Housing Commission To Manage City’s Homeless Services
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
The San Diego Housing Commission will take over the city's homeless shelters and programs, following a unanimous decision made by the City Council last week. We speak to the Housing Commission's president and CEO about the organization's role in providing local homeless services.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. As San Diego lawmakers get closer to a vote on a permanent homeless shelter downtown there's been a move to streamline the management of homeless programs in the city. Members of the San Diego City Council have voted to move administration of homeless services from City staff to the San Diego Housing Commission. Now, the Housing Commission will manage the City's two winter shelter programs along with the federal monies the City receives for emergency shelters. Joining us now to explain how the this change in management will work is my guest Richard “Rick” Gentry. He’s president and CEO of the San Diego Housing Commission. Rick, welcome to These Days.
RICHARD “RICK” GENTRY (President/CEO, San Diego Housing Commission): Maureen, thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Now why do you think the San Diego Housing Commission was given this responsibility of managing the city’s homeless shelters and programs?
GENTRY: Well, I think simply the matter of fact that we are the Housing Commission and we have a large, comprehensive program already or set of programs that serve the housing needs for the poor and it just made sense from an administrative standpoint to fold the city’s housing programs into our staff.
CAVANAUGH: I used the word streamline in the introduction. Is that the way you’re looking at it?
GENTRY: Well, we’re looking at it more as a consolidation. And I think what happens with administration of the homeless programs is that they tend to be concentrated at certain points of time and less so at others. And it lends itself to a large staff that has – that can – that would be able to bring more than one person to bear when the action heats us and then they can be deployed at other things at other times. With the City, there was one-half of one person who was expected to keep up with all homeless activities and I think it was less than efficient.
CAVANAUGH: Now for people who are not familiar with the San Diego Housing Commission, can you tell us what it is? What is the mission of the San Diego Housing Commission?
GENTRY: Well, the way I describe our mission is that it is to provide affordable housing opportunities for those for whom the marketplace does not work. You know, we’re not interested in competing with the private marketplace but there’s a large segment of our population for whom private marketplace housing, particularly in a high cost area like San Diego, just doesn’t always fulfill the needs. So what we try to do is work with the families at various levels of income, using various program sources. Typically families at or below about 80% of median income, sometimes much lower than that, and helping them find decent shelter, good homes, for no more than about 30% of their income for housing costs. And 30% is generally considered an affordable level.
CAVANAUGH: Now the Housing Commission is a public agency, right?
GENTRY: We are a public agency and kind of an unusual one. We are neither part of the city nor are we part of state government nor are we part of the federal government. You know, we are what is called a public corporation. We are established by state law. We have a board of commissioners who are appointed by the city council upon the recommendation of the mayor and then that commission acts as an advisory board back to the city council sitting as a housing authority. It all sounds fairly complicated…
GENTRY: …but it’s not really. We’re just – we’re an independent organization. We do not receive any general fund monies from the City of San Diego. We are self-supporting through grants and other programs, so basically we operate programs based on the funding sources that we have access to. About 75% of what we spend are federal monies so it sometimes seems that we are very close to being a federal agency but we’re not. We just spend their money on local needs and concerns.
CAVANAUGH: Now I believe the Housing Commission established a department for homeless services last year. What programs do you already administer for the homeless?
GENTRY: Well, we – One of the sidelights of what we’ve done over the years is investments in housing produced by other providers. In fact, since 1981 we’ve calculated that we’ve invested about a billion dollars in various housing programs throughout the city. And one element of that has been housing that serves what we call special needs purpose or homeless, which means housing with a lot of social services attached to it. And when I moved here about a year and a half ago from Chicago, one of the things I noticed, of course, was the large number of homeless families on the street, figured that there was going to be a need to deal with that issue at some point and that the Housing Commission should position itself to be in that business. Not necessarily to operate the housing, we don’t have those kinds of social skills, but from a real estate standpoint to help make sure that it works. So we took what was our special purpose team and added homeless to their responsibilities and we see it as a coming area that we plan to get more and more involved in.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Richard Gentry. He’s president and CEO of the San Diego Housing Commission, and the San Diego Housing Commission has just been awarded the management of the oper – the management of the City’s two winter shelter programs for the homeless. Now I know that, Rick, the homeless commission (sic) has been recommending, been a backer of the one-stop homeless care facility in downtown San Diego that’s being proposed for the site of the World Trade Center downtown. What’s the latest information on this idea? Where are we in that process?
GENTRY: Well, Maureen, let me give you a little bit of background if I could first.
GENTRY: This idea came from a city council task force that in December of 2008 recommended that a think tank, a search group, be put together to look at the issue of downtown homeless needs more in a comprehensive fashion. And there were 9 organizations that were brought together, including the Housing Commission, CCDC, the Central City Development Corporation (sic), which is a public redevelopment agency downtown…
GENTRY: …and a number of neighborhood and business groups as well. So we served as the point organization or the lead organization for that group but, as I pointed out, it was the larger group that, therefore, the community, that made the decision to pursue a homeless facility at the World Trade Center site. That – We went through a public procurement process. Went out for bids, looked for the best operators with the best ideas. Settled on a – one of the responders to that RFP back in the early spring, and brought that group to the City’s Land Use and Housing Committee in April. We’re currently doing additional public outreach to explain how this proposed program would work. And this matter should go back to the Land Use Committee for further consideration and perhaps a vote later this month.
CAVANAUGH: Now, indeed, if this idea is voted on and goes through, will the Housing Commission manage that property, not necessarily operate the facility but manage the property?
GENTRY: I suspect so. What we’re – what the group has selected as the probable service provider is an organization called PATH, P-A-T-H, Programs Assisting The Homeless is what the acronym stands for. Now it is already operating a similar program for the homeless in Los Angeles. But PATH together with Affirmed Housing, which is a private sector affordable housing developer here in town, and also a countywide health service would be the operator of the program. There would need to be a public agency to oversee their operation and that would most likely be the Housing Commission.
CAVANAUGH: Now what is the overall goal of this permanent homeless shelter downtown?
GENTRY: Well, I think the overall goal is to provide services for the homeless that includes shelter but is more than just a cot with a roof over its head. What the goal is is to provide a more comprehensive set of services so that it would be more than just a tent with a cot in it.
GENTRY: And with the services, we believe that housing could be successful.
CAVANAUGH: Now if the city council does move forward with this idea of a permanent homeless shelter, I’m wondering what becomes of the winter shelters that your agency has just been given management of.
GENTRY: Well, two points on that. There are two winter tents put up now, one over in the Midway area and one downtown that’s been in the East Village the last few years.
GENTRY: And even under the best of circumstances it would probably be three years minimum before a facility would be in operations because not all of the financial package is together on the World Trade Center. If the city council does decide to go forward with the proposal, there’d need to be some additional financial components brought to bear. These types of facilities are very expensive and a major financial driver would be something called the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program which is basically an award of tax credits to a private sector financial entity that would invest in the facility, and there are only so many of those available out of Sacramento each year and this partnership, if selected, would have to apply for those tax credits and get that award, hopefully, next year. If that were to occur next year then the facility would probably – could probably be developed over the space of a couple of years thereafter. But we’re talking about probably three years or so from now at the earliest, so those two tents will need to be in operation for some time before that happens.
CAVANAUGH: I see. I see. Now, of course the San Diego Housing Commission is responsible for more than homeless programs. What are some of the affordable housing and rental assistance programs that are currently available through your commission?
GENTRY: Maureen, I appreciate your asking that because we tend to be one of the best kept secrets in town.
GENTRY: We currently operate programs worth almost $300 million per year in the city of San Diego. Most people that think of us at all think of us as providing welfare like services, and we don’t. We are a full service real estate development and management company. Our biggest program is something called the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program where we help people generally at or below about 50% of median income. They actually average about 30% of median income. We help people in that category pay their rent in the private market. We’re helping about 14,000 families currently under that program, spending about $180 million per year as federal subsidy. And it helps those families find and afford decent shelter. And about 54%, at a current counting, about 54% of those 14,000 families are either elderly or disabled. So this serves a very vulnerable part of our population. On the other end of what we do, we have also helped almost 5,000 families become first time homebuyers over the past 16, 17 years or so. We have a program there that basically provides a soft second mortgage for up to about 17% of the cost of a mortgage to help families that are otherwise stable and can afford to purchase to get into a home of their own. And I’ll point out that that program, unlike many of the sub-prime lending programs that have had such difficulty lately, our program has a failure rate of about one-half of 1% so it’s been very successful. And between those two bookends, we provide a gap financing, meaning that we are an investor using a variety of funds, primarily a trust fund money made up of linkage fees, which is funded by a fee on new business coming into the San Diego area, and an inclusionary zoning program which requires either the provision of affordable housing or a fee paid by developers of new housing in the area. We use that money generally to do gap financing investing and affordable housing properties done by other people. We currently are – One of our most exciting programs we have going right now, we were approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, our primary federal funder, three years ago almost to – we were approved to convert our public housing to housing choice vouchers, which might sound like just a bit of arcane trivia…
GENTRY: …except what that’s allowed us to do is to free up the equity of the value in about 1400 prop – units that we own and various properties scattered throughout the city. We’ve created debt on those properties to go out and acquire additional properties…
CAVANAUGH: I see.
GENTRY: …or interest in properties. And it was that funding source that allowed us, among other properties, to commit to investing in the Mercado Project here in San Diego a week or two ago.
CAVANAUGH: In Barrio Logan.
CAVANAUGH: We are out of time, Rick Gentry, but thank you so much. You’ve really given us a good overview of what your agency does and how it’s going to be administering these winter shelter programs in San Diego. Thank you.
GENTRY: Thank you, Maureen. Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Richard Gentry. He is president and CEO of the San Diego Housing Commission. If you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, a discussion about new energy policy after petroleum. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.