San Pablo Avenue fire victims struggle to get help
on April 19, 2017
Jonah Strauss is cutting checks for $228.11.
The residential building at 2551 San Pablo Avenue caught fire in the early-morning hours of March 27, killing four people and displacing more than 100. That day Strauss started a crowdfunding page to collect donations for displaced residents. It wasn’t the first time he’d done this—as a founding member of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition, Strauss had collected donations for survivors of the Ghost Ship fire and their next of kin.
According to Strauss, a representative of the City of Oakland said the city had counted 118 people who lived in the building, but wouldn’t share names or contact information with him. By the end of the day, the Oakland Warehouse Coalition (OWC) had raised $26,917.23, he said. Divide that by 118, and it comes to $228.11 per displaced resident.
Since then, the OWC raised around $7,500 more, for a current total of $34,205—a paltry sum compared to the nearly $1 million raised after the Ghost Ship fire. He also started his own list of names of former residents of the San Pablo building, based on information from building managers, security guards and verified former tenants.
“Nobody knew who lived in the building,” Strauss said.
That’s because there were separate master tenants renting space on different floors of the building, plus squatters living on the third floor. The building provided housing for low-income and disabled tenants, as well as other at-risk populations such as people recovering from addiction. Three Oakland-based organizations, Urojas Community Services, House of Change and Dignity Housing West, were the master tenants of the building and residents obtained housing through them. The third floor of the three-story building was officially unoccupied, but former residents say it was inhabited by squatters who didn’t pay rent.
The Reverend Dr. Jasper Lowery, the founder and executive director of Urojas, said his organization occupied the first floor and housed people with mental-health problems. “We had 44 to 47 residents; 14 were severely mentally challenged. The others just needed help and guidance and direction,” he said.
Lowery said despite the tragedy, Urojas is still continuing its work, trying to help people get back on their feet.
“We’ve never had a disaster. We’ve never had multiple lives being lost. We’ve never had burned-out properties. This is all new for us. Believe you me, after a week and a half, I’ve been in shock still. I just came out of shock the other day,” Lowery said. “People are calling me, I’m calling folks, I’m finding them a place to go, finding them a bed, finding them food. Whatever the people need, Urojas is still at work doing what needs to be done.”
According to statements made to the press by city spokesperson Kristina Boyd and interviews with former tenants conducted by Oakland North, the fire was started by a burning candle, allegedly after a resident’s power was cut by PG&E. According to a City of Oakland press release on March 31, the fire’s causes were ruled accidental. So far, no legal actions have been filed and the cause of the fire is officially under investigation.
Dominic Jarvis, a security guard and resident in the building, was the first person to spot the fire. “I was the reason a lot of us lived,” he said.
Jarvis said he saw a resident burning two candles on top of a Styrofoam plate in his apartment. “I told him don’t light that, it’ll start a fire. He didn’t take heed to that, ” he said.
Jarvis said he later saw the resident chatting in the hallway as smoke started billowing out of the room. He and the resident ran back to the room and opened the door to see a rug on fire.
“He grabbed the rug that was on fire and he tried to shake the fire off, but all he did was spread it around,” Jarvis said. “It was like water spilling.”
Jarvis said the two of them then ran from the room trying to alert people to the fire. But some of the hallways were closed off by locked gates, and he wasn’t able to get into every hallway on all three floors.
There were no fire extinguishers or fire alarms in the building, according to Jarvis. That’s consistent with a report filled out by an Oakland fire inspector who visited the building just three days before the fire. The report ordered the building’s management to “Certify/service Fire Alarm System immediately” and service the sprinkler system, provide smoke detectors for each unit, and place fire extinguishers throughout the building.
“I do believe that if there was fire extinguishers there, the fire could have been prevented,” Jarvis said.
Kimberli Usher, another former resident, also said there were no fire alarms in the building. “There wasn’t any smoke alarm. Our mouths were the smoke alarms,” she said. “We communicated the best we could. We had people die. Animals die. Dogs die.”
The building’s manager named in the report could not be reached for comment. A message left with the offices of Sam Singer, a spokesman for building owner Keith Kim, was not returned.
Kim has accused Urojas in various media outlets of letting the building fall into disrepair. Lowery, the director of Urojas, denied the allegations to Oakland North, saying instead that it was Kim’s responsibility to take care of the building.
“We reached out to the owner. We said ‘You’ve got to do something about your building. You’ve got to fix your building.’ He wouldn’t. Conditions got worse. We had to pursue an attorney so we could get his attention some kind of way,” Lowery said. “At the end of that, all he could come back with was ‘Get out. Well, if you don’t like the conditions of the building, get out.’”
Jarvis, the former tenant and security guard, recounted unsafe and unhealthy conditions in the building. “You had mold in the walls, the roofs and stuff was caving in… we had rats the size of cats. Babies and stuff was staying there. It wasn’t no place for kids,” he said. “It was ready to go, but not like that.”
2551 San Pablo’s tragedy is the second massive fire to strike Oakland in the last four months. The December 2, 2016 Ghost Ship fire took the lives of 36 people who were attending a dance party at the warehouse-turned-arts-space. The fire highlighted the lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area, which pushes low-income Oakland residents into unsafe spaces.
A “massive re-inflation of the housing bubble” has led to more and more Bay Area residents remaining in homes they know are unsafe, according to Maeve Elise Brown, the executive director of Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA), a statewide advocacy and legal-services group that promotes policy solutions to the housing crisis and provides counseling to people about their housing situations.
“What we see here is the level of desperation of tenants to remain housed is unprecedented,” Brown said. “We need to be working hard to hold our city and our county accountable. And I’m not saying it’s easy, because we’ve got a flood of people that are being pushed out of San Francisco and are coming over here to the East Bay.”
Though HERA provides financial advice and training to community members, the organization was never intended to provide legal advice about unsafe housing, Brown said. But she’s found herself fielding more and more calls from tenants concerned about their living conditions as other organizations offering legal help find themselves overwhelmed and unable to answer calls.
“Our office is drowning in calls from tenants,” she said. “A large number of tenants that are calling us have severe habitability problems … mold, leaking roof, bug infestations in some cases.”
Brown said HERA doesn’t get a lot of calls about fire safety. She said people don’t typically worry about it, because they assume that if a landlord is allowed to rent to them, then the house or rental unit must be safe.
“Whether they think about it or not, they rely on the notion of there being inspections by the city, by fire people, to assume that if this building is open, that it must be at least safe-ish. I think that the fires have been a horrible, horrible form of education for people across the country,” she said.
Residents of the building, like Usher, told Oakland North that the building at 2551 San Pablo was one of the only options for them given the unaffordability of most housing in Oakland. Since the fire, she’s lived in a shelter and now has a temporary housing voucher, provided by the city, for a motel.
“Housing is very expensive right now. I can’t afford an apartment. I’m a single mother with three children and I’m taking care of my disabled mother,” Usher said. “They told us we’d get housing, they put us in motels and shelters. It’s not a shelter, so I’m grateful for that, but how’s that going to last? I have nowhere to go.”
Despite the conditions in the San Pablo building, Usher said living there gave her not just a place to go every night but a sense of community.
“We became a family there. We all were family. We all helped each other,” she said.
The city’s response is being coordinated by Assistant City Administrator Claudia Cappio. Cappio said the city, along with the Red Cross, set up a temporary shelter in the West Oakland Youth Center a few blocks from the site of the fire.
“Medical, psychological, social and other services were available at the shelter during that week,” Cappio said. “We had the County Health Department, Public Health and Behavioral Services folks. The Salvation Army provided meals. The Red Cross provided huge services, including case management and making sure that people had their immediate needs met, i.e. clothes, medicines and other needs that become very apparent when you have to run out of your house.”
After the week was up, residents had to leave the youth center so it could resume its normal operations. At that point, Cappio said, the city set up a “one-stop shop” on Frank Ogawa Plaza where displaced residents could have new drivers’ licenses issued to them, receive relocation assistance (in the form of cash payments that varied depending on need and family size), or access social services. She said 24 people were placed in transitional housing, 21 redirected to homeless shelters, ten families were put up in hotels and two families were permanently housed.
Since the closure of the one-stop shop, the city continues to offer housing assistance, including assistance in securing low-interest loans for housing, to displaced residents across from City Hall at 250 Frank Ogawa Plaza.
Cappio said she and others in the city are proud of the efforts of the city departments and relief organizations that worked with fire victims and displaced residents.
“I just want to make sure you realize what a partnership this was among a number of city departments, the Red Cross particularly, the Salvation Army, our folks at Alameda County Behavioral Health services,” she said. “This is really a tremendous effort and I’m really proud of the work that our folks did in the aftermath. Our Human Services Department, Housing Department, Fire Services Department are doing triple duty.”
On April 12—more than two weeks after the fire—displaced residents streamed through a warehouse filled with donations, looking for blankets, clothing or pillows provided by community members and collected by Daryle Allums of Adamika Village, a local anti-gun-violence organization that’s been helping with relief efforts.
Amid piles of donated items like jackets, children’s books, blankets, crayons and toothbrushes, former residents searched for needed items while Strauss verified identities and cut checks. As people poured in, some complained that it was taking too long for Strauss to cut their checks, and others were distraught to learn their names were not on the list.
Strauss didn’t blame them. He’d done his best to determine the identities of former residents, but the information had been difficult to verify, and the city wasn’t able to turn over contact information to the Oakland Warehouse Coalition without contacting those residents, first.
“Emotions are difficult to deal with when tensions are high,” he said.
He knew that some people who should have been on the list weren’t—and that a few people who actually hadn’t lived in the San Pablo Avenue building were taking advantage of the situation by claiming checks reserved for displaced residents.
“The deal is, at the end of the day, that we’re giving money away to a few people who didn’t live in the building. We’ve done all of the due diligence that we can do,” he said.
Many former residents, like Usher, still don’t have a permanent place to stay. Speaking before Tuesday’s council decision was announced, advocates said the Red Cross and the city of Oakland hadn’t offered enough help.
“The city and Red Cross didn’t do a structured job,” said Allums of Adamika Village. He said that the shelter set up by the Red Cross at the West Oakland Youth Center “was like jail. One shower, Parks and Rec and City of Oakland wasn’t cleaning it three times a day. All these people in one building and no cleaning. They [the Youth Center’s management] would get mad when people’s kids would take food upstairs. They didn’t have the right people to take care of the survivors.”
Lorraine Wade, another member of Adamika Village, sharply criticized the official response to the fire. “People have been getting treated like animals dealing with this situation. Women haven’t been getting feminine care, children wouldn’t have clothes,” she said.
Usher said she was also disappointed in the city’s response. She had hoped for more help from the city after Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf arrived at the scene of the fire the night afterward to visit the victims.
“The mayor came out, but she hasn’t done anything but take pictures with people. She didn’t offer us housing or even a towel. All she said is ‘I’m so sorry.’ Well don’t be sorry, help us!” Usher said. “The mayor just came to be seen and she came at 10 o’clock at night.”
In response to a request for an interview, a spokesperson for Schaaf sent a package of documents from the city, including a prepared statement from the mayor and a collection of fire-inspection reports. “The San Pablo Avenue Fire is another tragedy that reveals the urgent need to overhaul our inspection process,” Schaaf said in a statement. “Today we are doubling the number of staff members in the Fire Prevention Bureau and taking steps to enhance their training and tools. We must expose the reckless property owners who are putting profits above safety. The two tragic fires over the last months highlight the critical importance of leadership, training, technology and staffing at our Fire Department; today’s actions address those needs.”
Given that a fire inspector visited the building three days before the fire, it’s unclear how adding more fire inspectors would have helped prevent it. Spokesman Michael Hunt offered an interview with Oakland North, but then stopped responding to emails and never followed through with the offer.
Even the councilmember whose district the fire struck hasn’t been able to get much information from Schaaf’s office about the city’s relief efforts. Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3) said she’s been trying to get basic responses to questions like what assistance displaced residents can expect to receive from the city. “The vast majority of the people would understand if the city said straight-up we don’t have the capacity to support able-bodied people,” Gibson McElhaney said. “I think everyone would just appreciate some clarity!”
McElhaney said she is pushing for a Proactive Rental Inspection (PRI) program, which would provide for periodic health and safety inspections of all rental units in the city, starting with the city’s oldest buildings.
“We want to seed the program so that we can hire now and begin to put the systems in and talk about the [cost] assessment later. Start with a pilot with the oldest housing stock in the city first, because we know that that’s where you end up with buildings that have systems that may have been aged or dysfunctional,” she said. “Those are important because we know that the oldest housing stock usually holds the most vulnerable populations, who are likely to be afraid of retaliatory evictions if they were to report unsafe conditions.”
For his part, Strauss would like to see the city, the Red Cross and the community do more to help people displaced by the fire. “When you look at the amount of money that has come in for Ghost Ship and the amount of money that has come in for this, it breaks my heart,” Strauss said. “Some of these people are going to end up on the street. Some of them already are on the street.”
McElhaney, Cappio and Strauss said they are still hoping for additional donations to help displaced residents. Donations can be given to the Oakland Warehouse Coalition’s fundraiser, the West Oakland Fire Victims’ fund care of First Presbyterian Church and the District 3 Disaster fund run by The Mentoring Center.
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