Oakland City Council reviews post-Ghost Ship fire recommendations, community-written proposal receives little debate

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Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan called Richard Illgen, a deputy city attorney, back to the microphone. It was about 10 pm on Tuesday and the regular meeting of the city council was halfway into its fifth hour. Kaplan asked if current tenant protections apply to “grey market” spaces, such as buildings lacking a certificate of occupancy—which is the case for many live/work warehouses and other spaces in Oakland’s arts community.

“All of these laws have already covered live/work situations or illegal units,” Illgen said. There were murmurs of disagreement from the audience. He turned away from the podium.

Tenants’ rights have been the subject of renewed focus since the December 2, 2016, fire during a dance party at the Ghost Ship warehouse that claimed 36 lives. The Ghost Ship was home to an artists’ collective that lived and worked there despite the building being zoned for commercial, not residential use. The party did not have an event permit. Since the fire, many occupants of warehouses and other “grey market” spaces have faced evictions and threats of evictions from landlords afraid of legal repercussions from illegally housing tenants in unsafe conditions, as cities in the Bay Area ramp up inspections.

On Tuesday night, the council heard reports by working groups created by Mayor Libby Schaff’s Executive Order 2017-1 on January 11, calling for improving building and fire safety in non-permitted spaces while avoiding displacing their residents if code violations aren’t life-threatening. Should tenants have to be relocated, the order calls for the city to provide more relocation assistance. The order also calls for more notice for inspections; strengthening the Just Cause Ordinance, which prohibits landlords from evicting tenants except for specific reasons like failure to pay rent and illegal activities; as well as steps towards legalizing non-conforming spaces and reforming the city’s events permits system.

Darin Ranelletti, interim director of the Planning and Building Department, outlined a multi-department plan to work on a case-by-case basis with property owners to bring buildings up to code. The plan includes assessing building codes, the Just Cause Ordinance and other tenant protections, and cross-department integration and coordination.

According to Ranelletti, the Planning and Building department is examining Oakland’s live/work codes, which he called “quite innovative for the time they were adopted,” but which need to be re-assessed in the fire’s wake. Updates on these efforts will be provided to the council every sixty days.

Housing and Community Development director Michele Byrd noted the recently-expanded relocation payments to the tenants of red- and yellow-tagged buildings—buildings which are found to violate building code, are unpermitted or are in a hazardous state. She said their department works first with landlords to inform them they’re responsible for such payments. Should landlords be unable or unwilling to provide such payments, the city can provide the money to tenants at cost to the landlords.

Joe DeVries, assistant to the City Administrator, shared an update on the Fire Safety Task Force’s progress connecting databases such as those for building inspections, fire codes, and the emergency dispatch systems for easy access by city officials across departments. She also spoke about how safety inspections are prioritized, minimizing displacement for tenants living in buildings that violate safety codes, and assessing how to revise codes to accommodate “non-compliant spaces.” According to DeVries, there is also a separate committee to redesign events permits to “make it more user-friendly and improve compliance.”

After the Ghost Ship fire, arts community members formed the Oakland Warehouse Coalition (OWC), a group that argues that most people who live in marginal spaces like commercial warehouses do so because thanks to the Bay Area’s housing crisis, there’s nowhere else affordable. The group argues that that reporting unsafe conditions puts tenants at risk of red-tagging and eviction. In December, they drafted what they call the Emergency Tenant Protection Ordinance (ETPO), which they have been urging the council to adopt.

If the city adopts the ordinance, for 180 days it would prohibit the city and landlords from using unannounced inspections, reform the anonymous code violation reporting system, and prohibit other tactics to force tenants out of spaces. It would also extend Just Cause protections—which let landlords evict tenants only for specific reasons such as illegal activities and failure to pay rent—to tenants regardless of their lease terms.

The ETPO also calls for longer-term measures such as using eminent domain (the right of the government to seize private land for public use) to make live/work spaces legitimate under city building codes and reforming the city’s event permit system, which OWC members say is prohibitively costly.

Three of the OWC members—Jonah Strauss, a lead organizer; Carolyn Valentine, the organization’s policy analyst, and Steven DeCaprio, the lead writer of the ETPO—had the maximum speaking time of five minutes ceded to them during the public comments section of Tuesday night’s meeting.

Strauss called Schaaf’s executive order “just a starting point” and said that none of the city staff-led efforts adequately address tenants’ rights–especially for those living in buildings without a certificate of occupancy.

Valentine went further in criticizing the city’s response to the fire, saying they may reform the city’s “inspection, permitting, safety, communication and surveillance processes,” but that city staffers choose which spaces to evaluate on a case-by-case “with minimal transparency to the public.”  Valentine said that what’s needed are tenants’ rights reform and assure affordability covenants—a legal process that can tie rents to income thresholds and be used to provide rent control.

Currently in Oakland, many apartments are covered by rent control, but the Rent Adjustment Ordinance does not protect government-subsidized housing and units built in 1983 or after.

They also pointed to the working groups’ six-to-eight month timetables for carrying out the plans outlined in the presentation and said that legislation like the ETPO could stop wrongful evictions more swiftly.

“The housing crisis isn’t going anywhere fast, and neither are we,” Valentine said.

DeCaprio spoke to the eminent domain clause of the ETPO, citing the 2005 Supreme Court case Kelo v. New London, which ruled that eminent domain can be used to transfer private property from one owner to another in order to further economic development.

Other speakers were opposed to the ETPO. Gene Hazzard called the Ghost Ship fire an “event fire,” not a “residential fire,” meaning the talk of tenants’ rights was irrelevant. He added that the city should “let the police do their jobs” and report code violations.

Assata Olugbale said that “residential use of non-residential spaces is not the issue right now,” and that the issue is “holding people accountable” for the Ghost Ship fire, which she referred to as the “murder of 36 people.” She said that while the coalition insists their proposed legislation is to benefit all marginalized people, the majority of the beneficiaries are going to be “white people.”

The exchange between Illgen and Kaplan occurred after the public comments. Illgen said city attorney’s office staffers are “almost complete” with the analysis of the ETPO, which was submitted December 23. Kaplan asked if she’d be able to ask for advice when the proposal comes before the council. Illgen interrupted her mid-sentence to say that analyzing proposed legislation like the ETPO “takes a long time to do” and suggested the council “decide on policy objectives” themselves and then have the city attorneys draft ordinances based on those objectives.

Kaplan then asked if eminent domain can be used to reclaim “abandoned and blighted properties.” Illgen said that doing so requires the city to litigate, which property owners can oppose and can potentially be costly for the city.

Shortly before the council’s discussion on the Ghost Ship fire’s aftermath concluded, Councilmember Dan Kalb asked why people don’t apply for event permits. “Is it because the permits are expensive, why they don’t want to get a permit? Or is that not really it? Is it the nature of not going by the rules, is there some kind of excitement there?” he asked.

Members of the audience responded angrily, one person shouting “We can’t get approval!” and another shouting “We can give you an answer!”

In other council business, the council also voted to call on calPERS, the California Public Employees Retirement System, to divest from all banks and investment firms invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL.)

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on January 24 to advance its construction after outgoing President Barack Obama had halted it on December 4. The DAPL was set to run under Standing Rock Sioux tribal land and under Lake Oahe—the source of water the tribe and for millions more south along the Missouri River, which could be at risk of contamination once oil starts flowing. It has been subject to protests locally and nationwide, including from two city councils. Seattle, Washington and Davis, California voted to divest $3 billion and $1.2 million respectively from Wells Fargo, a bank that has loaned $467 millon to the pipeline.

“It’s never enough. There’s always more we can do,” said Morning Star Gali during the public comments section on the resolution. Gali called on city councilmembers to urge other politicians state and nationwide to divest from the pipeline project.

“I’m so proud to be a resident of Oakland where a divestment is on our agenda,” said activist Katherine Rad, adding “Why stop at calPERS, when we can divest the entire city?”

Councilmember Noel Gallo (District 5) moved to remove from the evening’s agenda the vote on the contract agreement for new Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, which would also increase the salary of City Administrator Sabrina Landreth. Councilmember Desley Brooks (District 6) seconded, moving approval of the contract to the non-consent portion of the next meeting of the council. If the contract is approved, Kirkpatrick will earn almost $300,000 per year–the highest salary in the history of the Oakland Police Department. Landreth, who earns about $291,000 per year, will see an approximately $8,000 increase in her salary.

Gathering on the rain-soaked steps of City Hall after the meeting ended, OWC members reacted to the latest development in their push for the ETPO.

When asked about the news that Illgen is almost done reviewing the ETPO, Valentine responded, “They’ve had over two months at this point, so good for them, but less good for everyone who’s being impacted negatively and failed by the city in this interim period.”

The coalition members expressed frustration over their interactions with city staffers. “We’ve done their homework, and we just want to have a discussion like big kids about the issues on the table,” Valentine said, adding, “It’s immensely frustrating when city councilmembers ask questions rhetorically up there on the dais and the people in the community who could answer those questions are in the room and yet those conversations can’t be had.”

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