This week, thousands of REALTORS® from all over the U.S. gather in Washington, DC, for a week of governance meetings, educational sessions, networking and, most of all, political advocacy. The REALTORS® Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo is an annual event reaching back to the early 1980s, a forum in which NAR’s members can meet with legislators, regulators and industry leaders to advance the issues critical to their businesses, communities and clients.
What most REALTORS® might not know is that this year, 2017, is the 75th anniversary of the creation of NAR’s formal public advocacy efforts. In early 1942, the association leased an office building for itself at 1737 K Street, NW, establishing its first permanent office in Washington, DC. At the same time, it hired a team of lobbyists and other support staff, creating its first full-time Government Affairs team. It also established the REALTORS® Washington Committee (RWC) to guide the association’s legislative and policy goals in Washington.
1737 K Street, NW, NAR’s Washington headquarters from 1942-1956
“Last Year’s Bird’s Nest”
The National Association of REALTORS® has been involved in legislative and policy issues since Day One. In May 1908, at the association’s founding meeting, one of the first actions the delegates took after drafting the organization’s constitution was to draft a letter of support for President Theodore Roosevelt’s land use and conservation initiatives. But before 1942, all actions the association took to make its voice heard in Washington were done on an as-needed basis only. NAR was based in Chicago and had no permanent office in Washington, there were no lobbyists or policy experts on staff, and the Legislative Committee created in the 1910s focused primarily on state and local issues — and had disbanded entirely by the 1930s.
NAR’s headquarters relocated temporarily to the Hibbs Building in Washington in June 1918, in order to help the federal government dispose of surplus properties acquired during World War I. In September 1920, with the surplus properties project completed, NAR moved its headquarters back to Chicago, but left behind a small Division of Research and Information, which gathered housing and real estate data from local associations and provided them to the U.S. Commerce Department.
After six months, Robert B. Armstrong, director of NAR’s Division of Research and Information, concluded that “there were too many associations with offices in Washington endeavoring to influence legislation.”
“After a little while any organization that is maintained in Washington becomes dog-eared and has about as much influence as last year’s bird’s nest,” Armstrong explained in his report the Board of Directors in April 1921. He recommended that his office should be removed from Washington to Chicago, and offered an alternative plan:
My recommendation is you take that entire bureau and put it in your central headquarters, wherever it may be, and have that bureau make whatever arrangements are necessary in a national emergency. They could be free to handle the situation as it might arise. If they need three men in Washington, send them down there; if they need a dozen, send them down — but I do not think this association will gain friends or make progress by maintaining the bureau in Washington, or any organization there, for that matter. It has been my observation and practice when we had a matter to meet in Congress the best thing to do was to have the members of your Legislative Committee on the ground and have them appear as occasion required and give adequate information, details, as Congress wants, but always from men actually engaged in the business and away from Washington.
1922-1942: NAR’s Unofficial Lobbying Team
For the next two decades, that’s exactly how NAR conducted its business in Washington. The Research Division was moved to Chicago, and in early 1922 the association hired a new Executive Vice President, Herbert U. Nelson. In addition to his EVP duties, Nelson acted as NAR’s unofficial chief lobbyist. As circumstances warranted, Nelson would travel to Washington to to discuss the REALTORS®’ positions on the issues of the day with legislators and regulators, often accompanied by the association’s president and other elected leadership.
In the 1920s, this arrangement worked well. Business in Washington moved at a pace that could easily be monitored and responded to from the Chicago headquarters. But in the 1930s, as Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt took action to bring the nation past the Great Depression, Nelson found himself in Washington more and more frequently. The REALTORS®’ perspective and expertise were called on constantly to help flesh out the ideas and sometimes even draft the legislation that formed the Federal Housing Administration, the Federal Home Loan Bank system, Fannie Mae, the federal mortgage insurance program, and dozens of other initiatives. NAR’s representatives spent so much time in Washington that in 1934 Nelson started a newsletter just to keep the association’s membership informed of NAR’s advocacy activities on their behalf. Nelson wrote the newsletter personally, and it quickly turned into a weekly update.
“…for the benefit of all REALTORS®”
By the early 1940s, as the nation prepared to enter World War II, the number of government initiatives touching real estate and housing had increased to such an extent that Herbert U. Nelson and the association’s leadership travelled to Washington almost constantly. 1941 NAR President Philip Kniskern reported that he was required to be in Washington nearly every week. The difficulty in obtaining adequate hotel space, not to mention the skyrocketing costs of accommodating NAR’s representatives during their visits, soon drove the Board of Directors to question whether there wasn’t a better way to go about things.
At their meeting on Jan. 23, 1942, NAR’s Executive Committee came up with a plan:
Mr. Nelson stated that because of the difficulty in securing hotel accommodations in Washington, the suggestion had been made that the Association rent a large house in Washington for the use of its employees who must be in Washington frequently. It was felt that perhaps a considerable sum could be saved [. . .] if such a plan were carried out. Mr. Nelson said that Mrs. Nelson had visited Washington and had gone over the situation quite thoroughly. She explained to the Executive Committee some of the advantages and difficulties which would be involved in the event it was decided to lease property in Washington.
1737 K. Street, NW, was soon identified as the REALTORS® first home in Washington. And it actually did function as a home, of sorts: in addition to office space on the lower floors, the upper floors featured furnished rooms with kitchens and other amenities, where NAR’s president and other volunteer leaders could stay while they were in town on association business. Initially the association planned to close the office after the war ended, but by that time it became clear that real estate had taken on a vital role in the nation’s economic stability, and it was decided to stay in Washington indefinitely.
At the same time, NAR also formalized its policy operations with the creation of the REALTORS®’ Washington Committee (RWC), which was tasked with setting and promoting NAR’s legislative policies. Developments in Washington became too wide-ranging for NAR’s Executive Vice President to coordinate on his own, and so the RWC was created to ensure that the association was well-equipped to represent the interests of its membership in legislative and regulatory matters. “The work of the Committee is for the benefit of all Realtors,” stated a 1942 pamphlet explaining the purpose of the RWC, “and is over and above that which the National Association must carry on under normal conditions.”
The RWC evolved over the next several decades, becoming the REALTORS® Legislative Committee in 1974, and continues today as the Public Policy Coordinating Committee. The 1737 K Street building no longer exists — the site is now home to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. After occupying a series of offices elsewhere in the city, NAR’s Washington operations eventually landed in its distinctive home on New Jersey Avenue, NW, the city’s first LEED-certified green building constructed in 2004, which REALTORS® are encouraged to visit during the Legislative Meetings.