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As the year draws to an end, I wanted to take a quick look back at some of the stories I’ve worked on this year, bring them up to date and include some notes about what to keep watching for as they continue to unfold.
1. THE GAME: Building ‘Taj Mahals’ with Taxpayer Money, July 22
This investigation revealed that, while designed to provide homes for those who can’t pay San Diego’s high rents, affordable housing programs have evolved into a delivery mechanism for social goals that often have little to do with their central mission.
The result is a system that has become wildly expensive and ultimately provides fewer homes for those who need them.
The story sparked a vigorous local debate. City Council President Tony Young admitted that nobody at the council ever asks about the price of each unit of affordable housing before approving a project for funding.
Young said the next time a project comes before the council, he and his colleagues will be asking serious questions about cost. “Those are questions that should be asked and those are questions we’ll be focusing on,” he said.
There’s also been reform at the state level since we published the story. The California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, which is tasked with handing out tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money to affordable housing developers every year, announced shortly after the story ran that it would no longer be funding projects with unusually high per-unit costs.
And the committee pledged in September to conduct an in-depth study of the costs and benefits of affordable housing development. The study should take about six months, so something should be released in the spring.
2. THE GAME: PART 2: The Housing Commission’s ‘Trojan Horse,’ Aug. 23:
The second part of our two-part series on local affordable housing development took a close look at the San Diego Housing Commission, which oversees much of the construction of affordable housing in the city. Specifically, the story examines the commission’s move to rid itself of some the public oversight of its development activities.
In 2008, the commission asked the City Council for greater flexibility when buying or investing in affordable housing projects. In order to tackle the city’s foreclosure crisis, it wanted the freedom to buy or invest in deals without first holding a public hearing at the City Council. But over the next two years the commission hardly bought any foreclosures, instead using its new freedom to loan out tens of millions of public dollars to private developers with less oversight.
That led former City Council member Donna Frye to denounce the commission’s move to reduce its oversight as a “Trojan horse” that resulted in public deals being made largely out of the public eye.
In response to the story, City Council Members Carl DeMaio and Lorie Zapf issued a memo calling for a $500,000 limit to be placed on the commission’s freedom to buy property without prior City Council approval. So far, that memo has fallen on deaf ears and the agency retains its freedom to loan public money without the deals first being fully vetted in a public City Council meeting.
3. The Ticking Time Bomb in San Diego School Finances, Sept. 12
In this story, my colleague Andrew Donohue and I foreshadowed what would later become one of the major stories of the year: the San Diego Unified School District’s financial problems.
Our initial story detailing the district’s financial gambles was a warning for what was about to come. Although the district blames its financial problems on the state, we showed how a series of school board decisions have left the district with self-inflicted problems.
That ticking time bomb came to the front of public consciousness a month later when the district warned of possible insolvency.
At the heart of the deficits facing the district is a three-year labor deal inked in 2010. It included a provision that employees take five unpaid days off, which saved the district about $40 million over the last two years and helped it avoid layoffs. But the deal also promised employees a series of three raises in the final year of the contract, next year.
Along with the expiration of the unpaid days off, they account for a significant chunk of the district’s deficit for next year, currently estimated at about $73 million.
Next spring, all eyes will be on the teachers union. The school board wants to try to renegotiate the deal, but the union so far has refused to come back to the table. If it’s unwilling to open its contract and renegotiate the deal, barring an unlikely injection of new funding from Sacramento, the district could be forced to lay off hundreds of employees next summer.
4. One Word, ‘Guilty’ Erases Years of Dogged Denial, Nov. 17:
It’s not often as a reporter that you get to follow a saga from start to finish, but in the case of the bonus scandal at the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., it looks like I’ll be able to do just that.
We broke the story in 2008, that Carolyn Y. Smith and Dante Dayacap, the two former top officials at SEDC, which manages redevelopment in southeastern San Diego, had been running a secret bonus system that enriched them each by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The ensuing scandal led to their ouster and a criminal investigation. That investigation seemed to have disappeared until, suddenly this spring, the local Attorney General’s Office charged the two former officials with several counts of embezzlement of public funds.
The two defendants pleaded guilty in November, and I penned this story looking back at Smith’s fall from grace and her constant defiance in the face of increasing criticism.
Smith and Dayacap will be sentenced in January. They face a maximum of a year in prison.
I’ll be at the sentencing hearing.
5. San Diego Explained: South Bay Power Plant, April 21:
I spent much of the beginning quarter of this year down in Chula Vista, covering the city’s struggles in the wake of its financial meltdown as a result of the crashing real estate market.
Our coverage mainly focused on the city’s financial woes as it fought to keep senior centers open and maintain some semblance of services for its residents. But, eventually, I ended up where most reporters down there end up: The South Bay Power Plant.
The power plant had already been decommissioned at the beginning of the year and attention was starting to focus on how, exactly, the plant should be demolished and who should pay for it.
In one of the many editions of San Diego Explained we produced this year in partnership with NBC 7 San Diego, we took a look at the power plant and the many complications of taking it down and cleaning up the South Bay ready for new development on the Chula Vista waterfront.
We also discovered that Dynegy, the company on the hook to pay for much of the demolition and cleanup of the plant, had declared bankruptcy. We attempted to explain in a couple of stories what the repercussions of that might be for the power plant’s takedown.
This story is now being covered very effectively by Wendy Fry over at The San Diego Union-Tribune. She wrote about the Port of San Diego’s recent attempt to get Dynegy to pay up $40.5 million the company says it has stashed away to dismantle and clean up the plant.
Meanwhile, we continue to focus our coverage of San Diego Unified.
Stay tuned for that in-depth coverage to continue into the New Year, and thanks for reading.
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can reach him at email@example.com or 619.550.5670.
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