Q&A with Chad Lawler, Executive Director at
the Madison Area Builders Association
Tell us about your role at Madison Area Builders Association.
I was the Director of Government Affairs for two years and then in October/November became the Executive Director. As part of moving into the Executive Director's role, I've maintained the chief lobbyist advocacy hat also, but at this time the official title is executive director.
What issues get decided at the local-government level that impact members of your organization and who would you say you're advocating primarily for?
Some issues that always come up are impact fees. Or, any fee associated with stormwater retention or land set asides, park fees, infrastructure, width of roads, the width of the terrace between the sidewalk and the road. Pretty much anything that deals with any aspect of building at all that has potential to add time delays or cost impacts, that's the stuff that we work on. We work with a lot of municipalities to try to lower the cost of housing and development.
So I would say we indirectly advocate on behalf of homeowners. That's huge. It's less the fact that if we're advocating on behalf of builders and developers, because there's a misperception that they're all greedy, rich, old white guys who just want more money and that's why they're doing it. But, a lot of times it's that they're looking to keep the cost down so that people can afford to purchase the homes. Otherwise, if no one's able to afford a house, they're not able to build it for them.
On a small team, how do you prioritize advocacy and how do you engage your membership in that process?
We have an active government affairs committee with some strong champions. Our government affairs committee in the last two years has gone from 20 people to 50. Curate has actually worked out even better than I could've hoped because of what it allows me to do instead of having to look through 52 municipalities different agendas for the board meetings and planning committees. That was two hours [of looking through minutes and agendas] — if I did it. Did I have time to do it or did I want to do it? Sometimes you'll look through and you spend four or five hours doing it and you don't find a single thing. Well, if I'm not gonna find a single thing, I'd rather find nothing in five minutes than in five hours.
Now I can literally just wait until Tuesday comes, look at the report, keep an eye out for keywords and then it allows me to make sure I don't miss things. So, I spend 15 to 30 minutes every Tuesday reading it and then I send it onto our committee so they can look at it. There's been a couple of committee members who have been like, “Hey, this is something that we should look into.” So we've looked into a few things here or there just to make sure.
For instance, Dane County is rewriting their chapter 10, which is their zoning ordinance. We had been waiting to get information on when the townships are going to approve it. Well, there was a big batch of them that all approved it on the same Curate report, so that was nice. And then the capillary or regional planning commission also updated their bylaws, which at the end it was pretty innocuous. But, it was one of those ones where I'm like, “Oh, okay, well I better read this thing in case there's some crazy changes in there.” It's been good because it's things that, in the past, have taken me hours to do — now it takes me like 15-20 minutes. In that sense, it's like a C-SPAN on print, aggregated.
Most builders associations don’t have a government affairs person, so when an issue comes up, what are some strategies that have been effective in advocating on behalf of your members?
What we tend to do, if an issue comes up, we have our government affairs group, so we convene a special task force of that group if people are interested in the area. I've worked over the last three years to create relationships with everybody in the county and locally so that if an issue does arise, that's generally speaking, we can resolve it really quickly. I actually did a presentation for the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) on this exact thing: ROI on a small staff of small resources. What I told them is the most effective thing is to have the relationships built ahead of time, so when an issue does arise, it's just a telephone call.
That's pretty much where we're at now — if something does pop up and we don't have a relationship with them, usually we just try to find out from our group where the key points are, what the issues are within the legislation or the ordinance code change. And then we just come up with factoids on how it impacts housing and affordability.
So, when you go in and you're saying, “Hey, you know, every thousand dollars that you increase the fee doesn't sound like much because it’s going to amortize it over the course of a 30-year mortgage on.” But the thing is, every thousand dollars that you increase the cost of a home, there are other committees and other departments that are adding a thousand bucks onto it and those prices add up. And if you're truly looking for affordable housing, you shouldn't be increasing the pricing on it from a local municipality standpoint.
How has the landscape of municipal-government advocacy changed since you started your career?
But I'd say, over the last three years, it hasn't been as adversarial. And part of that is just from our efforts to create relationships, but there's still issues out there. I would say that it's just that affordable housing has become a larger issue, even though it was a big issue three years ago. It's kind of now the focal point for every single individual. And then you have turnover and it's just back to educating and relationship building. But I would say it’s much easier for me and our association to do the work now than it was three years ago, but I think that's mostly due to the work we've had versus a shift.
Why is it important for builders associations to be involved in their local municipal governments? What advice would you give to them about engaging in advocacy?
It’s one of the biggest member benefits that you can provide, especially to your builder members that are impacted by codes and ordinances directly, who have to pay the fees that are associated with it. They see the delays that are caused by red tape. So, it's a way that you're able to show immediate value to somebody who is questioning, “Well, why am I a member? What do I get from this?” You can say, “Well, because of what we just did with this advocacy, we saved the industry $4.5 million over the next five years. That breaks down to about a $2,000 savings that you just had. So, in essence, it's paid for your membership three times over.”
Curate was the one tool that I brought up during my presentation to the associations with limited resources [at ASAE], and I didn't bring it up because I get paid to, it's because it's worked well for me. I'm willing to go out and promote it as something that I see as a useful tool for a very minimal amount. To me, it's a phenomenal cost, the amount that we have to pay for it, because of how much time it saves me.
If you're playing in the local space, you don't have time to do a lot of the extra work that other larger associations might have — somebody who's dedicated or associations that have somebody who came from a political background. Curate puts you on an even footing. It simplifies it for you so you don't even have to worry about, “Okay, where do I go and what am I supposed to be looking through?”
Chad Lawler is the Executive Director for the Madison Area Builders Association with a background in legal and government affairs.
Prior to joining MABA, Lawler worked as a contract lobbyist and practicing attorney. He is also an experienced business leader and counselor who understands the needs of businesses and associations in Wisconsin having worked for several years as a manager for a Global Fortune 500 Company.