San Diego Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Summary:

San Diego Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry announced his resignation Tuesday, a week after the City Council created a committee to reform the agency and demanded a chance to review his performance.

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San Diego Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry resigned Tuesday in a memo to the San Diego Council and the board of the San Diego Housing Commission. 

His abrupt announcement comes amid mounting scrutiny of the agency he has led since 2008, culminating with the City Council’s creation this month of a new committee tasked with reforming that agency, which handles the city’s low-income housing efforts. 

The Council had also this month demanded a chance to review Gentry’s annual performance in a closed session meeting, a first since he took the job. Typically, the Housing Commission’s board conducts Gentry’s performance review. But Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and Councilman Chris Cate issued a memo just over a week ago requesting the Council take charge. 

“Please be advised that in accordance with Section 7.1 of my Employment Agreement, earlier today I hand delivered my notice of resignation from employment with the San Diego Housing Commission, to be effective at close of business on March 31, 2022, to SDHC’s Human Relations Department,” reads the entirety of Gentry’s memo, titled “resignation from employment.” 

In an interview, Gentry said he had been considering moving on over the last few months, and ultimately decided he was not ready to retire but it was time to pursue other opportunities. 

He said his decision was not influenced by the Council giving him a performance review, and he welcomed it – “at least that way I might actually get one, after there’s been no review from the Commission for the first time in 14 years.” 

As the City Council begins its reform process, Gentry said it’s an appropriate time for him to leave. 

“I needed to either leave here at the beginning, or after it’s concluded, but not in the middle of it,” he said. “It will let the Council look at what they want the Commission to be, and who they want to replace me. I’d hope they finish the work before selecting someone, but that’s not my decision.” 

The Council’s reform efforts, he said, will go better without him in place. 

“The Council needs to take an unimpeded look at what they want the Commission to be, and I’m not sure they know, frankly,” he said. 

The Housing Commission is coming off a tumultuous 2021 that made it a target for reform-minded officials. The agency hired a real estate broker in the summer of 2020 to help it buy hotels, distressed by the pandemic-induced collapse of the tourism industry, to be converted into homeless housing. That broker the agency hired, though, had invested in a company that sold a Mission Valley hotel to the Commission before he negotiated the transaction, as Voice of San Diego uncovered last spring.  

The Commission determined the value of that hotel – unlike another hotel it bought at the same time – as if the pandemic never happened, increasing its price.  

After those hotels opened and formerly homeless residents moved in, multiple residents died in their rooms or from injuries suffered on the premises – and city officials learned of the deaths only when Voice of San Diego inquired into them

Gentry and the Housing Commission’s legal counsel, meanwhile, feuded with City Attorney Mara Elliott over how the city and the agency should have handled the conflict of interest case that Elliott brought against the broker, Jim Neil, who works for the firm Kidder Matthews. An internal legal analysis by the agency’s lawyer had previously concluded that the broker committed a crime, and suggested submitting the findings to the district attorney for potential prosecution, but Gentry stood by the purchase as a good deal for the city regardless. Neil has said Commission officials OK’ed the investment that launched the investigation, and that he can prove it. We reported in May that two Housing Commission officials said they knew of the investment before the agency’s legal counsel began its probe. 

By fall, City Council members had begun asking for ways to reform the agency. The agency’s staff answers to both the City Council and its own board of directors, members of which are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by City Council. Housing Commission board members last year were frustrated that the structure precluded them from discussing with the City Council issues that were subject to litigation, and that they couldn’t be briefed in joint meetings. 

Those misgivings grew into a report from the independent budget analyst on ways other cities had structured their low-income housing agencies, which an informal group of council members used as the basis to consider possible ways to change the agency.  

This month, that effort grew into a special committee specifically to consider potential reforms. Those reforms explicitly included putting the Council in charge of Gentry’s annual performance reviews, changes to its real estate acquisition process and whether the agency should still be in charge of homeless-related programs. 

When Gentry took the helm of the Housing Commission in 2008, it had an annual budget of about $265 million and was largely focused on affordable housing and rental assistance. The agency’s budget has since ballooned to $604 million. Its increased role in city homelessness programs has helped fuel that growth. In 2017, the agency budgeted roughly $45 million for homeless-serving initiatives. It planned to spend just under $128 million in its most recent budget

Gentry said the agency changed under him from one that ran federal housing programs and handled the city’s affordable housing fund, into one that looked for ways to grow. 

“Since I’ve been here – and I use this term advisedly – we’ve been audacious enough to move into additional areas of service in the city,” he said. “If we hadn’t gotten involved in (in homelessness services) when we did the streets of San Diego would be a mini version of Los Angeles, and they aren’t. I’m not saying we solved homelessness, so please don’t say that. But 14 years ago, we didn’t touch that area, and now we do.” 

In a statement, Mayor Todd Gloria said he was “deeply grateful” to Gentry for his time at the Commission. 

“The Commission plays a vital role in creating and preserving affordable housing for San Diegans, and has been a key partner in our efforts to tackle our homelessness crisis,” he said. “I look forward to working with the City Council on ensuring a stable transition to new leadership.” 

Neither Elo-Rivera nor Housing Commission Chair Stefanie Benvenuto immediately responded to requests for comment.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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