New Imagine Housing Executive Director brings personal experience to the position

“I wasn’t able to make my first best friend until I lived in affordable housing,” said Yi Zhao.

Imagine Housing, which develops permanent affordable rental homes on the Eastside, has welcomed Yi Zhao as the new Executive Director. Zhao is a first generation immigrant who moved to the United States at a young age from a small city near the Gobi Desert in China, and is the first person of color to lead the organization.

“My family immigrated to the U.S. when I was four to five, and I remember moving around a lot as a kid,” said Zhao.

Growing up, Zhao couldn’t comprehend why his family was constantly moving, but as he grew older he began to understand that his parents were always looking for the next lease– for less expensive rates. Zhao spent time in Renton, on Aurora, and in Bellevue, but found stability when his family settled in the International District in Seattle.

“Until we moved to the International District, I remember trying to make friends every year,” said Zhao. “I wasn’t able to make my first best friend until I lived in affordable housing.”

Zhao expressed how he made friends in the affordable housing building his family lived in within Chinatown, which helped foster a sense of community and made a world of difference, he said.

While he feels fortunate to have grown up in the region, he wants to assist the community to ensure they have the same opportunities. Zhao started his career working with AmeriCorps and went on to work with the King County Housing Authority (KCHA). His most recent position was with Plymouth Housing in downtown Seattle, which works towards ending houselessness by providing affordable housing.

“I have personally known Yi for many years and am pleased to see him take on this important role,” said Bellevue Mayor Lynne Robinson. “He has demonstrated a unique capacity to partner with the City and its citizens on successful initiatives that will ensure this community, and the communities that surround us on the Eastside, can achieve joint goals and thrive.”

Although he has extensive experience working to increase and getting community members into affordable housing units, he’s come across some barriers such as the cost of property development.

According to Zhao, the organization does not get a discount on land or materials, so they pay the same rate as private market developers. Further economic barriers come with running and maintaining affordable housing developments.

“It’s very important to me that we provide a safe place called home for our residents–from how we build community, from how we do our maintenance, from how our properties look,” said Zhao.

Another issue Zhao has found is staffing retention. Prior to joining Imagine Housing, the organization lost two case managers, who took less money in order to be able to work closer to where they live. Zhao said Imagine Housing offers a competitive pay rate, yet almost all of the staff have to commute to the city due to the cost of living on the Eastside.

“It’s hard to retain staffing for the Eastside,” said Zhao. “It’s hard for them to live where they work, or even in the same general vicinity.”

A deeper look into Imagine Housing

Imagine Housing has a total of 639 affordable housing units on 15 properties located in Kirkland (4); Redmond (1);Issaquah (4); Sammamish (1); Mercer Island (1); and Bellevue (4). The properties offer a wide range of unit sizing that is based on what each building is focused on, said Zhao.

“We do serve individuals experiencing homelessness, we’re serving veterans, people living with disabilities, seniors,” said Zhao, who said he was excited about closing on a project in Bothell this past week to assist seniors.

While many seniors live on a fixed income, King County is growing at a faster pace than the national trend, which leads to the compression and stretching of income.

“That’s why we have this push on why we provide affordable housing for seniors–because their income is already limited,” said Zhao.

Imagine Housing’s properties offer services and programs to residents, including resident support staff, who meet regularly with residents starting from the first day they move in. Imagine Housing also connects residents to resources for employment, healthcare, education, substance abuse and mental health counseling, legal assistance, and assistance with basic needs such as food and clothing.

Stabilization and a sense of community is a high priority of the organization, which is built through events that case managers tailor to resident needs, such as community meals; holiday parties; and craft nights.

Operations are funded through a combination of sources, including property revenues, and private and foundation grants. The properties are funded through federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit dollars; state, county and local funds; and traditional bank loans. The county also pitches in to help keep the building running and supportive services, which are also funded through city, county and human services funds; private and foundation grants; and individual donations.

Changing the narrative about housing insecurity

About a month ago Zhao went grocery shopping at the QFC in Newcastle, where he met and talked with a cashier experiencing housing insecurity and plans to live in his car with his wife and daughter.

“That’s my neighbor and he happened to open up to me, so I got to know a bit about his story, but how many of us have gone through the checkout line, been served coffee–whatever it is–we might not know when it’s happening,” said Zhao.

Zhao brought up how in the 1960s and 1970s people talked about ‘the projects’ on the East coast, and how there has always been a lack of awareness surrounding the kinds of people who live in affordable housing, but Zhao is loud and proud about his experiences growing up in affordable housing.

“When we talk about changing stereotypes, we’re talking about what is affordable housing,” said Zhao. “I think it’s understanding who our neighbors are and how we, as a community, can help.”

Zhao encourages community members to become involved with Imagine Housing or other like-minded organizations. He believes this involvement creates an opportunity to understand people’s stories, which will go a long way.

What’s in store for the future?

While he’s still fresh at his new position, Zhao wants to continue to understand the organization better and get to know the public funders of where they work, including city councils and Eastside communities. His immediate goal is to have open dialogue and learn about what makes each Eastside community unique, and what they require from Imagine Housing to serve each community most effectively.

“I can’t come in with a one size fits all solution,” said Zhao.

A longer term goal is bringing more housing options online through increasing affordable housing units on the Eastside.

“On a personal level, I’m very excited about this,” said Zhao. “I’m very personally invested in all of this because this has been my home for a long time now, and I want to have a very vibrant city, a thriving city, and I don’t think we can have that without affordable housing.”

For more information or to become involved visit