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Oakland Ghost Ship Fire Caused by Housing Crisis and City Negligence, Say Tenant Advocates
by Tulio Ospina, Oakland Post
Wednesday Dec 14th, 2016 6:04 PM
In the days following the tragic fire at a converted warehouse in Oakland that killed 36 people on Friday, the city and community members have been scrambling for answers to what could have led to such a devastating catastrophe.
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Community members, artists and housing activists have brought attention to how Oakland’s displacement crisis and a broken housing assistance program have pushed marginalized communities further into the tangle of unsafe living conditions.

“People are living in conditions like these that are not up to code because they’re holding on to the city and wanting not to be displaced,” Selene Chala, an Oakland organizer for Causa Justa::Just Cause, told the Post.

“Instead of blaming people for living like this, we need the city to be proactive about providing housing and other solutions,” said Chala.

Oakland now has the fourth highest rent costs in the country, a position that does not appear to be slowing as prices continue to skyrocket at a faster pace than neighboring cities.

Many of those who lived at the precarious site of last Friday’s fire were young artists, educators and members of the LGBT community, and observers are saying that is not a coincidence.

For decades, grassroots arts spaces such as Ghost Ship have existed as sites that focus on inclusivity and diversity, two qualities that appear to be rapidly declining in Oakland as gentrification spreads further throughout the city.

Homes like these have served as both vital places of refuge for those traditionally discriminated against and as affordable living spaces for artists and educators struggling to make ends meet.

Unfortunately, having a roof over one’s head has also often come at the expense of safety and of property owners who adhere to building codes.

“We need an all-around more rigorous endorsement of necessary permits,” said Ayodele Nzinga, a planner for the Black Arts Movement in Oakland.

“The city should do inspections and ought to enforce the findings because a lot of times property owners are not properly managing the resource they are selling to the public,”she said.

Housing advocates fear, however, that once the city begins to improve its inspection process and more rigorously uphold its codes, it will lead to mass evictions of tenants with no place to go.

Threatening mass evictions in response to last Friday’s fire will only push people further underground and into more unsafe conditions, advocates say.

“The city can’t just ‘red tag’ buildings and tell tenants to hit the street,” Nzinga said. “The solution to the problem can’t make the problem worse for the most vulnerable people in this equation.”

The Black Arts Movement, which spearheaded the efforts to establish the Black Arts Movement and Business District in downtown Oakland, has long advocated for artists and low-income housing as a city priority.

“The city has these high-sounding plans for more support for artists and how it’s building affordable housing to be completed five years from now. But we need that relief now,” Nzinga said.

Living situations like Ghost Ship’s exist all throughout Oakland. In the past, when complaints have been made or inspections done, landlords have quickly evicted residents who are powerless to fight back.

Several media outlets have reported at least 40 artists already receiving eviction notices through Oakland from landlords fearing official backlash, and the New York Times has said there has been a “crackdown on illegal warehouses nationwide” since the fire.

Councilmembers Lynette McElhaney, Noel Gallo and Larry Reid have said they plan to ask city staff how the city could legalize such places.

Chala of Causa Justa says it’s up to the city to acknowledge those living in un-permitted places as tenants and to afford them the same protections and rights as people living in places that are up to code.

Oakland’s housing assistance program needs to be better equipped and more communicative with other city agencies to ensure that people living in unsafe conditions have better alternatives to turn to other than the street, she said.

“There should be more interagency connection,” said Chala.

“If they’re citing a unit, there should be a connection to someone who is able to support folks in relocation. It needs to be more systematic instead of people getting cited and then evicted.”

Such was the case with the tenants of LoBot Gallery in West Oakland, which was shut down in June of this year after operating as a live-work arts space for 13 years.

Former residents of the converted warehouse wrote in an open letter published by the East Bay Express this week that they feared the city’s response to the warehouse fire would be to clamp down on illegal living spaces without providing alternatives for those residing in them.

“We want safer buildings. We want our spaces retrofitted for modern fire-suppression systems, exits, and alarms. Please help us build them,” the open letter said.

“But please do not contact the fire marshal, who can “red tag” our buildings for immediate displacement instead of working with us to resolve issues, or send letters to our landlords that put us at risk of being evicted.”

“Please listen to this community before you try to protect us.”