Carole Schaeffer’s long and impactful real estate development career began in 2005, when she was named executive director of Smart Growth Greater Madison, a group of developers lobbying for Dane County’s real estate community. Most recently, she held the position of vice president of business development for Friede & Associates, a major Wisconsin construction services company. She currently runs her own municipal consulting practice, Schaeffer Consulting. Schaeffer has been an active Madisonian for 26 years, sitting on the boards of the Salvation Army, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and many other organizations. In 2018, she co-founded the group Madison Downtowners, which organizes community members to come together and experience downtown Madison’s food, arts and community culture. She knows good food, good music, good company and good housing policy.
What do you think is the biggest challenge our community faces?
I think this is a pretty common answer. There are two challenges that I think go hand in hand. First and foremost, we know we’re in a housing crisis right now. People talk about affordable housing. It’s not just the affordable housing that we need more of. We’re the fastest growing city in the state, and we have not had enough housing over the past years. We were already in a deficit. And now we have a ton of people moving in. The question I don’t hear often enough is, “How do we reduce the need for affordable housing?” Rather than continuing to build more and more, what are we doing to look at education, vocational training or job creation? These things allow people to support themselves, so that they’re not housing challenged. So I think those two things are the biggest challenges: How do we address the need for affordable housing, and then create the affordable housing we do need — because you’ll always need affordable housing in your community.
What do you wish people in our community understood better?
I was kind of alluding to it in my previous answer. I feel like the conversation about the housing crisis is frequently one-track minded on affordable housing. But there was a housing snapshot of Madison which showed that approximately 11,000 low-income renters and households that are “renting up” for properties they can’t necessarily afford. They can’t get something that costs a third of their income, so they’re going to the mid-market-range rentals. But here’s the thing I don’t think people get: There’s 13,000 households that are renting down. So they’re coming in and taking housing out of that mid-range stock when they could afford more. So we need more market rate housing and more affordable housing, and I don’t think people can quite conceptualize that. A lot of people think, “No, we don’t need any more apartment buildings,” and I say, “We do. We do if we want to eliminate this crisis.” As long as we have people and companies coming here, they need a place to live. And because we were under-building for so long, we’re still playing catch-up while lots of people are moving here. The cost of land, construction and labor continue to go up, so it’s a very challenging thing. I don’t think people can wrap their heads around the whole puzzle of it. I wish there wasn’t such a divisive relationship between the developers and the community members, but an understanding that we all need each other. Let’s look at this problem holistically and not with preconceived notions.
What is one change you would make if you could that would make life better for people in our community?
I represented the real estate development community for 11 years as the executive director of SmartGrowth. There was this contentious relationship between the development community and the city or neighborhoods. I’m a very collaborative person by nature, and I certainly have seen it happen, but I would love to see more collaboration and less divisiveness. We can come up with solutions together. We have a common problem to solve. We know we need more housing. We know that we need to grow the city’s economic base. How can we do that together? So if I could wave a wand, I would take away that tense relationship. Of course, I’m not pointing a finger at one group or the other. It’s just a divisive culture that evolved, and I would love to see that shift. I’ve been really excited with the group of alders that are on the council now. They seem to genuinely want to collaborate. I would love to see that grow and expand, so the council can continue to do what’s right for the city as a whole.
What in our community gives you hope?
I am involved in probably too many organizations — I’m on seven or eight board of directors now. What gives me hope is seeing what these organizations do for the community. We tend to get caught up in some of the negative headlines or the things that drive conflict. What gives me hope, for example, is seeing what the Salvation Army does for families: not just providing shelter but providing extensive resources for unhoused families to move them into permanent housing. They have phenomenal success rates. It gives me hope to see the work that’s being done with the most vulnerable populations. And another example — I’m on the symphony board. I love to see community outreach and engagement, like bringing music to the kids in school. I see this great care for the City of Madison within the community. I think we excel at that. It gives me hope to see us continue to be highly active and caring towards our community members — it brings me joy when I see it happening all around me. I think, “Yeah, OK, we have a lot of challenges, but we have a lot of really good people and organizations that, everyday, wake up and fight the good fight and try to make this life sandwich taste a little better.”