Maria Elena Banks has come a long way from when she was a little girl growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, the descendant of a famous general and former president of Mexico.
In the U.S., she's gone from working to eke out a living in real estate as a young woman raising two young boys alone — becoming the first woman Little League coach in Newport Beach and San Juan Capistrano along the way — to becoming president of a powerful Realtor group in Orange County.
Banks, who likes to point out that English is her second language, which she learned to speak in Canada, was installed at the Marriott Laguna Cliffs in Dana Point on Friday as the 2012 president of the Orange County Assn. of Realtors, a professional trade organization representing 12,000 members from Huntington Beach to San Clemente.
The group was established in 1995. Banks is the group's first Hispanic president.
Realtors' associations such as OCAR can be thought of like an auto club for drivers. The group exists to serve as the business partner of its members with products and services like education, member services, professional standards and lobbying. It, like other Realtors' associations in their neighborhoods, can be considered one of the most powerful groups in the county, often playing a role in lobbying the local, state and national government.
For Banks, the leadership trait is inherited. She comes from a diplomatic family — her maiden name is Maria Elena de Santa Anna. Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, a military leader and former president of Mexico, was her great-great-grandfather.
Banks answered a few questions about real estate, the Orange County market and her plans as president of OCAR.
Q. Your group represents 12,000 Realtors in Orange County. What do you feel is their No. 1 concern, and how do you plan to address that concern?
A. Collectively, we Realtors remain committed to the value of homeownership and policies that support it like the mortgage interest deduction. Unfortunately, we have some in Congress who would eliminate this critical tax deduction and in doing so give away the economic and social benefits the home ownership is proven to create. For example, real estate contributes more than $2 trillion to the U.S. GDP, creating one new job for every two homes sold. And there are other benefits that defy valuation. For example, homeowners are more involved in their children's academic performance and as a result their kids do better in school. Homeowners also move less, which adds stability to the neighborhood. In fact, homeowners are more likely to vote, more likely to volunteer and more likely to establish crime prevention programs in their community.
Q. The U.S. House and Senate recently restored the Federal Housing Authority's conforming loan limits to the level before they were allowed to expire at the end of September. As a result, the limits will rise to 125% of the area median home price — up to a maximum $729,750 from $625,500. How do you think this will affect Orange County's real estate market?
A. Loan limits have a profound effect on the housing market, especially in high cost areas like Orange County where the median home value is two or three times higher than in other parts of the country. When Congress lowered the limits, they forced borrowers into higher rate "jumbo mortgages" even though they represent no greater risk for default. Jumbo borrowers typically have better employment histories and credit scores and as a result have lower default rates. So when Congress lowered the loan limit, they basically punished these families for working hard, saving and being responsible.
Q. What market fundamentals make Orange County unique in terms of real estate?
A. The key right now is the economy and job creation, possibly followed by underwriting standards. Historic low interest rates may not last, especially if the economy begins to add jobs. Right now rates are more likely to increase over the next few years than prices to fall further, which means that purchasing power may be as good as it gets.
Q. What will it take for the housing market to finally return to a normal, healthy state, and when do you see that happening?
A. I mentioned the economy and job creation, but the other variable is underwriting, which depends highly on what Congress decides to do with lending. Especially whether or not it is going to abolish Fannie and Freddie or drastically raise minimum down payments while keeping Fannie and Freddie. If it were to suddenly take out these secondary mortgage institutions or impose a 20% down payment as it is talking about doing, there would be a devastating impact on real estate for quite some time to come. Without a doubt it would make the American Dream of home ownership more expensive and less attainable for millions of American families, which include our young professionals, first-time buyers, our children.
Q. In the last few years many people have lost confidence in Wall Street, the financial world, and lately in the government, to operate honestly and do what's needed to ensure a healthy economy. What role, if any, do you think real estate agents themselves may have played in this disillusionment, and what can be done to restore confidence in the system as a whole?
A. Frankly, it's not just the government's job; it's all of ours. It's 99% plus the 1%. We all have to take responsibility.
Q. It seems real estate professionals these days face more technology, more regulation and more competition. In what other ways is the profession evolving, and how do you see it evolving over the next few years?
A. For years, we Realtors have been promoting our business by claiming that we are trusted advisors. While this strategy works well for people born before 1965, it's not a great model for today's younger buyers and sellers. The more mature generation value advice and expertise, while the younger generation, value their own ability to search out answers as well as obtaining input from their peer group. Consequently, I see Realtors shifting from being a trusted advisor to being a trusted resource who helps clients find the information they need to make the best possible decision for their particular situation.
Q. Can you talk about a few more of your priorities as president of OCAR?
A. Continue to serve our members with our first-class service and educational programs; to teach by example to bring heart into each transaction. So many of our clients are going through difficult times. To me, helping my client stay in their home comes first — last resource after we have exhausted all our channels would be helping them through their short sale procedure. Continuing to lobby in support of policies that support homeownership; and to give back to our community where needed support volunteer and charitable organizations that provide housing to working families.
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Maria Elena Banks
Residence: Monarch Beach in Dana Point
Experience: Earned her real estate license in 1976
Past jobs: Vice president of fundraising for UCI Medical Center, Realtor at ReMax, and AM Realty
Hobbies include: Professional singer, who appears at local establishments including Brio Tuscany Grill and Stella's Serious Italian Restaurant in Dana Point.