No one chooses to live or work in deadly fire traps. Not in 1911, when at least 146 people were killed in the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York, not in 2012, when at least 112 people were killed in the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bengladesh, and not in 2016, when 36 people were killed in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland.
But in the Bay Area, where the term “skyrocketing” doesn’t even begin to capture the outrageously rising rents, where people’s housing is torn down to build tech campuses and $5000 a month studio apartments, people have no place to live, and if they work from home, they have no place to work. Bay Area cities are tearing down tents and other encampments as the temperatures plummet, and the rains fall. SF Measure Q prohibiting tents on city sidewalks was heavily funded (almost $700,000 according to Ballotpedia) by tech and other corporate interests and narrowly passed in last month’s election. Under this measure, the city will only give tent occupants a 24-hour notice before removing the tent. Shelter space would be “prioritized” for displaced campers, and since there are nowhere near enough beds for all of the unhoused people in SF that means other people would be displaced. Not to mention all the reasons people don’t want to be in the shelters, even if there were beds.
According to the East Bay Express, in 2015 Oakland spent $72,000 to close 162 homeless camps. Oakland has approximately 2200 homeless people, and less than 450 shelter beds.
The Ghost Ship warehouse property at 1305 31st Ave. in Oakland was bought in 1988 by Chor Ng, and currently is valued at $43,000 for property tax purposes, according to real estate records. Although registered with the city as a warehouse, the building was rented to Derick Almena, who rented it out as a live-work space to artists. A little before midnight on December 2, with about 100 people in the building, a fire broke out during a concert promoted by 100% Silk. The makeshift wooden stairway to the second floor caught on fire, as did the large amount of flammable art and materials. The roof and the second floor collapsed, trapping many people. Because there were no emergency lights some people stood by the front door yelling to help others locate the exit to escape.
Since city records show it as a commercial property, it should have been inspected by building and fire inspectors. After the fire, the city claimed that inspectors had been denied entry when they attempted to inspect it in November after complaints from neighbors about outside trash and possibly unpermitted construction. People who lived, worked or visited the space have disputed these official statements. Some have asked whether the complaints may have been filed by developers who wanted the property condemned so that they could get it cheap. What is clear is that the Oakland building department is underfunded and understaffed, and after a 2011 grand jury report blaming the building department for making life difficult for landlords/slumlords, backed even further off from code enforcement. The Oakland fire marshal’s department has also been understaffed for years.
So while the community around the Ghost Ship mourns their dead, and supports their injured, and scrabbles about looking for new housing, not only Oakland, but cities around the country are searching out warehouse and other informal living and event spaces, and evicting people with no notice, as a “public safety measure.” Yet another score for the developers and gentrifiers, who will now be able to get their hands on cheap properties to knock down and turn into $6000/month “live-work” lofts.
On December 7, Oakland mayor libby schaaf announced the formation of CAST, the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, which includes $1.7 million in foundation grants to support “affordable and safe” spaces for artists and art organizations. “The arts are at the center of vibrant and diverse communities, and are critical to neighborhood health and well-being, yet artists and cultural organizations are increasingly vulnerable to instability and displacement…This public-private collaboration and investments are aimed at preventing displacement, growing the capacity of the city’s artists and cultural organizations, and enhancing municipal resources for the cultural sector over the long haul.”
But it may be that absolutely none of this money goes to housing “artists.” If the money comes through, it may go only to support non-profits, privately-owned galleries, and other “art spaces.” Nor are artists the only people in need of affordable and safe spaces to live. In 2015, the SF Chronicle reported that Oakland’s rents had increased by 13.3 percent for two bedrooms and 19 percent for one-bedrooms, resulting in Oakland being the 4th highest rental market in the country, higher than San Jose. The Mercury News recently reported that the median rent in Oakland is now $2900/month.
We all need safe, affordable housing. The city could condemn and buy existing unused buildings, turn them over to people’s coops, and fix them up so that they are safe. But where’s the profit in that?
Meanwhile, people will continue to camp, squat, build, transform, or create places to live, work, and play, where ever they/we can. The government won’t protect us, and the property owners don’t intend to waste even $10 installing a smoke detector. While the investigators have not yet found a cause of the fire, they have determined that it isn’t arson and have said it is likely to be electrical. But the cause of the deaths is clear – poor construction and maintenance of the building so that sections collapsed in the fire, no clear exit routes and blocked exits, no emergency lighting, no fire alarms, no sprinklers. People who set up alternate work, living, and event spaces need to make sure that basic life safety codes are followed.
No one had to die in this fire. Thirty-six people did. We blame capitalism.