The San Francisco region was one of the earliest impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as one of the first to react, declaring a local emergency on February 25 and issuing a shelter in place order for six Bay Area counties on March 16. With real estate professionals abruptly confronted with the unprecedented crisis, the San Francisco Association of REALTORSⓇ (SFAR) got out in front of the situation and initiated a rapid response to cope in the short-term and stay strong for the long-term.
“Our more than 4,000 members already look to SFAR for leadership on important issues,” explains SFAR CEO Walt Baczkowski. “This COVID-19 crisis was unexpected, but it did not catch our association off-guard.”
In this exclusive interview, Baczkowski shares how SFAR jumped into action at the outset of the coronavirus, and has been guiding members ever since.
Maria Patterson: When and why did the potential effects of the COVID-19 crisis first hit your radar?
Walt Baczkowski: We were closely tracking the COVID-19 crisis in the news and sent our first communication on the subject out to members on March 5, 2020, encouraging everyone to take precautionary measures in their offices and in their day-to-day business to stay safe. At that point, our focus was helping to broadcast official communications by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the San Francisco Department of Public Health. We immediately recognized the crisis would have a significant impact on the real estate market, as showings and tours had primarily been conducted in-person.
MP: Please tell us how the market has been impacted to date.
WB: Since our ability to do in-person showings has been extremely limited, some buyers are, of course, hesitant to make a purchase until things settle down a bit. However, others see an opportunity to purchase at a time when the competition for homes in the city has dropped. Instead of competing with multiple offers on a property, for the most part, buyers can submit their offer and make a deal without the bidding wars that have been going on for some time. In addition, interest rates on mortgages are extremely attractive as the Federal Reserve has cut rates incentivizing buyers even further.
As for sellers, some have decided to wait out the shelter-in-place (SIP) orders if they are in a position to do so. Others have a need or desire to sell and are leaving their properties on the market.
While the activity is greatly reduced, homes are still being listed for sale and buyers are getting into contract. San Francisco has always been a destination city for relocation, which keeps demand high. Since the SIP order, many homes have gone into contract here in San Francisco.
Our way of doing business has definitely shifted and we will continue to adapt as necessary to provide a safe and responsible process for selling and buying homes.
MP: Why did SFAR make it a priority to get ahead of the curve in addressing/dealing with the crisis?
WB: Our more than 4,000 members already look to SFAR for leadership on important issues affecting the real estate industry. I knew the COVID-19 pandemic would be no exception. So, I immediately convened staff and the leadership team on regular calls to get the latest information on the crisis and think carefully about our guidance. San Francisco is a unique market. We wanted to be thoughtful, proactive and sympathetic to the needs of our membership.
We also quickly set up a COVID-19 Resources section of our website at sfarcovidupdates.com, which displays our latest guidance, video messages from our President Marc Dickow, new transaction forms, and a curated set of links to help our members navigate the information available to them. We knew having a one-stop location for all of SFAR’s information about the crisis, along with active social media posts and direct communications, would be important to keeping our membership connected and informed.
MP: What made the association well-prepared to handle a crisis of this magnitude?
WB: This COVID-19 crisis was unexpected, but it did not catch our association off-guard. I am exceptionally proud of our board of directors, committee leadership and staff who stepped up to ensure our association’s activities, including the SFARMLS, continued seamlessly. We are a relatively lean organization and that has worked to our advantage—we have proven to be nimble and adaptable by quickly getting a wide array of webinars up and running to keep our members connected, figuring out a way to issue lockboxes safely so members can put listings on the market, and coordinating highly productive—but remote—board of directors and committee meetings on strategic topics, among other activities.
Additionally, our Government Affairs and Community Relations team of Mary Jung and Jay Cheng has strong and very positive ties with elected officials at the state and local levels. They have been able to help us get early indications about new information and orders, and have advocated and asked questions on behalf of REALTORS®. This communication channel proved beneficial for our organization and members.
The dedication and commitment of our leadership team is also unmatched. I have been on calls late into the night as news broke about the crisis and we were developing new talking points to share with members. There has never been a moment when we’ve felt we couldn’t take on the latest challenge, always thinking through the best interests of our members. I am so grateful to the volunteer board, including Marc, and our superstar staff for rising to the occasion.
MP: What are the chief concerns among your members and how are you staying proactively engaged with them during this time?
WB: The top concern for our membership is how to continue business safely. As you know, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security deemed real estate brokerage services “essential” on March 28, 2020, but we remain under a shelter-in-place order in San Francisco through at least the end of May. So, we are in constant communication with the Office of Mayor Breed to understand her guidance to real estate professionals, specifically. We share these recommendations and updates with our membership via regular emails, video messages, social media posts and articles on our website.
Our membership is also deeply committed to supporting the neediest in our community, especially during this time of crisis. So Marc formed a partnership with the Asian Real Estate Association of America, the Chinese Real Estate Association of America and the San Mateo County Association of REALTORS® to fundraise for the purchase and safe delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) to local hospitals; and to provide housewares and personal essentials through the SFAR Foundation’s Welcome Home Project to formerly homeless individuals and families who are moving into housing. The initiative is called Bay Area Real Estate for Good and it has raised more than $6,000, already enabling us to deliver boxes of PPE to hospitals and hygiene kits and cleaning supplies to 200 formerly homeless individuals at the request of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.
MP: What are some of the critical strategies right now—both for the association and for members—for conducting business in the time of coronavirus?
WB: The safety of our members, their clients, and our staff is the first priority. Our guidance remains that all showings and activities should be conducted without in-person contact. So, virtual tours, virtual showings and creativity are key! Business can still be done.
MP: How will you approach/advise members to safely resume business practices as the crisis begins to abate?
WB: Our approach has always been to reinforce the message of our local and state public health officials with regards to how our members should conduct business during COVID-19. I expect we will continue this way as orders are lifted. As Governor Newsom and Mayor Breed issue guidance on how to return to work, we will communicate how it applies to the San Francisco real estate industry. If we need clarification on certain topics, we are grateful to have direct communication channels to the Mayor and other officials.
MP: In your opinion, what are some of the key lessons/strategies we’re learning now as an industry, that will serve us well once we’re well beyond the pandemic?
WB: Through this crisis we’ve learned how to effectively conduct association business and events remotely. Just this week, more than 300 members joined an engaging webinar panel on MLS 8.0 Clear Cooperation. In our congested city of San Francisco, it may not always make sense to convene an event or meeting in person—now that we know we can accomplish so much remotely. Our team looks forward to finding the right balance between in-person and digital events. Of course, when we can get back together safely, we will sure enjoy in-person reconnections!
Maria Patterson is RISMedia’s executive editor. Email her your real estate news ideas at email@example.com.