#116 Mar/Apr 2001

Not Afraid To Speak Up

As the World Trade Organization (WTO) prepared for its meetings in Seattle in November 1999, homeless advocates were worried that street sweeps to clean up downtown for the meetings would […]

As the World Trade Organization (WTO) prepared for its meetings in Seattle in November 1999, homeless advocates were worried that street sweeps to clean up downtown for the meetings would target the homeless, destroy camps and infringe on their human rights. In the mass protests that surrounded the meeting, activists and homeless people together squatted an abandoned building. The owner wanted them all arrested, and the confrontation looked liked it might get violent. Then Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), showed up. First she negotiated terms and conditions for the occupiers to be allowed to stay and provided staff to keep the building safe. “It was a self-managed environment,” says Lee. “It was being used as a shelter, as well as a place for activists to make a statement.” When the owner later insisted the squatters vacate, Lee helped negotiate a peaceful arrangement and opened up one of LIHI’s neighboring buildings as a temporary shelter. “It was important, as a nonprofit housing provider, that we were part of the effort to make a statement. And people were housed,” says Lee.

Working with squatters and direct action protesters is not necessarily what one expects from a housing developer with a multimillion dollar budget. “Some people say that when you’re more established you should be more averse to risk,” says Lee. “My feeling is the opposite. Because now we have assets, we’re formidable. We’ve shown we’re going to be around here for a long time, so it’s even more important for us to speak up.”

True to Its Roots
The WTO story doesn’t seem out of character to those who know LIHI’s history. In 1990, a group of homeless people created a self-managing tent city, which the mayor moved into an empty bus barn. SHARE, a grassroots homeless group, ran the tent city with the help of a few advocates. The tent city had a democratic governance structure, house rules and division of chores. But the nearby residential neighborhood complained.

Representatives from SHARE, the Fremont Public Association and Catholic Community Services discussed moving the group into the nearby empty Aloha Hotel. But it was such a hot issue, no nonprofit was willing to take it on. So the three groups formed a new nonprofit, LIHI, to take on projects like these. The Aloha Hotel, possibly the first self-managed transitional housing in the country, was LIHI’s first project. Residents work the phone, security and the common kitchen, and take responsibility for many aspects of Aloha’s property management.

LIHI’s next few projects also began with activist action: Arion Court, 37 award-winning self-managed SROs providing permanent housing to the formerly homeless, was first an abandoned building occupied by homeless and housing activists as a public action. It was a major site of police confrontation, repeated evictions and arrests until the occupiers, called Operation Homestead, asked Sharon Lee of LIHI and Bob Santos of HUD to help negotiate with the owners, who were persuaded to sell to LIHI. Once Arion Court was developed, all of the homeless people involved in the occupation were able to move in.

Branching Out
Since 1990, LIHI has grown to a multimillion dollar nonprofit developer, completing 400 units in 1999 and over 300 in 2000. Most of its properties (20 of 29) run on the principles of mutual housing or self management. While LIHI quickly expanded beyond implementing the demands of housing direct actions into proactive development work, it has continued to push the envelope.

One thing that distinguishes LIHI from many CDCs is its focus on serving certain populations rather than certain neighborhoods. (Its geographic scope is effectively county-wide.) “We proactively look for what’s missing from the housing continuum,” says Lee. LIHI has developed housing for homeless teen mothers, new mothers recovering from crack and chronic public inebriates. In an era of euphoria about homeownership for the working moderate income, 66 percent of LIHI’s housing units are for people at or under 30 percent of median income.

And the developments are not always where you would expect them to be. “We have a lot of housing in middle class neighborhoods,” says Lee. “We’re really committed to racial and economic integration. Initially there is often huge opposition, but we work with community people to change their perspective, overcome their fears.”

LIHI also recently fought a long public relations battle, and a NIMBY lawsuit, to develop an “Urban Rest Stop,” a public hygiene center for the homeless and poor. The rest stop eventually opened in 2000, although not in the originally planned downtown location.

Speaking Out
LIHI, although now a major developer, also maintains close ties with the housing activist community and speaks out frequently on housing justice issues at the local level. The organization is active in statewide housing and community reinvestment coalitions, and frequently contributes staff time to advocacy efforts. This makes it unusual among developers says Siobhan Ring, an organizer with the Seattle Tenants Union. “Kings County has a very well-developed community of nonprofit developers, but LIHI occupies a pretty unique space [in] that it would ally itself with someone clearly political,” she says. “The fear [of not getting your projects funded] is very damaging to efforts to eradicate root causes of homelessness and poverty, because the people with resources won’t speak up. But at LIHI they will call people out. They will criticize public funders, and they will turn around and get good proposals funded. Yes, it may make your funders uncomfortable, but uncomfortable does not translate into unsuccessful. It’s just uncomfortable.”

Lee agrees. “There are a lot of nonprofits that won’t say anything because they’re scared they city won’t fund their next project,” says Lee. “But I have housing advocates on my staff. And I’m a person of color. I’m used to people not liking what I do. I’m used to telling the city its consolidated plans suck. I’m used to asking why the city is spending millions for a new aquarium to house fish when there are people without housing. We do that consistently and we still get funded.” The key is good relationships, she adds, pointing out that while LIHI can be vocally critical of banks, for example, on community reinvestment issues, it also tells them when they’re doing well.

LIHI’s ties to the activist communities make a difference in its actual development and property management work as well. “[People at LIHI] are more willing to listen to nondevelopers about what’s needed,” says Ring. “Part of that is their connection to other elements of the community. They’re being pressured by people who feel they are their peers.” LIHI, in fact, has actively supported some of the Tenant Union’s organizing campaigns, contributing staff time and fundraising to a Section 8 preservation project, for example, and using its greater connections to public officials to help pass legislation that allowed the campaign to succeed. “They stuck their neck out for us,” says Ring.

Still a Challenge
All the activist background in the world, however, doesn’t make an organization immune to the challenges of being a developer, landlord and overall large institution.

“We haven’t always had a rosy relationship,” says Ring. “We’ve organized tenants in their buildings and brought tenants to their offices with petitions and demanded changes.” But while they may disagree in these situations, at least the people at LIHI understand the process, says Ring, because they have done similar advocacy work themselves. With other owners, showing up at their offices with disgruntled tenants might be the end of the relationship, she says. “With LIHI that’s just a bad week.” In fact, LIHI’s had a few bad weeks recently. A long-time tenant of Arion Court is suing LIHI, alleging it has reneged on self-management principles. This is their second such suit.

Sharon Lee acknowledges some tension on the board too, as bankers and developers have been added to what was a majority of formerly homeless members. “We’ve had board meetings I sure wouldn’t want to have taped,” says Diane Lee (no relation), board member since the Arion Court development. But she doesn’t sound too worried. “Because the board consists of one-third community people, the voice of the grassroots has stayed,” she says. “The one thing that makes LIHI work is the balance: the people who really understand the money side of it and people who understand the mission side of it. That’s part of what made LIHI stay the activist, and not just become [a group] milling out houses without any connection to ending poverty.”

The choices aren’t always clear. “The urban rest stop was our hardest struggle,” says Diane Lee. “In some activists’ eyes we lost. We were able to open a wonderful hygiene center where people are treated with dignity, but it’s in a totally different location, not downtown where we wanted it. We finally had to say we’re not going to have anything unless we say we’re not going to put it downtown.”

Many on the board and staff were uncomfortable with LIHI’s degree of involvement with the housing occupation during the WTO demonstrations as well. But Sharon Lee made the case, and in the end the board came along. For Diane Lee, that what it’s all about. “These [activists] are the kids I think we should be proud of,” she says. “There’s not one other developer who would have even talked to those kids, let alone get involved. Sharon took a lot of flak. It’s a struggle, but we do it. And I hope that we keep doing it.”

LIHI: 206-443-9935, www.lihi.org


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