Tenant rights attorney discusses housing crisis behind Oakland “Ghost Ship” tragedyMonday, December 12, 2016
World Socialist Web Site By David Brown
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.