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Supercharged Supervisor

by Emily Landes

Supervisor Malia Cohen was born and raised in San Francisco, and actually served as student body president during her time at Lowell High School. After getting her undergraduate degree in political science from Fisk University and a master’s in political science from Carnegie Mellon University, she worked as a field organizer in former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s first mayoral campaign in 2003. After he was elected, she worked for Newsom and his Chief of Staff Steve Kawa as a confidential secretary for a little more than two years before moving on to other positions with the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and the Federal Reserve, to name a few.

In an exclusive interview with SF Apartment Magazine Editor Emily Landes, the District 10 (Hunter’s Point, Potrero Hill) supervisor explains what she learned about San Francisco politics during her time in the mayor’s office, and how being a lifelong San Franciscan, as well as an owner and a renter, has taught her to see all sides of the issues.

Q: When you were running, you told the Bay Guardian that you’re in favor of limiting rent control. Is that still the case?

Malia Cohen: Actually, the question was more on infringing property owners’ rights: “Do you believe that property owners have too many rights and we should take some of them away?“

And I said, “No. I don’t believe that property owners have too many rights in this town and I don’t think that more rights need to be taken away.” So, that’s more of how the conversation was framed, and that wasn’t the answer that they were looking for, but it was the truth. I just think that property owners have a right to have a little bit of say about what happens to their property—who they rent to, who they don’t rent to.

But, I understand. I’m a renter now. As a matter of fact, I spent more years as a renter than I have as an owner. So, I see both sides of the coin.

Q: Would you be for means testing: if you make over a certain amount of money you would not qualify for rent control?

MC: That seems fair to me. I would be interested in actually learning a little bit more about means testing. I think there’s some real validity there that I’d be interested in exploring.

When you run for office, you have maybe three or four positions that you are very, very interested in. I’m very much interested in getting more women elected. I’m very much into equity of pay, equal distribution of wealth. I’m very much into social justice, particularly environmental issues within the African-American and Latino communities.

Then you run for office and they have these questionnaires. And so, when you talk to the property owners, they have a whole bunch of questions, and they clearly know the issue very deeply. Then tenants’ associations, they ask you a whole bunch of questions that clearly they know very, very deeply. And so, I know kind of superficially where people are in the spectrum, and as I continue to mature in my career I am beginning to develop stronger positions.

For example, the possible condo lottery bypass. I, interestingly, don’t have hard feelings either way. I generally lean to more policies that would help stabilize the middle class and ultimately keep San Franciscans inside San Francisco; young families are leaving and the reason why they’re leaving is because they can’t find housing that’s affordable or that will accommodate a mom and a dad, or two moms, and a kid, or two or three.

If condo conversion is the answer, then I think that’s worthy of us exploring. Then tenant advocates get all worked up about housing stock, but in terms of our tax base, in terms of our public schools, in terms of the resources of revenues that we get, that the city generates from property taxes, I think we need to start to look at it a little bit more critically.

Q: Isn’t there a lot of homeownership in District 10?

MC: Yes, it’s actually a higher percentage of homeownership than rentership. I don’t know for sure, but that dynamic is probably going to be shifting soon as we get new units brought on the market; some people will purchase and some will be for rental purposes, so that number will definitely be changing. How it looks now will be different in 10 years.

Q: With all these units coming in, do you see that creating any issues in the district?

MC: It creates issues from an infrastructure perspective: transportation, parking and roads. The southeast part of the city has the legacy of being the industrial part of the city. So, what you have are a few unincorporated streets—streets without sidewalks. As this new development traffic continues to increase, no sidewalk presents a problem.

There’s also fear. Some people are not interested in the community changing. There’s the fear of displacement; people are threatened with the possibility of being forced out, because they will no longer be able to afford where they live. Another fear is that, in public housing, when the unit gets torn down they will be unable to come back—which is a false fear, because there are provisions that have been made to insure that if you’re living there you have the first right to come back and get a unit.

Q: If those fears are unfounded, where do you think they might come from?

MC: It comes from a historical perspective of redevelopment in terms of decimating the African-American community in the Fillmore area and really killing a thriving economic engine for the African-American community, which, frankly, has not rebounded, and we’re talking about 40 years ago at this point.

There’s also fear that comes from disenfranchisement and intimidation. Maybe you only have a high school education, or a middle school education if you’re a senior, and you see all this change going on. How do you get connected? How do you get your information? Is it just going to the senior center? So, we’re making sure that we’re communicating, and when it comes to communication, at least in the southeast, I always encourage people to communicate in three languages—English, Chinese and Spanish—so that you’re able to reach all demographics. So, that’s exactly what we have out there.

Q: Do you think there’s any stopping change and would you want to?

MC: I think that it is inevitable. Technologies change and communities change; moods and attitudes of people change. So, I think resistance would be futile. But I do think that we can begin to manage people’s expectations. We can let them know that palatial buildings are not what’s in store for this part of the community. But, yes, there are going to be some changes. Yes, this bus stop that’s currently at this corner may not be here, it may be one block over.

We need to make sure that they have good information, because when a rumor gets out there, it’s terrible. I don’t know why, but the bad rumors always really take root and it generates a lot of fear.

tell people that if you want to be here, you will be here. That’s it. No one can force you to leave. If you own your home, you’ll own your home. A large part of the baby boom has been subject to predatory lending. So, a lot of people, seniors in particular, are losing their homes. We need to make sure that there are resources; and there are nonprofits out there helping a lot of people who are underwater in their mortgage.

Q: You were the victim of predatory lending as well. How has that experience informed some policy decisions that you are making?

MC: Well, it hasn’t informed anything yet, but it’s in the process. Supervisor John Avalos and I are working on a project that will hopefully address, citywide, some of the challenges and foreclosures. These mortgages reset in waves, and you saw in Bayview approximately 1,400 homes lost last year. And you’ll start to see a little bit more in District 4, in the Richmond District. So, now it’s not Black or Latin or working classes; it’s a reality for everyone. And then when you look at what’s happening across the country in the last two years and what’s going to happen for the next 10 years, we need to stabilize that.

So, as a city, what can we do? Avalos and I are just beginning this early conversation. This is before he decided to run for mayor—and that’s not an endorsement by the way. I have not endorsed anyone and I will not endorse anyone until in the end of August. I want to wait until the field closes.

Q: What will you be looking for?

MC: I like to know how much money candidates are earning; it’s a key indicator in their viability as candidates. I mean, you can have all the heart and desire in the world, but that doesn’t run a campaign. I look at what kind of teams people are assembling, as in the ethnic make-up, as in the gender make-up, as in their socioeconomic make-up, their physical abilities or disabilities. Are we talking about straight white men leading a straight white man? The team that you build is a tool to evaluate a lot of the candidates. I want to see diversity. I want to see you leading as you’re doing and the bigger campaigns, like a mayoral campaign, are a perfect example.

Who are your staff hires? This is a very important race and where you spend your money is critical. So, who they hire communicates something, let alone where they’re campaigning; how much of their resources are they spending in the southeast part of the city? I’ve seen very little money spent that way.

Q: Do you find that the board is more collegial than you expected?

MC: I didn’t have those kinds of expectations coming in. So, whether they were collegial or combative, it didn’t matter to me. I’m just prepared to work. We’re not cussing and fussing at each other on the board chamber floor, which has happened in the past, but there are tense moments. The Parkmerced vote was very, very, very tense and that was a six-five vote. It barely passed, and I voted for it. I think it’s a very good plan. I think it’s very thoughtful. I’m excited about the infrastructure changes in terms of transportation right there next to San Francisco State University. I grew up here in the city and I am very excited to see a little bit of development happen on the west side and that it’s going to have a positive impact on the traffic on 19th Avenue. We get to open up some of the transportation congestion on the K and the M, and offer a transportation hub.

I’m not “pro-development,” but I’m definitely for moving forward and incorporating technology. I’d like to see more housing for families, and I see this as a tool to get more housing for families, and with the LEED technology and little cafes, there’s a small business component to this development. Parkmerced has been a little bit isolated for many years. It’s just coming back into the fold. I’m super-excited.

Q: What did you learn about politics from being in Mayor Newsom’s administration?

MC: I learned a lot. I probably learned the most working with Steve Kawa—who is very, very smart—because then I was privy to department heads; I was privy to budget, labor negotiations; and so I did learn a lot. And I also learned a lot about how I didn’t want to be, behavior that I didn’t want to exemplify.

Q: Like what?

MC: Not running away from a problem and dealing with it; feeling comfortable in having a hard or difficult conversation; firing and letting people go; budget conversations. I learned that it was more detrimental to not address it, to let it fester and go on instead of just nipping it in the bud. Not being cold or callous, but just being real and saying, “This is going to disappoint you and I’m sorry,” or, “This is not a reflection of you and your personality, but your organization is getting a 10% cut as a symptom of the budget climate that we’re living in.” Just being unafraid to have those awkward conversations—that was the greatest lesson I learned.

In politics you’re subject to so many attacks that you are defensive and just trying to put a shield up and keep it moving. But in our office, we have a model of “one team, one goal.” So, “one team, one goal” means crazies may come, they go; people say what they will, but our number one responsibility is to keep District 10 working, keep them healthy, keep them safe. That’s what we campaigned on, that’s the policy model that I use. Economic growth is a priority, the health of the community is a priority, as well as coming up with healthy policy suggestions that will support a healthy lifestyle and safety no matter where you go or what language you speak. You want people to feel safe in their cars, in their homes, when they go to the grocery store, when they’re out in the parks with their kids or their dogs.

So I try not to get so caught up in the extra conversation about, “Are you moderate or progressive? Are you pro-renter or are you pro-property owner?” That part, it doesn’t even matter in the end. If a progressive has a good idea on keeping an economic or work place development, that’s where I’m going. If a moderate has a great idea on how we can decrease the number of asthma patients in the southeast, that’s what I’m looking for. I’m just looking for good ideas.

I wish people would remember that they’re San Franciscans, that they’re raising San Franciscans, that they’re paying taxes for other San Franciscans, and that we make policies in the best interest of all of San Francisco. Not their little base, not their pet project, not their little nitch market, but for all of us.

You know I have guaranteed four years, and possibly eight years. So, you really have eight years to make it work and it’s a short period of time to impart your voice on systemic change.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the SFAA or the SF Apartment Magazine. Emily Landes is the editor of SF Apartment Magazine. Copyright © 2011, Black Point Press. All rights reserved.