Five years after Ghost Ship: How local organizations are fighting artist displacement
on December 16, 2021
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Oakland’s industrial zone bustled with canneries, metal works and warehouses. As the global economy changed, industries moved out and artists moved in. The low-rent buildings, with their vaulted interiors, were suitable for live-work studios.
Over the years, landlords looked the other way as tenants nested in spaces that were never coded for housing. On Dec. 2, 2016, the deadliest fire in Oakland history broke out in the Ghost Ship, a former warehouse in Fruitvale that had been converted into an artist collective. Thirty-six people were killed.
Since then, local art organizations have been working to provide safe and affordable space for Oakland’s creatives through grassroots efforts, public-private partnerships, policy making and business incubators. Recasting arts organizations as a community benefit, rather than a fringe deficit, can open the door to public and private support.
After Ghost Ship, David Keenan co-founded Safer DIY Spaces, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing artist displacement and improving building safety. He took the stand at a 2018 California Senate oversight hearing about the fire to advocate for notices of building violations to be mailed to residents as well as landlords.
“I’m really just seriously begging you on behalf of people that live in substandard buildings or work there,” he said. “These are the people whose bodies are at stake here.”
The team at Safer DIY Spaces includes architects and builders that focus on under-permitted live-work buildings that, like Ghost Ship, might fall under the radar.
They offer confidential services, such as walk-throughs and upgrades to comply with safety codes. For more extensive building improvements, they help artist groups navigate city inspections and permit processes. While the organization addresses immediate needs, others are working on long-term solutions.
Community Arts Stabilization Trust is co-developing a high-profile new building project in Liberation Park at 73rd Avenue and Foothill Boulevard. It is in a joint venture with Black Cultural Zone and Curtis Development that includes 120 affordable units, 20 of which will be live-work spaces.
“The building will also have a 20,000-square-foot community facility designed for art uses that grow out of the studios, as well as other small community-serving and culturally focused businesses,” said Joshua Simon, senior adviser at CAST. The project is a shift for CAST, which previously worked on older buildings.
“In the 1990s, the industry left the cities, and the artists moved in,” Simon said. “The problem now is that the industry is moving back.”
The city offers incentives to draw businesses to the same communities that artists are eyeing. For example, Oakland has Designated Opportunity Zones, where tax incentives are available to draw investors into distressed communities.
In another effort to attract capital, the city designated swaths of industrial land as “green zones” in 2017, where cannabis manufacturing is allowed. Industrial buildings are also becoming attractive to Amazon-type digital distribution companies.
“While the rise of online shopping has increased the value of industrial space, it has created new opportunities in the world of former retail buildings,” Simon said.
CAST brings creative financing to the world of art and real estate. Through a federal program called New Market Tax Credits, Community Development Financial Institutions sell shares to investors, whose funds are then matched to projects from organizations like CAST. Using those funds along with its own contribution to finance an acquisition, CAST then purchases a building to stabilize the rent, usually below market value. The 39% tax credit expires after seven years, and investors can sell their shares back.
In theory, those seven years give the arts organization enough time to buy its own building. CAST offers advice on capital campaigns, regulations and finding public and private sources.
“Many arts organizations are good at what they do but figuring out complex governmental programs for real estate just isn’t one of their programs,” Simon said. “And one way to kill an organization is to just drop a building on it before it has the capacity to deal with all of the governmental regulation.”
They started in 2013, with $5 million in seed money from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. CAST bought two buildings in San Francisco, each for $1 million. One was occupied by The Luggage Store Gallery and the other was a performing art space for CounterPulse.
Today, the Luggage Store is struggling to raise the $1.8 million to buy its building on Market Street. But it is under no obligation to do so. Under the CAST program, the arts organization may defer the purchase and ask CAST to help it find alternative space.
All CAST properties have a deed agreement that requires the buildings to be used for arts and culturally focused organizations. This prevents owners from flipping the property for profit.
“One of the dilemmas with community benefits agreements is there’s a lot of time and effort to craft the agreement, but who actually carries out and ensures the community benefits long term,” Simon said. “CAST was designed to do that.”
In the end, the setup did not work for The Luggage Store, because it was too constricting.
“I think it’s a good model for real estate, but it wasn’t a good model for us,” said Laurie Lazer, co-director of The Luggage Store. “I don’t really think we needed the entire building. If we want to rent out a floor to make some money, it must be used for a nonprofit arts organization or something art-related.”
Still, Lazer thinks the program will be good for the arts in the Bay Area, because it ensures a space for arts and cultural organizations for the life of a building.
Council acts to protect live-work tenants
One of Oakland’s historic live-work studios, the Oakland Cannery, was bought in 2017 by Green Sage, a Colorado-based firm that acquires real estate for cannabis growers. Originally occupied by a fruit-packing company, it’s one of the oldest artist live-work spaces in the city, dating to the 1970s.
Cannery resident Alistair Monroe, son of founder Arthur Monroe, said Green Sage is trying to drive art tenants from the building. In an October protest show, the gallery walls were lined with four years of correspondence between tenants and the city, chronicling their dispute with their new landlord and pleas for help from the city.
Green Sage did not respond to phone and email requests for comment on this story.
On display was Monroe’s 2018 letter to Kelley Kahn, the special projects director for the city’s Economic and Workforce Development Department. In it, he described the residents’ worries about security, safety and a lack of attention to building maintenance.
In March 2018, City Council responded and amended city law to prohibit cannabis permits from being issued in places that had already been established as live-work spaces.
“By the city’s estimate,” Kahn said, “the revisions to the city’s cannabis regulations provided protections for more than 25 permitted live-work buildings in the green zone.”
That is the total number of permitted spaces that the city estimates to be in the green zone.
The action may have come a year too late for the Cannery, which was purchased a year before the amendment passed. The amendment also doesn’t address unpermitted spaces, like the Ghost Ship warehouse. Khan said the city has no estimate of the number of unpermitted spaces occupied by artists.
Monroe says that by early 2022, 13 of the Cannery’s 20 spaces will be vacant. The remaining seven residents, while determined to stay, still ponder whether they should pack up and look elsewhere for a home.
“These guys are winning, and I don’t think they should win,” said Eddie Colla, who has lived in the Cannery since 1994. “Not just because they would be displacing us. They don’t really care about this place. They don’t have any ties to this community.”
Former warehouses like the Cannery are considered commercial space, not residential, which limits what the city can do to help tenants. “Commercial rent control is illegal in the state of California,” Kahn noted. “So a city cannot require affordable space in commercial or industrial buildings.”
One thing the city can do is create zoning incentives. Khan said the city’s Downtown Oakland Specific Plan has zoning tools for some areas that require a percentage of space be dedicated to the arts. Rents would have to stay reasonable to fit the average budget of an arts organization.
“Other incentives include offering developers the option of increased building density in exchange for adding space for arts, cultural and community benefits,” Kahn said.
Artists unite to create opportunities
When artists organize and identify themselves as a community benefit, they have access to more resources through city and nonprofit organizations.
For example, Community Vision is a nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution. Using investments from individuals, organizations, governments, banks and foundations, it has established a loan fund of about $80 million and offers consulting services, as well as seasonal grants.
“If an organization is doing an acquisition and needs a traditional real estate loan, or needs a construction loan or small business loan, those are things we do,” said Luba Yusim, spokesperson for Community Vision. ”Each project is different.”
Community Vision partnered with several groups that emerged after the Ghost Ship fire, including Safer DIY Spaces, Vital Arts and CAST.
Community Vision is also building an “artist space trust” modeled after community land trusts that secure land to create long-term affordable housing spaces for artists. It is also developing a networking tool, ArtsWeb, to link artists, art groups, entrepreneurs and businesses to share resources and concerns.
Another community organization, Vital Arts, provides advocacy and resources for artists.
“Artists are essential workers that really are critical to our communities,” said Kathryn Reasoner, the organization’s executive consultant.
After a 2019 fire at m0xy, an industrial arts complex and makerspace for large-scale sculpture, Vital Arts created an opportunity loan fund and provided m0xy a bridge loan. Since then, m0xy has secured a new lease, with new equipment and studio space.
This spring, Vital Arts, alongside local community housing groups, was contracted by the state to assist the CA COVID-19 Rent Relief program. It created an outreach network of over 120 organizational partners to reach out to qualifying low-income Bay Area artists.
Some creative groups straddle the boundary between art and enterprise, which presents another alternative for survival — starting a business.
O2 Artisans Aggregate is a small-business incubator and LLC in West Oakland. A former oxygen plant, its warehouses and shipping containers function as fabrication studios, test kitchens and maker spaces.
Many of the tenants have trained in the arts, learning skills like blacksmithing and woodworking. Now they practice ethically sourced, small-scale manufacturing.
“Artists sell their work in galleries, but artisans sell their work in stores,” said Marisha Farnsworth, an artist, architect and O2AA manager.
Artisans also need safe and affordable live-work warehouse space like artists, but there are fewer programs to help them, she said.
The 2.5-acre site was purchased by architect Paul Discoe in 2000. Now 78, he is thinking about retiring.
“I curated the population here to be people that I thought were sympathetic and had some ideas of their own,” Discoe said.
Today, O2AA has 30 tenants. At its core is one of the Bay Area’s only urban wood mills. Redwood and oak trees removed from area construction sites are salvaged and cut into lumber for buildings, art and furniture. Saw dust is mixed into compost, and compost feeds a vegetable garden that supplies on-site kitchens. It is a laboratory for a circular economy, where the waste from one process becomes the resource for another.
For now, it is solely protected by Discoe, who wants the place to continue after he retires. The tenants are talking to investors and crafting a plan for self-ownership. But even if they succeed in securing the place to work, they will still need help finding an affordable place to sleep.
The Ghost Ship tragedy inspired arts organizations to expand their investments beyond the studio, stage or gallery.
“It triggered a conversation at CAST about how we can find ways to be more involved in housing,” said Simon, referring to the shift toward cultural economic development with an affordable housing component. “We began to look at how can we bring these together in a healthy way that will give people alternatives to crashing in warehouses.”
This story was updated to correct information about CAST’s role in the new building project as well as the project’s location, and to clarify New Market Tax Credits.
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