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The Activists Are Coming: How California Real Estate Companies & Property Owners Can Prepare for Attacks on Their Businesses

By Hector Barajas & Stevan Allen

California’s housing community is under attack by activists who have organized renters, foreclosed homeowners and minority based groups to help stage press conferences, local media interviews and protest marches under the banner of housing and tenant rights.

Too many property owners, real estate companies and housing organizations are caught flatfooted and don’t have a strategy when they see their reputations disparaged on the evening news.

In the past two years, three of our clients were confronted by various housing and renter activists’ organizations. These were not organic community groups, but rather orchestrated movements funded by the nation’s largest foundations, political contributors and politically motivated NGOs. Their aim was never really about helping tenants. Rather their hidden agenda was really about stopping development, putting pressure on lawmakers to regulate banking institutions and trying to strong-arm the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to sell their distressed properties to nonprofits and “mission-driven” organizations.

Pushing back on attacks from housing/tenant activists is crucial. It begins by being prepared, having a game plan in place and adhering to the following tips:

  • Everything Needs to be Written Down. How long has the tenant been in the property? How long since they last paid rent? Are there any complaints against the owner for health and safety reasons? Have you made any “cash-for-keys” offer?
  • Develop a Timeline. When dealing with the purchase of a foreclosed property, you need to have a timeline put together – from delinquency to the recent sale of the property. In California, the average foreclosure process takes 429 days and 1,123 days for a property to go from the delinquency stage to when the home is sold to a new owner; the entire process takes well over three years. By outlining the entire process and the current situation, the reporter(s) will get to better understand your side of the story and be more critical of highly emotional arguments activists tend to promote.
  • Put a Communications Plan in Place. Work with internal communications staff or outside consultants to develop protocols, draft media statements, approval processes, designate a spokesperson and identify third-party advocates who can speak on your behalf.
  • Run Everything Through Your Attorney & Public Affairs Team. Talk with your team to avoid any potential libel claims and to avoid any confusion of terms and dates in the timeline that you developed. All external communications should be vetted and approved in accordance with the communications plan.
  • Don’t Talk with a Reporter at the Property in Question. It could be a set up. The last thing you want is to get shouted down by the activists and elevate an already hostile situation. Avoid any direct confrontations. The activists will be videotaping everything. You will be made to look defensive, callous and as though you’re trying to hide something or avoid the truth.
  • Be Proactive, Tell a Story & Protect Your Reputation. We advise our clients to begin documenting their story. Develop YouTube clips of when you purchased a distressed home. Document the neighborhood, the condition of the property, and every step taken to get the home suitable for sale. Then, record the journey of the new homeowner from when they start the loan process, to the day she or he gets the keys to their new home – follow up a year later to get their testimonial. Populate your social media platforms with: newspaper articles where you are quoted, awards or events where you have been recognized for helping the local community, memberships in community based organizations, memberships in nonprofits and images of you leading a seminar on ethical property management.

With the advent of digital media, there are a tremendous amount of social media sites where you can write, manage and house your material. You need to build vast amounts of goodwill, should you have the unfortunate luck of dealing with California’s housing and tenant activists. Without any archived videos, news stories and/or testimonials, you are just playing defense, until the legal system runs its course and your reputation will suffer.

It is highly likely the activists will become more aggressive in the coming year. The good news is that real estate companies, property managers and housing organizations have positive stories to tell and can develop an effective plan that will help them respond to any attack. The key is to plan ahead and don’t wait until the protestors are on you doorstep before you start dealing with a potential crisis.

Hector Barajas & Stevan Allen are partners at Merino, Barajas & Allen, a California strategic communications and public affairs firm. http://www.MBAINC360.com