Inman San Francisco is Dead. Long Live Inman SF!

Inman SF is officially over and now I have had a week to gather my thoughts about the conference.

It’s complicated for me because I lived in San Francisco back when I was a musician and the word on the street is that after more than a decade of hosting Inman’s July meeting, San Francisco is finished as the location for Real Estate Connect.  I’ve heard a number of reasons why the conference may have been moved from attendees, though nothing official as yet.  Anecdotally, attendance looked down, and it was definitely short on MLS representation this year.  In the weeks prior to the conference, Facebook was full of chatter about how bad San Francisco has gotten and how people were literally afraid to attend Inman this year.

Let's Face It:  San Francisco Is In Decline

Like most things, it’s the perspective that counts – and also like most things, perception is reality for most people.  Most people are understandably uncomfortable with aggressive panhandlers, rampant homelessness, hardcore lunatics, and “eau de pisse,” to be found in most major cities.  No one enjoys these things, but residents of major cities understand that it’s just one of the things you deal with to live in a major metropolis.  Since many Inman attendees come from areas where they don’t see this kind of thing, it makes some attendees really, really uncomfortable.  The end result of these issues is that the quality of visit for tourists and the quality of life for home owners in San Francisco is unquestionably in decline.  Understanding whythe decline happened has a curious parallel to the real estate industry.

Basically, the City of San Francisco has had a long simmering feud with its police department.  While its reputation as a liberal city is well deserved, San Francisco’s police force has followed a much more aggressive, much less tolerant, much less diverse path to policing the city they “serve and protect.”  

Everyone Suffers When There Is No Shared Vision

The SFPD is not solely to blame for the city’s plight, however.  Deficient City planning, exploitation of the last earthquake’s damage, and the tech boom(s) brought opportunistic, short-sighted building policies and permitting that benefitted only the wealthy.  Seizing an opportunity, owners and investors have aggressively snapped up properties for renovation in the last twenty years, effectively denuding San Francisco of medium and low-income housing.  

As witnessed by Inman attendees, the result has been a perfect storm of unmet housing need caused by mismanagement of the City, unmet mental health needs caused by a combination of a citizen’s hyper-liberal legal right notto be hospitalized if they don’t present an immediate danger and a wholesale gutting of mental health services by the Federal and state governments.  Now, add a police force which has basically stopped enforcing quality of life crimes in the city and you have San Francisco today.

The Problems in San Francisco Might be a Metaphor for the Real Estate Industry

How this relates to real estate is that Inman SF attendees have been able to watch in real time how a gem of a city – despite desirable real estate and astronomical real estate prices – is decaying from within because the powers that are supposed to guide the City are divided.  In the absence of a unified vision, unfettered market forces (greed) has becomethe policy because increased revenues are the only thing everyone can seem to agree on.

Organized real estate is divided:  MLSs are divided from one another, Realtor Associations are divided both against one another and also over what their relevance is, Brokers are divided by size and business model, agents are divided by access to technology, and the public is increasingly divided over whether they even need a real estate professional in their transaction. 

Competitors will always disagree on some, perhaps many, things, but the fragmentation of the marketplace is less the result of competition than it is a wholesale lack of vision for what the marketplace should be.

Brokers are faced with unprecedented margin squeezes from the consumer, from teams, and from the tolls they have to pay to the portals to access consumers on the internet.  Realtor Associations, at one-time visionary think tanks driving organized real estate, increasingly are seen by their own members as impediments rather than facilitators.  Consumed with trying to squeeze the most out of antiquated technology for as little money as possible, MLSs are desperately seeking ways to keep their subscribers relevant in an arms race for consumer eyeballs.  In the face of overwhelming technical superiorityand a unified vision by those who would seek to disrupt this enterprise, organized real estate – like that beautiful, unique, City by the Bay – is decaying from within.

The good news is that if there is one thing that history teaches us, it’s that nothing is permanent.  We need leaders to remind us that we have more in common than we have to fight about.  We also have more to lose than anyone else.  

A final note of caution:  

What we don’t need are the kind of leaders who believe that they are the only ones who can save us.  Invariably, they prey on fear to attain their position of power and, once there, have little to offer except new and excitingly distracting ways to spend money.  It lookslike they’re doing something, but when you look closely there’s never much to show for it.  Classic hallmarks of this kind of personality is that they view everyone as either a tool or an enemy and they love to get large spending budgets approved without detailed accounting.  They often avoid conflict with the executive officer who is supposed to be guarding against this kind of abuse by co-opting them with large pay increases or through fear of losing their job.

True leaders remind us of our common cause, encourage our better selves, and lead by example.  They own mistakes because they know that there is no growth, no increase in knowledge, no improvement, without failure.  Like every successful movement, our path must be inclusive, it must be bold and it must have leaders at all levels united by a common vision.

Inman Las Vegas

This is the kind of conversation I would like to see at Inman next year.  Brad has every right to find the best possible location for his conference, so let’s talk about why the conference had to be moved and learn from the experience. I have always believed that lessons from seemingly unrelated sources have the strangest way of being relevant.

-      CP