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Realtors sell homes. Their trade group backs evictions.

By Ron Lieber

Some of the same people in charge of selling you a home have sued to make it easier to evict people from one.

In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention barred evictions for most renters. The CDC recently extended the moratorium through the end of June. Two very different presidents have signed off on it.

But in November, members of the National Association of Realtors — the nation’s largest industry group, known as NAR, numbering 1.4 million real estate professionals — tried to persuade a federal judge to remove it. Both the Alabama and the Georgia Associations of Realtors sued the federal government over the matter, and the national association is paying for all of the legal costs. A hearing is scheduled for April 29.

Why would it do this? The NAR expert on the topic was unable to schedule a phone call with me, according to a spokesperson. So I have no pithy interview quote from her to share.

But if you’re selecting a listing agent for your house from among the group’s members, I’d ask that person about this issue if you’re curious or concerned. As I discovered in a round of calls to top-producing sales agents this week, many of them have no idea what the NAR is advocating on their behalf.

“I’m in a bubble with people who are not terribly affected by a lot of things,” said Betsy Akers, who specializes in selling them high-priced homes in Atlanta’s Buckhead district.

Our protagonist in this tale, the NAR, spends more money on federal lobbying than any other entity, according to the Center for Responsive for Politics. To puzzle out its actions and advocacy, let’s first be crystal clear about what the NAR is and whose interests it serves. As its own chief executive boasted to members in 2017, it’s really the National Association for Realtors, not just of them. It’s a guild, and that’s no sin.

And among those million-plus members, according to the association, about 38% of Realtors own at least one rental property. Now is their opposition to an eviction ban beginning to make sense? The NAR isn’t shy about this, stating on the lobbying section of its website that it wants to “protect property interests.”

We could just as easily call it the National Association for Landlords.(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Not all members are thrilled with the organization’s stance. Many, including upstart real estate companies like Redfin and Zillow, join up by necessity. This is because NAR affiliates keep tight control of the information in the various Multiple Listing Service databases where members post homes for sale, and most startups that aim to provide comprehensive data to consumers end up having to do business with the NAR somehow.

“Redfin has consistently been in favor of moratoriums,” said its chief executive, Glenn Kelman. “History will judge us.”

Zillow supports the CDC edict, too, and it believes that moratoriums work most effectively when policies and relief programs include landlords and property managers in addition to renters. Last month, it published research suggesting that there could be as few as 130,000 evictions in the near future if everything goes right with legislation, regulations, their implementation and the economy. But it is a difficult figure to predict.

On the ground in Atlanta, Bilal Shareef also sees the wisdom of the coordinated approach that Zillow outlines. “I definitely wouldn’t feel as if we need to sue the government,” Shareef said. “Instead of displacing people who are renters, also provide assistance for landlords.”

Shareef is president of the Empire Board of Realtists, a trade organization with a pointed name that was founded in 1939, when other groups barred Black real estate professionals from their membership ranks. He’s also among the 1.4 million members of the NAR.

“Sometimes, we have to be on the inside to keep them honest about some things,” he said.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is a big player in the Georgia real estate sales scene. Its chief executive there, Dan Forsman, said in an interview this week that he had not taken a public position on the eviction moratorium before I called him. But Forsman believes the moratorium should cease on June 30, the end of its current extension.

His is a nuanced view, because he had COVID himself. “I was scared to death,” he said. Last year, the moratorium made sense to him, when it was clear how worried some of his staff was. The unemployment rate was frightening, too. In the Atlanta region, it grew to 12.9% last April. By February, however, it had fallen to just 4.7%.

“I’m thankful for the leadership that the CDC has shown,” Forsman said. “They’ve put their tails on the line and protected those who couldn’t protect themselves. And now it’s time to move on.”

More financial assistance is available now for tenants, including billions of dollars from the most recent federal relief package. “I don’t want to add to homelessness or show a lack of empathy,” he said. “But we’re scrappy, us Americans, of all classes and races and political persuasions. The light at the end of the tunnel ain’t a train.”

At the national headquarters of Berkshire Hathaway’s HomeServices business, a spokesperson, Wendy Durand, did not respond to several requests for comment.

According to the NAR, landlords may not in fact be the scrappiest among us. The “moratorium continues to devastate millions of housing providers,” the trade group said in a statement that a spokesperson asked me to attribute to Christie DeSanctis, its director of federal banking, lending and housing finance policy. Also “nearly half of all rental units are mom-and-pop operations,” which the NAR defines as entities that own four units or fewer.

“Broad, nationwide, blanket eviction moratoriums do not serve the purpose they did when first enacted last year,” the spokesperson, Wes Shaw, said in another emailed statement. “If these property owners are put in a position where they can no longer justify or properly maintain operations, every tenant in the property would be left without a proper home and the supply of affordable housing would shrink as more and more units went off the market.”

If you buy the argument that evictions during a pandemic are necessary to preserve affordable housing, hire yourself some Realtors straightaway.

But if it makes you queasy, ask the ones you’re interviewing where they stand on the matter. Enough questions from people with hot properties to sell just might make them feel nauseous, too. At the National Association for Landlords, those sales agents’ opinions seem to matter a lot more than yours.

Ron Lieber has been the New York Times’ Your Money columnist since 2008 and has written five books, most recently “The Price You Pay for College.”


Source: Orange County Register

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