By Erica C. Barnett
The King County Regional Homelessness Authority accused the Low-Income Housing Institute last year of failing to report several deaths at its “tiny house village” shelters in a timely fashion, including a homicide and an overdose that both occurred the same week in August at the Friendship Heights village in North Seattle. In response, LIHI denied that they had violated any rules, and accused the KCRHA of singling the agency out for criticism based on “falsehoods and factual errors” about its response to the two deaths.
PubliCola obtained documents and emails about the incidents at Friendship Heights and other tiny house villages through a records request.
None of the details about the two deaths at Friendship Heights, or an unrelated overdose death at the Interbay tiny house village in August, are in dispute. According to LIHI director Sharon Lee, a woman living at the village stabbed her partner inside the tiny house they shared on August 28, killing him and fleeing before police arrested her a few hours later.
A Seattle Police Department spokesperson declined to comment on the incident.
Separately, on August 29, Friendship Heights staffers discovered the body of another man who had died of an overdose in his unit at some point in the recent past; it’s unclear how recently staffers had entered his unit, although Lee says staffers are supposed to check in on residents every 72 hours. The victim went undiscovered enough, in the summer heat, that the floor had to be replaced because of decomposition.
“I know that they would like us to report major incidents within 24 hours. We have no problem with that, but it’s very clear that if there’s a major incident, we’re busy with the medical examiner, with police, and addressing trauma issues with our staff.” —LIHI Director Sharon Lee
The two agencies’ accounts diverge over what happened next. According to KCRHA Chief Program Officer Peter Lynn, LIHI failed to report the homicide in a timely fashion, providing details only after Lynn emailed Lee the afternoon of September 1, after residents of the village began contacting KCRHA directly to find out “what was going on at the [tiny house village].”
“Critical incidents of this nature must be reported to the RHA within 24 hours,” Lynn wrote. “We have also received information that there are ongoing unsafe conditions at the site, and therefore the program management team will visit the site to review conditions and follow up with LIHI staff and management.”
Lee responded an hour later, saying she thought the reporting mandates had been “suspended” due to concerns from providers that they were vague and overbroad. The reporting requirements extended to lower-level incidents, such as damage to units, in addition to “significant events” like murder. “You should know that LIHI Senior Management is totally engaged on this and staff have cooperated fully with police and are working with staff and clients on these traumatic events,” Lee wrote.
“Clearly, we reported it,” Lee told PubliCola, referring to her September 1 response to Lynn. “I know that they would like us to report major incidents within 24 hours. We have no problem with that, but it’s very clear that if here’s a major incident, we’re busy with the medical examiner, with police, and addressing trauma issues with our staff.”
“Of course it was a shock to everybody that the man was killed and the suspect was his partner,” Lee added, but “it’s not like somebody broke into the village and killed somebody,” which might be cause for more general alarm.
Lynn told PubliCola that the KCRHA suspended its reporting requirements for lower-level and common incidents, like damage to a unit, in response to feedback from providers that “maybe this was too much.” But, he added, the authority still expects to hear about critical incidents as soon as possible. “We expect folks to focus on the immediate needs at the time, but timely for us means the next day,” he said. “When there are traumatic impacts on community members, on staff, on program participants, those are all things that we want to make sure that we are able to support.”
In response to the August incidents, the KCRHA issued “corrective action plan” in September that, among other stipulations, required LIHI to notify the homelessness authority within 48 hours any time a unit is “damaged or unusable”—a proposal Lee, in a heated response, called “preposterous” and “not reasonable.” The corrective plan was LIHI’s second formal reprimand since May.
LIHI says the KCRHA closed out both corrective action plans.
Failing to comply with the requirements, the plan concluded, “may result in further actions by the KCRHA, up to and including suspension of payments, disallowed costs for the violation period and suspension of contracts or cancellation of contracts.”
Four days later, Lee sent a lengthy email to staff and board members at the authority, inquiring rhetorically whether staff at the KCRHA—whose CEO, Marc Dones, has been critical of the tiny-house model in the past—were “being directed to find fault with LIHI in order to discredit the Tiny House Village program.”
“We expect folks to focus on the immediate needs at the time, but timely for us means the next day.”—Peter Lynn, King County Regional Homelessness Authority
“While we have had past differences with Marc Dones over tiny houses, I was hopeful that we would be able to move forward working together. KCRHA’s most recent actions tell us otherwise,” Lee wrote.
Although the authority and LIHI appear to have reached a détente—the flurry of emails subsided in October, and Lynn said he would “not describe our relationship with LIHI as tense”—the dispute over the two deaths at Friendship Heights village is not the only point of conflict between LIHI and the KCRHA over how it runs its tiny house villages.
In the May corrective action plan, which related to conditions at LIHI’s True Hope (Central District) and Othello (Southeast Seattle) villages in May, KCRHA said they found leaking toilets, piles of bicycles, and damaged units they said LIHI had failed to report within 48 hours.
At Othello Village, one of the units was damaged by a propane tank explosion; KCRHA said that village had improperly stored propane tanks. In a response to KCRHA, Lee denied most of the agency’s charges, including the one about propane tanks, and argued that at least two of the agency’s demands were unreasonable, including a proposal that would require parents or caregivers to supervise children at all times. Two months later, the authority wrote Lee to say they considered the issues at the two villages resolved.
Earlier this week, a former resident of the Plum Street tiny house village in Olympia sued LIHI, claiming they had illegally evicted him from his unit. In a conversation with PubliCola, the plaintiff, Ryan Taal, described conditions at the village where he lived for two years, including a poorly stocked outdoor kitchen and a water heater that, according to Taal, was broken for a month, leaving residents with no hot water. “It was pretty sad—it kind of felt like a refugee camp,” Taal said.
Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a longtime advocate for tiny house villages and a member of the KCRHA’s governing board, said he was reserving judgment about the 2022 incidents and the conflict between LIHI and KCRHA. “Obviously, we need to make sure all of our providers are staying in close contact with the KCRHA, and they need to have unobstructed and uninhibited information from their providers … but I want to see a final report on how [LIHI] met their obligations or didn’t before I comment on it,” Lewis said.