Bill Baldwin finalized the purchase of the firm that would become Boulevard Realty in July of 2008. The mid-sized independent brokerage known before then as Karen Derr & Associates, which opened its first office in the Heights in 1994, was the only real estate office he had ever worked for since getting his real estate license in 1998. Early on, Baldwin set his intention to maintain a hyperlocal, agent- and client-focused brokerage that would balance a forward-thinking and adaptable approach with the tried-and-true model of community involvement and giving back. His plan was simple: keep a calm sense of continuity for the agents who were to continue on as his associates, including Derr herself, and for their clients by maintaining the dedicated staff members, as well as the same office space that had become a recognizable community hub for the Heights and beyond.
Just as he was completing his rebrand, with new yard signs, business cards, and letterhead, Hurricane Ike began to form in the Gulf of Mexico. “We were really born in a hurricane,” Baldwin reflects poetically. “After having already weathered major catastrophic events like 9/11 and the fall of Enron as a real estate agent, with a client base who looked to me for strength and solidarity, this was the first time I was facing that sort of disaster with a full community of concerned Houstonians looking to me and my agents for what to do.”
In other words, Baldwin is no stranger to disruption, shocks, and stresses to the real estate market and to life as we know it. Now, in the face of a pandemic only just starting to reveal its full impact on public health and the economy, Baldwin draws a parallel not only with these past disasters, but with the disruptions that would follow, like the burst of the housing bubble and subsequent recession, the energy downturn of 2015-2016, and, of course, Hurricane Harvey. “While we are very sensitive to the lived experience of those who are ill, at high risk, or already bearing the economic impact of the coronavirus,” says Baldwin, “For the majority of us who are simply living through the uncertainty, I think it helps to remember that these sort of things are cyclical, always pass, and find us more resilient on the other side.”
To Baldwin, that means that what worked to sustain his community twelve years ago throughout Ike is a good indicator of what it will take to withstand the COVID-19 pandemic at the local level. “I think what we need is trust,” Baldwin advises. “Trust in our local leadership and trusted advice from highly experienced professionals. I am proud to say that we are poised to be that trusted advisor, now more than ever.”
The agents and staff of Boulevard Realty now convene daily on virtual meetings to discuss the latest developments in the spread of COVID-19 and the impact on the local real estate market. Some of the questions that have arisen so far are what safety precautions buyers and sellers who still wish to see homes and have their home open for showings can take and new forms promulgated to provide flexibility for those currently party to a real estate transaction. Taff Weinstein, mortgage broker and owner of First Imperial Mortgage, also joins the calls to discuss interest rates and home lending. Baldwin reports, “There has not been a single question to arise from our clients where we have been unable to provide a sound piece of advice. So we say keep reaching out.”
Once again, Baldwin is finding that remaining mid-sized and independent in the era of franchising and tech-driven mega-brokerages is serving him and his community by allowing them to be nimble and protect local jobs. “We are seeing that some of the shiny, bright new objects in real estate are quickly disappearing as the financial markets have taken a dip,” he observes, having sounded the alarm about the rise of venture capital-back and foreign-financed brokerages and platforms that started to gain traction. “From iBuyers to firms touting technology and concierge services financed in-house, it is all doing a grave disservice to consumers and this is just the beginning.” While real estate brands are already reporting layoffs at the local and national level, Baldwin has pledged to retain his full-time staff to continue to bolster and support his 60+ agents. Baldwin explains, “This will pass, and we will still need those experienced, talented Houstonians, several with well over 15 years working for us, to support our agents and their clients.”
With the Houston and Harris County shelter-in-place restrictions now in effect, Boulevard Realty seems poised to continue operating to the fullest and safest extent possible, drawing from its experience facing down past disruptors. Agents and staff are working from home, the phones still ring to full-time staff, and the training and culture-building that underpins the firm’s “Realtor, Resource, Friend” credo continues. Most importantly to Baldwin, the personalized, client-focused approach will hold up.
“Outside of the best public health advice to prevent community spread, there is no single right answer to what to do in this moment. It is based on our individual needs for safety, comfort, and peace of mind. What we can guarantee is that we will offer our best individualized advice based on study, research, and experience,” expresses Baldwin. “I am confident in saying that you will get that from any Boulevard Realty agent right now, so don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.”
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