REM editor Jim Adair recently spoke to Calgary’s Cliff Stevenson, the chair of CREA, along with CEO Michael Bourque. This is an edited version of the conversation.
REM: How has CREA been dealing with the pandemic? Are you holding in-person meetings again? Is the staff back in the office?
Michael Bourque: At the offices, on March 13, 2020, like everybody else we had to make the decision to work remotely. We were in 100 per cent state of readiness, thanks to a lot of really good work that the team had put in for business continuity. That included a policy ensuring everybody had a laptop instead of a desktop and moving everything to the cloud, which was necessary anyway for redundancy and given the importance of realtor.ca and some of the other things we do here. We were able to tell people that starting on Monday, you’re working at home. And we didn’t skip a beat.
We noticed over the last year and a half that the things that start to be challenging are innovation and the culture of the organization. We’ve hired 15 or more people since the beginning of the pandemic just as part of natural turnover. We haven’t seen those people and they don’t know what it means to work at CREA beyond the policies and the communication that we’ve had remotely. They don’t know their colleagues, really. So we’re very much looking forward to coming back for that reason.
On the innovation side, we have a pretty significant IT team here, but innovation doesn’t just mean technology, it’s also around ideas for advocacy, some of the work that we’re doing in professionalism – all of those things are enabled when you can get together.
We’re reopening our offices on a voluntary basis because there are a lot of people that would like to come back. We’ve put in a new ventilation system here, including HEPA filtering.
We’ve changed a lot of the office configuration to make sure there’s more distancing. We’re hoping that we can start to rebuild that culture and get people used to coming in from time to time. I think some people are just nervous about it until they do it. And then they realize, “This is safer than going to the grocery store. So I think I’ll go hang out there a couple of days a week,” and that’s what we’re looking for.
Cliff Stevenson: I would start off by saying that engagement in person is ideal and it is preferred. I’ve learned that over the last 18 months, for sure. But even this morning, we were talking about the fact that we’ve been able to reach more members with our communication virtually than we ever could in person. It’s almost impossible to go in person everywhere we’re invited, which is a real shame. But the ability to hop on one call and hop on another call right after….there was one day that I participated in three different AGMs across the country. So the ability to engage with members virtually has been fantastic. We are probably heading more into that hybrid world. Whether it’s member sensitivity to travel or member sensitivity to crowds, I don’t think that’s going away anytime soon.
Our board of directors had our first hybrid meeting in August and we are hosting another hybrid board meeting in October. Hybrid needs to be the conversation going forward for quite some time.
REM: What about attending conferences?
Stevenson: I was in New York for a NAR conference recently, their first ever commercial conference. And that was a different world down there. Walking into the middle of Times Square and having wall-to-wall people, and you’re having to rub shoulders with people to get through the crowd. That was a little unnerving.
NAR is still planning to have their annual convention in San Diego this year. There are a lot of Canadians heading down to that and looking forward to it. But it’s going to be the first engagement for a lot of these boards and associations in a long time.
I think the demand for proof of double vaccination is a sensitive subject, but a lot of events are now shifting to that.
REM: The next topic is about CREA getting involved in provincial matters. For example, some Ontario Realtors have a petition asking CREA to make it mandatory that Realtors list properties on the real estate board MLS system where the property is geographically located. There have been disputes in other provinces between boards and associations. Does CREA ever get involved in these kinds of conflicts?
Stevenson: It’s not that we don’t have empathetic members of our board of directors who understand what the issues are and have some feelings about them, but ultimately we’re handcuffed in a lot of this. These are provincial issues. The provincial associations govern what’s transpiring in these provinces and have rules and regulations set up.
We encourage local boards to collaborate with each other and with their provincial associations as much as possible. When these issues come up, people think that CREA has more power than we do.
This is a member-driven organization under the current construct of our bylaws and how we operate. We have some significant limitations. If the membership wants that to change, they have the ability to make those changes at our annual general assembly every year.
And like any board of directors, we rely on our legal department to give us some guidance on what we can and can’t do. We have a lot of information coming at us saying, this is a conversation we can be involved in, and this is one that we really don’t have the ability to get involved with. If somebody’s appealing for CREA to file for intervener status in a court case, for example, and we have the ability to do so, we’re here to support them. We’re partners with boards and associations across the country and we’re partners with our members.
So do we want to help support this industry? Absolutely. But there are certain things that we cannot do.
Bourque: We think a lot of the issues here stem from a lack of understanding. So for example, the impact of not having a listing or the data available in a particular area for those local agents, just understanding the basic process of how to register a listing with another board, sometimes it’s just as simple as that. So there’s a whole educational component that we’re looking at to see if there’s more that we can do. Similarly with Realtor.ca, we’re always looking for ways to add more information.
We’re very focused on co-operation as a foundational piece of this whole industry. And what we can do to foster more co-operation and to remind Realtors that this really is the most important part of our business, and it was built on co-operation between Realtors. So there is a role for us to play, but we can’t get in there and start telling businesses what they’re going to spend their money on. There is a line that has to be drawn.
REM: Let’s move on to advocacy. During the election, the Liberal Party made promises that involve Realtors. CREA said it is against a proposal to end blind bidding. Are you concerned that they might follow through with that promise now?
Stevenson: Everybody’s keeping an ear to the ground on this specific initiative. But we’ve been discussing a housing supply issue with the federal government for quite some time. We have some research that talks about the fact that Canada has the lowest number of housing units per thousand residents of any G7 country. That’s a significant problem. So I guess the challenge with the conversation on blind bidding is that it is not connected in any way whatsoever to actually solving the problem for home buyers.
Open bidding is still bidding. Australia has had open bidding for a very long time, and it hasn’t changed much with respect to not only housing supply, but housing prices. It’s some of the most expensive real estate on the planet.
The issue here, and the reason this has become such a prominent subject, is because of the number of home buyers that have buying as an aspiration and a life goal and who just can’t get into the market. It’s been this frenzy from this group of buyers that’s caught the government’s attention. Is there any connection with banning blind bidding and solving the problem for home buyers? We don’t believe there is and we were very vocal about that when they announced it.
Bourque: I think one of the things that sometimes is lost in all of this is that Realtors are also representing those buyers who are extremely unhappy because they’re not able to purchase a home. It’s just absolutely wrong to suggest that the reason that so many people are not able to fulfill this dream of home ownership is because of blind bidding.
If you’re a homeowner and you want to sell your house, do you have the right to sell it in the way that you want? Currently you do. You can choose to sell it yourself. There’s nobody forcing you to use a Realtor. And once you do list it with a Realtor, if that’s what you choose, then you can have your Realtor disclose the prices.
So what the government is proposing federally here would actually limit the choices that consumers would have. I don’t look at it as blind bidding because I think that’s a bit of a derogatory term. It is a competitive bid. And in that sense, it’s no different than when the federal government itself has a competitive bid for new office space or a new building. So are they going to ban competitive bidding for themselves?
It’s one of those things that you see during election campaigns. But when you get down to it, it’s a provincial area of jurisdiction. We’ve got a huge housing crisis with a lack of supply. We all know that the impediments to new supply are largely at the municipal and provincial levels. That means the federal government, if it’s going to help, is going to need to work collaboratively with all levels of government to really show leadership by bringing everybody together and seeing what they can do. Starting with picking a fight on the bidding process probably isn’t the right way to go. I think it would make more sense to let provincial regulators deal with any issues that come.
We also agree that there should be more transparency and we’re working all the time to bring in more transparency, to bring in more data. We have sold history data in a number of jurisdictions on Realtor.ca.
REM: There were a few other promises in the election platform. How does CREA feel about mandatory energy audits when a home is listed for sale?
Stevenson: It came up in Ontario a few years ago. There’s no national standard on this. There are so many energy audit standards that exist out there. It would be a cost associated with energy audits that you impose on home sellers and potential stigmas you label these homes with, with the results of an energy audit. Those are challenges and I haven’t heard great answers on how they overcome those.
Bourque: You know, I think you could make the supply situation worse if you do it improperly. You can imagine an older person that is moving out of their home. If all of a sudden there was some kind of forced energy audit and it turns out there hasn’t been investment in the insulation or in windows or something. And then the next step is you have to mitigate this before you can sell your home. That’s a bit of a slippery slope. So then the net result would be, well, I guess I’m not going to sell, because I can’t afford to spend all this money before I do.
We’re very supportive of good policy that will address issues around climate change, energy efficiency. We have a lot of Realtors in this country who have deep expertise in that area and build their practices around it. This is something that we hope to bring forward in the months ahead – ideas for how we can help create good policy around energy efficiency and climate change from the real estate sector.
REM: What are some of CREA’s other advocacy goals for the new government?
Bourque: A lot of people commented that this was an election about nothing. But from a housing standpoint, nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, the fact is that housing was a very significant issue for the first time.
From an advocacy standpoint, we feel very good about raising the issue of supply. Two and a half years ago we were talking about supply and people were looking at us with a blank stare. We came up with the idea of linking federal infrastructure dollars with new housing. So we feel very good about having educated people about the importance of supply, because we could see what was happening in the market.
We did get a lot of concrete promises from the Liberal party and we’re going to spend a lot of our time keeping their feet to the fire, to deliver on those things on the supply side, because we know from the studies we’ve done that Canadians feel very strongly that governments should support home ownership.
REM: With all the work and travel that you must do as CREA chair, taking you away from your real estate business, why do you do it?
Stevenson: This started for me a long time ago when I was sitting around complaining about our local board and what I thought they should’ve been doing or what I thought they were doing wrong. And enough people were around me saying, hey, listen, put up or shut up. You don’t get to sit here and complain and expect to have anything done that’s going to improve the industry. So that’s how the journey started. Understanding that one person could make a difference.
But hearing people with impassioned pleas on things that we need to do to change our industry kept me going through all of this. This industry has been good to me. I’m very, very thankful for it. It is my opportunity to give back.
Volunteerism is the lifeblood of our industry. If you think you can help make a difference, absolutely go for it. I will take so much away from this experience – professional development, collaboration working with teams, the relationships that I’ve made in organized real estate. Just unbelievable people. I think everybody should step up and do something at some level. It’s a very rewarding experience and they’ll understand that after they’ve experienced it.
I do have a message for CREA’s members. I’m unbelievably proud of organized real estate in general and the leadership they have taken during a global pandemic. And I am so proud of our members across the country, and how they have been so resilient during the ups and downs, the ins and outs, what they’ve had to adjust to with provincial health orders. Look at the sales volume across the country, the number of transactions where they’ve been able to help Canadians in such trying times. Canadian home buyers and home sellers were able to transact with our members and they did an unbelievable job.