On one side of the room, old plaster clung to a red brick wall, turning it pink. Glossy black-painted steel support beams braced the brick in a neat row. The facing wall was a spotless, smooth white, the paintings on it neatly spaced apart. David Keenan made a joke about the excess of well-lit exit signs–eight for a wide-open room with little in the way of obstacles. People laughed. It echoed off the floor. The acoustics were great.
Keenan’s remark undercut the somber tone of the event, a safety workshop for warehouse and other “non-conforming housing” tenants, which was prompted by the December 2, 2016 fire in the underground arts space called the Ghost Ship. The Safe Spaces workshop was organized by Intersection for the Arts, which provides resources like professional development services and facilities for artists and art organizations, and SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Urban Planning and Research Association, a nonprofit which works on urban planning and economic development policies.
Since the tragedy, which killed 36 people, many buildings and spaces in the underground arts scene in the Bay Area has been facing increased scrutiny from building and fire code regulators. Many artists are already pushed to live and work in unsafe spaces due to the ongoing housing crisis and lack of affordable rentals. The workshop was held at SPUR’s offices in Oakland and offered talks by representatives from the Oakland Warehouse Coalition, the DIY Communities Safety Fund, We the Artists of the Bay Area as well as architect Thomas Dolan and veteran arts organizer Sarah Lockhart.
The fire brought to light concerns about a wide swath of grey market and semi-legal residences in the Bay Area, not just art warehouses occupied by artists. “Artists have become a metonym for anyone who lives and works in a non-traditional non-conforming situation. If you looked at everyone who has a bunk bed in the back of a liquor store, it’s a much larger community,” said Keenan.
“If you’re marginalized, you’ll be in a marginal part of town in a marginal building. People in marginal situations aren’t defined well in all the building, planning, fire and other codes,” he added.
Keenan is an organizer for the DIY (short for Do-It-Yourself) Communities Safety Fund, which provides consultation and financial assistance to people who live in grey-market spaces. His talk was about navigating building and safety codes and preparing for inspections. He said that when it comes to DIY spaces, building code enforcement staff prioritize the word of those who complain over people who live or work in a space, and that safety laws often recommend building new buildings over preserving or retrofitting older ones. He advised those in spaces facing inspection to contact someone knowledgeable about the code to pre-inspect it and advise the tenants. The DIY Fund provides that kind of consultation, as well as micro-grants to help owners and tenants of spaces get up to code compliance.
Sarah Lockhart, who founded the now-defunct arts nonprofit 21 Grand, spoke about navigating the systems for holding events and getting a special event permit, which are required by the city for gatherings of 50 or more people. She said that one of the main obstacles for obtaining event licenses is dealing with police officers; event planners have to apply for permits at police substations. “If you want to have a rap show, they’re going to make far more demands of you than if you want to have somebody playing bluegrass music,” Lockhart said.
Her advice centered around being “smart criminals”—not in the sense of purposefully breaking laws, but in framing proposed events and conducting behavior to minimize attention and the need for law enforcement intervention. Lockhart suggested tactics like making event proposals “sound boring” to police and keeping people from lingering outside on the street where patrol officers can stop them. She also warned people to be more vigilant about online advertising for events hosted in grey-area spaces, saying “We got too complacent in our tacit understanding” with landlords before the Ghost Ship fire and that “We’ve got be more vigilant about being underground.”
Thomas Dolan, an architect whose firm built the first space designed as a live/work facility in the United States, spoke at length about the nuances of building codes. He said the “DIY studio scene in Oakland and elsewhere” was like a great “mega-ship” which nurtured culture in the city but “hit a sand bar” when the Ghost Ship fire broke out. He said while most of the artists and broader community worked “all hands on deck” to push it off the metaphorical sand bar, “those that jumped ship were the landlords, who panicked and evicted their tenants.” He assured landlords that panic is unneeded and the city has systems in place to help them get into compliance. Dolan called the Ghost Ship an “outlier,” where the safety hazards were far worse than anything in the underground spaces he’s surveyed since.
He said he did observe code violations in many of the spaces he visited, but he said they reflected the changing needs and habits of people living in these places rather than gross negligence. He pointed out that the live/work code on the city’s books is from 1996, and is designed around live/work spaces with single bedrooms. But, he continued, most of the spaces he surveyed had multiple bedrooms, which he said are now essential in a high-rent market like Oakland. The 1996 code doesn’t allow for assemblies of people, but from Dolan’s observations and the wider consensus, these spaces are often used for performances, concerts and other events.
Dolan proposed amendments to the code to allow tenants and owners alike to make simple, safe changes to accommodate assemblies while staying safe and compliant. For example, he pointed out, single bedroom live/work spaces in the 1996 code didn’t have to have escape openings in the bedroom, as long as an exit was visible from the bedroom. In multiple bedroom spaces, that’s hard to achieve. So clear emergency exit signage and diagrams with escape routes could suffice instead, he suggested.
If updates to the code don’t happen, he said, the underground arts scene in Oakland “is doomed.”
Advocates from the arts community are also pushing for a political solution. Jonah Strauss and Carolyn Valentine detailed the Emergency Tenant Protection Ordinance (ETPO), a piece of legislation they’re trying get the city council to pass. Both are members of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition (OWC), which advocates for better rights and housing policies for those in in marginal spaces like the Ghost Ship.
The ETPO would enact a 180-day period prohibiting the city and landlords from using unannounced inspections, anonymous code violation complaints and other tactics to force tenants out of spaces. It would also extend Just Cause protections—which set specific reasons such as illegal activities and failure to pay rent as the sole reason a tenant can be evicted–to tenants regardless of their lease terms. The ETPO also calls for long-term solutions like 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.
Ron Vidal, a former firefighter and representative of We Artists of the Bay Area (WABA,) spoke last. He said WABA is trying to “advocate for artists as a collective voice” on “both at the policy level and down at the tactical level.” WABA advocates for better housing and workspace policies for artists as well as practical outreach measures, like giving out smoke alarms and fire extinguishers and explaining building codes to artists.
“The very people you can go and ask for help are the very people who can bust you,” Vidal said. He continued, “This is not rocket science. We just need to do a better job of explaining [building codes] to people. People are interested in their own safety.”
About 50 people attended the event, some taking notes, some asking questions and many applauding the speakers. Beers were a $2 suggested donation.
“I think it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed by a lot of different perspectives,” said attendee Ken Harootunian, a director of development at the East Bay Community Fund, adding, “If we don’t do something we’re going to lose the arts like San Francisco did, and peoples’ lives will be at risk.”
“Living, working, fundraising, throwing parties, all of that happens at these kind of off-the-radar spaces,” said attendee Courtney King, who fundraises for art installations at Burning Man. “It’s important to understand where we can build the art and where the people I know and love can live.”
According to Ashley Bellouin of Intersection for the Arts, this was the first of a series of events the organization is planning on arts spaces in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire. Bellouin said that details on upcoming events will be available on their website soon.