A scathing open letter from local mutual aid groups, sent Jan. 19, outlines a litany of complaints against the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) over what the letter’s authors say is mismanagement of the nonprofit’s network of Seattle tiny home villages and mistreatment of current and former tiny home village residents. These complaints, said the letter’s authors, come principally from encampment residents they’ve worked with who ended up in LIHI tiny home villages, often after a sweep.
The letter outlines nine allegations against the organization, including under-trained staff, unfair evictions and unfair appeals processes, surveillance of villagers, unsafe and unhealthy conditions, lack of oversight of finances and staff, insufficient mental health support, ignored complaints, reprisals and two deaths that allegedly went unnoticed for seven days.
While it was sent from an email address belonging to the group North Seattle Neighbors, it also bears the signatures of 15 other groups.
To remedy the alleged issues, the groups demanded several steps, including an external financial audit of LIHI, the establishment of a third-party watchdog and a shift towards funding different housing providers to reduce the local homelessness response system’s reliance on LIHI.
Anne Martens, KCRHA’s communications director, wrote in her own email on Jan. 18, “We take allegations of any mistreatment of unhoused neighbors very seriously. To ensure accountability, KCRHA regularly conducts oversight and monitoring of contracted service providers, including on-site inspections, and may issue corrective action plans if needed. People experiencing homelessness who have concerns about any service provider should contact our Ombuds Office.”
In a letter to local media outlets reporting on the story, LIHI’s executive director Sharon Lee wrote, “We read the letter from the mutual aid groups concerning our operation of Tiny House Villages. As long time advocates for shelter and services for Seattles’ homeless population we take all suggestions and criticisms seriously. It should be noted that the people who signed this letter did not have first hand knowledge about our practices. They did not contact us in advance and did not sit down and talk with us to learn the truth.”
She did not directly address accusations of financial mismanagement or misconduct in her letter but did contest claims that LIHI had ignored or downplayed its clients’ safety concerns.
“When there is a safety issue for our staff, or if our other program participants are under threat from another client, we have to take those concerns very seriously,” she wrote, adding that safety concerns are in fact what would typically lead to a client being evicted from a tiny home village. There is an appeal process for evictions, she said, but admitted that the dissatisfied clients mentioned in the open letter were likely real.
“It is understandable that former clients that had their appeal denied would be upset,” she wrote.
That LIHI staff ignored two dead campers for more than a week in each instance, Lee said, was “simply untrue.” LIHI had one overdose death in its tiny home villages recently, she said, but that resident was found within 72 hours — the organization performs a wellness check on anyone who hasn’t signed in or been seen for that long.
All campers and staff at the location were offered grief counseling, she added.
Lee concluded her letter by saying that she’d reached out to the mutual aid groups for a meeting but hadn’t heard back. North Seattle Neighbors did not respond to a request for comment on Lee’s counter-letter by press time.
Reached by phone on Jan. 20, Lee elaborated further on the organization’s eviction policy. Anyone who is evicted is given referrals and, if they want it, a ride to appropriate shelter programs. She hopes to see more of those shelter options opened soon.
“We just met with the county and asked RHA and the city to set up a high acuity shelter,” she said. Such a facility would be non-congregate and low barrier, meaning that clients would not be forced to live in communal spaces and would be allowed in even if they were actively using drugs or experiencing a mental health crisis, conditions that she said are often involved for people who are evicted from LIHI’s villages.
She also contested the mutual aid groups’ allegation that LIHI has a monopoly on tiny home villages, saying that it was “such a lie.” She cited Nickelsville’s two tiny home villages, as well as two run by Catholic Community Services, as proof. She added that LIHI is currently helping the Chief Seattle Club stand up a new tiny home village, which that organization will have full control of. It is common, she argued, for people who can’t find success in any other programs to find it at one of LIHI’s villages, and vice versa.
“So, if you look at all the service providers, we see people from DESC, we see people from Compass [Housing Alliance], Compass probably sees people from us,” she said. “We have people who we have tried progressive discipline [with] and it didn’t work. And then we exit them to another place and they end up with housing.”
Still, LIHI is the single largest provider of tiny home villages in the city, meaning that residents who are evicted from LIHI villages can find comparable options very limited, especially if their appeal is denied. And it’s not the first time Lee’s organization has come under attack for its eviction and appeals process.
Publicola recently published an article centered on a lawsuit brought against LIHI by former Plum Street Tiny House Village resident Ryan Taal, who was evicted from that location by LIHI. Taal’s suit argues that LIHI is in fact a landlord, even if it doesn’t charge rent, and should have to follow standard eviction proceedings before exiting anyone from their villages. The Stranger’s Hannah Krieg, in a June 7, 2022, article, outlined a number of complaints from tiny house village residents around the eviction and appeal process.
Lee contends that her staff works hard to avoid putting people on the street. While she didn’t have exact numbers on how many residents had been evicted, she characterized it as small for an organization of its size.
Evicting people, she said, is a last resort: “My staff bends over backwards to keep people in the village.”
Read more of the Jan. 25-31, 2023 issue.