written by
Pam McElroy

SFAA endorses Marjan Philhour for District 1 Supervisor and
her plans to build a better city for every San Franciscan.

Marjan Philhour, San Francisco native, small business owner and mother of three, has been making positive change in the city for years, and she now hopes to do so as District 1 Supervisor. SFAA supports Philhour and her plans for building a better city for working-class families, small businesses and their workers, building more affordable and market-rate housing, and addressing the homelessness crisis.

In an exclusive interview with SF Apartment Magazine, Philhour discussed her political beginnings in Washington D.C, the upcoming “Save Our Small Businesses” ballot measure, and how she plans to make San Francisco accessible to all. The interview, edited for space and clarity, begins below.

Pam McElroy: What do you love most about the city? What keeps you here?

Marjan Philhour: I was born at French Hospital here in the Richmond and grew up along the Peninsula. I spent a lot of my childhood running errands with my mother along Geary. My husband and I made a conscious decision to move back to the Richmond to start a family because we knew it would be a great place to do so.

McElroy: What led you to seek out a career in politics?

Philhour: As a high school student, I interned for the late Congressman Tom Lantos. He instilled in me this core principle: “The first responsibility of a public servant is to their constituents.” It was working in his office that showed me how meaningful a life in public service could be. Answering constituent phone calls and helping them solve the issues in their neighborhoods really gave me a great sense of fulfillment, and it also helped me understand how the government can improve the lives of people.

McElroy: What community or political achievement are you most proud of?

Philhour: I am proud to be a co-founder of the Balboa Village Merchants Association. Sense of community plays such an important role in building strong neighborhoods, and I believe that sense of community starts with strong local businesses. It wasn’t easy organizing over 20 businesses, but the support we’ve been able to provide to each other, especially during this pandemic, has been instrumental in keeping our businesses open and developing deep relationships with our neighbors.

I am also proud to have started the annual Halloween Festival in my neighborhood. As a mom of three, it’s important to have somewhere family-friendly for my kids to celebrate and trick-or-treat. So many families in my neighborhood had been traveling to other parts of the city to find that, but I didn’t understand why the Outer Richmond couldn’t be that place. I worked with merchants along Balboa to organize donations and street closures. In the end, we were able to create a safe space for families to celebrate Halloween, while also supporting our local businesses. Now families throughout the Richmond come to our annual Halloween Festival.

McElroy: What are some of your policy priorities that we will see if you are elected to City Hall?

Philhour: Supporting small businesses and their workers, building more affordable housing, and addressing the homelessness crisis.

Our small businesses are the backbone of our local economy so we need to support them as best we can through direct grants, waiving fees, and pass legislation and ballot measures that make it easier to open, own, and operate a business in San Francisco, like the Save Our Small Businesses ballot measure.

We also need to address our housing crisis. So many families are being pushed out of San Francisco due to the lack of affordable housing options for families. The Richmond has severely underbuilt new homes for the last 20 years. We need to prioritize building low- and middle-income housing to keep working class families in San Francisco, while also recognizing that market-rate housing is the most effective way to subsidize 100% affordable housing construction.

Finally, our homeless crisis has only gotten worse in the last four years. Multiple tent encampments have arisen throughout the Richmond. We need to get people off of the street and into the care and services they need. I support investing in mental health services, and building more permanent supportive housing, as well as shelter beds, safe sleeping sites, and navigation centers.

McElroy: How has your campaign pivoted during the pandemic? How are you getting the word out about yourself to Richmond District residents?

Philhour: We launched our campaign the day after the shelter-in-place was mandated—but that obviously wasn’t planned. We immediately switched gears and used our campaign resources and team to support residents during the pandemic. We spent our time calling residents to check in on them, connecting them to resources, and purchasing and delivering groceries.

Now that we are closer to the election, our team is committed to protecting the health of our volunteers, voters, and their families. That is why we took a Pledge to Protect Public Health. For now, we are not holding any in-person events and all of our voter outreach is being conducted remotely and virtually. Aside from calling and texting voters, we are focusing on holding virtual house parties. This is an effective way of meeting neighbors, especially since we’re not able to meet them in person on the street. In addition, I believe window signs and banners are going to play an important part in boosting name ID prior to the election.

McElroy: The Richmond District has barely built any new housing in recent years. Are there sites in your district where you’d like to see affordable or market rate housing built?

Philhour: For years, the Richmond has been promised more 100% affordable housing by every supervisor. While this is a great talking point, in reality, only five 100% affordable homes have been built in the last 15 years, and 28 were permanently acquired. That is an abysmal record to have on housing.

I support building more homes along major transit corridors like Geary, as well as in commercial corridors like Clement. We should strive to make our neighborhoods vibrant and walkable, with easy access to public transportation. I also think we need to build more transit-oriented, infill housing.

McElroy: What housing issues are unique to District 1?

Philhour: Our entire city is facing a housing shortage, and although some people are leaving, we still have a housing affordability crisis. Families in the Richmond don’t have places to live or grow, and often they end up getting pushed out of the city. So many families at my kids’ school and in the neighborhood in general have to leave every year because it’s too expensive here. We need to look at policies that streamline the creation of 100% affordable housing and housing projects that include more affordable housing units than required by the city in the Richmond.

McElroy: The Department of Public Health decided that in-person campaign offices would have to shut down. Can you tell us about your Pledge to Protect Public Health?

Philhour: Again, my campaign launched the day after shelter-in-place mandate, and coincidentally we were supposed to sign a lease for a campaign office on Geary. Since all non-essential businesses were forced to close, we held off on opening a campaign office and all of our staff and volunteers started working remotely.

I think that those who are aspiring to public office need to lead by example, and right now in this pandemic, that means prioritizing public health and safety over everything else. With the rise in COVID cases, we made the decision to protect the health of our volunteers, voters, and their families by forgoing in-person campaigning including lit drops, canvassing, and opening a physical campaign office. All of our outreach like phone and text banks is being conducted remotely and virtually.

McElroy: Tents have been popping up across the Richmond District in recent months. What is the current supervisor doing about the tents, and how would this differ from your approach?

Philhour: I believe the rise in homeless encampments in the Richmond, and throughout the city, is due to a lack of leadership from our elected officials for the last 20 years. Recently I was in communication with a group of neighbors who were having issues with the encampment outside of their homes. They told me for months they wrote to the Supervisor’s office and were continuously told there was nothing their office could do. Only after organizing 40 neighbors and several local businesses and writing to the city every day were, they able to get the city to offer shelter and services to the individuals living in the encampment. Their story is a testament to how effective community organizing can be in enacting change, but it’s emblematic of the problem with our city government.

As Supervisor, I would make it my priority every day to get individuals experiencing homelessness off the streets and into shelters or supportive housing, and make sure that they get the help they need to stay off the street. It’s not compassionate or humane to allow people to live on the streets, especially during a pandemic. While we can and should move individuals into hotel rooms, we must look at longer term solutions, like addressing our housing shortage, providing job training, and investing in mental health services for individuals experiencing homelessness.

McElroy: Can you tell us about your Neighborhood Summit?

Philhour: I believe that it’s the role of government to be relevant to the constituents it serves. If you as a resident don’t feel connected to your local government, it’s not a failure on your part—it’s a failure on your government’s part. We created working groups to cover topics like affordable housing, homelessness, pedestrian and bicycle safety, and more. We met with neighbors to discuss all of these issues and how best to approach solving them. My goal with starting this neighborhood summit is to create an action plan with community input and use it to hold the next Supervisor accountable.

McElroy: How would you work to make San Francisco more family-friendly and ensure that more working-class families can raise their kids here?

Philhour: One of my biggest priorities is to build more homes for low- and middle-income families. I have seen so many families from my kids’ school leave San Francisco every year due to how expensive housing is here. We need to build more homes that are affordable for working class residents, like our first responders and teachers, who often don’t qualify for 100% affordable housing.

In addition to that, we need safe and clean streets. I’m committed to working with DPW to increase street cleanings in residential and commercial streets, as well as installing more BigBelly trash cans and public Pit Stop restrooms. We also need to invest in shelter space and mental health and addiction treatment to move homeless individuals off the streets and into the services they need.

I would also work with my constituents to advocate for their needs at the Board of Education. Families can’t be expected to transport their children all over the city and to after-school activities. Our school system is especially challenging for single parents and working parents—we all know it takes at least two incomes to have children in San Francisco.

McElroy: Small businesses are hurting right now. What can we do to support small businesses?

Philhour: My sister and I opened our family business, a pottery studio and gift shop, on Balboa Street two years ago. As a small business owner, I understand the unique challenges that small businesses face trying to operate in San Francisco. We need to make it easier to open a business here, which is why I support the Save Our Small Businesses ballot measure. This will streamline the permitting process, which is too lengthy and costs new businesses thousands of dollars in rent before they can even open. It will also update the conditional use permitting process to give small businesses the flexibility they need to thrive in a constantly changing business environment. I also think we need to waive the different taxes and fees we impose on our small businesses.

In our day-to-day lives, there are a couple ways we can support small businesses. You can purchase items from your local stores as opposed to ordering from Amazon. You can also purchase gift cards. Another way to support small businesses is by ordering either directly from the restaurant instead of through an app, or through a community- and volunteer-based delivery programs like Balboa Village Delivers (organized by the Balboa Village Merchants Association) or North Beach Delivers (organized by North Beach Neighbors).

McElroy: How can we Improve public transportation in the Richmond District? How about bike and pedestrian safety?

Philhour: We need to ensure that MUNI has proper funding to minimize service cuts, which will disproportionately affect our low-income residents. I will work with SFMTA to identify potential funding sources to make sure that any service disruptions are minimal to our communities. The city also needs to work with our national representatives like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Kamala Harris, and Senator Dianne Feinstein to secure federal funding for transportation services and improvements. It should be noted that many of the pedestrian and bike improvements that we can make in our District are low-cost improvements. Small tactical builds, like the ones on Fell Street, make it easier to ensure bike safety. Making more space for this allows our buses to really prioritize serving those who need public transportation the most.

We need to have extensive community input on how to implement positive changes, like the Slow Streets program and closing JFK Drive to car traffic to make sure that access to Golden Gate Park and our local businesses remains equitable. We also need to think about how Slow Streets closures will impact local businesses. While there are many challenges to implementing these changes, I believe they can make a positive impact in the livability in our neighborhoods.

McElroy: What is your plan for Golden Gate Park in regard to safe sleeping sites and closing streets to cars?

Philhour: I started a petition to close JFK to cars for the duration of the pandemic to give residents the space they need to physically distance when outside. Golden Gate Park is one of the main outdoor spaces for many families in the Richmond. It was important to make sure that it was open and had enough space for residents to physically distance while exercising and getting needed fresh air during shelter-in-place. I support keeping JFK closed to car traffic after the pandemic, but we need to bring the community together to discuss the best way to implement it. We need to make sure that every resident has equal access to Golden Gate Park, and that workers in the park have safe access.

As for opening a safe sleeping site in Golden Gate Park, I am against this idea. Golden Gate Park is the main outdoor space for many families in the Richmond. There are other locations in the Richmond that would be better suited for a safe sleeping site, like empty lots. When this idea was first proposed, I shared a survey with Richmond residents to get their thoughts on the issue. We heard from hundreds of residents and the overwhelming majority of residents opposed the idea. I think issues like these need to have community input, which is something we did not see from City Hall when this idea was proposed.

McElroy: What is your favorite way to spend a day off in San Francisco?

Philhour: Riding bikes with my family and enjoying outdoor spaces near us, like Golden Gate Park and the closed Great Highway. We’re lucky to live close to the park and beach. It’s one of many reasons why we chose to start a family in the Richmond. I also love shopping and dining along Balboa, Geary, and Clement. There’s such a great sense of community in our neighborhood.

Pam McElroy is the editor of SF Apartment Magazine.