The San Diego Housing Commission’s Hotel Churchill, set to house low-income residents, is on track to cost over $20 million after it rejected as too expensive private proposals for the same price.

But while the cost of fixing up the 100-year-old building stayed the same, one thing changed: The commission’s version of the project would actually provide 20 fewer apartments than the one proposed by private developers just eight months earlier.

One of the commission’s arguments against the developer proposals was that spending $218,000 per unit was too much. It’s now spending $280,000 per unit.

The commission decided each unit should be bigger than the ones private developers had proposed – as much as three times the size.

That meant providing about 20 fewer places for people to live.

“So what?” Chuck Christensen, the agency’s general counsel, told Voice of San Diego last week. “We’re putting human beings in these. I would not want to live in a unit that is 100 square feet.”

There seem to be two reasons for expanding the size of the units. Christensen said it’s because Housing Commission President Rick Gentry thought it was the humanitarian thing to do, although apartment size was never mentioned in the staff report rejecting the proposals.

Another reason, which officials talked about in May 2013 – eight months after the agency rejected the private proposals – was that larger rooms would unlock more cash for the project. That money came in the form of a grant for mental health services, which required the larger rooms and helped the commission piece together the funding it needed to do the project.

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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