Headshot James Zorn

James Zorn, new Habitat for Humanity executive director.

Habitat for Humanity has a new executive director, local gym owner James Zorn.

It might not seem intuitive, a gym owner running an affordable housing nonprofit, but Zorn has interesting ideas as well as background for the job.

Zorn pulls it altogether with one statement.

“I’m a community creator,” he said.

Community to Zorn means sitting and listening to the goals, hopes and dreams of the person he seeks to serve.

His approach to gym ownership provides an example of Zorn’s philosophy.

He said he and his wife Gwen make their clients feel welcomed and cared for at the gym — two pillars of creating community — and the backbone of satisfied customers.

Listening lies at the foundation of Zorn’s approach.

“We’ve lost the ability to ask, ‘How are you?’ Then actually want to hear the answer,” he said.

He practiced those skills during the years he worked as a nurse. His job was to manage his pediatric patients’ care once they left the hospital. He had to listen to what sort of home environment and special recovery needs his patients had.

Zorn uses that same sort of listening when a person comes to Anytime Fitness. Through his experience, Zorn knows his gym clients often seek something other than losing weight.

“We ask, ‘What is your goal? Do you have a support system? Do you want a support system?’ Because Gwen and I will be that support system,” he said.

One gentleman, over 80 years old, came in asking for a “nutritional consultation.”

Yet as the two talked about the man’s goals, “it became clear he just wanted to talk,” said Zorn.

The older man joined Anytime Fitness, not for the nutritional consultation but for the camaraderie and human connection.

“He knows I would come looking for him if he didn’t show up,” said Zorn.

It’s that welcoming, caring attitude Zorn plans on amping up at Habitat. One big reason? Clients go through the same process anyone does to buy a home.

Habitat applicants have to qualify for a mortgage which means opening up their financial information to scrutiny. Mortgage companies will not fund mortgages that take up more than 30% of a household’s income.

The loan they receive does not have interest, but the family must be able to support the monthly payments.

Applicants have to prove they have the responsibility to own a home by volunteering to work building their home, or to volunteer in some other way to prove they are up to homeownership.

“I’m looking for clients with a rental track record,” said Zorn.

Zorn has no problems absorbing all of the information on housing trends and community development because he’s a self-described, “data geek.”

“I look at housing and rental trends all the time,” he said.

He knows in Phoenix the new trend in housing is moving away from single family homes to higher density projects.

To combat affordable housing, the Phoenix area is looking at some unique “hybrid rent to own” situations, said Zorn.

While living in the Valley, Zorn fed his passion for developing community by attending Valley Leadership classes. He learned how the support grid for communities works by touring waste treatment plants and pouring over maps of utility lines.

Zorn has master’s degrees from Arizona State University in both business administration and health services.

Most of his career, he has served in management.

But what overshadows all of Zorn’s qualification is his dedication to people.

With tears in his eyes Zorn quoted his pastor who often spoke about the “least, the little, the lost and the forsaken” as those in society who fade into the background, but need the most help.

“It’s about grace and how do we meet people where they are at,” he said. “I’ve always slept in a warm bed surrounded by people who love me ... how can I bring the 86-year-old who is dying to contribute to society and the 20-year-old seeking a home in from the cold?”

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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