For an organization focusing much of its effort on advocacy for its members, the idea of moving New Jersey Realtors to 10 Hamilton Avenue in Trenton in September, 2016, after a 30-year stint in Edison made a lot of sense. “We want to be close to the government process,” CEO Jarrod Grasso says, noting that a trip to the capital used to take all day.
The idea for the move came up as the association was developing a strategic plan about seven years ago. Technological changes, the realtors realized, meant that the original reason for choosing Edison — having a central location — no longer held because meetings and educational opportunities for members could now happen via webinars or online conferencing.
Their next question was whether they could find a suitable property in the Trenton area. At the suggestion of the Trenton mayor’s office, they contacted the Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA), which owned several properties.
The MCIA had recently cleared out a lot it owned at the intersection of Broad Street and Hamilton Avenue, adjacent to the MCIA’s own office, that appeared to meet New Jersey Realtors’ requirements: it was in the heart of Trenton, with the State House a half mile from its front door, and NJ Realtors could have 65 dedicated spaces in the 500-space parking lot of the Sun National Bank Center across the street.
New Jersey Realtors also wanted to take advantage of the potential it saw in the state capital. “We feel strongly that the Trenton area and the city of Trenton are making some crucial improvements to make it an even greater city,” Grasso says. “I think it’s going to have a real renaissance in the next several years.”
Grasso concedes that some people may associate a stigma with Trenton, but “look past that and it’s a great experience,” he says. People on his staff can walk to work from either the light rail station or the Trenton train station. Those who drive to work enjoy convenient parking. “To be located in an urban area and not have to pay a premium for parking is a major attraction,” says Grasso.
Numerous lunchtime destinations are within walking distance, including Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon, 128 West State Street cafe, and Trenton Social, which is right across the street.
Grasso sees New Jersey Realtors’ 20,000-square-foot, $8.5 million building as an anchor for the neighborhood’s redevelopment. Its 20 employees occupy the second and third floors, approximately 15,000 square feet. The first floor is leasable space, for which the organization currently has several potential tenants.
Grasso declines to reveal the exact rental rates being asked, but says that the space consists of two suites of about 2,500 square feet each. One facing Broad Street could be divided into smaller units. The one on the Hamilton Avenue side opens onto an outdoor plaza of about 1,700 square feet. The outdoor space could be tied to the lease of the interior space and could be suitable for outdoor dining.
Another important anchor for the neighborhood is the Roebling Lofts development around the corner, which will be a mixed-use area with residential and commercial components. Grasso also sees great potential in the Sun Center: “I am hoping the arena across the street is working toward building some more visible performances — more attractions for people to come into the area,” he says. And finally he is proud to be right down street from the Trenton Thunder, the minor league baseball team.
For Grasso, the redevelopment aspect of the move was at the forefront. “When we made the move, we were not looking at the impact we’d have or the access, but it was us being part of investing in the city of Trenton.”
Grasso’s organization represents realtors, not real estate licensees. “Realtors” is a term trademarked in 1949 by the national association, which formed in 1908. He explains, “To use the term you must belong to the local board of realtors, the state association, and the national association.” As with other professional organizations, the purpose of this term, he says, is “to create a more professional profile for a person who subscribes to a higher code of ethics.”
As Grasso says, “Like a real estate licensee, realtors are experts in the field to help find commercial or residential properties for either a business or a person looking to live in a community; they provide service, knowledge, and resources for the locations they service.”
New Jersey Realtors, which has approximately 48,000 members, covers primarily residential but also some commercial realtors. One big service it provides its members is advocacy, particularly on private property rights and home ownership.
Sometimes the issues are as narrow as cleaning up antiquated language. The state real estate commission’s licensing regulations, for example, inaccurately referred to agents as “employees,” which is sometime true, but they can also be independent contractors who have a business relationship with a broker.
Another big advocacy target are the fees a homeowner must pay after a sale to transfer the deed to the new owner; the fee is not a set percentage but a tiered structure that depends on the price of the home. In New Jersey this fee had been increased twice, once by Governor Jim McGreevey and again by Governor Jon Corzine.
Grasso explains how New Jersey Realtors dealt with this issue. “What we do is try to explain to the legislature how that impacts the equity that someone selling a home may or may not have built up.” In an up market or for someone who has been in a home for a long time, the equity in the house can help offset this fee paid by the seller. But otherwise people are likely to need that money to reinvest in their next home purchase.
New Jersey Realtors also pays close attention to any proposal coming out of Washington to change the tax structure, and in particular whether someone might try to eliminate the ability to write off mortgage interest or property taxes. “In a high-cost state like New Jersey, it would have a negative effect on property values,” Grasso says. “Think about a young [potential] homeowner who wants to get into the market; not being able to write off property taxes will have a dramatic effect on what they can afford.”
Although there is some outward migration of New Jersey homeowners who are looking for more affordable options, Grasso says, New Jersey cities like Hoboken and Jersey City represent more affordable options when compared to the costs of living in Manhattan.
In recent years New Jersey Realtors has advocated nationally to maintain a funding mechanism for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). “After the catastrophic event of Sandy and events like Katrina across the country, NFIP has paid out numerous claims to homeowners, and members of Congress have looked at how much the federal government should be subsidizing these plans,” Grasso says. The NFIP also helps with the affordability nationally of flood insurance, which is not just for people who live on the coast, but also those near lakes and rivers.
New Jersey Realtors also provides continuing education to its members, through its Academy of Continuing Education, launched in 2011 (although realtors can also gain their required continuing education units through other organizations). Given the dues structure, Grasso says he does not charge anything above his costs for classes done with other partners and provides for free classes developed by New Jersey Realtors.
Classes on ethics, he says, are a key component. “We want to make sure that they [our members] operate in an ethical manner to ensure that when they are talking about a market area, they understand what that area is and understand what their fiduciary responsibility is, whether they represent buyers or sellers,” Grasso says.
New Jersey has 19 local boards of realtors who work together. The local boards advocate on local issues, and New Jersey Realtors may provide staffing. For example, a town may pass an ordinance that prohibits realtors from putting up directional signs to a property. “We go in and meet with town council members, discuss why signs are useful, and assure them that we will work with them so signs are removed in a timely fashion,” Grasso says. In the past, New Jersey Realtors helped realtors in Point Pleasant deal with a prohibition on parking in front of residential properties.
Although Grasso says the issue of knockdowns is a personal decision and more of a homebuilders question than one for realtors, he does note that any rehabilitation of homes in a neighborhood will help its property values.
About affordable housing, he says, “Obviously we believe there has to be an affordable housing component built into communities. When you talk about affordable housing, you have to focus on policemen, firemen, community service industries, and you have to make sure they can afford to live in the community where they work and service.”
During 2008, when its members were hurting in the slow real estate market, New Jersey Realtors tried to put out a positive message — the great aspects of home ownership; why it is important to own a home; affordability (because prices went down in a down market); home ownership is a great long-term investment. Grasso says, “If you look at the long-term history, real estate is more consistent than any stock market we ever had.”
Grasso grew up in Toms River. His father worked in the mom and pop appliance store that Grasso’s grandparents had started and later was vice president of the Appliance Dealers Cooperative, which, Grasso explains, “is a way for mom and pop appliance stores to work together to do purchasing to compete against big box stores.” His mother, a social worker, was director of human services in Ocean County, an appointed position, and is now running St. Valentine’s House, a home for handicapped individuals who work within the Point Pleasant community.
Grasso went to Castleton University in Vermont, where he was heavily involved in student government and was president his senior year. A sociology and history major, he played lacrosse and did a lot of recreational skiing.
His mother was heavily involved in New Jersey politics, and he remembers going to different events with her. “I always took to politics,” he said. He got an internship with U.S. Congressman Christopher Smith of New Jersey’s Fourth Congressional District at his Washington, D.C., office — Grasso’s mother helped open the door. He worked for Smith for four or five months while putting his resume out for other jobs.
As a constituent services provider, he responded to constituent questions after doing careful research, and back in 1996 he did that by writing letters. What stayed with him from that job was “taking time to appreciate what people have to say, the differences in opinions, and having a thoughtful discussion on the issues.”
One of his resumes went to the speaker of the New Jersey Assembly, Jack Collins, who brought him in for an interview with Don Sico, executive director of the New Jersey Assembly Majority office, and Sico offered him a job as policy analyst for the banking and insurance and labor committees. “That taught me about being on top of the issues and understanding how the issues affect individuals,” he says.
At that time Christine Todd Whitman was governor, and he was a staff member doing research to help Assembly members craft the automobile insurance reform legislation. “It showed me the inner workings of the state system of politics, how the Republicans interact with the Democrats, and how you interact with the governor’s office,” Grasso says. “You all have to negotiate and compromise and come up with a plan that is best for the entire state and everybody.”
After three years with the Assembly Majority office, Grasso was offered an opportunity to work for New Jersey Realtors. He started work in 1999 as New Jersey Realtors’ chief lobbyist. In 2002 Grasso was promoted to vice president of government affairs, and at the same time Joyce Andreoli was promoted internally to become CEO. During her tenure, she was also a great mentor to Grasso. “She gave me the opportunity to learn how to run the organization,” he says. When she decided to retire in 2008, the search committee asked if he was interested in becoming CEO. He was.
Grasso also serves as vice chair of the foundation board at Robert Wood Johnson Barnabas Health Community Medical Center and currently serves on the board of directors for the hospital. He is also a member of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide Board. He received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University in 2004.
In 2015 Grasso was recognized by the Women’s Political Caucus of New Jersey with the Good Guy Award for his leadership in advancing policies in support of women and families.
Incorporated in 1917 as the Real Estate League of New Jersey, New Jersey Realtors is celebrating its centennial this year and has created a book of the history of the association in the context of the ups and downs in the economy and other world events and increasing sophistication in the real estate market. Looking back over that history, Grasso says, “We went from a predominantly male-driven organization in the early 1900s to a predominantly female-driven organization now.”
“That is one of the greatest things about this group — people have the opportunity to rise up and run this organization, and the services we provide out there are fantastic. You are advocating for home ownership; it is a great feeling — you are advocating for something people strive to have.”
New Jersey Realtors, 10 Hamilton Avenue, Trenton 08611. 609-341-7100. Jarrod C. Grasso, CEO. www.njrealtor.com.