This November, five candidates will square off for District 11 supervisor. We interviewed Ahsha Safai who was the first to file papers with the Dept. of Election and came in second in the 2008 race for the position
Alexander Mullaney: Could you summarize your background?
Ahsha Safai: I am currently the political director for SEIU Local 87, the janitors union. I have been actively involved in local politics in San Francisco for the last 16 years. I have a masters in city planning from M.I.T. with a focus on affordable housing and community and economic development, neighborhood revitalization. I’ve dedicated my career on serving underserved communities in a very broad sense. I’ve worked with Native Americans, I’ve worked with inner city youth through educational programs, I’ve done after school and summer programs, I’ve been the deputy director for community development, I’ve worked on community revitalization through the Department of Public Works and then for the last eight years I’ve done work with organized labor.
AM: When did you move to the district?
AS: I moved here twelve years ago in 2004.
AM: How would you summarize your last campaign?
AS: I’d start with saying it was a learning experience more than anything else. I mean we had a lot of great energy, we had a lot of great community support but I didn’t have … As much as people saw me as someone that was working for the Mayor, I had not worked in his office for two years prior to my run and I didn’t have a machine behind me like Supervisor Avalos did. I mean he had Aaron Peskin, Chris Daly, the labor community. He had a tremendous amount of support that I didn’t really realize until after we ran. And I had a lot of support too, but mine was not as much institutional support as his was.
AM: What do you mean institutional?
AS: Like labor unions, elected officials. I did have some of that support but it wasn’t the same.
AM: So you’ve probably seen the articles painting you as…
AS: Yeah, they want to paint this picture of someone that I think would boil down to someone that’s wealthy and privileged. I think that’s kind of what they would like to see, but I’m somebody that, I can still remember sleeping on a mattress when i was little. Not a bed, a mattress on the floor with my mother. My family didn’t have a lot. My parents separated when I was five. We went through a revolution. A lot of people don’t really understand what that means but it wasn’t just a political revolution within a country, it tore our family apart in many different ways, so I didn’t have a lot growing up. I didn’t have anything. I don’t come from extreme poverty but my family was one that was working to pay the bills each month. We were a working family. My mother had higher degrees but was never able to fully realize what those degrees would mean for a man versus a woman. So we didn’t have a lot. I still remember being embarrassed about the clothes that I wore, the car that we had, what a lot of children do when they’re coming from that background. So it’s funny for me to read what they paint in these stories and they say, “He’s just a tool or a mouthpiece for these…” and by extension it’s implied that’s where I’m coming from and that’s not where I’m coming from. That’s why we live in this neighborhood. This is where I’m coming from. This is why we call this home. I grew up in a working family. My step-father was unemployed for a couple of years. He worked for a small manufacturing place. He drove a cab. My mother was basically an administrative assistant.
AM: Why run now?
AS: First of all the term is up so it’s an open seat. The timing is right. I think that some of the shortcomings that I had in the last campaign that I alluded to: I didn’t really know labor, I didn’t really work a lot with labor and so having worked within organized labor and really having been a part of the Fight for $15… We were involved in the minimum wage campaign. We were one of the leading voices on the retailers bill of rights which talked about part time and full time employees and how workers are treated within the service industry in terms of you get called the day of and they say “Oh, I know you’re on call today but you don’t have to come in.” So being on call for 24 hours as a part-time employee and what that means. We essentially led the charge in the nation and after we passed that retail bill of rights, Gap announced that they were doing away with on-call scheduling nationwide. I mean some people in the industry fought it, but it was a real positive step for workers. Part time workers would be offered full-time employment before other people, those kinds of things. So, for me, there’s been a real education working in labor for the last few years. Being fully a part of that movement and a lot of the households in District 11 are labor households, are working family households, so I feel like I want to be that voice at City Hall. Everything that I do and everything that I’m about will be about looking at it through the lens of working families. So I feel like the time is right.
AM: What are the district’s biggest issues? You could say the top three or five.
AS: You know, I’ve been talking to voters one on one for a long time and I can tell you that you don’t hear a lot about it at City Hall. First and foremost, people in this district, and I know you know this, Alex, because you’re not just a reporter, you’re actively involved in a lot of the conversations about District 11. People feel like we’re treated like a forgotten part of the city and often we don’t even get the basic level of services that most neighborhoods realize. So, for me, one would just be basic services. People talk about illegal dumping, graffiti, cleanliness. If you walk the commercial corridors and you see just trash everywhere and that’s not a result of the city just not doing its job I just think that in a lot of ways we just need to redirect resources and focus into our neighborhoods. So basics like cleanliness and safety, people talk a lot about… As you know, we have gambling shacks, we have speakeasies… I was knocking on someone’s door yesterday and I said “what would be one of your concerns?” She said, “See that place across the street? Well people buzz and they go in. It starts around midnight, and then every once in a while we see mattresses discarded out in front. It’s a house of prostitution.” Where else in the city is that happening?
So, revitalizing our commercial corridor I think that would be one of the top. Geneva and Mission corridors would be a really big priority for a lot of people and all the things that go along with that. The gambling shacks, the illegal prostitution, some of the other things that are happening. And we’re working on it. Capt. Joseph McFadden, the City Attorney’s office are working really hard on that but we need more focus and energy and resources on that. We need to stop always playing defense and we need to go on offense in terms of what it means for our commercial corridor. So that would be a big priority.
The third priority I would look at would be ways we can help working families survive in the city. Things like fully funding after school programs, summer programs, there’s a lot of those options out there but even when I was doing my tour for kindergarten, some of the schools didn’t have guaranteed after school spots, and as a parent, if you can’t get your kid into after school that’s a big deal. So summer and after school programs, and near and dear to my heart, affordable childcare as a piece of that. I think that’s a really important thing. That’s why we’ve been fighting to help this nonprofit buy the building next-door for the past year and a half because that’s 224 families that have fully subsidized spots that if they get displaced they don’t have any place to go. And if people can’t get into preschool or daycare they can’t get to work. It’s a two step process. You have to be able to have childcare to be able to work.
And then the large, citywide issue would be creating more work force housing. That’s a really big deal for me a lot of people are championing. It’s changing the conversation now. You hear the percentage of inclusionary housing going up and part of that increase wants to be dedicated toward working families. I think that’s been one of the biggest short comings in our housing policy over the last 12 or 15 years is that we’ve done a fairly decent job of building affordable, low-income housing 80 percent or less of the median income. People would argue whether or not we’ve created enough supply and some people would say you need to build some more. And yeah, you need to build some more, but what we really to build some more of is that lower middle income, that middle income housing because if you took District 11 out of the city it really would be a tale of two cities. You really would lose that working middle-income folks, it would be gone. So we need to build more of that. There are a lot of people that want to stay in this city and are working but can’t afford the market. So, it’s a big priority.
AM: If elected, what would you do for the neighborhood’s historic assets?
AS: I was board member of the Geneva Car Barn for a few years, so I’m a big supporter. I think we missed a lot of opportunities; it’s unfortunate that we haven’t been able to find a way to get some significant funding in any of the citywide, Rec and Park bond measures. The big organizing campaign that I led for Balboa Park was when we were getting zero to very little in that bond and they were doing millions of dollars citywide and we were getting nothing. So we gathered a few thousand signatures and had a meeting in the OMI. Gavin Newsom came and, before I could raise my hand he said “I made a mistake, I’m giving you guys a million dollars.” So we took that and got the Trust Public of Land to match it. So we got $4 million in improvements to Balboa Park. We ultimately ended up getting Cayuga and Minnie and Lovie. So you see the impact it has on the neighborhood. But, when I was on the board, we were pushing the administration and a lot of people had been talking about it. I don’t know what happened in the conversations over the last seven years… or last five years… but they just haven’t been able to get on the bond. So that to me would be a really big priority to me. I know there’s phases, but when I was on the board the full cost for revitalization was like $15 million and it ballooned to $28 or $29 million, it’s like the longer we wait the longer this is… And on Onondaga, absolutely we want to find the money to revitalize that. Have some community serving programs. I would probably lean towards more public health since that’s the history of the building, and preserving the murals, absolutely.
AM: Is that a promise?
AS: I mean I can’t promise that we get the money, because I don’t control the purse strings, but absolutely promise to make those two a priority and ask for the money and fight for them.
AM: Are you familiar with the Asian Law Caucus’s study of the Excelsior? They found that it’s the city’s de facto affordable housing because every house has an accessory unit but those are substandard units. What would you do around this issue?
AS: I think we have to really dig deep and look at it the right way because what happens in practice is, kind of going back to what I was saying to you before about working families and middle class families struggling to survive in the city. A lot of them use that for a way to house extended family, a lot of them use it as a way to supplement their income to be able to afford their mortgage or live in the city, and so often times the reason it’s relatively more affordable is that it doesn’t have all the amenities that a normal one bedroom apartment would have. I could tell you as someone who has knocked on thousands of doors, almost every house has an in-law unit. So it’s not like you’re going to be able to say tomorrow no more in-laws and get rid of them. So I think the manner in which they’ve done it in a measured approach to say people who have them if you want to legalize them this is the process you go through. I think it is a way to create more affordable housing in the city.
AM: Crime in the district. In January Capt. Joe McFadden put in an operations order, he said we’ve got gambling shacks, we’ve got brothels, we’ve got increased gang activity. He said he’s seen Nortenos from Daly City and Surenos from the Mission District coming in. How will you work with the police?
AS: Before we go I just want to be clear on the last thing on the in-laws. I think my approach to the in-laws is that it has to be a balanced approach going forward. We can’t just have a blanket approach like legalizing them all and not paying attention to parking. We can’t say we’re going to get rid of them all and not pay attention to the people that live in them. I think you have to have a balanced approach. So that’s how I want it to be conveyed on that one because it’s important to me. It’s something that has to be balanced in the right way for our district.
AM: Yeah, the Captain put in a request for help from HQ. So how would you work with police to secure the neighborhood?
AS: I think we’re completely understaffed. I don’t buy the argument that we need to look at things case by case basis. I’ve asked the captain publicly a few times, how many officers are you understaffed? And he says minimum thirty. We need to have thirty more officers. I think that’s a way to start, we need to get more officers out there. I don’t think we get a lot of the resources when it comes to the gang intervention teams that work in the city, I think we need to get those folks out here too and working with us to do outreach and gang intervention. I think it has to be some suppression, some intervention, and some balance in terms of how we approach that. Some of the petty crime like car break-ins and home break ins I just feel like there needs to more police presence and working with the neighbors. When I’ve gone door-to-door I’ve told people about lighting and cameras and how that can have an impact and working with organizations like SAFE. But again I’ve gone to every corner of the district over the past six months and the most I’ve heard in terms of crime has been mainly people are very concerned about the car break ins. That’s what you hear more than anything. I haven’t heard a lot about the gang activities although we’ve seen a bit of an uptick.
AM: The homicides in the park and all that?
AS: No, no, no. I’m talking about when I go door to door. People haven’t said “this is a major concern.” When we did have the homicides in McLaren Park everyone in and around there came out and said “we’ve been saying for years we need more cameras, we need more lighting, we need more focus on these parks where there’s a lot of illicit activity. Every time I pull into Crocker-Amazon there’s a group of people kind of drinking and hanging out. Yeah, so we need more of that. I think another way to deal with some of that stuff is we need some mounted police officers in McLaren Park. I think that’s something that we have to keep fighting for. But I have a good working relationship with the Captain and I think that would continue if I’m Supervisor for sure.
AM: The Balboa Park Station.
AS: I think there needs to be leadership on its issues. There needs to be a real relationship between the funding agencies, the supervisor and the other people. And so as a city planner, as someone who went to school for all these things and has worked on these types of projects throughout my career this is a really big deal for me. It’s something I feel I can really take head on working with the Citizens’ Advisory Committee and others that are dedicated to it to… We should have a revitalized area in that little village. The Geneva Office Building and Powerhouse, the new upper yard, the greening of it… All those things should be flowing.
AM: How would you revitalize the Mission and Geneva commercial corridors?
AS: There’s a lot of different strategies but I think that we might actually benefit in some ways from the price of real estate going up in other parts of the city because people that really want to be in San Francisco you can still get space for less than $2/sq ft in this part of town. So I think we have to work aggressively on neighborhood revitalization efforts. We need to get more attention from the Mayor’s office. We have to get more investment in that regard, we have to get more investment from all the different small business associations. But there’s a couple of different planning strategies that they’ve used in other cities where they’ve actually gone out and they use an organized effort to go to property owners and said “let us have your commercial space for free. We will pay the utilities and gas. All we ask is that you give us a thirty day notice” and in exchange for that you get a lot of small businesses that are trying to start up but don’t have the initial capital. Artists, and other folks to come in to start their businesses rather than coming and sitting in a cafe all day. That has worked in other cities around the world and I think that’s a strategy that we should be using because at the end of the day I don’t think the property owners, once they’re familiar and understand that it’s very little risk to them in terms of liability but has a lot of upside, because a lot of the time those businesses can transition into full on tenants and sign a lease. And another way is that it can create some more foot traffic. Another thing that I would like to do is create some type of a zone in this part of town. You know they just changed the laws in this state when it comes to micro breweries and so, for the first time, you can actually do micro breweries. Why not create a little economic zone for that that would get people to come to this part of town? I know one of the gentlemen wants to open a brewery at 1314 Ocean. And there’s another, Melanio’s, right? And then there’s more folks trying to do that over in Crocker on Geneva and Moscow, in that area. The point is creating an economic zone that hasn’t been done in other parts of the city where we can get some investment. So I think there’s a lot of planning strategies that we can use. But again, we need the attention of the Mayor. We need some major investment in this corridor.
AM: What about Broad-Randolph?
AS: Historically a lot those storefronts are churches. I think we would really need to sit down and grapple. There’s a couple of different locations that are problems, like the laundry mat on the corner of Broad and Capitol. There’s some under utilized spots but then there are spots that might not be particularly focused for commercial. So I think we need to take a hard look at exactly where makes the most sense to invest on Broad-Randolph and what makes the most sense to just maybe beautify. I think we need to a good look at is there the right level of foot traffic, is there the right community support for commercial, what are some of the churches doing in terms of how they want to activate their space outside of their services. I think there needs to be a whole larger community planning process around that.
AM: So, Rec and Park. You know the controller’s report? How do you increase the level of service from Rec and Park, an institution with over a billion dollars in deferred maintenance?
AS: Well, Prop. B is a good start. We’re going to talk about getting a steady stream of funding into maintenance; I think that’s a good thing. I think there needs to be a continued push for looking at how much money has gone into certain neighborhoods in the past and certain neighborhoods have been left out. I’ve never seen a report that says this is the millions of dollars that has gone into District 8, compared to District 2 or District 11. I think there needs to be a continued push. You know, Excelsior Playground is one that should be talked about for an overall revitalization. Merced Heights. They’re a tier 1 project, but their clubhouse is getting left out of the funding. They won’t have that redone. I think Cayuga’s a great model. Minnie and Lovie is a great model. Even Crocker-Amazon’s clubhouse is pretty run down and shabby. It’s utilitarian and usable, but it could be doing a lot more.
AM: Something we broached at the Geneva-San Jose Community Garden, which has been in the works for…
AS: It’s got contaminated soil. If you talk to some people at Rec and Park and they weren’t even aware that was something that should be happening and listen I think the folks at RPD do a great job. I think Phil Ginsburg is taking the department in the right direction. I just think that there’s other areas of the city that have done a better job of organizing and getting attention and investment so we need to up our game a bit.
AM: How are you going to win?
AS: I think I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. Keep talking to people, keep building our campaign every day. We’ve spoken to thousands of people already. We have our team and our office set up and we’ve hired a couple of organizers and I think that’s the best way to do it. I just got the Building Trade’s endorsement on Thursday night. I didn’t have the building trades last time. I have a lot of elected officials who are trying to send energy and resources my way, but I think it’s really people to people and I think we’ve done a good job of that. I have pretty good name recognition because I ran in 2008 and because our area hasn’t experienced as much turn over as other parts of the city a lot people remember me.
AM: What do you mean turn over?
AS: There’s a lot of displacement and people moving out but here because we’re a neighborhood predominantly of homeowners people have stayed consistent. Most people fall into the 20, 30, 40 years or their whole life they’re living in a home that in the family. Because of that I think my name recognition is pretty good and we just have to keep organizing the people to people grassroots campaign that we’ve done.
AM: How much money have you raised so far?
AS: We’ve raised a little over $100,000 and that’s without matching so we’re going to shoot for the cap, which is $259,000.
AM: Any words for your opponents?
AS: Not really, let’s just have a nice clean race. That’s pretty much it.
This article first appeared in part in The Light’s May 2016 print edition.