The GHB Interview: Sharon Lee, Executive Director of the LIHI

Sharon Lee is the founding Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a non-profit that develops, owns, and operates housing for low-income, homeless, and formerly homeless people in Washington State. In June, two LIHI projects received Gold Nuggets for their contribution to affordable green housing. Here, Lee tells us her secrets to success.

Green Home Builder: Congratulations on your Gold Nugget win this year! What are the merits of high density green building?

Sharon Lee: The two buildings that won Gold Nugget Awards, The Marion West and Abbey Lincoln Court, were in the category of 100 du/acre or more. Because we focus on affordable housing, being green means that our residents, including families, seniors, veterans, singles, and people with disabilities, will have very low heating and electric bills. Let’s say they are paying rent and living in older rental housing, they may have an electric/heat bill of $100 or more a month. Moving into one of buildings their bill might be $40. This is a significant savings. All of our buildings meet the State of Washington’s Evergreen Sustainable Development Standard (RDFD) that preserve the environment and promote sustainable living. In the case of The Marion West, we have a fabulous green roof with vegetables, fruit and herbs grown by volunteers for the food bank that is located on the first floor.

GHB: In what ways does your organization keep green building affordable?

SL: The Marion West includes 20 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless young adults age 18 to 25. An additional 29 units are for low-wage workers. The homeless young adult apartments are subsidized by project-based Section 8 subsidies, so residents pay 30 percent of their income for housing. The affordable workforce apartments are set at 50-60 percent rents under the low income housing tax credit program limits. If President Trump’s proposals for tax reform and corporate tax cuts get passed, future development of tax credit financed housing will be negatively impacted. Corporations will not be willing to invest in low-income housing as they do now. Other ways we keep operating expenses down is to use trash compactors to reduce costs. We use energy star rated appliances, and low flow fixtures.

GHB: How have you seen Millennials struggle with the economy and housing in ways other generations haven’t?

SL: As you know, Seattle passed the $15 minimum wage ordinance. This has been terrific in helping people trying to survive in entry level jobs. Unfortunately, Seattle stands out as having the highest percentage of overall rent increases in the nation, which more than outweighs the gains in income. Tens of thousands more households are paying 50 percent or more of their income for rent. Displacement and economic evictions are at an all time high. Rent control is not legal here so the Seattle City Council is looking at ways to regulate rents. There are many unscrupulous landlords take advantage of renters by hiking up rents by 20-30 percent for substandard housing. We have a very large homeless population of 8,522 in Seattle and over 1,000 homeless young adults age 18 to 25. Because of the high rents, many Millennials are not able to live in the city like their parents were able to. Long and costly commutes are required to live in the suburbs, which is why investments in affordable housing and mass transit are so important.

GHB: Do you have any comments about being a woman in a male dominated industry?

SL: The nonprofit affordable housing sector is a great place to have a career. I urge your readers to check out the local nonprofit housing organizations and offer their talent as staff, consultants, or volunteers. I use all my architecture, city planning, public policy, advocacy, and management skills in my job as executive director. It is sort of like running a small business–but with a great social mission. I wake up every day with interesting challenges. We have victories everyday: when we move a homeless family from living in a car into an apartment; when we open a new apartment building; and when our children excel in school because they have a great place to live. I make it a point to train and employ women and people of color in this male dominated industry.

GHB: Any advice for women entering the industry or wanting to achieve a similar position to yours?

SL: I say reach for the sky. Get a solid education and pursue internships and employment in a nonprofit housing organization that is making a positive impact in the community. My education background included Masters in Architecture and City Planning. A lot of the skills can be learned on-the-job for housing development and finance. Work on being a terrific writer, communicator, and problem solver.

GHB: What are your plans and goals for the rest of 2017?

SL: We are working on developing and constructing 500 new apartment units in the Seattle area and a few underserved rural communities in Puget Sound. Because of the extent of homelessness, we need a crisis response that can be implemented with a quick, low cost turnaround. We have partnered with the City of Seattle to set up five Tiny House Villages, where we have volunteers build 8’ x 12’ insulated and heated tiny houses that cost only $2,200 in construction material. We have over 140 tiny houses located on vacant city-owned and private property. These are safe places for families, couples, singles, and people with pets to live. Many cannot get into shelters as they are full. We plan to building 50 more tiny houses this fall with hundreds of volunteers and donors.

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