Gail Schwartz has worn many hats during a lifetime of public service, and she now wears a new one, a hard hat, as the interim president for Habitat for Humanity, following longtime president Scott Gilbert’s decision to step down from that position.
Schwartz has had a longtime focus on affordable housing and public service. In four years at the Pitkin County Housing Authority, she helped create 800 new affordable units. She was nominated by Colorado Gov. Roy Romer to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, and then elected to the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado. In 2005, Schwartz ran for the Colorado State Senate in a conservative, rural Western Slope district and won. She served two terms in the Colorado senate, but was term limited in 2014, so she ran for the U. S. Congress and was defeated. She has no plans, presently, to run for public office again.
The Roaring Fork Weekly Journal recently caught up with a busy Gail Schwartz.
Roaring Fork Weekly Journal: Have you officially taken over as president of Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork?
Gail Schwartz: Yes, it’s been since Feb. 17. I told them I would jump in and see what needed to be done on an interim basis. I think the expectation is to make an assessment, stabilize all the working elements of the organization, really identify what our new goals are going to be, then work with the board to see about putting together a search committee for a permanent president. I may be a candidate, I may not be.
RFWJ: You have worn so many different interesting leadership hats during your lifetime of experience, why was this position attractive to you?
GS: I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, working on the job site, 13 years ago. Later, I was very much attracted to serving on the board, then serving as the chair of the board. Now, this role really fits with so much of my past experience: being with the housing authority, being in the legislature, working on and addressing so many of these community issues and building on my relationships throughout the Valley.
(She laughs) Though I really thought I was going to get a lot more skiing in this year.
RFWJ: What do you hope to accomplish as interim president?
GS: First, I hope to maintain and acknowledge the extraordinary accomplishments of Scott Gilbert. Habitat for Humanity is running the second largest ReStore in the nation. These 27 units under construction at Basalt Vista were only created through partnership and collaboration to bring on and impact new housing in the Valley.
I hope to understand what the opportunities are and continue these and other projects. We also want to ensure that all the systems are in place so that people know what to expect as we support 52 employees.
It’s really important to me that we pay a living wage, have insurance and retirement programs because how do you stabilize families or communities otherwise?
RFWJ: Looking at the organization, are there areas where you believe you can make a difference in leadership, policy or fundraising?
GS: This is a new project (Basalt Vista), new home ownership and new deed restrictions. We’re working in partnership with Pitkin County, the school district, CORE and Holy Cross. When you are trying things out for the first time, you don’t quite know what you don’t know.
RFWJ: Could you speak about the importance of having “affordable housing” in a community, and what that does to both the community and the workers?
GS: We were pioneers at the housing authority in the ’70s and ’80s when we created 800 affordable units in four years. I saw that stabilizing communities and supporting housing for employees stabilized businesses and the local economy. I have felt very committed to that. People are so compromised by their housing: living too far away, living with people they don’t want to live with, etc.
We’ve brought a new model to bring in partners. No one entity is usually in a position to do it all by their self. Habitat for Humanity is a convener. There are 12 projects we are in conversation with that build on Habitat for Humanity’s mission.
RFWJ: Is it true that Basalt Vista is the first net zero community in a rural area in Colorado? And what’s its status?
GS: It’s the first net zero community as far as we know. Holy Cross has figured out how you can integrate onsite generation with solar, using the energy onsite, storing it to heat and cool and create hot water. They’re treating houses like batteries.
Currently at Basalt Vista we have seven homes occupied and phase I is completed. Phase II is now in process, and we’re bringing on 20 new homes in phases. All of the residences are spoken for, having gone through the affordable housing process with Pitkin County or the lottery and eligibility process with the school district.
RFWJ: How does building a “net zero energy neighborhood” fit with your ideas on environmental sustainability and affordability?
GS: You can remember that in the State Senate I was the chair for eight years of the agriculture and natural resources and energy committee. I became the chair during the [Gov. Bill] Ritter administration. My passion is for creating energy from renewable resources and the opportunity to transition away from coal fire plants.
The rural communities in Colorado have the resources. Look at opportunities with biomass with 6 million acres of dead trees! We’re learning as we’re doing, and these homeowners at Basalt Vista are part of this opportunity.
RFWJ: Nonprofits are managed and operated in a wide number of ways. One person. Large staffs. Habitat Humanity has had a longtime reliance on volunteer staff. How do you see that benefiting the organization and the individual?
GS: People come together to create housing. That is the foundation of Habitat for Humanity’s model. Even though we have 52 employees, we exist on volunteers. When I volunteered 13 years ago, I felt like I was doing something. A lot of people volunteer and say that it’s a lot more fun than their day job.
The local real estate company Douglas Elliman has committed 1,000 hours to volunteer work for Habitat. Volunteers make that job site run, and people come back.
RFWJ: The bane of every nonprofit is funding. Could you talk about how Habitat for Humanity is funded?
GS: Right now, Habitat is running Habitat’s ReStore just outside Glenwood Springs, the second largest ReStore in the nation. ReStore supports much of the funding for Habitat for Humanity’s staff and its projects. But donations are always part of the funding.
Our goal is to raise $2 million to subsidize the Basalt Vista project. So far, we’ve raised $500,000. Now, we need to raise another $1.5 million.
Beyond funding our projects, there are several other functions of the ReStore that I think it is fulfilling. In addition to creating revenue to build homes, ReStore also diverts all this waste from the landfill. We are really helping the carbon footprint as we provide housing. People can live in their own affordable homes and support their quality of life. And we take all of these furnishings from the hotels and lodges when they remodel. We help with that redistributing. It’s a very interesting business model with all of the things that come out of that.
RFWJ: Has the recent coronavirus affected the ReStore operations in Glenwood Springs?
GS: The ReStore in Glenwood Springs temporarily closed physically to the general public on Tuesday, March 17. We are going to make a really incredible online push for people to continue to donate and shop with us. Right now we are saying the closure will be for 30 days, and that we will reevaluate in two weeks. Our staff is incredibly important to us, and we want to ensure that everyone stays safe.
Our online push is being called White Glove Pick-Ups where our crew can come in, using all the proper health protocols, pick up things outside or inside, using gloves and being super cautious. While you are currently self-isolating, you can use the time for spring-cleaning, and if you do, please remember us! If people want to buy things, they can come down, and we’ll put them in the car for them or deliver them.
Shoppers can also buy or donate online at: habitatroaringfork.org/restore, look at inventory photos for online purchase through Instagram: @restoreroaringfork, or online at Facebook, facebook.com/restore.
At Basalt Vista, we’ll also be moving ahead at our building site with caution. The sooner we can complete our homes the more we can aggressively address the need of affordable housing.
RFWJ: Thoughts on local and statewide response to coronavirus?
GS: I think our governor has been really smart. We need to come together, care for our Colorado community and care for our local communities. The way we do that is by staying apart and caring for each other.