at local level
By Bill Kozar | Content Marketing Specialist
Local real estate issues and the rights of local property owners have been important to Illinois REALTORS® since its founding in 1916, but the roots of today’s local Governmental Affairs Director (GAD) program got their start in the late 1970s.
It was through the efforts of Metropolitan Governmental Affairs Liaison Paul Williams that Illinois REALTORS® fought to protect REALTORS® and property owners from municipal ordinances, rules and procedures that increased red tape, infringed on their rights, raised taxes and imposed fees on real estate transactions.
Then, in 1989, Illinois REALTORS® hired Mike Scobey as coordinator of local govenmental affairs to work with local associations on hometown issues. Like Williams, Scobey worked with local associations and local governments, largely in northeastern Illinois.
Then, in March 1996, when the Chicago Association of REALTORS®’ (CAR) local government affairs director left, that association’s leaders asked for recommendations on a replacement.
“It was a lightbulb moment,” says Illinois REALTORS® Director of Governmental Affairs Greg St. Aubin. “I asked Gary (Clayton, Illinois REALTORS® Chief Executive Officer) ‘Why not hire our own GAD?’”
Not long after, Mike Mini was hired as Illinois REALTORS®’ first local GAD. Soon, other local Illinois associations started asking Illinois REALTORS® to hire GADs to represent their interests.
In 20 years, the program has grown from one local GAD to 12, including Scobey, who is now the Assistant Director of Advocacy and Local Issues, and serves as the local GAD for Oak Park Association of REALTORS® and liaison to the Northern Illinois Commercial Association of REALTORS®.
“The unique thing about Illinois REALTORS®’ local GAD program is that we’ve done so much more than simply providing local members with lobbying representation,” St. Aubin says: “We’re fully integrated and embedded in our philosophy of what we do. We commit huge resources toward backing up the GADs with cutting-edge advocacy tools that make the REALTOR® voice heard loud and clear at the local level.”
These tools include:
- Access to expert legal analyses by association attorneys and through NAR’s Land Use Initiative Program
- The ability to do targeted mailings.
- Robocalls and live calls.
- Grassroots mobilization to engage members and the public on critical issues.
- The ability to conduct economic impact studies and polling on issues to back up positions with strong data.
- The ability to access RPAC funding to support the election of local policymakers who understand REALTOR® issues.
Scobey and local GADS Brian Bernardoni, Jeff Merrinette and Kyle Anderson shared their thoughts on the program’s successes:
Q. Why do we have a local GAD program?
Scobey: “Even though local real estate issues have always been key to our members, in the late 1980s, home rule units started to discover how they could use their relatively new power. Ordinances on point-of-sale home inspection requirements, real estate transfer taxes, development impact fees, ever-escalating property taxes contributed to the need to monitor local government and then speak up about these policy proposals whenever and wherever they came up.”
Bernardoni: “From my perspective, the City of Chicago and Cook County have so many different policymakers who could impact real estate that it necessitates having vigilant watchdogs observing the issues. Sometimes, what happens in Chicago can have an impact on other municipalities, especially tax policy and zoning/building codes.”
Q. How were GADs received when they started?
Scobey: “I think we were well-received because REALTORS® could take some comfort in knowing a staffer was monitoring municipal governments, then taking action and mobilizing members when necessary.”
Bernardoni: “I was a lobbyist for the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, representing the high-rise office building industry, and I was an executive director for an economic development organization, so I was very familiar with the industry and the players. I was received warmly by members who knew me and had worked with me in the past. I surrounded myself with knowledgeable members who were vested in making sure we were headed in the right direction.”
Q. What were some of the most significant issues in the early days?
Merrinette: “Early in my career, in the early ’90s, the big issue was sign ordinances. There were a few towns which banned ‘for sale’ signs, and we overturned those prohibitions in a couple of years.”
Bernardoni: “The market in 2002-2003 was just starting to grow,” says Bernardoni, “so development issues such as affordable housing, building sprinklers and building codes were at the forefront. Health care and banks in real estate also were prominent. We were also mindful of issues of the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance (RLTO) and diversity.”
Q. How did Illinois REALTORS®’s program compare to other state association programs?
Scobey: “In the early ’90s, few other state associations of REALTORS® hired professional staff members to serve as local government affairs directors. Also, Illinois REALTORS® did something that few other associations did: we hired and trained GADs. From that came the ability to share experiences, learn from each other and draw upon Illinois REALTORS® resources.”
Bernardoni: “I think it is evident we have long been ahead of the curve. Boards across the nation have copied many of our programs. We have an extraordinarily smart, aggressive team that communicates well and advocates thoughtfully. The tools, the training, the education and the political acumen of this group is formidable. But I think the reasons we are ahead of the curve are even more interesting:
- We have engaged members who thrive on our success and seek us to get even more engaged.
- We have the resources to do the job well.
- We have a centralized focus — based out of Springfield — so we are collaborative and on a disciplined message across the state.
- We have longevity. Many of us have 10 to 15 years with the association. That gives us a competency/awareness/knowledge base which other states simply don’t have.”
Q. What was one of your biggest victories as a GAD?
Merrinette: “One of my biggest victories is actually a series of smaller victories. For more than 20 years, I have sorted through reams of traffic studies and reports for the DuPage County Impact Fee Advisory Subcommittee. While not glamourous, this work has held down the number of impact fees new homeowners must pay into the road system. Each year, I review the traffic reports and weed out all the projects that are not due to ‘new development,’ and this satisfies the court’s order that impact fees must be ‘uniquely and specifically attributable’ to new growth. In fact, we are re-evaluating the question of the need for road impact fees in DuPage County. I would love to be on the committee when we recommend dissolution of road impact fees.
“Another highlight was our constant battle with the Village of Bensenville. The mayor held absolute power over building inspections and real estate transfers there. When he decided to fight Chicago over the expansion of O’Hare Airport, he instituted several draconian inspection programs. We helped recruit a mayoral candidate to oppose him and a full slate of opposition trustees who won their races and took office. We recently did very much the same thing in Broadview last year.”
Anderson: “My greatest victory was working with Belleville city leaders to stop a vacant property ordinance. It would have cost property owners collectively more than $18,000 every six months for registration plus require increased insurance and inspection scrutiny. The ordinance was killed in committee and a partnership formed between the city and local REALTORS® to help address derelict properties.
“Also, I hope to use a grant to assess the current housing stock and set up a plan to help revitalize some of these declining neighborhoods. This is a fine example of REALTORS® providing solutions for local problems to help make our communities better. We were the only people at the table making the case against the vacant property registration and urging a more proactive approach to improving the housing situation.”