Exit Interview

Paul Lambros Reflects on the State of Affordable Housing in Seattle

After three decades in charge, the Plymouth Housing CEO departs the nonprofit but will keep working to combat the homelessness crisis.

By Benjamin Cassidy August 11, 2022

A headshot of Paul Lambros next to a rendering of a new affordable housing building in First Hill.

"The first affordable high-rise in Seattle in more than 50 years."

That's how nonprofits Plymouth Housing and Bellwether Housing billed a joint 17-story development in First Hill during its groundbreaking in the depths of 2020. After a concrete strike delay, the Madison and Boylston tower will open later this year or early next with about 350 permanent supportive housing and affordable housing units.

But Madison and Boylston also doubles as something of a capstone for one of the driving forces behind the project and the broader fight to bring more affordable housing to this pricey metropolis.

After 29 years, Plymouth Housing CEO Paul Lambros will step aside from the organization he grew from a small operation to one of the city's most prominent nonprofits. Karen Lee, the former CEO of Pioneer Human Services and a cabinet member in governor Christine Gregoire's administration, will succeed him. Lambros's last day is tomorrow.

His departure comes as Seattle struggles with a homelessness crisis that has spawned a new agency, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and more bureaucracy. Housing providers must coordinate with yet another party to receive funding and other support. The process is "going through some growing pains," says Lambros.

But that's not why he's leaving now. Lambros knew he didn't want to stay at Plymouth forever; years ago, he'd gone to the board and come up with an exit plan. Then a $59.1 million fundraising campaign raised enough cash to extend his goodbye. The organization would develop six new buildings, rather than three or four as originally planned. "It's like, okay, I guess I'm here a little while longer," Lambros quips.

Those buildings allot 600 units for people experiencing homelessness. At Madison and Boylston, Plymouth will manage 112 studios for seniors who have experienced chronic homelessness on the tower's first handful of floors, as well as rooms for support services that buttress the organization's 97-percent resident retention rate. "The idea that people want to stay outside and be homeless, that really gets to me," says Lambros.

He started as the director of housing at the Northwest AIDS Foundation in 1990. A decade earlier, members of Seattle's Plymouth Congregational Church had noticed people were sleeping on the steps outside the downtown building. They formed a nonprofit to help house them. Lambros would place some of his clients at the AIDS foundation in Plymouth buildings; in 1993, he'd make the move to the organization himself, assuming the position of deputy director before rising to CEO.

In the 1990s, housing providers in Seattle were just starting to work together on advocating for affordable units, Lambros recalls. Plymouth and Downtown Emergency Service Center helped pioneer a "housing first" model that's now championed across the city by activists and nonprofits.

A lack of stable housing, the thinking went, created or exacerbated medical and mental health problems. Adding case managers and other staff to provide 24-hour support at buildings led to higher resident retention rates. "Nobody's ever walked into a Plymouth building, where they have a key to their door and their studio apartment, and [said], 'No, thanks,'" Lambros says. "It's how do we get them there to realize that this is a great opportunity for them."

Plymouth will need to add behavioral health specialists in the years to come, according to Lambros, as they're seeing a greater level of need now than they once did. But funding is always an obstacle to permanent supportive housing.

In 1981, the city passed its first housing levy, which backs affordable housing units and is up for renewal again next year. Lambros plans to work on that campaign and take on a couple of consulting contracts in his free time. He'll still work on issues related to homelessness and the nonprofits working to combat the problem, he says.

The organization he leaves behind has grown from about 28 employees when he started to almost 300 today. But Seattle's cost of living, he says, threatens to push many of them out. "They're here for the mission, but they also need to live and survive. Our wages are too low."

It's a "big crisis" for many nonprofits building affordable housing. "The city, county, [and] the regional homelessness authority want us to do more. We want to do more. It's a great opportunity. But if we can't staff them, we're going to have to start to say no."

Though the misconceptions about homelessness nag him, Lambros takes solace in knowing that the problem is top-of-mind for Seattleites now. Next year's housing levy, he says, is a chance for the city to show it really wants to solve the problem. "Let's go bigger to build more housing and get more people off the streets."

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