There are a small handful of builders and developers elevating Sacramento’s urban core, and Ali Youssefi is one of the youngest – if not the youngest.
At 34, Youssefi is reanimating two blighted blocks on K Street adjacent to Golden 1 Center, and within a year, one of the most depressing stretches of downtown should be brimming with young people living in the area and patronizing an assortment of largely home-grown restaurants, bars and clothing stores there.
Youssefi, the Sacramento-born, Dartmouth-educated son of Iranian immigrants, also built the mixed-use, mixed-income Warehouse Artist Lofts on R Street, an ingenious act of entrepreneurialism that has fostered the arts community while sparking millennial interest in a space that long had sat dormant.
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In partnership with his father Cyrus, Youssefi is building more – much more. But let’s not lose sight of a few key points. Like many other cities, Sacramento is in the middle of a housing crisis caused by reasons too numerous to cite here. Nevertheless, any conversation about urban development should mention that the city often is let down by some of its most prominent land owners.
John Saca is a big name in Sacramento. So are Steve Eggert and Peter Geremia. But month after month, year after year, these three alleged big shots let their derelict buildings drag down the 1000 block of J Street, easily the worst span in downtown Sacramento.
The Benvenuti name carries weight in Sacramento, but members of that family sit on the former Greyhound Bus terminal and other properties to the detriment of a downtown revival. The same goes for Moe Mohanna, who also owns property near the old Greyhound station and has fought legal battles with the city for decades, complicating aspirations to build anything in neglected spaces.
Youssefi is the antidote to the inaction of big-name property owners doing nothing with valuable eyesores in search of an outrageous payday. “Ali is inspired,” said Wendy Saunders, executive director of the Capitol Area Development Authority, a city and state housing agency.
The word “inspired” is not an exaggeration because Youssefi has made a reputation by actually creating what Sacramento is lacking: attractive, affordable housing for lower income and working class people who otherwise would have to commute to their downtown jobs from suburbia.
It sounds easy, but it’s one of the hardest things to do in development. Youssefi has figured out a way to master the puzzle by mixing and matching complex financing models he keeps in his head like his own phone number. That’s the science of what he does, but the art comes from not just caring about what the end result looks like, but how it affects the people who live there as well as the surrounding communities.
These days, however, there’s another, more pressing puzzle that Youssefi is working to master: his health. In July, the young developer was diagnosed with stomach cancer, one month after he married his wife Azzie.
“It came out of nowhere,” he said earlier this week, his voice calm as he sat in the modern, airy office space he created for CFY Development, the company he runs with his father. “It’s been a pretty eventful summer,” he later adds dryly.
Youssefi said he had so many projects going, and so much joy in his life, he didn’t give much thought to the stomach aches he was experiencing. But they persisted, and he began wondering if he had an ulcer. He went to his doctor, who ordered an endoscopy. The procedure revealed a tumor in his upper gastrointestinal tract. Chemotherapy would be required, and he began his first course July 13.
Despite the challenges to his health, Youssefi continues to put in long hours at a job he says brings him great satisfaction.
More than a decade ago, he saw a new way of developing properties in Sacramento, he said, and that inspiration compelled him to leave a lucrative career in finance in San Francisco and move back home to work alongside his dad, whom he also calls his mentor.
That inspiration compelled him to convince his dad to change their business model, to move away from exclusively building low-income housing units and start developing properties that blended residential, commercial and serviced tenants of various income levels. These buildings, he thought, could do more than improve a block; they could help create and strengthen community.
“If we embrace the idea of building mixed-income neighborhoods, Sacramento will be an even more diverse and integrated city than it is today,” he said. “That’s pretty exciting for us.”
Similar to his work in development, Youssefi has taken a hands-on, holistic approach to his cancer treatment. He has refused to sit back and let the doctors make all the decisions related to his care. He said he has embraced an “integrative approach,” working to maintain his emotional and spiritual well-being while he undergoes chemotherapy.
“I’ve done a ton of meditating since the diagnosis,” Youssefi said. “I’m working on techniques that focus on becoming aware of our subconscious and using the mind to help heal the body. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of months understanding how we can control the environment around our cells with thought and belief alone.”
Youssefi has more cancer treatments in October and into November, when he will get the next update on his status. He knows he’s in a tough fight. He knows his diagnosis is serious. But he refuses to become overwhelmed or wallow in self pity.
“It’s so important for my immune system to be in a positive place,” he said. “I’ve gotten a ton of great support and energy and love that is so important.”
So these days, Sacramento’s prodigious young builder is maintaining his equanimity by staying mindful and doing the work he loves around the people he loves.
“He says that I am his mentor, but he is being kind,” Cyrus Youssefi said. “ I am lucky to have him in my life.”
Others feel lucky as well. “Ali is a seminal figure in changing Sacramento,” said City Councilman Steve Hansen, whose district includes midtown and downtown.
Hansen said Youssefi has fought hard to keep his projects moving forward and feels a genuine responsibility toward the people who work and live in the communities he helps to create.
“You can’t get a lot of developers to care,” Hansen said. “Ali cares enough not to give up.”
And he won’t give up now. He said he is determined to keep going, to keep working, to see his city one day develop that “defining street,” one that says downtown Sacramento has arrived.
“I’m not daunted by (cancer),” Youssefi said. “I’m convinced that I’m going to overcome this. I’m motivated and focused and deliberate in what I’m doing. It’s just another challenge to overcome.”