, which is exactly what we should be doing, right? They’re supposed to be good stewards of the members’ money and that’s just another way, making sure they manage that properly.
Earlier this year when they said they were cutting some funding to RPR they basically said, “We’re keeping as much of RPR as needed to fulfill the Upstream agreement.” Now that that’s over, do you expect more changes at RPR?
I’m not too sure. It sounds like there should be more changes coming. But I’m really not close enough to that to know.
What is HAR’s relationship with NAR now?
We’ve always had a very professional relationship. Our CEO Bob Hale has had a great relationship with their current CEO over the years. This was an issue that we spoke up against, but it’s behind us. The members have voted. This isn’t the first time we’ve spoken up. We’ve had some issues in the past with a past chairman. It was the realtor.com issue. “Cut the chains.” That was years ago with Danny Frank.
We’ve created a culture that actually fosters inviting different opinions. If we rubber-stamped everything and just went along to get along, it’s not what our members want us to do. I have a daughter that’s 10 years old and I teach her, “If something isn’t right, you speak up.” That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s how I was raised. Make your voice heard. You may not always win, but you will be heard.
I was looking at your bio, and it says you’re an affordable lending relationship manager with JPMorgan Chase. Is that true?
Yes, that’s correct. I was recruited by Chase just a few years ago, and in my role is an affordable lending relationship manager, my primary focus is the Houston MSA, but my territory covers the greater West, so that includes Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Utah. In my role, my focus is to help with the affordable products and tools that Chase offers.
I do a lot of work in our LMI areas, the low-to-moderate income areas, providing grant opportunities for first-time buyers and creating partnerships with a lot of our nonprofit organizations. It’s something that’s near and dear to my heart because affordable housing today is not what it used to be. We’re kind of redefining what affordable is based on areas that are experiencing gentrification now. Being able to provide solutions to individuals who want to purchase and may not have the means to is very rewarding.
How do you measure success in what you do?
Success in my role … is really providing the relationship opportunities to our mortgage bankers to be successful, connecting the dots with some other relationships I have with Realtor partners and our home lending advisors. So connecting a home lending advisor to a builder who’s working in an area that’s considered LMIT, which means low to moderate income tract.
Being able to create opportunities for builders or even for buyers who are just receiving extra funds to help them with closing costs and to get into their homes, I see that as success: creating relationships and being able to provide an opportunity to our builders and to, at the end of the day, the buyers.
Was this past year a successful year, more or less so than other years?
This year was actually a very successful year. Our Houston market’s very strong and a lot of the markets we support outside of Houston have had some great success with increasing our homeownership in the low-to-moderate income tracts. So we’ve definitely seen some success this year, and I’m proud of that.
What do you think were the most important developments in the real estate industry this year? Why do you think they were important?
New business models have definitely been a new development across the board. Examples would be new companies that are in our marketplace. For quite some time we’ve talked about disruption in the industry. Disruption is here.
I feel like we’ve been kind of isolated from having Houston as a test market for a lot of these companies. So they test other markets, and they bring the business model to Texas, and now to Houston. Opendoor is in our market at this point. We have Compass that has joined our marketplace. A few other companies will be here first of the year. So it’s just an interesting dynamic now that we have in our marketplace.
What are you excited about looking ahead in 2019 for your business and for the real estate industry?
It looks like we’re going to have another strong year in Houston. Change is something that we need to just get used to. With new business models entering our market and a strong economy here in Houston, I’m looking forward to another great year.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry in your career so far?
The biggest change has been what technology can do to enhance our business. Fifteen years ago, we wouldn’t have a phone in our hand that can actually check listings, open a door for us, provide everything that you need. The technology that’s here to stay is just unbelievable with how you’re able to be mobile, truly mobile, and still take care of business. From smart signs in our yards now to drive time apps that we feature here at HAR, there’s just so much that surrounds technology and making our lives and our jobs that much easier, not only for us as practitioners but for the consumer as well.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in real estate? And how did you overcome them?
I don’t want to say this was the biggest challenge, but I’ll say that this was a challenge that we faced as an association. We changed our [multiple listing service] system recently from Tempo to Matrix. When you have 39,000 Realtor members who are used to working on one system to work and then you change it, it doesn’t bode very well. We had a great staff that helped to facilitate education and workshops and webinars and all sorts of options for being able to transition from a system standpoint. So that’s an association hurdle.
A personal hurdle was one that affected our marketplace tremendously: Hurricane Harvey. That had a huge impact on our market, not only for the consumers that we serve, but for Realtors who were affected as well. We were concerned that the effects of Harvey — because we had two weeks of really bad publicity — would affect the real estate market. And surprisingly, it did not. But we provided as much outreach and resources to our members as we could through educational events and making sure that our members were informed of resources.
At what point in your tenure did Harvey hit — was it before you became chairman or was it after?
It was before I became chairman, but it actually followed me into the year. We’re a year out from Harvey and we still have some people that are not back in their homes for maybe either financial reasons, insurance reasons, what have you. And there’s some people who don’t want to go back to their homes because they’ve been flooded once, twice, three times. And there’s some people who just don’t want to deal with this right now, the emotional toll that it takes on someone who’s had to leave their home and lose everything are real. Unfortunately, people are still dealing with that.
We have [more] investors now in our marketplace. It’s just been a completely different dynamic that we’re not accustomed to, with investors in some neighborhoods that had never flooded historically, but happened to flood this time. And now there’s a stigma with that neighborhood and people don’t want to live in that neighborhood.
How did you help your members deal with that particular phenomenon?
As soon as the disaster hit, we created a Facebook page. It was a Realtors’ resource page, basically, to help find shelter, food, clothing. When a disaster like this hits, you’re looking for the necessities, right? So we were fortunate enough that our chair at the time, Cindy Hamann, helped create a page immediately. I jumped in and helped.
I was in an island in my neighborhood. We had a creek that ran over its banks. I was stuck. But because I was stuck, I still felt like I wanted to be a part of the process and help and a lot of us felt that way. We had a base camp, so I’d get information, I’d post information. Who needs this, who needs that. And so you found yourself on the phone, on the Facebook page, on text messages, trying to help people find the resources they needed.
The first couple of days of the storm, we were just trying to find ways to help get the necessities, the basics and then we moved into “I have housing available. Does somebody need an apartment?” HAR actually created a page to help find temporary housing for Harvey survivors. So we did quite a bit as an association to try to figure out what can we do, how much reach can we have in the community.
People needed short-term housing and short-term housing is something that we really didn’t advertise on our site. But we created that page and that resource to members and to consumers. So that went over well.
Immediately after that, we created a panel of experts and had a Hurricane Harvey panel to discuss mold remediation, the impact of FEMA and how FEMA can provide assistance, tax implications, what does it mean now that your home is flooded. We found the right resources, and we partnered with our multicultural groups as well to make sure that all members were educated and aware of resources that were available and that all segments of the community were informed.
We just wanted to make sure that we could be a part of the solution and help as many people as we possibly could. I am proud of how we came together not only as a city, but as an association. We have deeper relationships with the city of Houston and some of the other organizations that are helping to prevent flooding. Flooding is a big issue in our area. So we’re fortunate to have a seat at the table through our government affairs department. Local elected officials know that HAR is involved and has a seat at the table.
Do you think we’re headed for a recession or a housing market slowdown?
I can only speak to what’s local. We just looked at some numbers and locally we are in a good position in Houston, Texas. We have a very strong economy, and we’re looking at having another phenomenal year in 2019.
Do you think there’ll be fewer sales, more sales? Higher prices, lower prices?
I think one of our challenges for next year is really inventory. We are in a seller’s market, and we have very low inventory right now. So the issue that we can see in 2019 is limited inventory and affordable inventory. Surprisingly, we’re seeing boosts in our luxury market right now, which is great, but we want to make sure that we still have that inventory and affordability factor into play.
Did Hurricane Harvey play a role in that?
We had low inventory before Harvey and that seemed to stay true through Harvey, so no, it didn’t really have that much of an effect. We’re very fortunate.
What’s your advice for agents on how to succeed and remain competitive?
Staying informed, staying educated. Honestly, they need to read Inman News to understand what’s happening in the industry. I think now more than ever, they need to listen to the consumer. We say that, but they have to really do that. If you aren’t listening to the consumer, someone else will. And providing that value proposition that they’re looking for. What value are you bringing to the table, making sure that they understand that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.