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Housing Commission Criticized : Olive Branch Snubbed by Housing Coalition

Times Staff Writer

Ben Montijo, executive director of the San Diego Housing Commission, extended a peace offering Thursday to one of his tormentors--the Housing Coalition of Greater San Diego.

But instead of reconciliation, Montijo received harsh criticism for his stewardship of the commission, the agency responsible for administering the city’s low-income housing programs.

“I want to have a frank discussion because there is controversy and tension between our two organizations,” Montijo told about a dozen Housing Coalition members at the group’s general meeting in Clairemont. Montijo had asked to speak to the organization to lessen the friction between him and the group.

Several members of the Housing Coalition, a volunteer, nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve and increase the city’s supply of affordable housing, have been outspoken in their criticism of Montijo and his staff.

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The focus of their wrath is a 1984 Housing Commission loan of $1.5 million in federal funds to Robert J. Lichter, president of John Burnham & Co. commercial brokerage firm. Lichter used the loan to buy a Barrio Logan office building and then leased it back to the commission, which had also bought the land on the site for $1 million.

Members of the Housing Coalition have called the transaction a giveaway of public funds that instead should have been used for housing subsidies. Montijo has defended the deal as legal and proper and says that, in the long run, the commission will make money on the transaction through cheaper rent and its ownership interest in the property.

Deal Raises Questions

Questions about the deal have generated at least two investigations and one lawsuit. An internal investigation by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development cleared the Housing Commission of wrongdoing.

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At the instigation of Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), the federal General Accounting Office is reviewing records of the transaction. And last week, mayoral candidate Floyd Morrow filed a $10-million, class-action lawsuit against the Housing Commission for what he called a “highly irregular transaction.”

Montijo’s appearance before the Housing Coalition was dominated by questions about the loan, most of which Montijo said he couldn’t answer because of the pending lawsuit.

“We’re not without fault or perfect,” Montijo said. “I’m sure we’ve done things to offend people.”

One of the most offended was Hans Jovishoff, a member of the coalition and one of Montijo’s most outspoken critics. After Montijo had spent several minutes asking for harmony and explaining the state of low-income housing in the city and describing why the controversial loan made sense, Jovishoff couldn’t contain his anger any longer.

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‘Just a Rubber Stamp’

“I just don’t want to listen to lies--please!” Jovishoff shouted, adding later, “It would be nice if we could cooperate . . . (but) we feel the commission is totally useless and is just a rubber stamp . . . more intent in making real estate deals that favor developers, rather than the people who need housing.

“We can’t make a clean slate without past issues being resolved.”

Montijo said he is confident that the GAO investigation will find his agency blameless. But he remarked to Jovishoff, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to convince you.”

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Mel Shapiro, another Housing Coalition member, asked Montijo several sharp questions about the loan and why full details of the transaction weren’t included in a Housing Commission report to the San Diego City Council, which approved the deal.

Montijo said that, while some items, such as information about a 55-year lease agreement, were excluded, the items were discussed and understood by city officials and some council aides.

After the meeting, Montijo, who offered to attend future Housing Coalition meetings if invited, said he will continue to try and work with the group. Asked to characterize the debate, he said, “You have to start somewhere.”

Shapiro said he didn’t know whether the coalition would invite Montijo to future gatherings. “I think it’s useful to hear his explanation . . . but I don’t think we heard anything significant,” Shapiro said.

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