Meet Sharon Lee, the founding executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a nonprofit affordable housing developer and owner in Seattle.

The organization has developed more than 4,000 units of rental and homeownership housing, including transitional, permanent, and Housing First homes. LIHI also operates Urban Rest Stops to meet the hygiene needs of homeless people and has also added tiny houses to its lineup.

Sharon Lee
Ron Wurzer Sharon Lee

LIHI’s housing has won numerous national and local awards for design excellence and environmental sustainability.

What was your first job in affordable housing?

I had a fascinating job as a planner for the Boston Housing Authority after it was placed under court receivership for gross mismanagement, nonfeasance, and incompetence. Boston's public housing was racially segregated. Repairs weren't getting done, some residents went without water and heat. There were serious problems of patronage. At the time I was a graduate student at MIT in architecture and city planning. I was also a teaching assistant for professor Mel King's Community Fellows program. Mel is a coalition builder for social change and racial justice. I worked in Roxbury alongside public housing residents to combat the encroachment of major institutions and to mitigate the impacts of mass transit on public housing from Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's Orange Line expansion.

What about affordable housing connected with you?

I am never bored. I love the creativity and innovation that can happen in the field of affordable housing. You can solve problems and have an endlessly interesting career. What keeps me going? Creating opportunities for residents and staff, improving neighborhoods, and exiting people out of homelessness and housing instability. I work with staff and partners to focus on a population that is extremely underserved by the market, such as homeless young adults, chronically homeless seniors, or immigrants/refugees, and develop housing solutions that work.

Tell us about LIHI’s newest development, The Marion West.

The Marion West is a mixed-use building located in a vibrant neighborhood near transit, jobs, and the University of Washington. We provide 49 affordable apartments for homeless young adults (ages 18 to 25) and low-wage workers entering the workforce. At street level is the University District Food Bank and a cafe that serves the community. The food bank is designed like a green grocer. The cafe doubles as a training program for homeless youth. We built a green rooftop garden, staffed by food bank volunteers, that provides fresh vegetables and herbs.

Where did the name come from? We named the building in honor of Marion West, because she and her African-American husband opened their home in the 1950s to provide housing to minority students attending the University of Washington. That was a time of intense racial tension and segregation, where restricted covenants prohibited people of color from owning land in north Seattle. Marion is white, so she held the deed in her name and helped hundreds of students of color get through college. She and her family persevered despite the backlash of racial hatred and a cross burned on their front lawn.

How is LIHI changing?

LIHI is celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. I am proud of our track record of developing over 4,000 affordable units. However, homelessness is on the rise in Seattle, not unlike other high-cost cities. The average monthly rent in Seattle for a two-bedroom market-rate apartment is now $2,700. The city is experiencing the highest rate of year-over-year rent increases. Even millennials in the tech sector find housing unaffordable here and are leaving the city. Homelessness increased 19% from last year, with over 3,000 people living unsheltered on the streets of Seattle. Last year, 91 men and women died from exposure, violence, and suicide living on the streets. Emergency shelters are full, and truly affordable housing is in short supply.

Where are people going to find a safe place to sleep? To respond to the misery and suffering we see on the streets, LIHI added tiny houses as a new line of business. We are advocates for tiny houses as an alternative to sleeping on the street or living in a cold, wet tent. In 2015, after years of resistance, the mayor and city council agreed to legalize and fund organized encampments.

We now have three tiny house communities where a family or individual can live in a safe, insulated tiny house, lock their door, and keep their belongings. Homeless families, LGBTQ couples, people with teenage sons, and those with pets now have a place to live. We employ case managers and help residents move to permanent housing and gain employment as quickly as possible.

It takes a few days or a weekend to build a tiny house. Whereas it takes three to four years to build low-income housing: You have to find land, assemble financing, apply for permits and complete construction. We now have 50 tiny houses built by volunteers with donated materials and labor. Each house costs $2,200 in materials. Technical colleges, apprenticeship programs, high school students, church groups, tribes, businesses and community members have built tiny houses for us.

LIHI runs several Urban Rest Stops. How controversial are these centers, and what’s been the biggest challenge in operating them?

LIHI runs three Urban Rest Stops, which are hygiene centers providing free showers, restrooms, and laundry for homeless families and individuals. Taking a hot shower in the morning is something most of us take for granted. But a homeless person living on the street or even in a shelter has to struggle to stay clean and presentable. Over 60% of the homeless people using our Rest Stops are employed part or full time—so we have early morning hours and stay open late. We did initially encounter NIMBY opposition at two locations. Now businesses and neighbors have come around to support us. Retailers have a place to direct noncustomers to use our restrooms. The public libraries like us! The most important message to get across is that the Rest Stops are well-staffed, clean, and safe. Our customers are on their best behavior as they are ever so grateful to have a place to brush their teeth, take a shower, and launder their clothes. We've had very few incidents over the last 20 years.

What angers you?

I think the new rage of rapid rehousing (RRH) is a serious setback in our effort to successfully exit people from homelessness. One size does not fit all. Not everyone can succeed in rapid rehousing, where a family is placed into market-rate housing with a rent subsidy that lasts only three to six months. Afterward, the family is expected to pay the market rent on their own, and very often becomes extremely cost burdened or returns to homelessness. HUD policy is short-sighted and mistaken on this. There are high-paid consultants advising cities and counties across the country to get rid of all their transitional housing programs and to switch resources to rapid rehousing. So millions of dollars are being cut from nonprofit-operated programs and redirected to private landlords. These consultants ignore the local housing markets. In high-cost cities, how can market rents of $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment be sustainable? How are homeless families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, recent immigrant/refugees, people with mental illness and other disabilities, or families in crisis fleeing domestic violence able to survive in rapid rehousing? Seattle's own data shows only 52% are able to maintain housing under RRH. Don't blindly follow advice from "experts" who promise a "cheaper" solution that might not pan out.

If you had an afternoon off work, where would we find you?

I really enjoy swimming, hydrofit, or water exercises. Nothing better than to jump into a lake or pool to have some fun. New ideas pop up after you take your mind off work.