A Time for Giving

Economic forces, and the emotional pull of home ownership, helped drive both real estate and a larger sense of purpose after 9/11.

September 1, 2011

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, struck at a time when REALTORS® were ready, willing, and able to make a sweeping philanthropic gesture.

Even before 9/11, the association had made a decidedly humanitarian turn. In 2000, REALTOR® Magazine teamed up with founding sponsor eNeighborhoods to launch the Good Neighbor Awards program, a grant program that recognizes 10 REALTORS® annually for their involvement in charitable works.

That same year, the association had agreed to participate as a building partner in Habitat for Humanity International's "The Houses the Senate Built." The goal was to work with low-income families in all 50 states to build simple, affordable houses. NAR’s Housing Needs Committee had participated in a similar effort, the "The Houses That Congress Built," in 1998.

The following year, the association kicked off a long-term partnership with Habitat, pledging to sponsor and help build a house each year in the association’s conference city. NAR leaders broke ground on the first house in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood in July 2001.

Those activities were a catalyst to change,” says 2002 NAR President Martin Edwards, who became involved in the national association in 1989 when he served as CCIM Institute president. “The change was galvanized with the founding of the REALTORS® Housing Relief Fund in September 2011.”

From an economic perspective, real estate practitioners were feeling flush in 2001. After a three-year downturn in the late 1980s and early 1990s, brought on by overbuilding and the collapse of the nation’s savings & loan industry, the real estate industry was enjoying a steady upward climb. Annual existing single-family home sales increased by 50 percent between 1992 and 2001, according to NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® data. The economy was growing at a rate of more than 4 percent per year, and unemployment was less than 5 percent nationally. Inflation was low, between 2 percent and 3 percent, and interest rates were considered historically low.

Considering those factors, “some sense of good feelings was probably in the air during the immediate pre-2001 period,” says Paul Bishop, NAR vice president of research.

And it seemed as if the good times would go on indefinitely. Baby boomers were in their peak buying years, and home ownership was being pushed as a way for households to accumulate wealth. “Although home ownership has always been supported by favorable policies,” Bishop says, “this was also a time when home ownership seemed to be a sure thing, particularly once the dot-com bubble burst.”

NAR was a big part of that push. Just four months before 9/11, a partnership of real estate organizations, including NAR, held a gala in Washington, D.C., to kick off the biannual HOPE Awards program, to recognize individuals and organizations working to help minorities become home owners.

The country’s mood after the terrorist attacks served to buoy the industry even further. “When 9/11 happened, we had the concern that everybody would leave New York City,” says Susan Goldy, director of Halstead Property’s Riverdale office, in the Bronx, N.Y. Goldy managed the New York State Association of REALTORS® task force that oversaw the housing relief fund application process. “What struck me was precisely the opposite happened. 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.”

That sense of real estate as a secure investment in a post-9/11 world took hold nationwide. Home sales and prices reached a fever pitch mid-decade, and giving to the REALTORS® Relief Foundation also hit its highest point in those years, enabling the foundation to raise more than $9 million for hurricane relief.

The industry is still trying to gain its equilibrium from those go-go days and the association has taken another turn, concentrating greater resources on political advocacy. But the sense of satisfaction that came from NAR’s 9/11 effort and subsequent relief efforts remain as strong today as they did in those uncertain days of fall 2001.

“I don’t think there’s ever been anything that’s touched me as profoundly,” says Goldy. “It was a turning point for the state. It was a turning point for the country. Our market’s very different today, but I believe we have a responsibility, in any kind of an economy, to help others seeking the safety of shelter, whether it’s [in Louisiana after] Katrina, Haiti [after the 2010 earthquake], or North Dakota [after 2011 flooding]. If we have an ability to help, we have a responsibility to do so.”

Stacey Moncrieff

Stacey is executive editor of publications for the National Association of REALTORS® and editor-in-chief of REALTOR® Magazine.