We talked with Robert Schwartz, the new Chair of the Board of Directors for Capitol Hill Housing. Robert was an inaugural member of the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict Steering Committee and is deeply invested in addressing the need for affordable housing across the region. As Associate Vice President for Facilities at Seattle University, he is responsible for a broad portfolio that includes long-range planning and real estate projects for the campus. He has a passion for sustainability that extends beyond buildings and includes the communities that form around them. [Ed. Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity]
You have spent your career engaged in improving the built world. What first drew your attention to affordable housing?
I started working at Seattle University and felt nudges, in part because of my faith, that it was important to be helping low-income people and to be engaged with the city beyond just my work. I knew that I could go serve at a soup kitchen, and I’ve done that in the past, but I thought that’s probably not the best use of my experience and expertise. Because of my role at Seattle University, I was originally put forward to the CHH Board as a mayoral appointee. I thought this is a great opportunity to respond to those nudges and be engaged with helping my community, be engaged with making the city a better place. It was a confluence of a lot of different streams.
You were a part of the original Steering Committee for the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict – what brought you there?
Here at Seattle University, we are really concerned with sustainability. As a licensed civil engineer, I bring a very analytical and critical approach to sustainability. There’s a lot of happy talk, but I really look at performance. At Seattle University we talk about high performance: We want a high-performance organization and we want high performance buildings – buildings that perform well are energy efficient and less expensive to operate. To me, we need to take a very practical, hard-edged look at what it means to be sustainable. From that standpoint, I was interested in being engaged not in these big nebulous concepts but in something really concrete. It’s got to result in real changes. And I think the EcoDistrict has done a really good job with that. I look at their solar power initiative and parking; I think the EcoDistrict is a good blend of idealism and real-world applications. That’s to be commended. A lot of that happened after I was involved, but I was there at the initial thinking through of some of those things.
In many ways, Seattle University is trying to model a lot of the same objectives. In Higher Ed, there’s an organization called the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). They have a rating program called Stars – Sustainability Tracking and Rating System. It’s very comprehensive; it doesn’t just look at your recycling. It also looks at your educational offerings, your administrative policies, and how all of those promote sustainable operations. We are one of the few institutions who have a gold rating nationally.
What is your vision for how CHH should look to the future in building partnerships and connecting to communities where there isn’t already an affordable housing nonprofit? How do you think we can best accomplish that?
I think that’s been a big question for us at the Board level. There isn’t a one-size approach that fits all. We are working to figure out parameters for what approach we should use in various locations and what’s appropriate, all with an eye towards meeting the real need of affordable housing and building vibrant and engaged communities. I appreciate the commitment that CHH has to diversity. Chris Persons has done a great job of bringing together a diverse board that reflects the views and needs of the communities we are working in. We still have more work to do. Capitol Hill Housing is an organization that’s willing to take risks. Look at our work in the Central District. We are currently developing a project that, in fifteen years, we may essentially sell all our interests in. That’s a pretty groundbreaking model in a lot of ways, and I’m proud to be a part of an organization that’s willing to take risks. If a group like Capitol Hill Housing doesn’t take that risk, nobody will.