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Finding a solution requires admitting there’s a problem, and it appears the San Diego City Council has reached that point with the San Diego Housing Commission.
City Council members indicated Tuesday they’re ready to reform the city agency in charge of low-income housing and homelessness programs, and to take a bigger role reviewing the performance of its chief executive.
Last year, in the teeth of the pandemic, the Housing Commission purchased two hotels to turn them into homes for formerly homeless residents. The city used state pandemic-response money to complete the purchases, hoping to quickly turn financially distressed hotels into housing.
Two different problems emerged.
Housing Commission leaders determined that the broker they hired to find hotels and negotiate acquisitions made a significant financial investment in the company that sold one of the hotels, after he signed a contract and before he consummated the deal. Internal documents obtained by Voice of San Diego revealed the agency’s legal counsel determined that was a crime, but they did not immediately inform the City Council, which, when it convenes as the Housing Authority, retains oversight functions over the agency.
Then, in the fall, Voice of San Diego revealed 10 residents of the hotels were either found dead in their apartments or died in hospitals from injuries suffered on the property. Two other people died on the property, apparently from car crashes, according to death records obtained by Voice of San Diego. Those deaths, and a high-volume of calls for service to the hotel, were also not immediately disclosed to Council members until Voice of San Diego began asking questions of officials at the agency, and its board of commissioners.
Those issues, questions of who has oversight responsibility and the best way to wield it, and concern over how and when officials shared the information led the City Council to pursue reforms.
Councilman Chris Cate – who along with Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera asked the city’s Independent Budget Analyst this summer to review other housing agency arrangements in the state, a review presented to the Housing Authority on Tuesday – emphasized that making changes is not an indictment of the entire agency and its work.
“It is unequivocal that we have placed a lot of responsibilities on the Housing Commission over the last 10 to 15 years, and that there have been many successes over that time period, but recently there have been gaps in the system that have been exposed, and it is incumbent on us as a governing body to fill those gaps,” Cate said. “Those include the alleged criminal acts by the broker, for our hotel purchase, as well as the deaths and the volume of service calls at those properties, and the timeline for these issues being communicated to the Housing Authority.”
Cate said he would ask the IBA for another review after the meeting, but indicated he supported reforms over potential legal conflicts between the relationship between the Housing Commission and the Housing Authority, the process by which the commission buys property, its handling of closed session discussions with legal counsel and the qualifications and training for agency commissioners.
Elo-Rivera discussed the Council taking a larger role reviewing the work of the agency’s executive director – currently CEO Rick Gentry – and planning for executive turnover.
“The Housing Authority, we are acting as a corporate board if you will, and part of what would generally be in the purview of a corporate board would be laying out a clear and robust review process, and ensuring that there is a succession plan,” he said, “Those are all just parts of ensuring that we’re doing our due diligence with respect to governance.”
He also said he did not like that Housing Commission staff reached out to the IBA before it completed its review.
“I’ll just say, not speaking for anyone else here, I would prefer in the future the Housing Commission not reach out independently,” he said. “If the IBA seeks feedback or reaches out for information from the Housing Commission, they then provide it, but for the Housing Commission to do so on its own does somewhat soil the independence of the exercise.”
Later in the meeting, Council President Jen Campbell revealed that three City Council members – Cate, along with Councilmen Stephen Whitburn and Joe LaCava – had been meeting as part of an ad hoc group to discuss ways to increase accountability at the Housing Commission.
She said the group could release a proposal early next year. The group’s role was news to two Council members; Elo-Rivera said he was unaware the group was being treated as a formal body, and Councilwoman Vivian Moreno said she did not know there was a working group at all.
Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe said the IBA’s review of how 12 other cities or counties govern their housing agency indicated the city should have a larger role on performance reviews of the commission’s executive director.
“Of the 12 agencies, there are only two that have the power to hire and fire executive directors, but don’t do the performance reviews and don’t really have anything to do with that process,” she said, referring to San Diego and Alameda County. “That, in my opinion, is important.”