By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
One might say that the life and career of Sharon Lee, founding executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), has been a crusade against homelessness.
Since its beginning, LIHI staff has provided 4,500 units of affordable housing. By alleviating homelessness, LIHI alleviates a host of other, related, societal ills. These include displacement, low wages, unemployment, and drug and alcohol addiction. LIHI’s apartment buildings house senior citizens, low-income workers, veterans, people living with disabilities, and formerly homeless youth, to name a few. Their tiny house projects give people experiencing homelessness a transitional place to get back on their feet. Both types of facilities come with case managers to assist those that need help navigating the system. And LIHI’s urban rest stops provide a place for people getting on their feet to clean up before work or do laundry.
It’s all ingeniously simple and yet wonderfully complex. The concept is to provide safe shelter.
The results? Jobs for those that don’t have them. Education for kids kept out of school. Safer and cleaner environments because people can move off the streets. All of this leads to greater security, productivity, and profitability for all of us. And Lee said, it’s been working. The tiny house project alone has had remarkable success, according to Lee, with the current capability of helping 1,000 homeless people a year. “We try really hard to house as many homeless families, homeless individuals, homeless adults, as we can,” said Lee.
LIHI seeks to change the way the public thinks about affordable and low-income housing.
“We try to find really nice neighborhoods and sometimes we’re competing with for-profit developers for the same piece of real estate because we think, for our families, they should be in good school districts, close to transportation, shopping…We believe strongly that we should hire really good architects and contractors and then the buildings should look better than what’s around them, and definitely better than the market rate.” LIHI has put up attractive buildings in Ballard, Bellevue, and South Lake Union. “We think we’re part of the solution,” says Lee.
So what fuels Lee? An innate sense of altruism and empathy. Lee knows what it’s like to be down on one’s luck, without the security of a guaranteed place to go home for dinner or to sleep at night. When Lee was in high school, she, her siblings, and mother were homeless for a period. Her stepfather refused to let Lee’s mother, an intelligent woman with a master’s degree in chemistry, work outside the home, and worse, he withheld money for food and expenses for the children.
“So even though we were middle class, we experienced a version of domestic violence [and] abuse,” says Lee.
Lee’s mother and stepfather were both first generation immigrants, yet Lee’s mother was a child of progressive parents, while her stepfather came from a conservative family. Lee, who was 16 when they were kicked out of their home, went on to pursue advocacy almost immediately. As an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, she joined a group called Yellow Seeds, and was a student worker/intern for Tenant Action Group. A bachelor’s degree in urban studies with honors and two master’s degrees from MIT in city planning and architecture gave Lee a foundation to tackle housing regulations.
As part of Lee’s community activism during college, she connected with the AAPI population in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.
“Philadelphia had the typical situation where a freeway was being built through the heart of Chinatown. Also, the convention center was built right there. There was a lot of displacement. And in Philadelphia, it’s also bordering the red light district. It’s got the same story of Chinatown’s throughout the country.”
Once she moved to Seattle, Lee worked on the zoning for the International District (ID) and Pioneer Square. She also went to Olympia, where she helped set up the state housing trust fund and was involved in a succession of Seattle’s housing levies.
“I’ve always been interested in low-income housing and affordable housing issues,” she says.
One of Lee’s first jobs in Seattle was working with Bob Santos at Interim Community Development Association. For two years at the Seattle city council, she worked with Paul Kraabel — “a terrific boss.” While heading up the housing development department for Fremont Public Association (now Solid Ground), Lee worked for another of LIHI’s founders, Frank Chopp, now Speaker of the Washington State House of Representatives. Her first low-income housing project was for teen mothers along with Goodwill Baptist Church.
“I spoke before the congregation and they took a vote and said, ‘OK, we would love to do this,’ so they put up one of their buildings that was vacant, and I found the funds to renovate it.” From the housing development department grew LIHI.
The city and port of Seattle have been important partners to LIHI, and numerous organizations have participated in building tiny houses, such as the time LIHI rented out the CenturyLink Exhibition Center, and with partners Vulcan and Associate General Contractors, and built 30 tiny houses in one day.
Even kids can help. Recently, two Asian American girls, Kimberly and Rebecca Yeung, made headlines when they and their families built a tiny house. And of course, the LIHI staff makes a huge difference. “They’re so dedicated,” said Lee. “They believe in the mission. We have a very diverse staff and the majority of the people we house are people of color.”
In efforts to combat displacement impacting people of color, LIHI attempts to house people in the neighborhoods they already call home.
“We do a lot of affirmative marketing,” she explains. “We know that people are being displaced from the Central area, so when we leased up Abbey Lincoln Court, as an example, we have a large population of African Americans and people of color. When we leased up the Tony Lee, which is 70 units, we made sure that [we marketed to] low-income families and individuals from Lake City.” In Othello and Rainier Beach, LIHI is moving fast to stop displacement due to the new light rail system, with three buildings going up.
LIHI is also cognizant of the need to provide services along with housing. In Lake City, LIHI included an early education center in conjunction with the Refugee Women’s Alliance. At the LIHI apartment building in the University District, there is a food bank and a café which offers barista training to the young adults that live there. The same building has won green awards for its rooftop gardens, where volunteers grow vegetables and herbs to sell at the food bank.
Soon, LIHI’s new headquarters, together with 69 more units of affordable workforce housing, and retail space, will be coming to 1253 South Jackson in the ID. LIHI has inspired other cities, such as Honolulu, to follow suit with their first urban rest stop.
For more information, visit LIHI.org.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.