Broker as politician: How involved agents transform communities and their business

by Jason Porterfield

It may seem that real estate exists outside the realm of politics. Campaigning, primaries, registering to vote and casting ballots are far removed from the act of buying or selling a home. And given the state of political discourse these days, it may be tempting to completely divorce statecraft from your business life.

Real estate matters to politicians, however, in myriad ways. Elected officials make decisions relating to property tax rates, zoning codes and regulations, all of which bear on the way real estate professionals carry out their business. Those politicians are also the ones who hear from their constituents about issues like the state of their neighborhoods, including matters that have a real impact on the value of their property.

Of course, the interests of brokers and politicians often overlap, as both seek to promote and improve communities. But politically active agents take a more direct approach by advocating directly for changes or improvements.

Cynthia Nelson Katsenes of Baird & Warner in Orland Park is a perfect example of this type of real estate professional. She’s serving her first term as an Orland Park village trustee. But this isn’t her first rodeo; she also served as a trustee for the Orland Park Fire Protection District from 2001 to 2007. She ran for that position after experiencing a fire at her home and wanting to give back to the community in the aftermath. As a member of the village board, she has been able to bring her real estate expertise to matters such as making recommendations for selling village-owned land.

“It’s good to have a board, certainly a local board, with an agent on it who brings the perspective of people in the community,” Katsenes said. “You really feel like you represent the people. I do.”

Of course, it’s not all warm fuzzies. Sometimes her political stature creeps into everyday activities such as grocery shopping. “When you go to the Jewel, you have people stop you and ask questions. That’s the hard thing. ‘What about this pothole?’” she said. “But that’s what we do. We’re problem solvers in our job every day.”

Dipping a toe into the political pool

By advocating for economic development and improvements, brokers help make the neighborhoods they work in more attractive to buyers. That’s why Gail Spreen, president and owner of Streeterville Properties Group at Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty, is a strong believer in the value of agents getting involved in their communities.

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“In so many neighborhoods… there’s always opportunity for economic development,” she said. “Real estate professionals — who are on the streets, know what’s going on and really see what is happening — should be involved. They should always be trying to create more value for their neighborhoods by promoting positive things, whether it’s organizing cleanups of the neighborhood or whatever it takes.”

Spreen lives that belief, too. She was the 2019 chair of the Public Policy Committee of the Chicago Association of Realtors, serves as the chair of Streeterville Community Work, has been president of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents five times and has been on the board of the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association. Within those roles, she has worked to champion the interests of fellow residents, business owners and real estate professionals and fostered effective working relationships with local aldermen.

Sometimes involvement comes as a result of a difficult business environment. Hasani Steele of the Steele Consulting Group at RE/MAX Premier first became involved in the political side of real estate during the economic downturn, when he worked to complete a multiphase development project in Woodlawn despite the brutal economic recession.

“We were able to continue development, which helped maintain property values and allowed residents to refinance their homes at lower interest rates,” Steele said. “At the time, much of the South Side was categorized as a declining market. Our participation in political meetings helped us to spread the positive effects of continued development in the ward.”

How politics and real estate intersect

Like politicians, agents become deeply familiar with the areas where they work. When they become politically active and form connections with local officials, they can serve as a valuable resource for past clients and others in their communities.

In many ways, the work of a real estate professional is similar to that of a local politician. “You get out there just like an alderman,” Spreen said. “Sometimes you feel like you are kind of the one that [residents] go to for fixing something, like if lights are out or trees are dead or something is dirty. Whatever it is, they end up feeling very empowered to just contact me to let me know everything that’s going on… So, having a great relationship with our aldermanic offices is fantastic, because there’s so many ways that we can get things done by just having good relationships.”

Katsenes sees parallels in her role as an agent and in her work as a village trustee. Making sure people find the right home and receive the level of service they should expect from a municipality are similar goals.

“As real estate professionals, it’s our job to enhance someone’s quality of life based on what they want,” Katsenes said. “Maybe they want a bigger home, or maybe they want less of a home. Our role as an agent is to facilitate that. As for the village, it has the same roles as all local municipalities. That is to make sure we have running water, we have police protection, we have a good library and our parks, our garbage gets hauled, and the streets get plowed. Our goals in working with people are very similar. It’s to do what’s in their best interest.”

Steele sees politics and real estate as symbiotic. Government officials work for the best interests of their constituents, just as agents work to assist communities through the development and sale of properties. The taxes generated by these transactions drive the development of amenities that make the community more livable and appealing.

“Real estate property taxes support neighborhood amenities, including the upkeep and funding of public schools, libraries, roads, parks and other services,” Steele said. “Political leaders listen to and represent the needs of the community when creating budgets and programs funded by residential and commercial property taxes.”

Indeed, improving communities makes the task of selling property in an area easier for agents. Organizing community events, fostering improvements, continually assessing the use of public funds and maintaining open lines of communication with the public are actions local officials can take to make the areas they represent more attractive to homebuyers. Steele often works in the city’s emerging neighborhoods, where agents can collaborate in meaningful ways with developers and elected officials to help communities develop to their fullest potential.

“Homebuyers are investing in the community and want to feel proud about where they live,” Steele said. “Community officials can help to make positive change happen faster.”

Advocating for change

An agent doesn’t have to run for office to become politically active. Community groups give brokers the opportunity to use their voices to push for improvements. Whether they want to bring about a change in policy or a physical alteration to their neighborhood — such as a new crosswalk or better signage — local organizations can help influence aldermen and other elected officials.

Spreen noted that even very small changes can have a big impact, citing one example where the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents heard the needs of people in the neighborhood and responded.

“We had one block that had a one-way street. We had it turned into a two-way, and that really helped certain streets that were very congested. Just by changing that within one block, it changed the whole traffic pattern and was really helpful,” Spreen said. “We saw that we needed some left-turn arrows at certain points. We took that issue to the alderman’s office, and we got that done. That change really improved that intersection.”

For neighborhoods that have traditionally seen less investment than Streeterville and other areas adjacent to downtown, real estate professionals can have a profound impact. The Steele Consulting Group has worked closely with several aldermen to bring more residential developments to the Bronzeville, North Kenwood and Woodlawn neighborhoods. During the housing downturn, Steele’s organization remained very active in Woodlawn by working with the office of then-Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), encouraging development and investing private capital in the neighborhood.

“During times of uncertainty, the desire to pause can seem very rational,” Steele said. “Our knowledge of mortgage guidelines, which is continually evolving, helped teach community owners about the 12-month expiration of sales comparables and how appraisal values are determined.”

Steele noted that it’s one thing to have a solid understanding of how real estate markets function in a neighborhood; it’s another to learn how best to share them with the larger community. “The neighborhood meetings at that time proved to be one of the most effective channels for explaining potential consequences of halting development,” he said.

“Today, Woodlawn has its brightest days ahead as recent additions include the construction of the newest Jewel-Osco, new hotels, golf courses and the much-anticipated Obama Presidential Center.”

Because they’re out on the streets every day, brokers become intimately familiar with a community’s needs and attributes. From a political perspective, this informs their ability to provide valuable input to elected officials or work to make changes themselves that will benefit residents and communities alike.
“Agents desire a vibrant and prosperous community, as their livelihood is directly correlated to a community’s success,” Katsenes said. “In that way, our concerns as agents are very similar to that of residents.”

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