SOMCAN, or the South of Market Community Action Network, has its hands in so many issues that even director Angelica Cabande struggles to summarize all the issues the group tackles.
“It’s hard to put into one sentence,” she says. “Our primary work is around educating, organizing, and mobilizing folks in the different things that we want to do. I really see SOMCAN’s role as not only helping preserve but helping the neighborhood grow in a way that includes them.”
But that simplification sells the organization short. SOMCAN has organizing staff dedicated to land use and planning, tenant’s rights, transit, workforce development, and youth empowerment, all the while offering people — particularly families and youth — direct services that touch on those areas. Its representatives can be found in all sorts of City Hall hearings, Youth Commission meetings, SFMTA workshops, conducting surveys, and filing appeals to stop developments they fear will lead to more displacement citywide. (No surprise then that they are part of the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, which has members like Causa Justa/Just Cause and Senior Disability Action.)
The group was born in 2000 as a direct response to the dotcom boom that quickly began to displace SoMa’s working-class, immigrant communities that had taken shelter in the its affordability. Organizers first rallied around Filipino businesses and nonprofits served eviction notices at the Mint Mall on Mission Street that year, setting the stage for SOMCAN to do similar work full-time while cultivating its leadership.
In light of the latest tech boom, it was a good call. As new developments remake SoMa, the group works to counter what it sees as the city’s butchering of the neighborhood into different projects — namely, the Central SoMa plan.
The exhaustive rezoning plan — largely between Second and Fifth streets from Townsend to Howard streets — allows for more offices, hotels, and housing that typically wasn’t permitted in the past. But SOMCAN protested the imbalance of housing to jobs, predicting that it would drive up rent for existing residents.
“The city is continually seeing the South of Market as a source for money-making and expanding Downtown and not really seeing it as an existing living community,” says David Woo, SOMCAN’s community development coordinator. “So it’s really about that tension of what are other priorities of elected officials in City Hall.”
Alas, the plan was years in the making and supervisors passed it in December. But through that legislative process, Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer picked up on the idea to allow certain affordable-housing nonprofits the first chance to bid on multi-family residential buildings and vacant lots, which the owner still has the right to reject. The same month, she introduced the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act.
Urban planning is a natural focus for community organizers in SoMa but far from the only kind for SOMCAN. They fight evictions and landlord harassment while helping affected tenants apply for affordable housing as a backup. They assist local job seekers with resume reviews and mock interviews, take part in all sorts of community forums, and they recently completed several surveys of riders in SoMa as part of a transit-justice campaign to fight fare increases. (A big part of transportation advocacy centers on pedestrian safety, which was worked into the SFMTA’s Folsom-Howard Streetscape project.)
SOMCAN is ultimately rooted in helping families, especially the immigrant and working-class families that spurred its existence, and frequently presents in Spanish, Filipino, and Chinese languages. Their United Families program helps those families with counseling, Medi-Cal enrollment, mental health referrals, and support for issues from housing to domestic violence.
As a need for leadership development helped spark SOMCAN, the group takes great care to bring youth into the civic process while helping with things like homework, college applications, and public speaking. Though students with their Youth Organizing Home and Neighborhood Action program often can’t can’t make it to hearings, they have made videos to present to supervisors. And issues they advocate for around the neighborhood, like lack of open space or inadequate street lights, make it into open mics for young folks in San Francisco.
“Just because they’re youth doesn’t mean they should be quiet with their issues and what they want in this community,” says Youth Coordinator P.J. Eugenio. “You can tell that they’re really affected by gentrification.”
With SOMCAN at the helm, hopefully less so.