Travel, the housing crunch, and four-hour commutes in Aspen

Annika Rautiola

10 August 2023

“We don’t have a choice. Failure is not an option.” – Gail Schwartz, President of Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley


There is no denying that housing affordability and scarcity have become increasingly common in many communities around the world. The far-reaching consequences of these challenges demand innovative solutions to ensure sustainability, inclusivity, and in some cases even the survival of the local tourism industry.

In our first season of Travel Beyond, we discussed housing as a core challenge in Revelstoke, British Columbia as the mountain community created its destination management plan using a process led by Destination Think and Tourism Revelstoke. That progressive plan resulted in an audacious goal: to ensure adequate housing for everyone building community in Revelstoke, within the next five years. Now, we shift our focus to Aspen, Colorado, another vibrant ski town that faces a similar housing challenge, albeit on a greater scale.

In this episode, we engage in a conversation with Gail Schwartz, a former Colorado state senator with a lifelong dedication to advocating for improved housing conditions. Currently serving as the President of Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley, Gail sheds light on the pressing challenges concerning housing and quality of life in the Aspen area. Together, we delve into the root causes of this crisis and examine its profound impact on the local workforce, tourism, and the broader community.

“But when we are short 5,000 homes to adequately house our workforce, it’s a big question. How do we get there?” 

While Aspen acknowledges that there is still progress to be made, it stands as a testament to the power of strong leadership. The town has so much to share as locals stay committed to tackling these complex issues and offering valuable insights into navigating the intricacies of housing challenges.

This episode, you’ll learn:

  • How visionary leadership protected housing for the local workforce decades ago.
  • Why housing is a social justice issue in Aspen today, and what is being done about it.
  • How better public policy and private incentives could help Aspen and other busy tourism destinations solve the housing crisis. 


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Show notes

Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley –  Nonprofit housing organization advocating affordable housing and reuse of donated items at ReStore to fund affordable ownership housing for families and individuals.


Episode transcript

Gail Schwartz  00:00

The most important thing you can do is insulate a stock of housing from market forces. When you have an international community, vying for the real estate in this town, it is critical you start to control the class and also try to preserve it in perpetuity. Failure is not an option. How do we get there?

David Archer  00:39

Hello and welcome to Travel Beyond where we partner with leading destinations to explore the greatest challenges facing communities and the planet surfacing their most inspiring solutions. I’m David Archer, Editorial Manager at Destination Think, and I’m recording from the village of Daajing Giids, British Columbia in Haida Gwaii, the territory of the Haida nation.

Rodney Payne  00:58

And I’m Rodney Payne, CEO at Destination Think I’m recording this from my home in Revelstoke British Columbia, a city on the territory of four First Nations, the Sinixt, the Secwepemc, the Syilx and the Ktunaxa.. On the show, we look at the role of travel and choose to highlight destinations that are global leaders. We talked to the changemakers, who are addressing regenerative travel through action in their communities, often from the bottom up.

David Archer  01:24

And we’re actively looking for the best examples of efforts to regenerate economies, communities and ecosystems. So please do reach out if you have a story to share with us. And our story today is that we have a conversation about a topic on everyone’s mind, housing. And we’ll hear from a former Colorado State Senator who is the current president of Habitat for Humanity in the Roaring Fork Valley, Gail Schwartz. She’s a longtime advocate for housing solutions in Colorado and in the Aspen area. Gail has a lot of great insights to share about housing. She’s been at this for a while. She says that an incredibly high percentage of Aspen homes sit vacant, currently, with absentee landlords, you know, people that are coming in seasonally, maybe for skiing or for other vacations. And I have to ask the question is this kind of inevitable at a ski resort, especially one that’s so popular?

Rodney Payne  02:20

It’s hard to say. But if the place is in the spotlight, or on the map from a visitor perspective, and tourism is often the thing that brings people’s attention to a place that we’re sort of setting in motion a pathway, where Aspen may be a really good extreme example of, of where we’re headed. In other places. If there’s no mechanisms in place to protect homes, for people who live and work in the community, then the real risk is that the price of those homes gets decoupled from the local economy, and then all kinds of issues emerge.

David Archer  03:06

Right. I guess we shouldn’t assume that there has to be a certain outcome. It just seems like it’s it’s a widespread problem. Gail also mentioned some of the forward thinking leaders from the past in Aspen, who some decades ago acted to protect part of Aspen’s housing stock from market forces or speculation. And I believe she said that 30% of the homes or the housing stock in Aspen is protected. Do you think more places and especially busy destinations will need to set aside housing this way?

Rodney Payne  03:41

Yeah, I think that there’s obviously a group of people who decades ago had a massive amount of foresight in Aspen to protect that 30%. And I think if you talk to people in Aspen, they’ll say that clearly there’s a problem, even today, despite having 30% protected, but what would have happened if they didn’t? And how extreme would the situation be? We really need to think, in communities around the world, about the role of homes and whether they’re distinct from houses, and look at different ways that we might be able to make sure that the people living and working and building a community have a place to live.

David Archer  04:26

Yeah, one way to look at it is that housing is a human right, everyone needs a place to live. And, you know, I think I think that ideas like setting aside some of the market for people to live in, no matter their income or you know, at a certain level of income. That’s protected. It kind of reflects that idea of housing being an obvious necessity that communities are going to need and Aspen will need in the future too.

Rodney Payne  04:53

And I think the impetus for it can be benevolent due to political ideology, or it could also be self interest as well. Because if you don’t have homes for the people, emptying trash cans and plumbing toilets and other things, the pain gets very, very real very quickly, right? You know, in Aspen, people are commuting two hours each way to come and work jobs and the traffic that builds up. It’s a very real and very visceral example of a trajectory that a lot of places are on. And other places have the chance to learn from those who go first.

David Archer  05:34

Yeah, that’s right. And with that, let’s now go and hear your conversation with former Colorado State Senator Gail Schwartz, currently the president of Habitat for Humanity in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Rodney Payne  05:50

Can you tell me your name?

Gail Schwartz  05:52

My name is Gail Schwartz.

Rodney Payne  05:54

and what you’re currently doing?

Gail Schwartz  05:56

I’m currently the president of Habitat for Humanity, Roaring Fork Valley, it is an affiliate that spans from Aspen to Parachute on the western slope of Colorado.

Rodney Payne  06:08

What do you love most about this part of the world?

Gail Schwartz  06:11

I’ve been here 50 years, all of it. It’s a remarkable place that spoke to my soul in terms of the environment, the climate, the people that are part of our community. It’s exceptional.

Rodney Payne  06:26

What makes the community so special?

Gail Schwartz  06:31

The definition of community has certainly evolved. And just very briefly, say 50 years ago, Aspen, and a little town called Basalt 20 miles down the road was a long distance call. So we were all just little hamlets dotting the region, up and down our river valleys. Now, community needs to be redefined from Aspen to Parachute, because we’re so interrelated in terms of our workforce, our jobs, our economies. So community, how do I define it, you know, kind of geographically, but how do we define it in terms of where’s the buy in? And, and who do we have at the table that’s helping preserve what we’re calling community?

Rodney Payne  07:16

You’ve had a fascinating career. And a lot of that, your whole life, has been dedicated towards, in one way or another, helping people to find housing. Can you give me a short summary of what you’ve done from a resort planning to politics and you know, more recently?

Gail Schwartz  07:34

Well, thank you.  Actually, I was a partner in a ski areas design firm, 48 years ago called Snow Engineering. And that firm designed resort communities specifically ski areas as all over North America. And we brought an office from Franconia, New Hampshire to Aspen. And we started to really invest in designing and redesigning, they call retrofitting ski areas in the western United States and Canada. So I was the component that actually worked on the feasibility and the marketing. And when you design a ski area, or retrofitted ski area, you talk about how many you start with how many lift tickets can you sell? And then that translates into how many restaurants seats and how many beds, how many square feet of commercial, but it also translates into how many employees. How many employees does it take to make this a viable economy and a viable resource? So looking at that holistically is critical. That was part of my work that led me into more consulting but then also being Director of Development for the the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority. And that housing authority at that time was really beginning to take on the tough issues. When it came to zoning. It came to deed restrictions, and really pioneered many of the concepts around housing. And at that four years, brought on line 800 units to start to house and stabilize the workforce. From there, I was either an elected or appointed office for the next 25 years, including Commissioner of Higher Education Regent, and then went to the Colorado State Senate for two terms. And that has been really an important juncture for me to be able to take rural issues into a legislature where rural communities are so underrepresented. That is really key when 80% of your population as it is in Colorado is on the eastern slope, where the economy is and where the industry is, but you have 20% in this big doughnut around the urban areas that is really underrepresented. Most importantly, we have 80% of the water. So it does give us a little bit of leverage when it comes to horse trading down at the Capitol.

Rodney Payne  09:55

It’s very brave to get into politics. What was the driving issue for you

Gail Schwartz  10:00

Passion, every step of the way. Had I known that I would be sitting in the Senate chambers, absolutely not. It is that passion that really took me one step to the other, helped create the Education Foundation, and you name it, these different components to what makes a community and then looking at how to be impactful, and how to make change and how to move issues to some degree of resolution.

Rodney Payne  10:34

Affordable housing is definitely a passion for you. Could you give us a short recap of Aspen’s housing story?

Gail Schwartz  10:42

So ironically, I’ve come full circle now. But it is, back in the early 70s, 80s Aspen was looking at the fact that we needed to have an employee base, the stable employee base, and how do you do that, and a very innovative visionary leadership said, we’re going to ask the development community, that of all the free market units that are coming online, a certain percent has to be carved out for permanent residents and permanent housing, that 30%. So that metric was a really important piece, along with deed restrictions that required people to live and work in the community, have certain price caps, have certain appreciation cap, so it would always remain affordable. The most important thing you can do is insulate a stock of housing, from the market forces. When you have an international community vying for the real estate in this town, it is critical, you start to control the class and also try to preserve it in perpetuity. So back in the day, maybe there are 4000 employees in Aspen. Now they’re 24,000. And housing has not kept pace.

Rodney Payne  12:00

What’s the cost of a free market, single family home in Aspen at the moment?

Gail Schwartz  12:05

It’s obscene. One property just sold for $60 million. I don’t know, you can hardly keep track because it changes monthly, what the average sales prices and versus the median sales price versus a medium income. There’s such demand for this real estate in this community because of the lifestyle, incredible environments, the arts and all those benefits. But what has happened is it has really driven out what I would call the community that we were all associated with back in those early days because we didn’t come here with much. But we all made it work. And we all made the community work. And we were devoted to the community. So now it is just exacerbated the issue. And it has that ripple effect. It’s not only Aspen, it’s that larger definition of community, is impacting Basalt, and Carbondale and Glenwood and moving down valley to Newcastle and Silt and Rifle and Parachute to De Beque. Our workforce, every day, can commute up to four hours a day. This becomes a social justice issue. You don’t build an economy, on the backs of families and individuals because of the cost they are paying to support a resort industry.

Rodney Payne  13:38

So on the one hand, there was incredible foresight early on to preserve 30% of inventory for the people who are building and maintaining the community. On the other hand, even though we have that, there’s this massive divide between free market housing and availability for the people who are now running the growth engine. And people are commuting up to four hours. What’s the impact of that?

Gail Schwartz  14:07

Well, as I said, this is a social justice issue. And really laying this issue at the feet of the industries and the businesses and the communities that need to have that workforce. And so it’s a tremendous problem. So how do you address it? And I think that Habitat and myself has been really spearheading conversations around. We’re at a very critical point. It is a crisis. So let’s identify the solutions and opportunities.

Rodney Payne  14:45

But it sounds like for a while there, preserving 30% really worked. When did it get to a tipping point?

Gail Schwartz  14:52

I would say COVID. COVID, where people wanted to take their laptops and they wanted to leave some urban area and go to someplace with some reasonable connectivity. And so what happened was, there was a large part of our housing stock that really functioned as seasonal housing, that they were rental units, people own property, and they rented them. So two things happened, those properties either sold, and we know from data 80% sold to out of state buyers or out of the community buyers. And secondly, then we had the short term rentals. So if you had a property, and you were renting it to a nurse or a teacher or somebody else in the community, it became far more lucrative to rent that property short term. So what happened, the housing stock shrunk, so the 30% were the deed restricted, really reliable housing stock. And then all of a sudden, we saw that other part of the housing stock that wasn’t necessarily regulated, start to shift and shift away from the the workforce, and affordability due to a couple of those factors.

Rodney Payne  16:13

So you’ve got some important work going on constantly raising conversations about the issue. When you when you think about the landscape, on the western slope and in and around Aspen, what’s currently being done or worked on? What are the different things that are being worked on?

Gail Schwartz  16:31

As solutions? Minimal. They don’t begin to approach. So right now Aspen has the APCHA, the Pitkin County Housing Authority, about 3200 affordable units. Snow Mass has its own stock. But as I said, when you’re trying to capture the ability to serve 24,000 employees, 3200 doesn’t begin to address the issue. But also people have to realize it’s not a zero sum game. Because what we don’t have in that 3200 units is the ability for mobility within that housing stock. So you may have a teacher, literally, that bought in 40 years ago, taught our children how to read and have them in kindergarten. But that teacher is now retired in a unit that has a capped appreciation. But she has three bedrooms. So you have a lot of grace in about, oh, the bedrooms aren’t being maximized? No, we’re not providing opportunities and alternatives to the people in the housing stock to maybe downsize or move into something that’s really more appropriate for a retired individual. So what are we doing, we’re not diversifying our housing stock. We’re not increasing the numbers, we do have a new project coming online here in Aspen. What we’re not doing is bringing engaging and providing incentives for the private sector to be partners in this because it’s so lucrative in the free market. But we also need governmental policy, we need that same visionary leadership, that is going to flip this equation, and now make 70% of the new housing stock affordable, and 30% for the free market. Currently, in the County, 30% of the housing is occupied by locals, 70% of the housing, literally that equation worked, is owned by absentee owners. That’s an industry every time you build a free market house, you’re driving more need for more jobs and more workforce. So what are we doing? It’s what are we not doing? So we’re not having the right governmental policies, we’re not creating incentives for the private sector to be part of the solution. Also, the philanthropic community needs to understand that as much as they love the dance, and the music, and all these great, wonderful assets, they also need to be investing in what stabilizes those nonprofits. It’s called housing.

Rodney Payne  19:16

And so bringing it back to policy, if I could make you the benevolent dictator of the region for a week, the area, broadly speaking, and I’ll give you a magic wand. What would you do? What levers would you put in place?

Gail Schwartz  19:34

Clean for the day? I would flip the housing equation and make the majority, call it 60% 70%, but it’s not 10% is what some of our neighboring counties have in place a 10% incentive for local housing or a 20%. Let’s flip that equation. We have enough free market housing. It is not an industry that’s at risk. That what we have is an economy that’s at risk, so I would put in place the incentives from governmental policy and incentives for the private sector to start to invest. So those are, I think of the underpinnings.

Rodney Payne  20:15

And I’m assuming this isn’t a an obscure issue that people aren’t aware of. What’s the barrier for policies like those? Why aren’t they rapidly getting put in place?

Gail Schwartz  20:27

Leadership, lack of visionary leadership. We had…Well, people going back 50 years, we have three county commissioners that down zoned rural Pitkin County that made this place the attractive place that is, because they put in place those tough questions, and looked long term at what this community can be. We had a growth management plan, all those things have only now brought us to where we are today, because it’s so attractive. And so I will say visionary leadership. Taking on the tough issues.

Rodney Payne  21:07

And courage it sounds like, right?

Gail Schwartz  21:13

And courage. That’s not crazy. It’s just willingness to believe in and believing what you’re there for, sitting at a council table or sitting in a commissioner seat. Just believe in it and do, and step up.

Rodney Payne  21:30

Having been in public office for a long time, where do you where do you find that drive to push through the hard things?

Gail Schwartz  21:41

I would say, running for Mayor of Aspen, it’s a whole different ballgame. But I’ve run in over half the geography of the state twice for elected office once for Congress and one for our governing board of the university, and then ran in one of the largest senate districts in the country. That’s where your feet are held to the fire. And that’s where you start to see the challenges in communities. And you intrinsically adopt and understand those needs. So that’s where…it wasn’t it wasn’t fun. It’s important, but I wouldn’t call it fun to run for elected office, either in the state or in the region or for Congress. But when you get there, you are held accountable. For those commitments you made in front of that small group in center Colorado, you you’re held accountable to those communities that are suffering from no schools, no connectivity to their hospitals, to no transportation, to no economy. You are held accountable. And you show up in that chamber with a commitment and a passion to get the work done.

Rodney Payne  23:05

In our very tumultuous and polarized current political environment, where are you seeing hope and inspiration in terms of the type of leadership we’re talking about?

Gail Schwartz  23:18

I think that people should recognize that rural communities… Really, people are faced with bread and butter issues. It’s called enough schools, healthcare, and main street businesses. I think people can come together around those issues, and the well being of their communities. So my Senate district represented the wealthiest zip code in the nation, and the poorest. So it was really understanding that we all had something in common. Let’s talk about what we agree on, not what we disagree on. And let’s start to forge solutions and opportunities. Just like we can do here, what do we agree on? How do we find solutions? How do we start to put those solutions in place?

Rodney Payne  24:12

That really is a fascinating perspective you’ve lived with for a long time to represent and think about the wealthiest and the poorest all it’s in such close proximity. And it’s it’s really ground zero for the divide that you know, in abstract many of us are thinking about and grappling with. And obviously, like housing being the key part of that issue.

Gail Schwartz  24:36

So true. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a wealthy resort or you’re in a community that, again, one of the poorest community because there’s a need for housing there as well. And we can learn from each other. You need to be humble enough to learn from each other.

Rodney Payne  24:52

Do you think that initiatives like what you’re doing with Habitat for Humanity are essential to address the systemic failures that we’re experiencing?

Gail Schwartz  25:03

Yeah. We need to stay on it, we need to be committed, and we need to stay on it, we’re forming working groups are gonna be grappling with three those three topics, governmental policy, philanthropy, and public private partnerships. So we’re going to start momentum behind those concepts. And we’re going to come back in a year. It’s not an easy undertaking, but we won’t have an economy, we won’t. It’s not a viable, no business… I won’t say “no”… very few businesses can hire anyone from outside of this community. You know, they first check for the pulse. And then they say, do you have housing, if not, the interview is over. But what if we’re going to really be able to have a diverse economy, a diverse workforce, we need to be able to, again, embrace people, the willing to come here and live here and be be part of this community, be part of the school district, live and work in the same community. This is what is tearing us apart. When your teachers or your snowplow drivers or your nurses, or your doctors cannot live a practical distance from their work, they can’t serve the economy. And also when that four hours a day is spent in the vehicle, they’re not part of their children’s lives, they’re not part of the the volunteering in the community, or workers showing up at the school. We’re paying a price. And it’s too too big a price.

Rodney Payne  26:44

So looking five years out, how do you define success for what you’re working on?

Gail Schwartz  26:50

It is, how do we stabilize? Will we be having a different conversation that is not fraught with, no business can hire anyone, that nobody can afford anything that’s remotely practical near where they work. And then, and then also the fact that it’s preserving quality of life. Right now, I would say we’ve diminished the quality of life of our workforce, people are leaving. So even at Habitat, we’ve had three individuals that just left our ReStore, and we have over we have almost 30 employees there, to move to other states that are more affordable. There are other options for people that are affordable. And they’re maybe not as fancy as this, and they don’t have as many fourteeners. But they’re affordable, and they can raise their children and there’s a place for them to live. So I’d say the stability of the labor force is really important.

Rodney Payne  28:03

Are there any places in the world that you think have gotten it right? In terms of housing? Where do you find inspiration?

Gail Schwartz  28:15

Well, we are on the on the leading edge of it. And I think many communities emulated our process. It doesn’t come to mind because most communities are struggling with this issue. And what I would like to hope is that we can, again, be a leader on this issue, because we’re at this really pivotal point, a real crisis. We don’t have a choice. Failure is not an option, as I keep writing op eds in the paper, failure is not an option. So I think that hopefully, there’s the the will to make a difference here. And Habitat is just… we’re just part of the solution. But when we are short 5000 homes to adequately house our workforce. It’s a big question, how do we get there?

Rodney Payne  29:18

It feels like I get a window into the future, having the privilege to come here and see what’s going on and see how extreme pricing and commute times can become. And there’s a lot of other places that think their current reality is bad. But this is sort of looking at how bad it could get. What do you think the world needs to learn from Aspen? And what advice would you give to other people in policy or social organizations trying to address the externalities of growth?

Gail Schwartz  29:49

Well, I do think that we don’t need to have Big Brother, big governmental, you know, heavy handed solutions. Because we can encourage through policy into our code, public private partnerships. We can have tools. As a nonprofit, we have tools at our disposal. Private sector has tools at their disposal, I would say let’s find ways to marry that capability and start to bring more housing online. That can be a blend of you know, again, look at the housing spectrum, homelessness to single family homeownership. But how do we find incorporating where the need is in that spectrum and start to intersect it so you can combine rental housing, and again speaking to that mobility, with again, some entry level, deed restricted housing, and then move into what we call resident own housing. Create enough housing stock, so there is mobility and there are solutions and do not, in my opinion, tie housing to a person’s job. That for me is when you think of stabilizing the family, stabilizing children, stabilizing the community that you need to help people, I believe, in homeownership. It’s the American dream. But to tie especially a home that’s owned to someone’s job, I feel that is undermining of the individual and their future success.

David Archer  31:33

This has been Travel Beyond presented by Destination Think. This season of the podcast is sponsored by Aspen Chamber Resort Association. You can find previous episodes of Travel Beyond and more information about this one at My co-host is Rodney Payne. This episode has been produced and has theme music composed by me, David Archer. Danny Gariepy recorded this season’s interviews with Rodney on site in Aspen, Colorado. Sara Raymond is co-producer, Lindsay Payne, Annika Rautiola, Katie Shriner and Kaylee Wallis provided production support. And you can help more people find the show by subscribing to future episodes, and by leaving a rating and review on Spotify or Apple podcasts. . Next time we’ll speak with Cristal Logan, Vice President of Aspen Community Programs and Engagement at the Aspen Institute.

Cristal Logan  32:20

I think inside rooms where people are actually talking about solving issues. That’s where the hope is.

David Archer  32:27

See you then. And one last note about Aspen.

Eliza Voss  32:51

I’m Eliza Voss and I should note that we are recording in Aspen, Colorado, the ancestral territory of the Uncompahgre Tribe of the Ute Nation. We honor the inherent stewardship Native people have for the land, waters and air that our residents and visitors continue to have the privilege to revel in.


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