10 Years Later: Remembering 9/11

REALTOR® association leaders reflect on the tragedy and the reaction to it.

September 1, 2011

Martin Edwards, 2002 NAR president, current president of the REALTORS® Relief Foundation

What do you remember about 9/11 and the establishment of the REALTORS® Housing Relief Fund?

I was speaking at a Mississippi Association of REALTORS® convention. I was walking on stage and a lady grabbed me and said, “Martin, you’ve got to get home.” The first thing I thought of was my daughter, Michelle (an attorney), who was in New York working on a case. I got to the Biloxi airport about 10 a.m. and went to the National counter and the attendant told me that all the cars were reserved. I told him, “Son, there aren’t going to be any flights coming in to this airport today.” He said, “You’re right,” and threw me a set of keys and told me to just take the car. When I got to Memphis and tried to return the car, they wouldn’t take it at first because there was no record of the rental.

The first person I called was my daughter. The second was Richard Mendenhall. Richard and my conversation the day of 9/11 was remarkable. I was driving from Biloxi to Memphis. He was in Columbia, Mo., laid up with a bad back. We agreed that REALTORS® are going to want to do something. This is our Pearl Harbor. It’s our responsibility to make a statement; REALTORS® are going to want to help this country. Of course, Richard’s a veteran of the U.S. Army Rangers, so you can imagine what was going through his head. But we agreed we’re too old to fight! Richard called Frank Sibley [NAR senior vice president of Communications], and we began to focus on what we could do.

It just seemed to fall into place that housing was our mission as an association and ought to be our mission for this project. It started with NAR earmarking $1 million to help surviving family members of 9/11 victims. The next contribution, I think, came from Bob Hale at the Houston Association of REALTORS®.We decided whatever we did, 100 percent of every dollar would go to survivors. We had to get over the thought that [the survivors] would get the money back through some other means. Helping them with immediate financial assistance and showing what REALTORS® are made of – that was our goal.

How long have you been involved in the association at the national level? Before 9/11, do you recall NAR ever undertaking an effort like the Housing Relief Fund?

In the late 1970s I became a CCIM instructor. I was CCIM president in 1989; that got me involved with NAR. And no, I don’t recall anything like this. There is a time—late 1999, 2000—when the association changed. The Good Neighbor Awards were introduced in 2000. Richard and I started working on the HOPE awards that year when he was president-elect. Our Habitat for Humanity partnership started in 2001. Those activities were the catalyst to change. The change was galvanized with the founding of REALTORS® Housing Relief Fund [later the REALTORS® Relief Foundation] in September 2011.

In December 2001, NAR put out a notice that the fund would be closed. When did you decide that the REALTORS® Relief Foundation could have a broader purpose?

I’m not sure; somewhere along the way we said, if our mission is housing, as other catastrophes come, let's keep going. We’ve never tried to raise money except during certain events.

What does the work of the foundation, and specifically the 9/11 fund, mean to you?

I made a speech in Dallas this year and reflected on that. It was the association’s finest hour. This is a REALTOR® family, and families help families. We protect homes. We protect communities. Those moments, that’s when we changed as an organization. We made a conscious effort to reach outside the profession into something else.

A little aside: I was meeting with the Leadership Development group in Washington [a group of REALTORS® selected to participate in leadership training]. I went in there and gave them a little history of the foundation. Lo and behold, there was a lady in a group in tears. She said, "I’m the one who took you to the airport that day."

 

Richard Mendenhall, 2001 NAR president; served as acting EO of the Missouri Association of Realtors during part of 2011

Why did NAR decide to start its own fund rather than taking the simpler path of giving to an established charity?

I honestly don’t think we ever had a discussion about giving to an established charity. Our goal was very specific. We just wanted to do all we could to help the families of the victims not to lose their homes. We were very focused and pledged that every penny of any donation would go to that purpose and no money would be used for administration cost.  

Did the level of giving (more than $8 million) surprise you?

The enormous generosity of REALTORS®, the public, and even small children giving to our fund will forever be etched in my mind. I just could not believe the amount of money that poured in.

Looking back on the effort, which lasted no more than four months all told, what are your thoughts on the value of the REALTORS® Housing Relief Fund—not just for the survivors who benefited but for REALTORS® and for the country as a whole?

The value of the fund cannot be measured in just money. NAR donated the letters we received from the victims’ families to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Each letter tells an individual story of tragedy, survival and grateful appreciation. Many, and I mean many, REALTORS® across the country found their own individual solace in working to help raise money to give all of those people at least some comfort.

Many people forget that the real estate markets just came to a halt for several weeks while, as Americans, we were trying to sort out what had happened and what it meant to all of us. The REALTORS® Housing Relief Fund gave our members something to focus on that they felt could make a positive difference.

I remember being at our annual conference in Chicago about two months after 9/11, and an NAR member came up to me and said, “Why have we not advertised to America the success of our fund and efforts?”  I answered quietly, “Because the REALTORS® made a pledge every penny would go for the victims. It doesn’t matter what the world knows; it only matters what we know.”  The member said, “Thanks, I can live with that!”

When asked what I recall the most regarding that event, I remember the speed, the hearts, and the souls that REALTORS® across the country exhibited with their support for the fund. I was so proud of each and every one of them; I will remember their outpouring until the day I die.

Given the considerable financial challenges that NAR members have faced in the past four or five years, do you believe the REALTORS® Relief Foundation continues to be essential?

REALTORS® get bad press because many think we just sell property. In actuality, we help people through one of the most important decisions in their lives, finding the place they will call home, the place they will call their business or their investment.  We help people find quality of life. When REALTORS® see others lose their quality of life though tragedy, they really care and they take action. So, yes, the work of the foundation is an extension of who we are. It cannot be measured except by the heart.

The foundation has come full circle. As president of NAR in 2001, you sought to make a statement and help those who'd been victimized, and you succeeded in a spectacular fashion. This year, within your own state, homeowners faced the devastation of the Joplin tornado—and your state was the recipient of some funds. How does it make you feel?

What most members don’t know is that about 10 days before the Joplin tornado hit, I had volunteered to serve the Missouri Association of REALTORS® as the Interim CEO. The day after the storm, we went into immediate action to try to raise money, but honestly I did not know where we could get it. I just knew we had to start. When I got the call from my very good friend Martin Edwards, who told me that the foundation was sending us considerable money, I shed tears. I could hardly talk to him. I will never forget my emotions of that moment.

 

Sal Prividera, director of communications, New York State Association of REALTORS®

Where were you when you heard about the terrorist attacks?

We were at our September business meetings in Lake Placid. We awoke to a beautiful blue clear morning. Very shortly after we geared up for the day, we were in the staff office with a TV on and the first plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. At that point, we were all thinking it was an accident. That was quickly dispelled. There were 10 of us in front of the TV when the second plane hit. Some people did head home right away. Others stayed and took care of business. Of course, everyone’s thoughts were miles away; people just wanted to be with their families. I recall the conversations and planning during the meeting about how REALTORS® would respond.

Once you learned about the REALTORS® Housing Relief Fund, how did you gear up to help survivors? What role did REALTOR® volunteers play?

I haven’t talked about this in a long time. On the 11th I woke up a communications director. By the 15th, I was a social worker, full-time for the next three months. I remember putting out a couple of issues of the magazine on weekends. It literally consumed my life for three months.

I was taking the phone calls from surviving family members and spinning the completed applications out to our volunteers. We had 80 volunteers divided into three teams; they reviewed applications and made the ruling on funding. They also, in some cases, delivered checks to the families.

Very quickly, we developed a relationship with Catholic Charities and uniformed officers association [of the Fire Department of New York]. We worked with them to determine whether or not applicants would qualify. One thing that REALTORS® should be proud of is that we had money out before anyone else. It was a reasonable process, not mired in red tape, and everyone we assisted was legitimate. In New York State alone, we helped 712 families.

Ten years later, what does the REALTORS® Relief Foundation mean to you?

I think it was a wonderful fit that we were helping people stay in their homes. I know the folks who were directly involved were very touched by what they did. Frankly, while others were struggling to deal with what happened to us as a country, we were able to step up and do something. As George Wonica has said, “I couldn’t move rubble. What could I do?”

REALTORS® should be very proud of the way they banded together nationally to help in some cases their neighbors, in some cases people they didn’t know, their fellow countrymen. We also helped some REALTORS® who suffered a loss. And our first checks were going out within two weeks, while the professionals in the disaster relief realm were still trying to figure out how to get their money out.

I flipped through the thank-you letters before this call. It really brought me back. It made me proud to work for REALTORS®. We had nothing in place on the 11th, and yet we were able to distribute money quickly.

 

Susan Goldy, director, Halstead Property Riverdale office, The Susan Goldy Team, Riverside, N.Y., 2011 president-elect of the New York State Association of REALTORS®

What do you remember about 9/11?

I was at the [New York State Association of REALTORS®] meeting in Lake Placid. People were at the bar, which had this big-screen TV, and we were watching it unfold.

I have two adult children. At the time, my daughter was at law school at NYU, near the World Trade Center Towers. My son was working for a law firm. He was flying from Boston that day on the next flight—same destination, same airline—as one of the hijacked airplanes. [American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, destined for Los Angeles, crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.; United Airlines Flight 175, also destined for Los Angeles, crashed into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m.] I couldn’t reach either of them because the phones weren’t working. I decided not to stay for the meetings.

When I left, I couldn’t get back to New York because all the roads were closed off. My mother had been in the hospital and was getting out, so I decided to drive to Massachusetts to see her. The thing that struck me most vividly was that I was the only person on the MassPike [The Massachusetts Turnpike, a portion of Interstate 90]. There was no one going either direction for miles.

I was finally able to reach both my children later that night. My daughter was in view of what was going on. I went back to New York as soon as possible, but my son couldn’t get back for several days.

What was your feeling once the scope of the attack became clear?

Living in New York, it was almost impossible not to know someone who lost someone. There was a terrible feeling of helplessness and wanting to do something, and the New York State Association of REALTORS® and NAR came up with a plan. We called it housing relief, but I believe it was as much a relief for those of us who took part. Without excessive paperwork, without bureaucracy, we got help right to people’s homes.

Sal [Privadiera] is the primary person responsible — I give him great credit. He was phenomenal. He didn’t have any instructions or prior experience to help him through this, but when something touches your heart like this, it’s instinctive.

I managed one of the task forces that reviewed applications. We got the applications after they’d been screened and turned them around within 24 hours. My office also received checks and delivered them throughout city, wherever necessary. We were delivering checks so soon that I recall one person who received a check was still hoping he would find his wife alive.

Agents delivering checks had to be sensitive. People were still in a period of almost shock and trauma. This was with the backdrop of 24/7 news and stories published daily on the victims. We counseled [agents] not to say too much but let the person receiving the check lead the conversation.

What was the most memorable part of the experience for you?

Getting the applications and seeing the diversity of the people — and all were suffering. We helped with rentals in the projects and with mortgages for those who’d suddenly lost their breadwinner. There was no income limit on suffering. To me it was a reflection of New York City and a reflection of our industry.

The other thing was, it took me a while to go down to Ground Zero, but when I did, seeing the notes and flowers and the inscriptions from people all over the world and recognizing how this affected everybody, everywhere … it was very moving. Even today, when I have conversations with people, they have vivid memories. It’s one of those moments — you never forget where you were.

How did 9/11 affect your business?

When 9/11 happened, we had the concern that everybody would leave New York City, that they’d see it as a target. What struck me was that business actually picked up. What I understood from that was the emotional sense of people seeking shelter, wanting security, wanting a roof over their heads. That’s part of what led to the increase in business that year.

What did your participation in the Housing Relief Fund mean to you?

I’ve been in the business over 35 years, and I have had many, many instances of achievement and satisfaction and enjoyment. I don’t think there’s ever been anything that’s touched me as profoundly.

I don’t recall NAR being involved in a relief fund in that way prior to that time. It was a turning point for the state; it was a turning point for the country.

What does it mean for the REALTOR® organization to undertake these kinds of relief efforts, particularly given the difficult environment REALTORS® are working in today?

We have a responsibility in any kind of an economy to help other people seeking the safety of shelter, whether it’s Katrina, Haiti, Alabama, North Dakota. I think that if we have an ability to help, we have a responsibility to do so.

 

Carol Kope, principal broker and CEO, Westchester Homes, Yorktown Heights, New York

What do you remember about 9/11?

I was at our meetings in Lake Placid. I always have the Today show on until I leave to go to work. My husband was watching the TV and said, “Oh, my God, was that a plane that hit the Towers?” What went through my head was, where’s our Strategic Air Command? I knew it was a matter of minutes from Plattsburgh, but that was closed. [The Plattsburgh Air Force Base was closed on Sept. 25, 1995, as part of a series of base closings mandated in by a 1990 law.]

We went down to the restaurant area, and everyone was watching. My daughter worked in lower Manhattan, but I couldn’t get through to her. I can’t explain the combination of turmoil and dead quiet. It was very eerie. We were all panicked and numb.

Before 9/11, you had experience dealing with victims of crime, isn’t that right?

Yes. Before I got into real estate in 1985, I was a police officer. In 1973, I had gotten involved in writing New York State’s sex crimes laws. Before 1974, you needed independent corroboration — almost an eyewitness. It was hard to get people to report, and it was hard to get a conviction. We changed the laws, but it took a long time.

From there I helped start a rape squad/special victims unit. It was the first on a county level in the country. I developed a rape evidence kit and wrote protocol for hospital staff working with sex-crimes victims. My staff was available 24/7 to meet with victims. We also developed training programs for police officers.

How did that experience help you deal with the aftermath of 9/11?

I personally delivered five or six [REALTORS® Housing Relief Fund] checks, maybe more. It was a very emotional time, and the crisis training helped me tremendously. One victim was a police officer in Rockland. I talked with his surviving wife with two children. It was devastating to hear her, but she probably felt better venting with me than with anyone else. She told me her husband was the kind of guy who would rush in to help.

I also delivered a check to a woman in Pelham. She looked at the check and said, “You know, this is the first assistance I’ve received.” Her husband worked in the World Trade Center, and she was very concerned about how much he may have suffered. She showed me in a picture of the building where her husband’s office would have been, and I was able to tell her, based on my experience, that he did not suffer. He died instantaneously. She said, “You have no idea what a relief you’ve given me. You’ve taken a weight off my shoulders. God sent you here.”

It was a miniscule thing, but I felt like I was doing something to help. Those of us who did this were fortunate we could take an active role.

What did it mean to you to have the REALTOR® organization undertake this effort and subsequent efforts, such as the Hurricane Katrina relief?

It’s what the REALTOR® organization is all about. It’s about people, about caring for your community — wanting people to be happy and have the American Dream.

Stacey Moncrieff

Stacey is director of content strategy for the National Association of REALTORS® and editor-in-chief of REALTOR® Magazine. In addition, she oversees the quarterly REALTOR® Association Executive magazine and manages a variety of e-communications for REALTORS® and REALTOR® association executives. She has been with the NAR for more 30 years, starting as an associate editor with Real Estate Today magazine, where she covered sales and finance topics.

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