March 2 2011 10:30 AM

City Council gives former redevelopment official nearly half a million dollars to coordinate homelessness resources

Jennifer LeSar

As reported by Kelly Davis this week on CityBeat's news blog, the city of San Diego has, since 2010, paid a former redevelopment official $235,000 to provide “technical assistance” on efforts to house the homeless, and on Tuesday morning, the City Council extended that contract through September, upping the payment to $464,750.

The service provider is Jennifer LeSar, who, from 2002 to 2009, was a member of the Board of Directors of the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), which administers redevelopment projects Downtown on the city's behalf. It was CCDC that asked the City Council to approve the contract extension, using redevelopment money earmarked for low- and moderate-income housing to pay for it. According to the contract, LeSar bills CCDC at $225 per hour for her own work. She hired an affordable-housing expert at a cost to CCDC of $175 per hour. A third employee, a former reporter, bills for $90 per hour.

The scope of LeSar's work—essentially cobbling together demographic information about the homeless people who live Downtown and cajoling various agencies to work cooperatively on getting them housed—sounds a lot like what former San Diego City Councilmember Brian Maienschein is supposed to be doing on a regional basis.

The city of San Diego is among the signatories to something called the Plan to End Chronic Homelessness (PTECH), and the United Way of San Diego County was selected as the entity that would see the PTECH through to fruition. In turn, the United Way hired Maienschein as PTECH commissioner. His job is to get everyone working toward the PTECH's goal, which is to help the most hard-to-reach homeless people by first getting them into stable housing and then helping them solve the problems that made them homeless in the first place, be it mental illness, addiction, physical disabilities or some combination of all three. The region's highest concentration of homeless people is in downtown San Diego.

Jeff Graham, CCDC's vice president for redevelopment, told the City Council Tuesday that LeSar's was the only company to respond to CCDC's call for someone to do this work, which he said was part of a routine request every three years to secure consulting services on various levels of affordable housing. A CCDC spokesperson told CityBeat that this was the first time the agency asked for help specifically with homeless services.

What's unclear is why CCDC needs consultants to point the way toward homelessness solutions. In addition to the city of San Diego signing on to a regional plan to solve the problem, it has designated its own Housing Commission as the lead agency in finding permanent-supportive-housing options (housing plus social services). Strangely, there at Tuesday's meeting was Housing Commission President and CEO Rick Gentry, telling the City Council that the commission was ready to follow CCDC's lead. Huh? The Housing Commission employs people whose job is to come up with housing solutions, and they've steadily been doing that job.

Of course, we're pleased to see so much attention focused on helping people off the street and into housing. And last September's “Registry Week,” which LeSar helped to coordinate and which involved more than 200 volunteers surveying Downtown's homeless population, provided a valuable tool to identify the most vulnerable people and get them into appropriate housing. But resources are scarce. Talk to any homeless-services provider and they'll tell you that their work is all about making the most of not much. We don't see that happening here. LeSar says her job is to create the “infrastructure” to continue a plan to end homelessness Downtown, but, arguably, that infrastructure already exists.

The fact that LeSar got this lucrative contract soon after departing CCDC smells a tad like cronyism, but we don't doubt her sincerity. Our main issue is with the City Council's lack of scrutiny. Not one member questioned Graham or LeSar on the contract's alarmingly high cost or whether these services could or should be provided by someone already in place. CCDC could have hired three people for 15 months for $85,000 each, and it would only have cost $255,000.

Isn't this the kind of lax financial oversight that has people up and down California saying redevelopment should end? Redevelopment money is sometimes spent too easily, as if it's not really taxpayer money. Well, it is taxpayer money, and we think that, in this case, there may have been better uses for it.

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