SF Apartment : August 2017
Fighting For Families
by Pam McElroy
Supervisor Ahsha Safai on inclusionary housing, revitalizing our neighborhoods, and his beginnings as a city planner.
Pam McElroy: What brought you to San Francisco? What do you love about this city?
Supervisor Ahsha Safai: I met my wife in graduate school while we were studying city planning. San Francisco is her hometown, and after graduate school, we decided to start our lives here. Being a city planner, I was excited to move to such a dynamic place.
The scale of San Francisco, it still feels manageable—a perspective of just an everyday citizen—although, we’ve gone through significant development. I love how you can go from one side of the city to the other—give or take, depending on the traffic—in less than half an hour. It’s a strong immigrant town. It has a strong history of organized labor. San Francisco has a very active population, with deep and strong politics. All of these things are what really made me excited about living in San Francisco.
I’m from Boston, which is very similar to San Francisco in many ways. I wanted to be part of this larger environment; California is 10 or 15 times the size of Massachusetts, so that’s exciting in itself.
McElroy: Do you have a favorite neighborhood?
Safai: The Excelsior, which is also where I live. It’s where my wife, Yadira, and I are raising our two children.
McElroy: You have a long history in politics. What brought you into politics originally?
Safai: When I was applying for college, I went through the process of eliminating what I didn’t want to study. When I got to political science, I said “Oh, what’s that?” My mother explained to me that political science was government, leadership and politics. With that, I chose political science as a major, and I went to Northeastern University in Boston. On the very first day of orientation, Governor Michael Dukakis walked in and spoke about his commitment to education. He told us he would be a lecture professor at the university, and praised the strong internship program.
Going forward, I had the great fortune of working with the city counselor in Cambridge, in the State House, and in the White House. I got a bird’s-eye perspective of working closely with elected officials and public servants, and so I caught the bug really early.
McElroy: What has been the greatest accomplishment of your political career? What do you hope to accomplish on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors?
Safai: I’d say we’re just a couple of weeks away from finalizing a policy that I am very proud to be a part of. For the first time in San Francisco’s history, the city’s inclusionary housing policy will truly expand the definition of what affordable housing means. In response to the dramatic housing crisis that we’re living through, we will serve low, moderate, and middle-income families through the private market in partnership with private developers—as opposed to city subsidies. If a developer builds in San Francisco, the policy requires a certain amount be dedicated to affordable housing—housing that is attainable for teachers, nurses, fire fighters, carpenters and bus drivers—housing for middle-class families that have been feeling pressure in the city over the last 20-plus years.
In neighborhoods that used to provide housing for the working and middle class—like the one I live in, Excelsier, and the Richmond, Bayview Hunters Point, the Sunset, for example—houses are now going for well north of a million dollars. The condominiums and apartments are also extremely expensive.
McElroy: Can you speak specifically about housing for teachers? San Francisco ranks number 528 among 821 school districts in California regarding teacher salary, despite having the highest cost of housing in the state. What else can we do to keep and bring in great teachers?
Safai: This needs to be a top priority—teachers play a very special role in our communities; they’re active, organized, work with families and build community. This is an important role in our society. My grandmother was a public school teacher.
We’re working aggressively to create housing exclusively for teachers using school district property, working with private developers. This housing would be for all educators and folks working for the school district. Senator Mark Leno put forward an idea—and legislation was passed—that school districts can use district property to build and dedicate housing exclusively for educators. I think this is one solution. The Mayor is working on the first project in Supervisor Tang’s district.
Another solution is the down payment loan assistance program. Giving teachers access to affordable loans is an attractive way to stabilize them in this environment. Increasing teacher salaries is also
important. When the starting teacher salary is more than $60,000 in San Mateo but only $51,000 in San Francisco—despite it being more expensive to live in San Francisco—we’re not paying our teachers an aggressive salary. The Board of Supervisors and the city have made a strong commitment to supplement teacher salaries. We’ve put taxes on our properties, but it’s still not enough. We need to figure out a way to get more money for teacher salaries. We’re working on some creative solutions for new legislation by looking at the overall assets of a school district’s portfolio.
McElroy: Besides housing, how else do you plan to make San Francisco more attractive to families?
Safai: Another project that has been personal to me throughout my career is childcare. As anyone in San Francisco knows, market-rate childcare costs thousands of dollars a month. A decade ago, I started working on the largest subsidized childcare center in the city, providing 224 slots to working-class families, costing them no more than $100 per month. During my campaign for supervisor, we got on Mayor Lee’s radar—within my first 90 days in City Hall, we closed on a property and the nonprofit now owns the building; it was a $5.5 million deal. The money came from the low-income investment fund, the city, and the Hoss Foundation. Now the nonprofit childcare center is stabilized—I am extremely proud of that.
We want to expand San Francisco’s universal pre-K program. We’re thinking about policies and funding mechanisms that would expand it to three-year-olds. We’re also thinking about how we can extend the pre-K school day for families where both parents work full-time jobs.
We’re also working on policies to add amenities to new buildings that would be both supportive of families and friendly to children under the age of five. Supervisor Yee has a strong passion for pre-school age children.
As a city, if we provide accessible, affordable childcare and accessible, affordable housing, then we will really create an accessible environment for families in San Francisco.
McElroy: You often speak of the need to revitalize San Francisco neighborhoods. How do you think the city or citizens can work together to change our neighborhoods for the better?
Safai: I think our district—District 11—is a perfect example. We have the highest rate of empty storefronts and vacancies in the entire city. I’m proud to have worked with Supervisor Katy Tang on our local housing density program, which is targeted along our commercial and neighborhood corridors; in exchange for builders getting additional high density, they have to provide affordable housing in 30% of that building. I think this is phenomenal—I was the only co-sponsor for this legislation.
While I think the housing density program will be a real driver for revitalizing neighborhoods, we also need to encourage healthy neighborhood mom-and-pop small businesses. At the same time, we don’t want to go too far and end up with over-gentrification and displacement.
The first month I came into office, we instituted a neighborhood planning process. We’re working with the planning department and the offices of economic and workforce development. Balancing the right amount of city and government investment, careful zoning and regulation, and planning will help us get to healthy neighborhoods. But it’s a multi-faceted issue that also involves our neighborhood schools, the recreational park facilities, and transportation. These are all reasons why I was excited to study city planning in school and why I’m excited to be a member of the Board of Supervisors.
McElroy: Speaking of neighborhoods, the Tenderloin has become the country’s first transgender cultural district—something you publicly supported. What are the plan’s specifics? What are the benefits?
Safai: It’s about creating a safe place for folks in the transgender community, a place where they can feel recognized. In some parts of the United States, even in California, members of the transgender community still feel extremely marginalized. Regarding the Tenderloin specifically—we wanted to recognize the neighborhood’s history of protests and uprisings, specifically with transgender leaders. We want to bring the importance of recognizing issues within the transgender community to the forefront, particularly in San Francisco.
McElroy: What was your experience working on housing issues and policy before being elected to the Board of Supervisors? What do you bring to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors?
Safai: I started my career in San Francisco 17 years ago, and I have a unique perspective on the Board of Supervisors—having been commissioner of the San Francisco Housing Authority, having worked for both nonprofit housing developers and with developers in the private market. I’ve worked in the Mayor’s Office of Community Development and at the Department of Public Works. I’ve owned property and have also been a tenant. I’ve built homes and have worked with people to build affordable and market-rate housing. I worked with organized labor unions for eight years. I’ve worked with investors and helped determine financing for buildings.
So, when I’m talking to the Department of Public Works, I’ve worked with that director for years; or when I’m talking to the Recreation and Parks Department, I’ve worked with that director for years; same goes for SFMTA or planning or building inspection.
I’ve worked with different city employees, department heads, and elected officials throughout my professional career, which has made for a very easy and strong transition.
McElroy: Was is the biggest problem tenants in San Francisco face?
Safai: Uncertainty and pressure. When the economy is as strong as it is right now and the vacancy rate is as low as it is, people don’t necessarily feel secure in their environment. Every neighborhood in San Francisco is expensive, and so a lot of tenants live in situations where they might feel pressure from the housing market—not knowing whether or not their building will be sold—there is a lot of uncertainty.
We have some of the strongest tenant protections in California, if not in the United States. That doesn’t mean we can’t do better.
McElroy: Do you have any advice for San Francisco landlords?
Safai: Yes, we hear from landlords that it’s really tough to be a landlord in San Francisco, because of the strong tenant protections. But with a strong economy and a strong return-of-risk comes high reward, so the rents are really high in most cases.
It’s unfortunate that all landlords are often vilified because of the few bad apples. It’s not easy, but I think the amount of money that’s made in this environment speaks for itself.
What everyone has in common is a want for certainty. Investors, builders, owners, the labor force—they want certainty. And in San Francisco, we’ve had a lot of uncertainty, and that has always kind of been the history of San Francisco. We’re striving to create some amount of certainty.
McElroy: What are your legislative passions beyond housing?
Safai: My first priority is housing—creating more affordable housing for the middle class. But as an urban planner, neighborhood revitalization is important to me. The process will include many different levels of planning, code, and land-use issues; what types of businesses we want or don’t want to attract; what kind of public and private investment we want or don’t want to attract. I’m passionate about developing healthy revitalization strategies.
Another priority of mine is improving the unemployment rate in the African American community and for young adults, working with transitional-age youth—that’s what we call 18 to 24 years old. I’m working with Supervisors London Breed and Malia Cohen to make employment and training opportunities for San Francisco residents—specifically in the African American and Latino communities and communities that are experiencing high rates of violence. The unfortunate number of homicides that have occurred since I’ve come into office is unusual. This is also something we’re working on.
And, finally, I’m very passionate about cleaning and greening the city. We came in with an agenda to plant over 500 trees a year while I’m in office. We’re making the environment cleaner and the city safer.
McElroy: The environment and green initiatives have been a large part of the national conversation since Trump took office. How do you think San Francisco fits into the topic?
Safai: We’ve set some very aggressive goals on climate control, zero waste aversion, and zero emission vehicles—we’re at the forefront of a lot of these conversations.
Regarding the Paris Agreement, we passed a unanimous resolution condemning President Trump. We continue to influence through our congressional delegation—through Senator Dianne Feinstein, minority leader Nancy Pelosi, congresswoman Jackie Speier, Senator Kamala Harris—but at the end of the day, it’s unfortunate the president has so much power in this regard.
I think that instead of the national level, these issues will shift to the state level. Then we’ll have wonderful leaders—like Governor Jerry Brown, who’s been a lifelong leader in environmental policy and issues—bringing environmental issues to the forefront. California will become part of the world stage, being the sixth largest economy in the world. San Francisco is a part of that. We’ve been very aggressive in the policies and programs that we participate in. We have a zero-waste goal for 2030, which is fast approaching.
McElroy: What is your favorite way to spend a day off in San Francisco?
Safai: With my kids. Enjoying the city’s different parks, restaurants and neighborhoods.
Pam McElroy is the editor of San Francisco Apartment Magazine.