Not long ago, Information Technology Systems Ontario (ITSO) marked the one-year anniversary of its move to oversee the professional standards complaints and arbitration of some of its member boards and associations, rather than simply functioning as an MLS provider.
“While much ink has been committed to the security and standards of the (MLS) data, and rightly so, co-operation and professionalism have not received as much attention. This is particularly the case in this over-heated market where properties are selling in record time,” says ITSO 2021 president Michelle Wobst.
She continues: “While ITSO is primarily a technology company that operates an MLS system, we also maintain the MLS rules, and consistent enforcement of those rules is essential… ITSO’s member associations asked ITSO to create a regional professional standards and arbitration regime to increase the consistency of enforcement across member associations. The Professional Standards Complaints (PSC) policy was consulted on with all member associations before it was approved.”
ITSO is a not-for-profit consortium of regional real estate associations that facilitates co-operative use of a shared MLS system. Membership in the Guelph-headquartered corporation has been seriously ramping up.
The company is now providing MLS to much of the province, says Wobst. She has been quoted as saying that most Realtors in Ontario would prefer to have “just one MLS system with all the data,” and one fee, without having to worry about paying to subscribe to another board.
Originally started up years ago (under a different name) to break down digital barriers, desegregate data and address inefficiencies in the existing regional MLS system, ITSO’s membership is now comprised of 20 of Ontario’s 36 real estate boards, along with five others that aren’t full members but have some form of data-sharing agreement. The Toronto Regional Real Estate Board, the largest in the country, is not an ITSO member or affiliate.
ITSO is controlled by its members, and those on its committees and board of directors are practicing Realtors, Wobst says. “Decisions are 100 per cent driven by Realtors for Realtors.”
All ITSO member boards are required to follow and enforce the new professional standards policy, “but they can choose whether they elect to enforce it themselves or delegate enforcement to ITSO,” says Wobst.
She views the decision as generally coming down to whether professional standards complaints are among the services a board wants to handle itself, or instead prefers to hand off to ITSO so as to focus on other things.
To date, a dozen of ITSO’s member associations have gone the latter route, taking ITSO on in its new capacity as a hired gun handling Realtor wrongdoing, including transgressions such as misleading advertising and accepting pre-emptive offers without notifying interested parties.
ITSO’s new PSC committee meets monthly, Wobst says, adding that charges were laid in 35 per cent of incidents reviewed over the past year, with penalties ranging from reprimands and fines to orders to complete targeted educational courses. (Only a small percentage of incidents went to the provincial regulator.)
Wobst says she wouldn’t be surprised if complaints against Realtors have risen with ITSO now in the mix, because complainants may feel more comfortable filing incident reports that will be reviewed by strangers rather than by people they might know, and also maybe because of greater complaint handling speed and efficiency. The influx of inexperienced new agents into the industry and the hot market have also likely had an impact, she says.
The expansion of ITSO’s role has raised a few questioning eyebrows among Ontario’s real estate professionals. It’s been suggested by some that ITSO may be taking over organized real estate in Ontario, and that the local boards have all but handed it to the operation on a platter.
Despite assurances by ITSO about its intentions (the organization has “no desire” to eventually merge its member associations to become one large board, Wobst says), some Ontario Realtors aren’t sure what to make of the company’s advancing industry presence or the new roles it has now taken on. Recent sweeping amendments to ITSO’s MLS rules (which will soon result in a course launch on the changes) have some Realtors wondering if it’s a sign of things to come (although ITSO says the changes are less substantial than they appear, and mainly just entail “a lot of cleanup”).
Bob Van de Vrande, a former president of the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington (RAHB), has some thoughts on this but wants to make it clear that these are entirely his own and in no way reflect the position of RAHB or its directors. (RAHB isn’t a full member of ITSO but has a data-sharing agreement.)
“I can’t speak to what ITSO wants to do,” says Van de Vrande. “But professional standards and arbitration are in the purview of boards. Why is a tech service organization doing that? What members most assuredly do not need is another level of organized real estate.”
Stressing that ITSO is to be applauded “loudly and enthusiastically” for consolidating the MLS data of its members, it’s his opinion that diving into professional standards as well is a distraction.
“Why not just focus on what you already do?” he asks.
Wobst scoffs when asked if – with ITSO taking on not just MLS but also professional standards and discipline services – real estate boards could wind up as little more than social clubs.
“The technology behind MLS is only one part of what MLS is. There’s nothing ‘social club’ about running an association,” she says, listing a long tally of everyday board tasks, among them government relations, community outreach, enforcing basic MLS rules and accuracy and processing of new members.