Fatal Oakland Fire Exposes Desperate Need for Safe Artists’ Housing

Fatal Oakland Fire Exposes
Desperate Need for Safe Artists’ Housing

December 2016

BERKELEY, Calif.—The Ghost Ship tragedy, the fire that killed 36 people at an electronic-dance-music party in an artist-occupied warehouse in Oakland Dec. 2, keeps expanding like ripples in a pool. Every day a new ripple reveals that another volunteer at our college radio station (KALX-FM) is among the dead, or that a coworker and new father would’ve been at the party if he hadn’t gotten into an argument with his child’s mother. Nearby businesses that welcomed artists’ warehouses as a source of new customers are now dropping a dime on them with press conferences, while cities that tolerated underground spaces are now trying to shut down as many as possible. 

These converted commercial and industrial spaces, while not legal for housing or public performances, serve multiple roles. They provide badly needed affordable housing. They contain art galleries that take risks on unknown talent and performance venues for musicians, DJs, and performance artists that have few other options. They are shelters of magic and creativity  away from the 9-to-5 capitalist grind. 

They are perennially in danger: From unscrupulous landlords who are happy to take a freak’s rent until a condo developer waves millions of dollars in front of his eyes. From insane housemates or out-of-control attendees at their events. From nosy neighbors who call code enforcement because the space let garbage pile up outside one too many times. And yes, they are sometimes in life-and-death danger, like the Ghost Ship was. 

The problem is that all of these dangers can result in eviction—another artist community blown apart, left to scramble to find someplace in the San Francisco Bay Area’s crazily overpriced rental market, any place that allows them to live and work and be part of a community. Usually finding such a place is impossible, and the city loses yet another piece of its soul, loses more of its creative lifeblood. 

The code inspectors and the fire marshals aren’t to blame. Their job is to ensure that spaces are physically safe. The problem is that an inspection that finds safety issues and unpermitted work invariably leads to the mass eviction of the residents. The landlords of such illegal units generally choose not to upgrade business spaces to the higher standards required by residential codes, let alone work with residents to legalize their units. The residents are mostly marginalized artists who don’t have the financial resources to pay for repairs or permits—and, as they don’t own the space, wouldn’t have any guarantee of being able to stay there after the work is done. City building departments and fire departments often act alone, without drawing in other government resources. This has to change.

I am the chair of the Berkeley Rent Board, and we just elected a new mayor, Jesse Arreguin, who is very aware of these issues. We’re looking at New York City’s Loft Law as a starting point. That law, enacted in 1982 and expanded to cover more of the city in 2010, sets procedures for bringing illegally occupied commercial and industrial spaces up to the safety-code standards required for people to live there, and for enabling the current residents to stay.

I am working with Mayor Arreguin to pass an emergency law allowing right of return for residents of warehouses/live-work spaces that are not in compliance with fire codes here in Berkeley. I and others hope to help that spread to San Francisco, Oakland, and the nearby East Bay cities of Emeryville, Richmond, and San Leandro. 

We also need some sort of amnesty for unpermitted living units in such spaces. In Berkeley, we just did something similar with “in-law units,” apartments and cottages people have built in areas zoned for single-family houses, in order to bring them under rent protections and code enforcement. This also expanded our official rental housing stock, which is extremely important. 

With this two-pronged effort, a visit from the code inspector or the fire marshal will not be the death knell for creative spaces. These spaces can be upgraded and legalized, and our creative communities can continue to exist here.

 Don’t get me wrong. More warehouses than you’d think actually do have sprinklers and fire extinguishers, and are laid out in ways that conform to fire and building codes. The Ghost Ship, although it had working fire extinguishers, clearly was not up to code and was not a safe place for people to live or gather. That’s one too many.

Our community is hurting like never before, and for the most part we’ve been responding like the resilient, determined people we can be. Through our tears and our pain we’re organizing relief funds, gathering building-safety experts, and working on ways to legally protect the dozens of scenes that underground spaces like the Ghost Ship serve. 


Jesse Townley is chair of the Berkeley Rent Board, general manager of Alternative Tentacles Records, and a 30-year punk-rocker.