Malia Cohen was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors by a razor thin margin eight years ago. This December, the 41-year-old will be termed out of office, leaving her post as Board president. Her years as District 10 Supervisor will likely most be remembered for the building boom that occurred under her watch, including the biggest to come, Pier 70 redevelopment, which’ll help meet her goal of increasing the City’s housing supply.
Cohen initially finished third in the 2010 District 10 race, but two weeks after the election, on the 20th pass of the ranked choice voting procedure, she edged Tony Kelly by 442 votes. She beat Kelly and another opponent, Marlene Tran, by a large margin four years later.
Cohen got a gift a year into her first term, when settlement funds from the 2009 closing of the Mirant Potrero Power Plant came through. Through legislation she introduced, the $1 million the City received was spent in the district on recreation programs, community gardens, healthy eating initiatives at the Potrero Annex-Terrace housing complex and furnace and insulation upgrades to homes adjacent to freeways.
In her campaign for the state Board of Equalization, Cohen touts her accomplishments as championing legislation to ban flavored tobacco products, fighting “Big Soda” by pushing for a sugar-sweetened beverage tax and creation of the Department of Police Accountability to investigate officer misconduct.
A moderate on the Board of Supervisors, Cohen often drew progressives’ ire while scoring highly with the Chamber of Commerce. However, she was hardly monolithic and occasionally proved a swing vote. She parted ways with landlords to protect tenants accused of minor offenses, including adding a housemate, from being evicted, and authored the Fair Chance Ordinance, which prevents inquiries into conviction histories by affordable housing providers and employers. And, although she proved friendly to developers, she broke with them by voicing opposition to Senate Bill 827, which would’ve allowed circumvention of local zoning laws, and favoring a ballot measure limiting heights on buildings along the waterfront.
At times she was inconsistent. In 2014, she authored legislation to enlarge zoning for manufacturing businesses, but in 2016 was among four supervisors who unsuccessfully voted against putting a measure on the ballot to protect such spaces. Her public positions regarding penalizing Airbnb weren’t always in sync with her votes. She voted against a Board of Supervisors’ resolution endorsing repeal of the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which limits the City’s ability to expand rent control, despite stating that she favored the annulment during her campaign for the Board of Equalization.
When first elected, Cohen promised to support small business; she did that by co-sponsoring the Small Business Revolving Loan Fund, which provides low interest credit. She spearheaded, as Budget and Finance Committee chair, efforts to create a municipal bank with a goal of making those loans more accessible.
She successfully pushed for a moratorium on new cannabis businesses in 2017, when she felt that those who lacked capital weren’t being expeditiously approved by the Planning Commission. Since then she’s fought to ensure that minority communities have equal opportunities within the City’s Office of Cannabis, an agency she was a co-sponsor in creating.
Cohen has had her missteps. Two years into her first term, during a redistricting task force meeting, she suggested removing Potrero Hill from her jurisdiction, which led some to question her commitment to the neighborhood. In 2016, she made headlines for having to recuse herself from a vote on a proposed 395-unit complex at the Corovan site after inappropriately suggesting that the developer provide additional funds for community projects just prior to the vote. She later dismissed her suggestion as a bad joke, but it occurred in a capacity-filled room of District 10 constituents. Earlier this year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Cohen had the worst attendance record of any Supervisor, missing eight of 29 committee meetings she chaired. The survey took place over an eight-month period, a time when Cohen said she was dealing with a family health issue.
While Supervisors get inundated by constituents with complaints about issues, from the large to the trivial, there’s been a common complaint on the Hill that Cohen isn’t as responsive as she could be, whether related to a small property tax matter or getting bullet holes in a public housing unit filled. One doesn’t have to look far back into news articles about Cohen to see a theme of her not responding to requests for comment. She passed when asked to elaborate on her accomplishments and unfinished business for this article.
Nonetheless, she’s maintained a close relationship with neighborhood groups, whose members have praised her efforts and communication. J.R. Eppler, Potrero Boosters president, has spoken highly of her in solving issues related to the Pier 70 development. Frank Gilson, Potrero Dogpatch Merchants Association board member, described her as “responsive and accessible.”
Susan Eslick, vice president of the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association, said she’ll miss Cohen. “I have always felt Supervisor Cohen has supported Dogpatch and any community efforts we have worked on,” said Eslick. “She has always been aware of the changes happening in our little section of District 10 and has guided projects and City agencies to listen to the desires of the neighborhood.”
Eslick, who is on the board of the Dogpatch and Northwest Potrero Hill Green Benefit District (GBD), said Cohen worked closely on GBD establishment. “We could not have done it without her support and guidance.”
Perhaps the largest issue looming over the District as Cohen leaves office is redevelopment of the former naval shipyard at Hunters Point. The potential creation of 10,000 housing units there had been among Cohen’s self-cited achievements, but over the past few years, it’s been discovered that radioactive and toxic contamination at the site may not have been fully cleaned up. In 2016, Cohen and then-Mayor Ed Lee informed the Navy that the City would no longer accept transfer of land until regulators deemed it safe. This year, when it came to light that 97 percent of soil sample tests may have been falsified, Cohen called for a legislative hearing, which led to the site being retested.
Cohen’s other accomplishments include authoring the Neighborhood Preference legislation, which sets aside 40 percent of affordable housing in new developments for those who live in the community; introducing legislation that expanded San Francisco gun laws to include firearms with magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds; and pushing for the Pregnancy Information Disclosure and Protection Ordinance, which prohibits clinics from making false or misleading statements so as to halt the practice of pro-life proponents posing as full service providers.