Monday, December 12, 2016

OAKLAND FIRE: Tenant rights attorney discusses housing crisis behind Oakland “Ghost Ship” tragedy

Tenant rights attorney discusses housing crisis behind Oakland “Ghost Ship” tragedy

Tenant rights attorney discusses housing crisis behind Oakland “Ghost Ship” tragedy

By David Brown 
12 December 2016
On December 2, a warehouse in Oakland, California that was being rented out as artist studios burned down, killing 36 people, making it the worst building fire in the US since 2003. The “Ghost Ship” warehouse was rented by an artist collective known as Satya Yuga that hosted music shows and sublet studios that artists would also live in.
The antiquated building only had a permit for use as a warehouse. Public records show it had not been inspected for building code violations in over 30 years. The building was not even listed in the fire safety inspector’s database, despite state law requiring yearly fire inspections for all commercial buildings.
Without basic safety measures, like sprinklers, exit signs, or even working fire extinguishers, the maze of informally built live/work studios quickly became a death trap when the fire broke out. Investigators have not yet determined the immediate cause of the fire, although they suspect electrical failure.
The broader cause of this tragedy is the economic crisis, which has resulted in the slashing of public funding for safety inspections. At the same time, housing prices have skyrocketed as part of a speculative real estate bubble while median incomes have declined. Increasingly working-class and lower middle-class residents in high rent regions like the San Francisco Bay Area, which includes Oakland, can only afford substandard, informal and, in many cases, unsafe shelter.
The World Socialist Web Site spoke with Laura Lane, the Housing Practice Director at the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), which provides free legal work for low-income residents in Oakland and neighboring Berkeley. Lane has worked at the ECBLC since 1997 and has been a director there for almost 15 years.
While a lot of the media has focused on the issue of artists moving into old industrial spaces, Lane explained that the problems with informal housing were much broader. “There are a lot of low-income people living in converted basements, and converted garages, and converted storage units,” she said.
“The housing costs are so high, people with ordinary jobs can’t afford market-rate housing. They have to live close enough to public transportation to get to their jobs. They don’t have the choice to move out to the Central Valley, so they have to live where they can. We see a lot more people living in smaller units, a lot of 4-person families living in one or two bedroom units. Then the landlord at some point says it’s too many people in the household.”
While tenants may have an oral agreement with the landlord, Lane said, they put up with hazardous conditions “because they’re in a position where if they complain, if they try to get the landlord to make any repairs or do anything to make the unit safer or more habitable, then the landlord will turn around and say ‘Oh, you’re not supposed to be living there’ or maybe will stop accepting their rent.
“I have a case right now,” Lane explained “where it’s clearly a residential rental agreement and the landlord is trying to evict the tenant saying ‘it’s a storage unit.’ It is a converted storage unit but it has a kitchen and a bathroom in it so it’s clearly not rented out for storage. It’s typical for the landlord to turn around and say ‘I had no idea you were living there,’ even though it’s clearly been prepared for residential use. We see that a lot.”
These tenants are also unable to get the city to fix unsafe conditions. “They’re afraid to call Codes and Compliance because the building inspector could red-tag the property and then they would have to leave. But they can’t actually afford to leave so they’re in a very precarious situation.
“The clients I see, there’s no place for them to go. They’re either moving far out of the area, which if they’re employed at all they can’t do, or they’re going to be homeless. So every case is high-stakes because tenants have to fight to keep their tenancy because they’re not going to get another one. If they move out of that unit that’s been subject to rent control into a market-rate unit, they might be going from $800/month to $2000/month and that will be more than their family’s monthly income.”
In Oakland, the median monthly cost for a new rental is $3,000 a month, according to That is equivalent to the median monthly income for households that rent in Oakland, which is also $3,000. A rental is generally considered “affordable” if it is a third or less of a tenant’s income.
“The majority of our work involves defending low income tenants who are being evicted. But it’s changed many times over the years. After the foreclosure crisis what we’re having is what I refer to as the ‘investor crisis.’ Investors have bought all of these properties and they are trying to push people out and get properties out from under rent control.
“What we’re seeing more and more is that they’re buying the properties and deliberately making them uninhabitable by doing a lot of demolition work in the property to force the tenants to vacate. Or they’re deliberately allowing the property to become red-tagged by the city so tenants will have to vacate.”
California law makes it illegal for cities to restrict the amount that rent can be increased for new tenants. Therefore landlords have a financial incentive to evict long-term tenants who are paying below market rates because of rent-control measures.
Lane described one of these cases. “I challenged an eviction of an elderly Cantonese man from an SRO (Single Room Occupancy residence) on 8th St. in Oakland. In June the case went to trial. The landlord bought the property, which had 40 units. In an SRO tenants share bathrooms and kitchens. So on each floor there were three bathrooms and one kitchen for 20 units and there were two residential floors.
“The landlord demolished one of the kitchens and four of the bathrooms, so then you had 40 households sharing one kitchen and two bathrooms. My client withheld his rent. He was the only tenant who did because everyone else was too scared. The landlord tried to evict him for nonpayment of rent and we won that case.”
Although the housing crisis is expressed sharply in cities like Oakland, it is a nationwide phenomenon. A study by Harvard University showed average rental prices in the US increased by seven percent between 2001 and 2014, while median household income declined by nine percent. That growing gap pushes more and more people into the housing gray market that produced the Ghost Ship fire.

Housing crisis and neglect at root of fatal Oakland fire, one of the deadliest in US history

Housing crisis and neglect at root of fatal Oakland fire, one of the deadliest in US history

By David Brown 
6 December 2016
As the death toll mounts, the horrific fire that broke out at a dance party in East Oakland, California Friday night is now one of the worst such disasters in the recent history of the United States.
The City of Oakland announced early Monday that the number of bodies recovered from the 86-year-old Fruitvale warehouse called the Ghost Ship had risen to 36. The warehouse was being rented out to artists, and the studios were also used as informal housing by about 20 people.
According to survivors and neighbors, the fire spread quickly through ad hoc wooden rooms, cutting off any escape from the dilapidated building that lacked basic fire safety measures. Many were almost immediately trapped on the second floor, where a concert was being held, without any means of escape.
Recovery efforts were delayed Monday when one of the building’s walls threatened to collapse on firefighters. About 75 percent of the structure has been searched, but the Alameda County Sheriff told the Associated Press that he did not expect to find any more bodies.
Thirty-three of the victims have so far been identified. Many were in their 20s and 30s, but the youngest so far was 17. Three foreign nationals were identified, from Finland, South Korea and Guatemala.
According to one tally by “NBC News,”  the Ghost Ship fire is the seventh-deadliest building fire in the past 50 years, a list that includes the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. It is the deadliest building fire in the US since a night club in Rhode Island burned down in 2003, killing 100 people.
While the precise causes remain to be 

determined, indications are that the tragedy 

was facilitated by city officials who ignored 

unsafe conditions, a landlord who neglected 

basic safety measures and a housing crisis 

driving people to seek cheap rent in unsafe 

There was no shortage of dangerous flash points in the structure. Shelley Mack, a former tenant who lived in the warehouse for five months, told reporters that the building had no sprinklers or fire alarms and that it regularly went without utilities. Tenants used gas generators or propane stoves to heat their water, and stayed warm in the winter with space heaters. Wires crisscrossed the uninspected wooden partitions that turned the first floor into a maze of studios.
A neighbor, Danielle Boudreaux, described to the Washington Post the precarious makeshift stairs to the second floor where shows were held to help pay rent: “It only took two people on it at a time. .. when you stepped on it, it wobbled, and there were ropes holding it up. If you had three people on that it was falling down.” Once the fire started, she said, “there was no way you were getting out of that building.”
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley spoke to reporters Monday afternoon, announcing that the fire was a “potential crime scene” and that her office would investigate whether there was any criminal liability. She said that it was too early to specify who might be implicated, but that charges could range from involuntary manslaughter to murder. Any serious investigation, however, would immediately turn to the city itself.
The unsafe conditions, as well as the warehouse’s role as an unlicensed apartment and music venue, was an open secret to the landlord and city officials. The Tumblr page for the Ghost Ship contains numerous advertisements for musical performances. Over the past two years, the city has received numerous complaints, including three this year, regarding construction without a permit and unsafe conditions.
Twice in 2014 and twice in 2016, building 

inspectors were sent to the warehouse in 

response to complaints. However, no action 

was taken to improve the safety of the 

building. The Oakland Police Department 

records also show officers responding to 

reports of a stolen phone at a 2014 New Year’s

Party where they “canvassed the area and 

In 2007, Alameda County placed a lien on the property, owned by Chor Ng since 1988, for “substandard, hazardous or injurious conditions.” According to public records, Ng has four other properties that have been cited for blight in Oakland.
The conditions found in the Ghost Ship warehouse are far from unique and are well known by the city. Noel Gallo, a city councilor from the Fruitvale district, told CBS, “The reality is, there are many facilities being occupied without permits.” He estimated that there are about 200 warehouses “that have no papers, no permit, no fire code, nothing.”
The negligence of landlords and city officials is complemented by the broader housing crisis that drives poor people to seek out informal housing for cheap rent.
“What this tragedy really brings home is displacement and other impacts of gentrification: the high cost of housing and the lack of affordable housing,” Anyka Barber, co-founder of the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition, told the Wall Street Journal.
Rents have skyrocketed across the Bay Area in 

recent years. Oakland, which was once a haven for 

people avoiding San Francisco’s rent, is now the 

fourth most expensive city for renting in the United 

The median cost of an available rental in Oakland in September 2016 was $3,000 a month, according to Zillow. This is up 71 percent from January 2013, when it was just $1,757. Median income for renters in Oakland remains just $3,000 a month, making most apartments wildly unaffordable to perspective tenants.
The Bay Area is riven with social inequality. 

While workers in San Francisco and Oakland 

can barely afford rent, massive new luxury 

apartments are under construction in the 

Rockridge and SoMa districts. Across the Bay 

from the Fruitvale district where the 

warehouse burned down is the home of Larry 

Ellison, who has a personal net worth 

of $51.6 billion.
The current spike in property prices is part of 

a broader economic bubble driven by 

financial speculation after the 2008 crash. In 

2001, 41 percent of US renters spent 30 

percent or more of their income on housing. 

By 2014, this rose to 49 percent, with 26 

percent of renters spending more than 50 

percent of their income on housing.
A UBS report in 2015 drew a direct connection between the amount of cheap credit central banks, led by the US Federal Reserve and the Obama administration, were pouring into the financial market and increasing. The authors wrote, “Loose monetary policy has prevented a normalization of housing markets and encouraged local bubble risks to grow.”
The Oakland Ghost Ship fire is a horrific tragedy, but one with definite roots in the reality of American capitalism.

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