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Q&A: San Francisco Mayor-elect London Breed on what she hopes to accomplish at the helm of her hometown

Q&A: San Francisco Mayor-elect London Breed on what she hopes to accomplish at the helm of her hometown
San Francisco Mayor-elect London Breed, center, greets students after a news conference at Rosa Parks Elementary School on June 14 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After a hard-fought, history-making campaign, San Francisco’s Mayor-elect London Breed took a four-day vacation in Cabo San Lucas. Now ready to assume office, the city’s first African American woman mayor talked to The Times this week about how she’ll tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the Bay Area city. Breed, who was raised by her grandmother in public housing, said homelessness and affordable housing will be among her top priorities. (This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.)

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Your campaign was sort of defined by the adversity you faced as a kid growing up in the city. How do you reconnect people who are natives of a city that in recent years has become a very different place?

I think so many people are not in the city anymore that I grew up with. I think what’s important is to make sure that people who are either natives of San Francisco, or live there now, especially those who are struggling, feel like they are part of our city — feel like it’s their city too and also feel like there are opportunities that exist in this city for them. Especially the future generations and kids who are growing up now in poverty. I also want to make sure we make better decisions and incorporate everyone into the prosperity that exists in our city.

A thing I notice in L.A., and I see this in San Francisco too. There’s this influx of young people and wealth, and it’s disconnected from the civic energy of the place. Do you see that as a problem? What can a mayor do to fix that?

I do see that as a problem that there’s a disconnect. I think part of it is really trying to hold people accountable differently than we’re doing now. I don’t want San Francisco to be just a place where people just move for opportunities. I want to create the future of San Francisco with the young people here. One of the programs that I am proposing is paid internship opportunities for high school students. What that does is provide a way for young people — especially those in our public school system — to work and be a part of these companies at an early age. For the individuals in the tech world, this is how the door can be opened to mentorship opportunities, relationship building and to a real connection to people who are growing up now in San Francisco.

The campaign became quite nasty and defined by race in a somewhat surprising way. Now that it’s over, what did you think of the tone and tenor of the race as it occurred?

I wasn’t happy with the negativity — the divisiveness, just some of the things that came out. But I can’t control that. I can only control what I did throughout the campaign and I tried to stay focused on the issues. I was hoping and I believe this occurred — that voters saw through all the noise and made what they thought was the right decision.

When you were acting mayor and then later ousted by the Board of Supervisors, it seemed to be a galvanizing force for your constituents. Did you see that as something that may have helped you?

People were so upset. I think that definitely played a role in more people getting active and engaged in the campaign. I think it inspired a lot of people, because when you think about it, a lot of people know what it feels like to be treated like that. When you see it happen in such a public way, it does something to you. I think people were really hurt and frustrated by the decision. Now here we are. The race is over, and it’s time for us to come together and think about moving San Francisco forward.

You will be sworn in on July 11. What do you see as the three or four biggest challenges that you face?

First of all, my goal is to get as much rest as I can and to take care of myself first. The thing that is of course going to be my top, top priority is addressing homelessness and cleaning up our streets and housing production.

On the housing question, you were a big supporter of SB 827, legislation sponsored by Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) that would make it easier for developers to build residential housing near transit centers. Are you going to push a similar type of policy in the city?

It doesn’t have to be necessarily a blanket policy. It could be based on specific corridors that make sense — like transit-rich corridors. I think there are ways to improve our policies for the purposes of increasing housing production. So there are things that can be done. We are going to be building on the McDonald’s site at Haight and Visalia. Sites like that, that are not being used in the most effective ways are sites that we should be identifying for housing production where we’re not displacing anyone and where we’re not bulldozing people’s homes for redevelopment. There’s a better way to do it if you work with the private sector to accomplish the goal as well. The city is not going to be able to do it on its own. The cavalry is not coming with a boatload of money to build housing. We have got to get creative.

What do you make of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s struggles to build housing in Los Angeles? Are there any lessons for you here? Have you spoken to him?

He actually reached out to me. We haven’t had a chance to talk.

Given all the fights taking place across the state over homelessness, what do you see as the quickest and most sustainable way of providing more housing?

I have been talking to people who own a number of buildings throughout the city. I think there’s existing vacant properties we can move forward with sooner rather than later.

As far as housing production, I think what we’re going to have to do is completely revamp our existing system and look at ways to get the board to remove certain things that are in our polices and, if necessary, take our case to the voters. We have to analyze what the holdup is and explain the process and why it’s taking so long and then inform the voters this is what we need to do, and this will cut the time maybe in half. So my goal is to go that route.

I have to push these projects through that are being stalled and also the 423 accessory dwelling units that are on hold in the Department of Building Inspection. I got to get that stuff through. There are number of things that I can continue to push for that would put more units on the market in the process of doing what we need to do to reform the entire system.

You are the first African American woman mayor of San Francisco. I wonder if you could just put me in your shoes for a moment. Where were you when that ‘wow’ moment hit you?

I don’t know if it has really sunk in yet. Everyday I’m waking up like “wow.” I don’t even know what to say or how to describe it. It’s very hard to describe. I have definitely been thinking about my grandmother a lot — just thinking about the challenges. I have been thinking about the struggles in my life.

Just thinking about things that I wish didn’t happen and that’s been really at the top of my mind. But also there’s excitement about how I will have the ability to prevent — not stop everything — but help prevent some of the things that happened to me in my life from happening to other people, with the decisions we’re able to make. That’s really something I have been thinking about. I can’t wait to go to the neighborhood I grew up in where I know some of my young folks are maybe not working and not doing the right thing. Opening the door of opportunity is really what I’m most excited about and what I keep thinking about and how being in this role will help achieve that goal.

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