An MIT Alumni Association Publication

“I believe very strongly that housing is a human right,” says Sharon Lee MArch '81, MCP '81 who is addressing the housing crisis in Seattle, Washington, the city with the third largest homeless population in the country following New York City and Los Angeles.  

As founder and executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), Lee has adjusted her strategy in the last few years as homelessness has become rampant. The solution: tiny houses. Tiny houses are a growing trend in the real estate market for those with a minimalist goal, but they’re not just cute, they’re also practical. These tiny houses are eight feet by 12 feet and they include lights, heat, a window, and a door with a lock.

LIHI’s tiny houses are built, often by local volunteers and students, in areas with open land or unused parking lots and are set up to be their own small community. Each tiny house village—there are seven throughout the city—has some sort of communal kitchen and bathroom facility. Most importantly, since the tiny houses are under 120-square-feet, they aren’t considered a dwelling unit so they can be built and operational quickly. 

“If you want to build a building, it takes a year to get financing, a year to get permits, and a year to year-and-a-half to build. In the meantime, people are literally dying on the streets,” says Lee.

According to Lee, there are approximately 11,000 homeless people in Seattle on any given night, which, due to space constraints of shelters, leaves nearly 5,000 completely unsheltered. Over the past two years, nearly 2,000 people have taken advantage of the tiny house communities, built by LIHI with the help of the City of Seattle—they fund the utilities to power the houses and provide social workers and case managers. The houses—meant to be a temporary solution—have proved to be more than a temporary shelter, but also a vehicle for turning their lives around.

“It is very emotional,” says Lee. “When we offer people a tiny house, they may have been on the street for four years and they finally move into a place that's heated and where they can stay and they're just overwhelmed. Then they find that they can get their life together once they're in a tiny house. They can address their health care, their mental health, and their employment situation because they can be stable.”

Over the past two years, more than 300 residents of the tiny house villages moved on to permanent housing and more than 250 gained employment. Throughout her career, Lee has developed more than 4,500 units of affordable housing—providing not just the bricks and mortar, but also a stable environment for families and underserved people.


Frank Fay

Wed, 06/27/2018 5:08pm

I fully applaud Sharon Lee’s efforts to address homelessness and affordable housing. However, the headline is wrong! While tiny houses can be a useful tool, they are not a solution to homelessness.

These tiny houses do not count as shelter under Federal guidelines (as they lack indoor plumbing), which impacts scoring for Federal funding. Further, tiny houses are an inefficient use of scarce land which is under excessive demand for housing. At $250/SF, a tiny house of 8-by-12 feet (96 SF) is $24,000 in property costs alone. Using a factor of 75% to adjust for stairs, yard, kitchen facilities, and sanitary facilities brings the property cost to $32,000. Assuming the 11,000 homeless were doubled up, $176M at least is required to house them in tiny houses. For comparison, the proposed 2018 budget for the City of Seattle would spend $60M on Homeless Strategy/Investments and $60M on the Low-Income Housing Fund.

Seattle has had temporary tent city (now tiny house) encampments for a decade or more but that has not prevented a marked increase in homelessness in the past few years. Even if shelter could be provided, there is great lack of affordable housing for homeless, poor, low-income, and middle-income families. Like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities, the influx of wealthy tech workers displaces current residents and forces low-wage service workers to the periphery. When the transportation for very long commutes fails, these families become homeless and move into the city core. It is this inequality of income and disparity of wealth that are the real problems which must be addressed.

- Seattle, WA