Sharon Lee is an exemplary leader who has played an integral role in shaping Seattle’s affordable housing initiatives. Lee is the Executive Director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a role she has held since the organization’s inception in 1991.
Born in New York, Lee spent some of her childhood in Hong Kong before eventually moving to Philadelphia. She actively participated in social justice activism and affordable housing advocacy throughout her young adulthood. After graduating from MIT with a dual graduate degree in city planning and architecture, she moved to Seattle.
Shortly after her move, Lee helped set up the Washington State Housing Trust Fund and in the following years, she would also form LIHI. LIHI is committed to helping Washington State’s low-income, unhoused, and formerly unhoused populations through the development of tiny house villages and urban rest stops. They own and manage over 3,400 housing units located in 75 sites throughout six Puget Sound counties. LIHI also provides social services for program participants, such as case management, life skills training, technology access and training, financial literacy education and savings programs, and other activities.
Allyson Levy: What was your experience like entering the field of affordable housing after moving to Seattle?
Sharon Lee: There was good, traditional affordable housing work being done in Seattle, but I saw a lot of gaps and unmet needs, especially in low-cost housing for low-income and homeless families and individuals. So, the focus at LIHI became finding innovative solutions to homelessness and scaling up truly affordable housing for seniors and people making minimum wage to double the minimum wage. It became clear that certain populations were so underserved and marginalized that we had an opportunity to create significantly more housing for homeless young adults aged 18-25, the majority whom are BIPOC, immigrant and refugee households, people living with disabilities, homeless veterans, seniors, and low-income families impacted by displacement and gentrification.
AL: What does serving as LIHI’s Executive Director entail and what are your day-to-day responsibilities?
SL: There’s no typical day, but my focus recently has been on advocacy, building more affordable housing, and creating tiny house villages. Seeing the increase in unsheltered people camping or living in their cars is terrible. We have been sponsoring tiny house villages for homeless families and individuals with faith and community partners since 2015. Unfortunately, the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority has taken a position of not supporting tiny houses — which we obviously disagree with.
AL: How have LIHI’s initiatives and mission evolved since forming and what have you learned about the Seattle community throughout?
SL: In 2015, LIHI developed the first tiny house village in Seattle in collaboration with the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd and Nickelsville on land owned by the church. This village had 14 tiny houses, bathrooms, showers, a kitchen, and an entry pavilion. There was little information out there when we started, so we improvised a lot and refined our tiny house design with input from people living in tiny houses and from volunteers, businesses, and pre-apprenticeship students who were building them.
With the 18 tiny house villages we have constructed since Seattle has become a national model showcasing an effective crisis response to homelessness, many cities and states, especially on the West Coast, have adopted tiny houses as both innovative and cost-effective. Even California Governor Newsom recently announced the state’s intent to build 1,200 tiny houses. Governor Inslee is a huge fan and supports tiny house villages. Over 3,200 homeless people have lived in tiny houses, including families with children.
In 2022 we sheltered 1,650 people. These individuals would most likely have stayed living outdoors if not for the villages we built. Delegations from across the country come and tour our tiny house villages and ask us about operations. We gladly share our knowledge and experience. We have learned the importance of community engagement with our Community Advisory Committees (CAC). Each village has a CAC — comprised of neighborhood stakeholders, nearby businesses, and residents — that meets monthly.
AL: What benefits have you observed in residents’ lives after moving into one of the tiny houses?
SL: Tiny houses are the preferred type of shelter because they provide privacy and a supportive healing environment. Once a person secures a tiny house, they can breathe. Not every thought is, “Where do I go next? Where do I find my next meal?” The village allows them the time, headspace, and support to make improvements in their lives. The sense of community and positive interactions can break down many people’s feelings of isolation. Often people who have lived outdoors for years arrive at our village sick, frail, and malnourished. Over time we see that their health and mental health improves substantially. Our case managers are super effective in offering an array of supportive services and referrals and helping people transition to permanent housing.
AL: Are there any misconceptions about LIHI and your organization’s impact on the community that you would like to address?
SL: When we started the program, there were worries about crime, but a testament to how successful the program has become is that there is very little NIMBYism anymore when we propose to open a new village. We even have neighborhood groups request to have a village open in their neighborhood. Having a well-managed tiny house village with 24/7 staffing is so much better than having people camping in tents on sidewalks, in parks, under bridges, and in dangerous locations.
AL: Would you consider Seattle’s housing issues improving or worsening, and why?
SL: Economic disparities continue to widen and the pandemic and tech layoffs have hit the area hard, so the housing crisis remains in full force. There are signs of hope, but we need strong leadership to re-envision the future of Seattle, where low-income and people of color are no longer displaced and forced to leave. We must build new affordable housing in the CID, Central Area, Rainier Valley, Skyway, and other places and give preference to historic residents of those neighborhoods. We will continue to lose ground with high rents. We need a major investment in low-income senior housing as more Baby Boomers will fall through the cracks and become homeless. LIHI supports the concept of social housing and mixed-income communities, which is why we endorsed I-135. We also support the upcoming Seattle Housing Levy that Mayor Harrell just announced that will be on the ballot this fall.