Ahsha Safai is running for supervisor in District 11 as a labor activist who has the support of some of the city’s unions – and is building some support among what is generally considered the progressive community. John Burton has endorsed him. It’s possible that the Democratic County Central Committee, which progressives fought hard to control, could wind up giving him at least a secondary nod.
He’s well known among city insiders as a former city employee and Housing Authority Commissioner, and ran against incumbent John Avalos four years ago.
But there’s a lot about his record that hasn’t received much attention. Safai is a real-estate speculator who made a big chunk of cash buying a house that was in foreclosure and flipping it. He makes most of his money – more than $100,000 a year – from a consulting firm that works with landlords. Nearly half of the money he has raised so far, our analysis shows, comes from the real estate industry.
And while he doesn’t list Mayor Ed Lee among his endorsements (nobody’s listing Lee these days since he’s so unpopular) Safai has long been a Lee supporter and donated to the mayor’s 2015 re-election.
Here are some things we’ve found researching Safai’s history:
— In 2004, he was sued for fraud in a real-estate deal that wound up with Safai buying a house that was in foreclosure at what the suit alleges was an artificially low price and flipping it for a profit of close to half a million dollars.
According to the lawsuit, Safai and his associates took advantage of a woman who was facing the loss of her property. Mary McDowell, who was working as a parking control officer in San Francisco, was living at 78 Latona Street in the Bayview when the bank that held her mortgage filed a notice of default.
She owned four other properties that were also in foreclosure.
Two real-estate sales people arrived at her home unsolicited in December, 2003, and told her they would buy her property and pay her enough to cover the notes on the other places she owned so she could avoid all the foreclosures.
The lawsuit alleges that the real-estate broker didn’t properly list the home on the Multiple Listing Service but instead brought McDowell an offer for $375,000 – “far less than market value,” according to the complaint. McDowell was “frightened and intimidated” into accepting the offer, and the house was sold to Ahsha and Reza Safai.
McDowell eventually dismissed the case, her lawyer told me, because “the defendants were dragging this out forever in court and she decided she had had enough.” Attorney C. Brent Patten said that no court ever determined whether Safai or the others had done anything wrong.
Safai in legal filings denied all the allegations.
But whatever the legality, Safai wound up buying a house that was in foreclosure at what turned out to be an excellent price. In 2005, according to the real-estate service Property Shark, the median sale price for housing in that neighborhood was $336 a square foot. Safai paid $177 a square foot for the 78 Latona St. property.
City records show that he and Reza Safai spent $60,000 renovating the place, and sold it less than a year later for $800,000.
So Safai was part of a group that bought a house in foreclosure from a woman who was in financial trouble and flipped it quickly for a short-term profit. That could be perfectly legal – lots of people have made lots of money buying properties in foreclosure and selling them for a quick profit.
But house-flipper is not part of his public resume.
Safai describes himself as the political director for SEIU Local 87, and had played his union connections into a number of endorsements. But forms he filed while he was on the Housing Authority Commission show that the vast majority of his income comes from his consulting firm, Kitchen Cabinet Public Affairs, that did work for one of Lee’s main consultants and at least one high-end landlord.
Safai’s economic interest statements for 2012 and 2013 show that he earned less than $10,000 as political director for Local 87, but more than $100,000 as principal in Kitchen Cabinet Public Affairs.
On his website, he describes that outfit as “working with nonprofits, community-based and political organizations throughout the Bay Area building community and revitalizing neighborhoods.”
And indeed, some of his clients include Local 87, the Teamsters Union Local 350, and Mission Housing Development Corp. Also on the list: SST Investments, a landlord that operates high-end apartments, and Left Coast Communications, the consulting firm that ran the somewhat legally dubious “Run Ed Run” campaign.
Clients also included Jacobs Engineering and KJ Woods Construction.
— Safai is the real-estate industry’s guy. A 48hills analysis of campaign contributions filed so far shows that nearly half his money – 45 percent – came from real-estate development, construction, landlords and landlord lawyers, and big downtown companies.
Among his supporters: Janan New, director of the Apartment Association; David Gruber, who holds the landlord seat on the Rent Board, Russell Flynn (one of the biggest landlords in the city), David Wasserman (an eviction lawyer), Oz Erickson (a big developer), Mary Jung (lobbyist for the Association of Realtors), and Jim Lazarus (who works for the Chamber of Commerce).
The fact that a candidate takes money from special interests doesn’t always mean that candidate will do what they want. But it’s pretty clear from the preponderance of money that the people who have been making big money from evictions, displacement, and the destruction of neighborhoods think Safai is the one who will represent their interests at City Hall.
— He is a supporter of Mayor Ed Lee. Not a single politician in June used the mayor’s endorsement; in fact, polls show that more than half of San Franciscans would vote against someone associated with the immensely unpopular mayor.
Safai doesn’t list Lee’s endorsement on his website either. But he’s clearly a fan: In 2015, when 46 percent of the voters chose candidates with no name recognition, no electoral experience, and no real campaigns over the incumbent, Safai donated $250 to the Lee campaign.
That suggests that he endorses the agenda that the mayor has promoted: A tech boom that has created the worst displacement crisis in modern history.
Safai didn’t return messages left with his campaign. He will try to avoid a lot of these issues as he seeks progressive support. But it’s all there, on the record. And it’s worth thinking about.
Research assistance for this story was provided by Don Ray and Sofia Aguilar.