Over 60 community members including artists and performers affected by the December 2, 2016 Ghost Ship fire gathered at Oakland City Hall Monday night for a special meeting of the city council to discuss tenant issues in the wake of the tragedy.
“The only reason why people sometimes overlook possible dangers in spaces like [Ghost Ship] is because of the culture of secrecy that is a response to the vulnerabilities [of] tenants,” said Nihar Bhatt, who witnessed the Ghost Ship fire and had frequented the art collective’s building. “There are a lack of options for performers, for artists, for anyone who is low-income,” he added.
“A lot of the people I know in the tech industry didn’t just come for a tech job. A lot of us came partially because we wanted to experience meaningful art, not just popular commercialized art,” said Denise, a tech worker at the meeting who did not give her last name. She added, “and I think in 30, 40, 50 years if artists aren’t here, you might experience a brain drain, because who wants to be in a place where all the people sitting next to you at restaurants are just going to be techies?”
The council declared December 2 to be “Ghost Ship Remembrance Day” and adopted an ordinance giving displaced tenants larger relocation payments and expanding the number of people eligible for such payments. Both efforts were spearheaded by at-large City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.
“For me as a councilmember to do the documentation to get this passed is one part of the work, but the community coming out and fighting for it is also part of the work,” Kaplan said after the meeting. “All of those steps forward happened because there were people working together in coalition.”
“Kaplan is a champion and a rare, rare politician in this,” said Tyler Hanson, co-founder of We Artists of the Bay Area, speaking after the meeting. The organization formed in response to the Ghost Ship fire and advocates for safe community spaces for artists to live and work. “These are steps in the right direction but there’s a long way to go,” he said.
The meeting also set two agenda items for future discussion by the council: discussion of a proposed Emergency Tenant Protection Ordinance (ETPO) and Mayor Libby Schaaf’s executive order on “Improving Safety of Non-Permitted Spaces While Avoiding Displacement.”
The ETPO calls for a cessation of tactics used by landlords and city inspectors to force tenants to leave, such as using “red-tagging” buildings with code violations that aren’t life-threatening, “flash” or unannounced inspections, and anonymous code violation complaints. Under the EPTO, people who make complaints would have to submit names and contact information to the building department and if they are caught filing complaints for profit or to harass someone, they and their representatives will be banned from filing complaints.
It would also extend Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance protections, which prohibit a landlord from evicting a tenant except for specific reasons such as illegal activities and failure to pay rent, to tenants regardless of their lease terms for 180 days. The Just Cause Ordinance, according to OWC statements, is often difficult for tenants whose residences violate their leases to cite in their own defense. The ETPO also calls for longer-term measures including using eminent domain (the right of governments to seize private land for public use), to make live-work spaces legitimate and making cabaret licenses and other event permits easier to obtain.
The ETPO proposal was put forward by the Oakland Warehouse Coalition (OWC), an organization formed in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire to advocate for those who live and work in converted commercial and industrial locations.
“I want to feel like those were good ordinances that passed, but my experience is there’s been a lot of rhetorically good things passed that give lip-service to communities, but don’t really provide substantial change,” said Steven DeCaprio, the ETPO’s primary author and a longtime housing rights activist with Land Action, speaking after the meeting.
Schaaf’s Executive Order 2017-1, issued on January 11, calls for authorities to “avoid” removing tenants from non-permitted living spaces when code violations aren’t life-threatening, providing adequate compensation for their relocation, and more notice for tenants about inspections. It also calls for the city to see how its funds can be used to legalize “non-conforming residential units that house vulnerable community members,” having the rent board review the Just Cause Ordinance and recommend areas of it that can be strengthened to protect residents of non-compliant spaces, creating a “Special Event Permits System Redesign group” that would ensure better safety compliance for event permits, and a public education campaign about the rights and duties of tenants and landlords whose properties do not conform to city codes.
The city administrator was directed to make a comparison of Schaaf’s executive order and the ETPO, although a specific date was not set for presenting that comparison or discussing either item.
While the council did not engage in much debate over Schaaf’s executive order or the ETPO, there were some objections from the audience.
Oakland resident Assata, who did not give her last name, complained that the items on the agenda were there to help artists and performers—not the larger community of tenants and in particular African-Americans, whose population in Oakland have long been on the decline. “Don’t falsely say this is about everybody, because it’s not. It’s about artists that are in this community and you want to serve them and keep them here because they are ‘the heart and soul of Oakland.’ My people are the heart and soul of Oakland, too.” she said.
Abigail Bornstein, a realtor at Bay Property Group, said that allowing spaces to continue to be used “for purposes they are not zoned for” would make insurance companies hesitant to insure buildings and would leave landlords and the city liable for incidents like the Ghost Ship fire.
Audience members began to speak angrily as Bornstein made her statement. One person shouted “They [landlords] cashed the check, though!” meaning that if landlords whose spaces violate city codes accept rent money from tenants, the landlords should be responsible for liabilities and accidents.
After the meeting adjourned, Kaplan said bringing the comparison of Schaaf’s executive order and the ETPO to the council will ensure “each provision of what the community has requested” is taken into account.
“I think it’s likely it’ll turn out that maybe some parts of what the community had asked for are covered and some parts are not. But rather than try to figure that all out tonight on the fly, we’ve asked them to give us that breakdown in writing and bring that back to us,” Kaplan said, adding, “Before tonight it was just me asking for it. Now it’s the council as a whole in a public meeting saying they will [address it] on the record, so now they have to.”
In a January 24 statement on their Facebook page, the Oakland Warehouse Coalition stated that although progress had been made at the meeting, the lack of a deadline means that “the fate of the ETPO still very much hangs in the balance.”
“We’re going to continue pushing the ordinance,” said Jonah Strauss, a spokesperson for the coalition. “The Oakland Warehouse Coalition and the wider low-income community in Oakland will not be ignored.”
This article has been amended on 1/31/17 to adjust inaccuracies in the descriptions of the Just Cause Ordinance and the ETPO and to clarify the description of the photograph.