When Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins proposed recently that the state provide $500 million for apartments for low-income Californians, she ignited criticism that such a program could benefit her spouse, whose consulting firm specializes in affordable housing.
On Thursday, the Democratic lawmaker from San Diego defended her plan, saying an attorney for the Legislature concluded that it did not pose a conflict of interest.
She said the proposal, which contains new fees and tax credits to expand affordable housing, addresses an issue that has been an important part of her agenda for decades.
"I'm trying to deal with the need for affordable housing, which is one of the biggest crises that we have in California and has been for more than 20 years," Atkins said.
The speaker is married to Jennifer LeSar, who heads LeSar Development Consultants, a firm that specializes in affordable housing, among other areas. The two met while working on homelessness issues in San Diego, where Atkins served on the City Council from 2000 to 2008. The couple married in 2008.
Atkins said the Office of Legislative Counsel assured her Thursday that her plan presented no conflict because it is a general funding proposal and not specific to any company or project. The written legal opinion is scheduled to be released Friday.
In addition, Atkins said, the money would be distributed through a competitive bidding process in which she plays no part.
"This does not directly necessarily benefit Jennifer at all," Atkins said. "She may advise developers, but she does not develop affordable housing."
Atkins has long been a target of bloggers and activists who asked whether LeSar was gaining unfairly from government programs, something both women denied. The issue was raised again in November when Republican candidate Barbara Decker unsuccessfully challenged Atkins' reelection to the Assembly.
Decker said in an interview this week that Atkins' latest proposal for affordable housing is an example of "crony capitalism."
Christine Mann, a San Diego City Hall watcher, also said Atkins' proposal to fund affordable housing programs when her wife works in the field is a "huge problem."
LeSar said her relationship with Atkins has, in fact, cost her business, about a quarter of which involves consulting on affordable housing matters.
She said she would never apply directly to the state for any of the funds proposed by Atkins and recently decided not to bid on a contract offered by the Department of Finance, to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.
"It's been very, very costly to me," LeSar said.
Some of her clients might apply for such money, LeSar said, but "none of this money that comes from the state will ever come to me.... It goes to the developers, and we're consultants."
She said affordable housing programs took a big hit when the state shut down community redevelopment agencies, which directly affected her.
"Toni was one of the votes to kill redevelopment," LeSar noted. "That really hurt my business substantially."
In a report of personal finances filed with the state last week, Atkins disclosed that clients of LeSar's firm include the San Diego Housing Commission, Affirmed Housing Group, Monarch Acquisitions, the El Cajon Housing Authority and the cities of San Jose and San Bernardino.
LeSar's firm says on its website that it "helps clients create physically, economically and environmentally sustainable communities" and lists Atkins as an alumna of the company.