By Jon Gorey
When Jorge Guerra Jr. was a little kid, he remembers listening to Spanish-language radio, waiting for the day when his Cuban-born parents could return to their homeland — not to live, but to claim their real estate. Like most private property on the island, it had been seized by the state after Fidel Castro’s revolution. “Still today, they have all their deeds and other proof of ownership, and it’s worthless,” Guerra said.
That’s one reason the South Florida Realtor now holds the rights of individual property owners as close to sacred. “It’s a reminder of how important these rights are,” Guerra remarked — and why he’s a vocal supporter of the Realtors Political Action Committee (RPAC).
As the political fundraising arm of the National Association of Realtors, RPAC solicits voluntary contributions from Realtors — more than $5 million during the 2018 election cycle. It uses those funds to help elect candidates across the political landscape who understand and support real estate interests — at all levels of government.
Indeed, RPAC is something of a bipartisan unicorn in this day and age: It’s the largest but also the most bipartisan political action committee operated on behalf of a trade association in the United States, said NAR spokesperson Wesley Shaw. “About 51% of our involvement in 2020 federal races came on behalf of Democrats, while 49% was in support of Republicans,” he noted.
RPAC’s priorities generally boil down to two big themes: on the one hand, increasing access to and ease of homeownership, and on the other, defending the rights of property owners. But the many specific issues RPAC champions are as diverse as investments in transportation and infrastructure, which make communities more vibrant and desirable; alternative credit scoring models that could allow responsible buyers without a traditional credit history better access to the mortgage market; the repeal of real estate transfer taxes and rent control restrictions; continued support for flood insurance; and indexing popular tax breaks — such as the mortgage interest deduction and capital gains exclusion — to inflation.
RPAC also works on behalf of Realtors in ways that have seemingly little to do with real estate, but instead aim to protect small-business owners and independent contractors. In 2018, for example, RPAC’s candidate questionnaire encouraged support for net neutrality laws so as to help small businesses compete with larger ones, and also patent law reform in order to limit frivolous lawsuits against small real estate firms and construction companies.
“Most Realtors across the country are independent contractors,” said Marie Presti, broker and owner of The Presti Group in Newton, Mass., and a self-described “true believer” in RPAC. “They’re not employees; they run their own little businesses. They’re not part of a union that could fight for their benefits and rights, so we need RPAC to fight for our rights at the local, state and national level.”
“It’s the closest thing we have to job insurance,” said Rebecca Thomson, Realtor and regional vice president at Coldwell Banker Realty in greater Chicagoland. “RPAC protects not only our clients’ private property rights and their rights as homeowners, but our industry as a whole.”
So when you contribute to RPAC — or “invest,” as the organization is fond of saying — how exactly do your dollars help advance those causes and your livelihood in real estate?
Operating alongside the Realtor Party, RPAC has attorneys and policy specialists on staff that review new bills and legislative proposals to determine their impact on the real estate industry and outline preferred policy stances. Each election cycle, RPAC volunteers interview political candidates to gauge their understanding of and commitment to various issues of importance to the real estate industry. Volunteer trustees and board members also drive donation decisions. “Federal RPAC candidate contribution decisions are made working with state associations and state trustees,” Shaw explained.
Thomson gained an appreciation for RPAC the first time she visited Washington, D.C. It was during NAR’s annual legislative meetings one May, and a fellow Realtor invited her to tag along as they met with local congressional representatives. She said the experience offered her a front-row seat to see RPAC in action.
“The congressmen and women we met with listened intently as my colleagues walked them through key legislation we wanted them to support,” Thomson recalled. “They listened, they asked questions and ultimately I saw their own perspectives change, and understood the weight they put on Realtor input. We are the voice of their constituents, and our dollars and our time have helped mold and shape legislation to protect private property rights and support the communities we serve.”
During election cycles, RPAC committees interview and evaluate candidates for office at the local, state and federal levels before deciding whom to back. RPAC support spans the political spectrum because, frankly, supporting homeownership is pretty popular policy. “A lot of the issues that we are behind are apple pie issues, things that are easy to stand by,” Guerra said. Still, RPAC trustees want to see commitments to key positions, like holding the line on transfer taxes, and expect candidates will stick to those stances while in office. More senior lawmakers, or those who sit on key housing-related congressional committees, are sometimes more likely to receive RPAC support. For example, while RPAC remained neutral in the 2018 Texas Senate race, contributing to neither Ted Cruz nor Beto O’Rourke, Texas representatives Al Green and Lance Gooden each received $10,000 in RPAC donations, for both serve on the House Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development, and Insurance.
Campaign finance is messy business, though. When millions of dollars slosh around Washington, vying for influence on both sides of the aisle, not everyone will be pleased about where those dollars end up.
The Real Deal reported that, in 2020, RPAC donated a combined $1.27 million to the 147 Republican lawmakers who refused to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. Many of those members are facing calls to resign in the wake of their baseless rejection of a democratic election, during which the Capitol was overrun by a violent mob inspired at least in part by their posturing. Major companies like Dow, Marriott, Disney and Walmart have since suspended financial contributions to the lawmakers involved.
In addition to making candidate contributions, RPAC also awards grants and funding in an attempt to shape state and local outcomes, as when it kicked in money and other support to help the California Association of Realtors get Proposition 19 on the ballot with the backing of state legislators last fall. Proposition 19 addressed a quirk of California’s housing market that dates back to 1978, when the state’s famous Proposition 13 not only limited property taxes to 1% of assessed value, but also capped the rate at which a property’s assessed value can increase to 2% a year.
In 2019, RPAC helped get the ball rolling with polling data and $800,000 for signature gathering, according to Rick Violett, chair of CAR’s Prop. 19 Task Force. By getting out in front on the issue, Violett said, “it ultimately helped us save money, and we were very successful in getting 1.5 million signatures, which was unheard of at the time.” Violett then made another presentation to RPAC trustees and secured $4 million in funding to augment the $30 million CAR had budgeted for a “Yes on 19” campaign.
RPAC has worked to promote a number of solutions for expanding homeownership access and affordability — measures that often take place at the local level. In Chicago, Thomson said, efforts by RPAC and the Chicago Association of Realtors helped get accessory dwelling units (think in-law apartments) legalized by the city council. “This will be an important step to begin to address supply issues that impact affordability — an issue I’m passionate about,” she said.
They’ve also stepped up to fight back rent control proposals in Chicago. “We’ve been successful in advocating against rent control every time it’s come up thus far,” Thomson said. “Rent control is the wrong solution to improving affordability and it’s one of few things most economists agree upon, yet this remains a hot topic. It’s critically important that legislators and representatives are acutely aware of our concerns and opposition to any form of rent control.”
More recently, Guerra and Thomson both credit RPAC and NAR lobbying with saving the real estate industry in 2020, when it initially looked like the coronavirus pandemic would bring business to a standstill. “RPAC was critical to ensuring our industry continued to operate and that Realtors had the tools they needed to conduct business in the face of the pandemic,” Thomson said.
“I think they saved our economy here in South Florida,” Guerra added. “If it wasn’t for us lobbying our governor and making sure that we were considered an essential service like police officers, firefighters and paramedics, I don’t think our economy would be, nor we would be, where we are today.”
That alone, Guerra said, was worth every dollar he’s contributed to the organization. But what’s most important to him is RPAC’s overarching commitment to protecting the real estate industry and the rights of millions of homeowners nationwide — because he knows they’re not a given.
Guerra, who serves as NAR’s Global Liaison for 2021, has seen firsthand how property rights can be eroded. “When I travel throughout the world, there are countries that don’t have real estate licenses, that don’t have organized real estate associations — and they suffer. Their properties are the first ones to get taken away,” he said. “We have no idea how good we have it, but more importantly, how easily it can be taken away if we aren’t on top of it.
That’s why he’ll be cutting a check to RPAC again this year, in support of homeowner rights across the U.S. “The beauty about your house is, regardless of what religion you are, regardless of what you believe, who you want to marry, what you want to do, when you close those doors, you get to do and be whatever you want,” Guerra said. “It’s where dreams come true and where families are raised. It’s one of the most sacred places that I can think of.”
To see where the RPAC donations went, see our RPAC Political Contributions List.