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Housing Commissioner Jim Waring, one of seven appointed officials who oversee the city’s affordable housing agency, said he’s confused as to why commission staff attained wide new freedom as part of a plan to fight the foreclosure crisis.

The policy change allowed the commission freedom to invest tens of millions of dollars of public money with less oversight from the City Council than it previously faced. That investment, which was part of the commission’s broader mission of providing affordable housing, had nothing to do with foreclosures, Waring said.

“Indeed, that would have been very bad policy, since homeowners in foreclosure are not the people the commission is supposed to be targeting,” he said.

As I detailed in yesterday’s story, the commission asked the City Council in 2009 to significantly reduce oversight of its deal-making. The stated reason for that drop in oversight was that the commission wanted to mitigate the effects of the foreclosure crisis.

The freedom also meant the commission could unilaterally approve complex multimillion-dollar development deals that the City Council would previously have had to sign off on. That was presented as only a minor point.

Waring said he wanted to know why Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry “blurred” the foreclosure issue with the investments the commission has been making.

“It’s very unfortunate,” he said.

Waring said he plans to ask Gentry why the policy change was presented as being targeted on fighting the foreclosure crisis.

At the time the policy change was presented to the City Council, Councilman Todd Gloria said it would allow the agency flexibility to respond to the current market conditions. Gentry has since expanded on that, saying the idea was to make the commission more “nimble” in acquiring property.

The reasoning was that the commission needed to speed up its process for buying property because otherwise it might miss out on great bargain foreclosure deals. Lots of other people were bidding on those deals and the commission needed to act quickly.

That’s why the commission wanted to bypass the City Council meetings, which sometimes delayed purchases up to 90 days.

But that need for speed breaks down when the commission isn’t buying foreclosures, Waring said.

Most of the property deals the commission has actually put together were complex and involved months, if not years, of negotiations. In those sorts of deals, there is no justification for bypassing the City Council, since there’s no rush to get the deal done, Waring said.

“There’s no benefit to doing that. None,” Waring said.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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