Sharon Lee remembers the first time she saw her face on a flier. It was early summer and she was in Belltown, en route to the Low Income Housing Institute, where she serves as executive director.
Walking down the street, she noticed a white paper stuck to a utility pole. She saw her name, spelled out in bold capitals. Her grainy photocopied image stared back at her.
The paper declared Lee responsible for deposit theft, bad management and bogus bills. It claimed a LIHI tenant named George had left his unit due to fumes from poor ventilation. LIHI, the flier announced, was threatening to sue George to keep him quiet.
"TELL SHARON TO CLEAN UP HER ACT!" it demanded.
Lee was stunned. She co-founded LIHI, a nonprofit, 20 years ago to help solve the housing crisis and help homeless people. In two decades, the organization has created nearly 50 properties offering transitional, permanent and Section 8 housing. All told, the organization has helped an estimated 42,000 people.
What, Lee wondered, had led someone to criticize her on a flier? And who was George?
A manager at the Frye, the 234-unit Section 8 building LIHI operates in Pioneer Square, answered this question for Lee. George had recently moved out of the Frye without cleaning his apartment. To cover cleaning costs, his security deposit and other funds totaling $99 had been held. His complaints about fumes, the manager said, were being addressed before he left.
Lee, a Real Change donor, thought the situation was resolved. She was wrong.
Throughout the summer, her face appeared all over Belltown, on fliers bearing bold accusations about her.
By midsummer, similar fliers showed up in Pioneer Square. Then, they spread southeast. Nearly 100 fliers appeared in the International District, a neighborhood without any LIHI properties but chosen, Lee believes, because she's Chinese American.
In August, the campaign hit home. Fliers appeared in Lee's own Ravenna neighborhood.
"It was really upsetting when they came to my house," says Lee, "came on my porch, put fliers in my doorways and neighbors' doors, and posted pictures of me on all the utility poles."
Each flier held either a phone number or contact email for the Seattle Solidarity Network, commonly called SeaSol. The volunteer-led group, allied with disgruntled tenant George, was campaigning to get Lee and LIHI to return the $99 George claimed he was owed. A representative of SeaSol told Lee the campaign wouldn't stop until George and the group got what they wanted.
As of this writing, the flier campaign has continued.
As Lee prepares to celebrate LIHI's 20th anniversary on Fri., Oct. 28, she says she's being unfairly targeted. Neither she nor LIHI, which donates money to Real Change, stole George's deposit, she says. Lee has always maintained the campaign against her is a mistake, but recently, she has come to portray it as racist.
For that, she's seeking more than an end to it: "They owe me an apology."
Burning plastic and rising frustration George Berumen thinks he's the one due an apology. Berumen moved into the Frye in November 2009, taking a studio in the historic building's third floor. For months, he had no trouble. But that changed in December 2010, he says, when he started smelling fumes.
At first, he couldn't identify the cause, but every day, he became overwhelmed by something that smelled like burning plastic. An adjoining wall separated his kitchen from his neighbor's, the two kitchens sharing the same duct for individual exhaust fans. As 2010 became 2011, the fumes seeping into his room made Berumen feel so high he had to keep his window open to the winter air.
Then one day Berumen identified the smell: crack. He says his neighbor was smoking crack, maybe even manufacturing it. The fumes traveled through the fan system into Berumen's room. He confronted his neighbor, who brushed him off.
Berumen says he reported it to the front desk, but Frye staff was unresponsive. He called 911 -- twice -- requesting police investigate. He says he didn't hear anything else about it.
Unhappy with the fumes and the staff's response to his entreaties, Berumen penned a letter to Lee on March 31.
"I'm going to be forced to vacate my apartment," he wrote. By mid-April, Berumen abandoned his studio. Homeless, he stayed in shelters, where he continued his writing campaign to Lee.
Correspondence from staff at the Frye, written to Berumen in early May, claimed Beruman had left his room dirty. To cover cleaning fees, the Frye kept Berumen's $50 security deposit and another $49 in funds he had in a tenant account.
Frye manager Tiffany Mueller said her staff discovered Berumen's exhaust fan was broken when they investigated the fumes. The building issued a work order to repair the fan. As for his former neighbor, he had welcomed both police and staff into his apartment on multiple occasions, she said. No drugs or paraphernalia were ever found.
In June, still feeling unheard and out $99, Berumen felt ready to give up.
"I had lost hope," he says.
A walk through the International District changed that. He saw a flier taped to a wall. It asked people who felt mistreated by a boss or landlord to contact SeaSol. Berumen sent an email to the address on the flier. A couple days later, on June 11, he met with members of SeaSol. They told Berumen they wanted to help.
Putting on the pressure SeaSol is a Seattle group that targets organizations and individuals they believe have wronged poor, disenfranchised people.
SeaSol member David Cahn says the group makes no apologies for its relentless tactics. The group, Cahn says, employs pressure campaigns for one reason: "Because it works."
In 2009, SeaSol staged at least nine pickets against architectural firm Lorig Associates in support of a black female former employee who claimed the firm passed her over for a promotion due to race ["Developer sues activists over pickets for ex-employee," RC, Dec. 9, 2009]. SeaSol continued picketing into 2010 and by last summer, Lorig Associates caved. The firm, denying guilt but acknowledging the group's protests hurt business, agreed to pay the former employee $22,000 in back wages ["Lorig pays $22,000 to stop picketers," RC, Sept. 2, 2010].
The group's website also lists recent victories for a home care worker who obtained $3,600 from his former employee, and a Chase customer who received $1,000 from the multinational bank after being shorted that amount in a transaction. Those wins came after campaigns using fliers, picketing or both, the website says.
Cahn says that SeaSol targeted Lee because it believes the cleaning fees LIHI has levied against Berumen are invalid. He says that Berumen told him he'd won the Frye's clean apartment award in January, months before he moved out.
Part of the group's pressure campaign also involved picketing the recent opening of LIHI's newest affordable housing unit, Gossett Place, named for county council chair Larry Gossett. That Lee is upset over the campaign, Cahn adds, only proves that SeaSol's tactics are working.
As for accusations that the group's campaign is racist because fliers bearing Lee's face showed up in the ID, Cahn, who is white, says that's a ruse. The ID was one of many neighborhoods where they posted fliers.
In fact, it was Berumen who put up the fliers with Lee's face in the ID.
"It would show the Asian community what type of person she is," he explains.
Berumen, who is Mexican American, says he hasn't done anything racist. The real issue, he says, is his stolen deposit.
Cahn says SeaSol will continue standing behind Berumen until Lee returns the deposit or provides SeaSol with photos of George's messy apartment.
What they won't do is try to raise money for the missing deposit. They're not fundraisers, he says, they're activists.
An anniversary and an award On Thurs., Oct. 20, Lee forwarded pictures to Real Change that she says are of Berumen's dirty apartment.
The six photos show a bag of white rice and dirty coffee mug left near the sink. Catch pans under the stove's four burners are caked with grease. Computer parts sit on a wooden table.
"If he left it so clean," Lee asks, "why do I have pictures of the place?"
Lee says the Frye followed all landlord-tenant laws in withholding the deposit and other funds to cover cleaning costs. Her organization even tried to help Berumen secure a new apartment, assistance he turned down.
Lee still believes racism motivated the flier campaign, and on Wed., Oct. 19, LIHI sent out a press release stating as much.
But Lee may have to contend with more than seeing her face on a flier around town. LIHI's 20th anniversary celebration is Fri. Oct. 28, and SeaSol plans to show up to present Lee with its first-ever "Deposit Thief of the Year Award."
Lee says she's no thief: "They picked the wrong target."