The REsource Newsletter
In This Issue
Participatory Budgeting Turns Public Money Into Public Good
For most Chicagoans, the alderman’s office is a place to buy parking stickers and complain about ward problems – rats, broken street lights, and potholes.
Joe Moore, alderman of Chicago’s 49th Ward has changed the relationship with his constituents.
Thanks to the Participatory Budgeting (PB) project Moore launched, residents now have different reasons to visit and connect with Moore and his staff.
Returning decision-making to constituents
PB is a process that turns over decision-making about how to spend public money to community residents. They work side-by-side with neighbors and government reps to brainstorm and plan projects and develop budgets and proposals. Then taxpayers vote on what projects get funded and built.
PB got its start in Brazil and Moore is credited with bringing the idea in the United States when he launched his first PB project in 2007.
Since 2009, communities have put more than $225 million into PB efforts and have funded 1,473 projects in the U.S. and in Canada, and this year, 19 cities have PB processes in the works.
That’s according to the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), a non-profit organization that promotes and supports PB by providing things like technical assistance, research, conferences, and networking opportunities in the U.S. and Canada.
Solidifying community bonds
Money for PB projects can come from various sources, including set-asides from a city’s capital budget, elected officials’ discretionary funds, or tax increment financing.
In Moore’s case, he earmarks $1 million of his $1.3 million of his ward’s annual discretionary funds for PB.
“Before I’d spend the better part of a day deciding how to spend that money. Now I spend the better part of a year working on it with the community,” he says.
But it’s worth it to Moore, who calls himself a civic engagement geek and strongly believes in grassroots democracy. “It’s one of the most positive initiatives I’ve done in my ward,” he says.
Voters have chosen nuts-and-bolts projects like alley resurfacing and new street lights, but they’ve also voted for things that make the neighborhood more livable and aesthetically pleasing -- new trees, murals, bike lanes, community gardens, and accessibility improvements to parks.
As a result of 7 years of PB, the ward looks better, serves its residents’ needs and reflects their interests. And the process has solidified community bonds.
Others have had similar experiences with PB and have found that it can be a tool to restore public trust, engage young people, jump-start a financially ailing city, and engage with populations that often feel sidelined.
As Michelle Monsegur, a budget analyst for the City of Cambridge (Mass.), says, “PB makes government more transparent and is a way to show that the city trusts its residents.” The city wrapped up voting on its third cycle of PB in December 2016, having set aside $700,000 of its capital budget for the process.
In addition, voices that often are squelched get heard in the PB process. In Cambridge, for example, any resident aged 12 and older, including non-U.S. citizen and undocumented residents, are invited to vote on PB proposals. “To me, it’s about inclusiveness,” Monsegur says.
It’s also a way to engage young people. In Cambridge, high school students work alongside adults on one committee, and Monsegur recalls that they held their own and were able to defend their proposals. “When we’re talking about parks, libraries, and youth centers, kids are the ones using them,” she observes. “So why not ask them what they want?”
New community leaders emerge
Better citizen engagement cuts across all age groups and PB tends to attract new people and fresh ideas.
“At these PB assemblies, I always see new faces and it’s been an opportunity to build new community leaders,” comments Moore. In addition, it gives people a chance to bond with neighbors in ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods, such as in Moore’s ward.
“Our process reflects the diversity of our community and people and residents get to know others they may not otherwise have met in a meaningful way,” says Moore. “So PB becomes a community building exercise that is really uplifting.”
Restoring public trust
That’s one motivation in other places too.
In Vallejo, Calif., Johnny Walker got involved in the city’s first PB process back in 2012 and saw it as something of a healing tool after the city had filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
His motivation was restoring public trust, rebuilding municipal services and restarting economic development – all things, he believes, that foster positive financial outcomes for people in all income segments. “PB Vallejo restored the public's faith in our local government and it encouraged regular individuals to become more involved in governance,” he says.
Walker GRI is a real estate practitioner and property manager with Century 21 Schutjer Realty and 2017 president-elect of the Solano Association of REALTORS®, and in 2013 he served as co-facilitator for the Economic Development Budget Delegate Committee for Vallejo’s PB.
PB and the green niche
Walker believes PB is a natural for real estate practitioners who want to better engage with their communities.
Yes, it’s good for making business connections and Walker says he met many people he wouldn’t have met otherwise.
“Being connected to the community is always a good thing, but it’s not always about making a buck,” he says.
He views it as a way to service a community where he lives and works and says, “I derive a much greater satisfaction from that than just earning more money.”
Moreover, PB can be an especially good fit with the green niche. After all, many voters are squarely focused on environmentally-friendly improvements and innovations.
In Vallejo, voters opted for a citywide conversion to LED street lighting and transformed vacant lots into community gardens, for example. And in Cambridge, residents have voted in solar panels for the main library, solar-powered bus tracker displays, kinetic energy tiles, and a food rescue van that cuts food waste by collecting unused food and delivering it to those in need.
David Beasley, a PBP spokesperson, believes PB just makes communities and government better.
“Once you’ve had conversations in your community about a project and shared needs over several months, you have a new network in your community – people who live with you and whose ideas, values, and perspectives may be different than your own,” he says. “Those conversations bridge differences and make communities stronger, healthier, and more resilient, and communities solve the needs that are most pressing to them.”
Launch PB in your neighborhood
If you’re interested in spearheading PB in your community, here are 6 ways to get started.
1. Natural allies. Get a read of your city’s government and see what money could be devoted to PB and who may be a natural ally. Maybe there’s already a government official advocating on topics that you’re passionate about.
2. Network. Find and talk with like-minded people in your neighborhood to generate interest and get community buy-in.
4. Make the pitch. Approach politicians you know and make your pitch, talk about some ideas, and outline PB’s benefits.
5. Political capital. Show your city official how they benefit. You may want to relay Moore’s story. In 2007, he nearly lost his seat. He was in a runoff election and squeaked by with a mere 51% of the votes.
In the next election – after he’d launched PB -- he snagged 72% of the votes. And not in a runoff. “I’d fallen out of touch,” Moore recalls. “PB showed people that I was listening and that I’d became more engaged.”
6. Start-up framework. There’s no need to start PB from scratch. PCB has materials to help groups get projects off the ground and other cities have tested and tweaked processes that can be replicated. Click here for toolkits, guides, white paper, and so forth.
“Participatory Budgeting is one of the most positive initiatives I've done in my ward."
--Alderman Joe Moore, Chicago's 49th Ward
Roadmap for Bringing Solar Data to MLSs
There are more than 1 million solar photovoltaic (PV) homes, yet finding data on those systems is cumbersome for real estate practitioners and consumers.
As these homes become more prevalent, there needs to be a way to get data about such properties into MLSs.
So say the authors of "Capturing the Sun: A Roadmap for Navigating Data-Access Challenges and Auto-Populating Solar Home Listings."
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, along with a team of REALTORS®, appraisers, and policymakers, wrote and released the report that assesses the challenges of making solar data more accessible in the MLS, along with potential ways to move toward that goal.
Members of that “Roadmap” team, including Laura Stukel, REALTOR® and Independent Consultant; Ben Hoen, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Sandra Adomatis, SRA, Adomatis Appraisal Services; and Craig Foley, REALTOR® and Owner of Sustainable Real Estate Consulting Services, were featured in the GRC’s February 2017 Webinar.
They outlined the opportunities associated with the increasing inventories of solar PV homes, along with the challenges associated with getting solar data into the MLS and into consumers’ and appraisers’ hands.
Information key to proper valuations
That’s a critical missing piece.
What happens if your client is selling a house with solar PV but they don’t have documentation about that system?
Though that information exists and can be found through several means -- from installers and permits, to incentive program data and elsewhere -- hunting it down can be difficult and time-consuming.
“The MLS is the very best resource that appraisers have to gather data and come up with an accurate appraised value,” says Adomatis. Appraisers need specific details on things like a system’s size and age and the amount of energy it produces to be able to make apples-to-apples comparisons among properties.
Yet, such data is sparse to non-existent in MLSs.
School data, taxes, and other information get auto-popped in the MLS. So why not solar data?
“If we could create a ready-made solution and auto-pop that information in to the MLS, it would save lots of time,” says Foley.
Advocating for change
It’s a complex process, but the Roadmap provides some potential scenarios for aggregating the data and automatically moving it into MLSs.
As a real estate practitioner, you could play a key role in advocating for such changes in your local MLS. The report identifies some first steps, including building a coalition of people to be “journey leaders”. You could be one of those leaders and start conducting critical solar data assessments locally and talking with your MLS about the benefits of adding solar fields.
It’s an opportunity for you for the long haul. Homeowners who install solar PV need to know that their investment will get properly valued and that their investment in clean energy will pay off.
And, as the report says, auto-pop could vastly increase the quantity and quality of solar data. And that just may help to increase demand for properties with solar PV.
Pew Study Find Support For Solar, Wind Power
The Pew Research Center’s “The Politics of Climate,” gives you a sense of people’s perceptions about climate change, what concerns them, and the level of trust they place in climate scientists and their findings.
It also includes some compelling statistics about the support that exists for expanding wind and solar power.
Especially in light of the work being done to get solar fields into the MLS (see “Roadmap for Bringing Solar Data to MLSs” in this issue), the data concerning consumers’ interest in solar is especially timely.
Residents in the West are especially interested in solar panels, according to Pew, and some 14% of homeowners there have installed solar panels at home. Another 52% say they’re considering them.
In addition, 55% of homeowners under age 50 have seriously considered installing or already have installed panels at home.
These charts give you a taste of what you’ll find in the full report.
Back to Basics: Courting Renters
It’s hard to miss all the news about aspiring homeowners and their wants, challenges and needs. Instead of viewing their challenges as a barrier, think of it as a business opportunity.
For one, it’s a chance to get them on board with green home concepts early and help them understand the value of those features.
Challenges and misconceptions
It’s also an opportunity to dispel some of the misconceptions they may have about buying a home.
Look to NAR’s Aspiring Home Buyers Profile to get a read on those aspiring buyers and their challenges and misconceptions.
For instance, 39% of non-owners believe they need more than 20 percent for a down payment.
If your renter client believes that more than 20 percent down is a must, talk with them about the various mortgages options and their down payment requirements, including the FHA 203(k) loan and energy efficiency mortgages.
And student debt truly is a barrier to homeownership. NAR found that 39 percent of respondents did have student loan debt in Q2 of 2016 and only 18 percent reported that they’d be comfortable taking on a mortgage.
The opportunity for you? Any strategies that can help such prospects reduce their expenses and sock those savings away for a down payment will get them closer to their homeownership goals.
Making better choices
A good start is showing them that they’re not stuck with landlords’ poor – and sometimes expensive -- choices and that they do have some control over their environment and energy costs while they’re renting.
Energy Star provides some terrific ways for tenants to reduce their environmental impact and save on energy costs.
You already know them – they’re the basics – but young renters may not.
Here are five simple strategies from Energy Star to share with your aspiring homeowners.
1. Lighting. Save $65 each year by replacing the bulbs in your five most frequently used light fixtures with Energy Star-qualified lights.
2. Air conditioners. Yes, that cast-off window air conditioner from a grandmother’s garage is cheap, but it’s probably inefficient and will cost you in the long run with higher energy bills. Instead, invest in an Energy Start-qualified model, which uses at least 10 percent less energy than standard models. And if you don’t remove them during the winter, be certain to insulate the units well to avoid heat from escaping and cold air getting in.
3. Electronics and phantom power. Talk about all the gear – battery chargers, microwave oven clocks, battery chargers, DVRs, modems, and so forth – that keep sucking tiny amounts of electricity even when they’re off. Cut that phantom power by using power strips and unplugging chargers and turning off computers and monitors when they’re not in use.
4. Door sweeps. Buy and install door sweeps to keep cold air from coming in and hot air from leaving. They’re cheap, easy to install, and keep the living space more comfortable.
5. Short showers. Aim for 10-minute showers and replace old showerheads with low-flow models to reduce water consumption and save energy without sacrificing comfort.
Getting your renter clients used to paying attention to small home improvements and developing good energy efficiency habits now will pay off in the long run when they’re ready to buy.
For you, they’ll be on board to look for energy efficiency when they’re shopping for homes and they may actually have a little extra cash to spend on the greener homes that you’re marketing.
This Month's Tips: Earth Day To-do's
You probably already have your plans in place for your Earth Day celebration on April 22.
But don’t forget to remind clients about the small actions they can take each day to improve the planet.
Here are three:
1. Kick the plastic habit. Only about 10% of plastic bags, packages, and bottles get recycled properly, says the Earth Day Network. The rest ends up in the waste stream, causing over 100,000 marine animals and one million birds to die each year from ingesting and choking on plastic. Swap plastic for reusable bags, bottles, silverware, dishes, and cleaning tools.
2. Embrace meatless Mondays. The meat industry generates approximately 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If the entire U.S. population didn’t eat meat or cheese for just one day a week, its impact would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road, says the Earth Day Network.
3. Celebrate Earth Day. Attend an Earth Day celebration in your city and learn about ways you can get involved to improve your community’s health all year.
How Consumers Value Environmentally-friendly Home Features
Every year, the National Association of Realtors® ‘ Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends gives you a read on what’s driving buyers and sellers, along with the value those consumers place on environmentally-friendly home features.
Student Debt's Impact on Home Buying
Student loan debt increasingly is becoming an issue – sometimes a deal breaker – for aspiring home buyers.
If you’re selling a home, it’s good to have a grip on how prospects’ student loan debt may affect their ability to buy. See NAR's Aspiring Home Buyer Profile to learn more about issues affecting aspiring buyers.
All articles written by Elyse Umlauf-Garneau unless otherwise noted