Calling all congressmen: NAA members deliver a powerful, compelling message to their members of Congress during the August recess.
While some NAA members traditionally meet with their elected officials during Congress's annual "district work period," this marks the first year that NAA challenged its members to join together as an industry to deliver a united message during the recess.
"We put out the call and the members responded," says Greg Brown, NAA Vice President of Government Affairs. "This is an important message to communicate to members of Congress and this was a perfect time to deliver it."
In their meetings, NAA members were armed with a basic, critical point:
Access to capital must continue and reform of Government-Sponsored Enterprises (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) must address the distinct needs of the apartment industry.
The GSEs' restructuring will take center stage this winter during the 112th Congress.
"Our concern is something more than what's been in the news media," says Jeff Rogo, Government Affairs Director at the Bay Area Apartment Association in Tampa, Fla. "A reformed entity of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is critical in maintaining, developing and rehabilitating affordable multifamily properties."
NAA members reported that scheduling an appointment to meet on the policymaker's home turf was easier than expected.
"It takes a small, and I mean small, amount of time to do this," says Frank Barefield, President, Abbey Residential, Birmingham, Ala., and President of the Alabama Apartment Association. "You just have to decide that this is something you absolutely must do to help protect the industry."
Ken Szymanski, Executive Director, Greater Charlotte Apartment Association and the Apartment Association of North Carolina, says, "It's more relaxing to meet with your elected officials in their home district. They know very clearly we're their constituents. There's common ground."
What to Say, How to Say It
NAA members not only reported highly successful meetings, but also identified some "best practices" for apartment industry representatives who plan to seize the "home-field advantage" next August. The Top 10 are:
1. Seek opportunities to form relationships. Unlike most of us, John Ridgway lives two blocks from a congressman--Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX)--and has formed relationships with Brady's office as a constituent, a businessman (President of Celtic Realty Advisors in The Woodlands, Texas) and a current NAA Board member. Through these connections, Brady invited Ridgway to be part of an elite commercial real estate and financial reform forum the congressman sponsored during the August recess.
"It was our opportunity to tell top officials how the current regulatory climate in D.C. affects our business," Ridgway says. "My nameplate said I was a Board member of NAA. That was great credibility for us to very credible people sitting around the table."
2. Become an industry expert. Be the go-to person who legislators call on when industry issues arise.
"We may think we know what their challenges are, but they're not going to be able to do their jobs right unless they understand what we do," says Mike Beirne, Executive Vice President of the Kamson Corp., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and an NAA Board member.
Beirne and David Legow, Principal, Legow Management Co., Livingston, N.J., and a former New Jersey Apartment Association President, met over a 90-minute dinner with Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.). Garrett is the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Insurance and Government-Sponsored Enterprises for the House Financial Services Committee.
"We sent the message that we are a serious group, an important sector of the economy, and we were treated with a great amount of credibility," Legow says.
"[Garrett] got a better feel for the separation between multifamily and the rest of the housing industry and the day-to-day trials and tribulations of basically running a small city Beirne says. "He realized how multifamily fits into the larger housing picture and all the particular nuances. We run a 24/7 operation."
3. Make building relationships a long-term proposition. Trust increases with time and as trust levels rise, so does influence.
Rogo and a contingent of Tampa Bay area industry leaders, including NAA Chairman Marc Rosenwasser, CAPS, President and CEO of Meadow Wood Property Co., met with Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla,).
"It was the first time the Bay Area Apartment Association had made the effort to sit down at home with one of our elected federal officials and talk about important industry issues, including the GSEs and having a strong transportation infrastructure. We took NAA's challenge about the August recess seriously," Rogo says.
Castor "was among friends who had known her from her earlier career as a Hillsborough county commissioner. It made the conversation so much easier."
4. Invite them to meet on your turf. "It's important for owners and property managers to invite members of Congress to visit our properties," says Conor Fennessy, Vice President of Government Affairs, New Jersey Apartment Association (NJAA). "It's like running a small town. We're a local employer. We're a local housing provider. We're a key local connection. We're a key district connection."
In addition to a property tour, suggest you meet at an apartment community's club house or invite them to an apartment community's annual summer picnic. If your club house is large enough, volunteer its use for the legislator's town hall meeting.
5. Do your homework and relay your agenda in advance. NAA members said it is critical to put issues into a local perspective and be ready to explain how the local economy is affecting the industry and your business. Equally important, know what committees your policymaker is on and whether he or she has taken a position or is undecided on our issues.
Barefield made an "A+" on his homework assignment because when he met with Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) in the district office, five top staffers were in attendance, some via teleconference from Capitol Hill. Bachus is the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee and considered a leading contender to become chairman if the Republicans gain control of the House.
In addition to a lengthy discussion on the GSFs, Barefield addressed two other issues near and dear to his business. The first was the Financial Accounting Standard Board's plan to apply fair value rules to all financial instruments, which "could have very negative consequences for the multifamily housing industry," Barefield notes. Second, Barefield expressed concerns about regulators not complying with the Oct. 30, 2009, Interagency Policy Statement on Prudent Commercial Loan Workouts, which affects availability of credit to borrowers.
6. Be focused and stay "on message." Use talking points NAA provides so everyone sings from the same song sheet. However, remember to tweak your talking points so they sound like you, not a college professor (unless you are one). Give forceful reasons why the policymaker should care about the issue and want to be involved.
Beirne, Fennessy and Nicholas Kikis, NJAA Director of Regulatory Affairs and Research, met with Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), "The biggest surprise to the congressman was when we reminded him that one-third of New Jersey calls rental housing 'home.' That always comes as a surprise to people," Fennessy says.
7. Listen carefully to their advice and insights. When Szymanski and leading Charlotte apartment industry officials met with Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), they spent an hour outlining the industry's position on the GSEs. "He thinks the process will be grueling," Szymanski says. "He strongly suggests that the apartment industry really needs to do its homework when asked to speak before congressional committees as the grilling will be intense."
Szymanski and a Winston-Salem apartment industry delegation met with Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C). "In the short term, he believes that Congress won't do anything to hurt apartments, but won't do anything to help apartments either," he says.
Burr "sees a changing financial industry, a changing investment fund environment and changing technology as creating a very long window of a planning process to replace Fannie and Freddie as we know them today," Szymanski says.
8. Remember that every member of Congress has a vote. You may disagree with the policymaker's party affiliation or politics, but he or she doesn't need to know that you voted for the opponent. Work with every policymaker who is sympathetic and supportive of the apartment industry's issues.
9. Write a thank-you letter after your meeting. And make that your first, not last, communication. Send your congressional representative pertinent and critical industry information. Jot a note attached to a newspaper clipping about the industry. Write a personal letter articulating your point of view about an industry issue before Congress. Make your communications matter by relating personal, local stories tied to the issue.
10. Recognize that government affairs is everyone's responsibility. In associations big and small, government affairs consistently ranks at the top of members' reasons for joining. Vet many association members see legislative and regulatory advocating as an association staff function--never realizing that their individual involvement is equally important.
"It's critical that we have these relationships. They vote on what their constituents tell them they want or need. Only we can convey the effects," Ridgway says. "I live two blocks from Congressman Brady. I can tell him how it affects us in The Woodlands. It becomes real. Lobbyists can educate on the position. We give them the reality and emotion to it as a constituent."
Szymanski says, "Other shelter organizations are very strong, deep and historically respected. The multifamily rental industry doesn't have the depth, strength or history. But it is growing as housing needs change and jobs change. There has been more and more respect for the rental market in the past 12 to 18 months. Parlay that into increased visibility, respect, relationships and having a story to tell about the way the business works. We've never had a better chance to tell our story."
Capitol Conference: save The Date
If you are inspired to start advocating for the apartment industry, you don't need to wait until the next August recess. Join us at the NAA Capitol Conference on March 13-17 in Washington, D.C. (See related story on Page 26.)
Carole Roper is NAA s Manager of Public Affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703/797-0616. Editor's note: This article was written prior to the Nov. 2 midterm elections. The 112th Congress will convene Jan. 3.