At a time when government relations skills are increasingly important for organized real estate, Jason Stephen’s background is serving him well.
Shortly after earning his degree in history and political science, Stephen left his home in Saint John, N.B. to spend a couple of years in Ottawa, working on Parliament Hill as an assistant to former Prime Minister Joe Clark. When he returned home and launched his real estate career, Stephen stayed involved with politics, eventually becoming president of New Brunswick Progressive Conservatives in 2012.
Now as president of CREA, this experience has paid off, he says.
“Having worked on the Hill, when I sit down with people during our lobbying, there is an identifiable mutual respect,” he says. “I understand that one meeting isn’t going to result in an actionable item the next day – there is a process. I’ve been on the other side of the desk.”
Stephen says he used to “get asked all the time if my political background hindered my business, but I have a fairly healthy list of people who have identified as Liberals who are clients.”
Stephen has been using his skills to help advance CREA’s position on “the No. 1 issue I hear no matter what part of the country I’m in” – the mortgage stress test.
“We have always advocated for a strong housing market. A housing crisis in Canada is not good for Realtors,” he says. “People in Alberta have lost the ability to sell their house now because buyers are not in the marketplace. Certainly where I’m from, Saint John is always in the top five most affordable markets in Canada and for those people to be stress tested at the level they are, it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s not good economic policy. You can’t paint the whole country with one brush.
“We also live in a world where you are tested on the highest posted rate. Ninety per cent of the people negotiate a better rate when they go to the bank. It’s just not a realistic picture, even if rates rise over a five-year stretch.”
Advocacy is one of three major focuses for Stephen during his year as president – the other two are improving the reputation of Realtors and continuing to develop technology to better serve Realtors (such as through improvements to WEBforms and Realtor.ca).
On the reputation front, Stephen says the Board of Directors has spent a lot of time “doubling down on the Realtor Code.”
He says, “Every Realtor out there is advocating for a higher professional standard.” Working with regulators, he says, “We understand that it’s our obligation to clean up the behaviour” of some CREA members, but that the regulators would like to see more from the industry. “We really need to double down and have an enforceable code that is enforced the same way in Kootenay as in St. John’s and everywhere in between.”
He says that by focusing on the experience of consumers when dealing with a Realtor, the industry will improve its reputation and “then it’s going to be more money in the pockets of our members at the end of the day.”
Stephen isn’t too concerned with the impact of so-called “disruptors” to the real estate industry, such as iBuyers. “People rely more on the knowledge and advice than what the real estate (brokerage) model is. If you want to sell your house yourself, fine, but you need to understand what’s going on in the whole market. It’s the same discussion over sold price data – just having a sold price doesn’t explain the whole market picture. Why did Jason’s house sell for that?”
He notes that since sold data began appearing in New Brunswick, “the need for Realtors has just gone up,” as consumers seek reliable data from a trusted source.
When he was president of the Saint John Real Estate Board in 2010, “we were going through the Competition Board changes and the world was going to fall apart then. The membership was very uneasy about how things were going to go down.”
But keeping up with the latest tech is critical, he says. “I’ve been in the business for 20 years. When I started, it was acceptable to call people back two days later. The MLS system was a book. We would walk into the brokerage on a Monday and the administrator would say, here are your emails – printed out. And each email would ask that you call them – it was never two-way!”
Serving as CREA president takes up a lot of time and energy, and Stephen says he never would have tackled the job without the encouragement of his wife Heather, who is also his team’s executive assistant. But he says he is tying to do things a little differently by delegating some of his requests for appearances and by taking a more team-based approach at the board.
“I’m a 44-year-old full-service Realtor in Saint John. I run a small real estate team (at Royal LePage Atlantic) and I have a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old and a wife who still loves me. I have to take that balance.” He’s also spent nine years on the seasons ticket waiting list for the New England Patriots.
“I never thought I would be president of CREA. I just wanted to be on the Federal Affairs Committee and then I got on the committee and I guess people saw how I acted around the table and encouraged me to run.”
Why should Realtors get involved in organized real estate?
“I tell people they are shortchanging themselves if they don’t get involved with a local board,” says Stephen. In terms of the perks of being CREA president, he says “the ability to be connected into the discussions” of real estate across the country “will make you a better Realtor for your clients.”
He’s also enjoyed touring the country, visiting places such as Timmins, Ont., which he figures he would have never seen if he wasn’t president. And he’s also had some unique opportunities, such as when he was recently called upon to introduce former U.S. president George W. Bush at conference.
“It’s been a remarkable experience,” he says.