Brainstorming for Opportunity

Starting or expanding a workforce housing program may seem daunting, but these experts say you can't afford not to. Here are some tips and resources to help you get rolling.

November 14, 2012

In examining your local real estate market, it's likely you wouldn't have to look too far to find an acute need for affordable housing. Maybe you're even aware of the programs and funds available to help ameliorate the problem. But who has time to apply for grants or convince associations to start new groups?

"It's very easy to take the next step," said Terri Marshall, executive director of the Charlotte Regional REALTOR® Association’s Housing Opportunity Foundation. "Your community is growing and changing around you, and as REALTORS® you cannot afford to be left out of that process."

Marshall joined John Bolduc, RCE, CEO of the Eastern Connecticut Association of REALTORS® to provide an overview of their workforce housing programs, and offer tips to REALTORS® and association executives at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo interested in replicating those efforts. Later, this Housing Opportunity Forum evolved into an animated discussion allowing forum attendees to share their experiences, ideas, and frustrations.

Balduc outlined the media campaigns, research, and community outreach programs his organization has been able to accomplish in the last few years. He specifically highlighted a program to create videos about the home buying and selling process to educate the public.

“The neat part about developing these is that we partnered with a video class at one of the local high schools,” Balduc said. He noted this partnership underscored their effort at “making contact with the community.”

Marshall highlighted an effort to do something different than the foundation had done in the past. From this, the Neighborhood Experience at Brightwalk was born. The event was designed to show how a public-private effort to revitalize a depressed neighborhood in Charlotte, N.C., resulted in a one-third drop in crime and a halving of the teen pregnancy rate. Over the same 10-year period, home values went from $63,000 to $109,000 in that area and median household income doubled.

Though their two local areas' housing needs varied widely, both Balduc and Marshall emphasized funding sources and the employer-assisted housing course from the National Association of REALTORS®.

"If your association isn’t offering this course, make them. Because every association is in need of workforce housing," Balduc said. He said his local association spent a bit more than $12,000 on more than a half dozen educational and outreach activities, and received almost $40,000 from NAR in grants for those same programs.

"Do you think that’s a good return on investment? We do," he said.

Marshall stressed the credibility that NAR matching funds lend to her projects.

"I like to apply for NAR funding to leverage other funds," she said. "Use it to that advantage, because it means a lot." She said that after they'd secured partial funding from NAR, she was able to get local donors to increase their promised contributions by telling them a national organization had signed on.

Marshall added that many local associations assume they need a large staff and a complex nonprofit structure in order to be adequately funded, but that’s not the case.

"It’s not a difficult grant application process at all,” she said. “You have NAR staff who are willing to walk you through the process.”

Much to the dismay of those in attendance this year, the Housing Opportunity Forum won’t be back for next year’s conference, as meeting is being sunsetted this year. However, NAR committee liaison Wendy Penn said that the Housing Opportunity Committee itself will remain and should be a good vehicle for continuing such brainstorming sessions.

In the interest of starting your own brainstorming session locally, here are some of the ways attendees and panelists suggested sparking buy-in for workforce housing:

  • If no recent data exists, a good first step is to use housing opportunity funds to study your market and survey stakeholders to determine the needs for (and possible rewards of) workforce housing in your area.
  • Find out if your state offers commemorative license plates for fundraising purposes, and pursue that as a funding possibility.
  • If a large employer is resistant to helping their employees buy or save for a home, ask them if they’d be interested in being involved in a foreclosure prevention program.
  • Connect home owners, financial service agencies, local government officials and nonprofits by holding a foreclosure prevention or loan workout fair.

    • If foreclosures aren’t a big problem in your area, consider accomplishing many of the same goals through a home-buying fair. Allow local REALTORS® and affiliates to participate by setting up booths.
  • In an effort to clean up blighted portions of your local area, ask local officials to consider hiring a REALTOR® to sell the properties that have returned to city ownership due to foreclosure. The city can often get more for that property than they will at auction.
  • Make connections with local media and political figures; let them know you’re a good source of information and ideas on affordable housing.
  • Consider partnerships with affiliates who are able to offer discounts to buyers working through an employer-assisted housing program.
  • If there’s not already a group in your community doing this, look into opening a used furniture shop or a store where large companies can donate unused construction materials. Use the profits from the resale to fund your housing opportunity program.
  • Once your program is established, consider asking association members to donate, or even asking for a small amount of dues to be set aside in support of the effort. This creates interest and buy-in from members who may be supportive but not realize the program exists.
Meg White

Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.