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Mr. Smith Goes to Market

Monday, Aug. 7, 2006 | He raises his voice, gestures energetically and fires out statistics to convey his message: Now’s the time to buy a home in San Diego.

“It’s a buyer’s market,” says Greg Smith, “period.”

This real estate booster isn’t an agent or an analyst. He’s Greg Smith, perhaps San Diego’s most obscure politician. But that doesn’t mean he’s quiet.

The emphatic Smith has undertaken a “no-bubble” campaign to tout what he sees as a vibrant housing market at a time of great uncertainty in the industry. He speaks two to three times a week to community groups, such as Rotary clubs, and real estate industry groups. The message he proclaims: now is a good time to buy in San Diego.

“I think the fundamentals are strong,” he said. “We don’t have a recession, we have job growth – I don’t see the dark clouds out there, I really don’t.”

Smith has undertaken his campaign with the help of the local real estate industry, who pass his advice to prospective buyers and the media. First American Title Company, a property title firm, frequently disseminates an article written about Smith’s opinion entitled, “Why the real estate bubble isn’t real.”

Smith’s official duties at the county administration building are vast and likely unknown to the average San Diegan. They include assessing properties, performing civil marriage ceremonies and maintaining official records for taxes, births, marriages and deaths. And some people think his public duties should stop there.

But with 23 years under his belt in the assessor’s office, Smith said his experience watching the market’s ups and downs authorize him to make an educated statement about the state of the market.

Smith also has a stake in how the real estate market fares. As county assessor, Smith monitors the intake of property taxes, which constitute the largest share of revenue for the county. More than one-third of the contributors to his most recent reelection campaign had ties to the real estate industry. And, closest to home, Smith’s wife, Arlette, is a Realtor with Prudential California and has been a licensed real estate broker in California for more than 30 years.

So Smith is no stranger to the real estate scene. And professionals in the industry know it. The article written last year about Smith’s “no-bubble” opinion was so popular that Kathy Jacobus, a sales representative for First American Title, hopes to release an updated version soon that would broadcast Smith’s most recent stance.

“A lot of the agents ask, ‘Hey, do you have any updated information from Greg Smith?'” said Leah Williamson, Jacobus’ assistant. The agents often disperse Smith’s opinion to their clients, she said.

Jacobus attributes the popularity of Smith’s opinion to the fact that he holds a public office. She said his word alone is often enough to make people think, “Maybe there is some good to this market.”

“He has a name, he’s well-recognized,” Jacobus said. “You have to have a name for people to listen to.”

And when that name is attached to the person responsible for monitoring the property values across the entire county, that lends even more legitimacy to his opinion, Jacobus said.

“He’s got a lot of figures at his fingertips,” she said. “He’s got a good eye on what’s happening in the market.”

Alan Nevin, director of economic research for San Diego-based MarketPointe Realty Advisors, has spoken on panels with Smith about these issues. He said he and Smith “travel in the same camp” when it comes to expressing a positive outlook on the market.

“He is definitely an optimist,” Nevin said. “There are a lot of pessimists around, but Greg and I are not two of them.”

But at a time when real estate appreciation isn’t the sure thing it was a few years ago and the uncertainty of the housing market has many in a frenzy of speculation, Smith’s opinions seem to some to simply toe the line for the real estate industry.

“He’s a person who people might look to because of his office,” said Marc Lampe, professor of business ethics at the University of San Diego. “It appears that it is inappropriate that he’s advocating on behalf of the real estate industry on something so speculative. No one has a crystal ball.”

Smith is sure to emphasize that if interest rates skyrocket, “all bets are off.” Historically low interest rates are a large part of the foundation for Smith’s argument. And he admits, not everyone agrees with his opinion, anyway.

“There’s some Realtors, some people in the industry, who don’t agree with me,” he said. “And I tend to be an optimistic person. I don’t tend to be a doom-and-gloomer.”

County assessors for other counties said they often give speeches about the state of the housing market, too.

Rick Auerbach is the county assessor for Los Angeles County, and he said the major groups he speaks to are Realtors, though he generally stops short of advising residents to buy or sell like Smith does.

“I would give them my opinion on what the market is doing, and then they could draw their own conclusions from that,” he said.

Auerbach also said campaign contributions to a good county assessor are to be expected from the real estate sector.

“You’re going to get campaign contributions from people who are interested in a good property tax system, one that’s fair,” Auerbach said. “If there’s a problem with the property taxes, the realtors are the ones who get called.”

But Bruce Dear, county assessor for Placer County in Northern California, said the assessor’s duties clearly stop at measuring and assessing the market’s activity. He said that holding or expressing opinions is separate from any official part of the job.

“That’s certainly not part of the job to be in any kind of an advocacy there,” Dear said. “We serve as a recorder of what others are proving to be the factual events in the marketplace.”

Smith said he has no ulterior motives in expressing his opinion about the real estate market. “Obviously I’m kind of a spokesperson … and I believe this, you know?” he said. “If I didn’t feel it was a good time, I wouldn’t be telling people about it.”

Smith said the biggest caveat to his sweeping “buy now” endorsements is that people should make sure to “buy affordably.” That might mean looking to buy in neighborhoods like City Heights or Golden Hill.

“I’m not telling them to buy million-dollar condos, am I?” he said. “Real estate has always come back.”

Smith blames the media for much of the negativity that exists surrounding these issues.

“People start reading [negative reports] and think, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll wait,'” he said.

And so the vigorous Smith sets out to convince people otherwise, one speech at a time.

He certainly has won the affections of San Diego real estate agents for putting forth a sunny outlook on a housing market that appears to be getting overcast.

“He gets really involved in the real estate community, and we love him,” Jacobus said.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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