No Housing, No Arts, No Community! — Oakland’s “Ghost Ship” Fire Born of Rental Pandemic

See the version of this article published in the San Francisco Chronicle here.

So far, about 3 dozen people are suspected dead at the artist community in East Oakland known as “Ghost Ship”, on International Boulevard and 31st Avenue. The blaze started during a planned all-night dance party on December 2, 2016 at around 11:30 pm. The single stairwell heading to the 2nd floor became engulfed in flames, trapping many of the hundred or so guests and residents from descending it to safety, and keeping their friends on the 1st floor from doing anything to save them. By the time firefighters arrived to this industrial neighborhood in East Oakland’s diverse and crime-ridden community running just East of highway 880, the blazing roof had fallen onto the 2nd floor, causing the 2nd floor to collapse onto the 1st. The grief and sense of shock in Oakland is palpable, especially amongst the arts community and friends and family of the people in the neighborhood. Certainly, as a Bay Area attorney and artist with friends and acquaintances at or near the “Ghost Ship” blaze this weekend, this terrible event hits close to home.

Oakland has long been a haven for artists in the San Francisco Bay Area. Given the too pricey cost of buying a home here and the ever-increasing rents in San Francisco which hover on average around $3500 and $4 per square foot as of 2016, many SF artists, middle class families, and even white-collar professionals have moved to Oakland over the past decade, where rent prices are about the same but rental spaces are usually a bit larger and cost about $3 to $3.50 per square foot. As we know, landlords typically require rental applicants to show proof of monthly income that is three times the asked rent. As few renters make over $100,000 per year, this leaves many applicants priced out of the market, of course. Worse still, since Oakland has deprioritized public housing spending and related protectionist laws and only just this November added to its rent control statute via Measure JJ, it’s no wonder that gentrification and homelessness are growing problems in Oakland, affecting every demographic stratum.

As a creative response to this housing crisis over the last decade, it has become commonplace for artists, young techies and entrepreneurs, and alternative lifestyle folks to live in converted warehouse spaces in the more dangerous and industrial neighborhoods of Oakland. The rent is cheap and the neighbors are interesting.

But the danger of course is clear now. Many of these converted warehouse spaces are not permitted to house people and thus are in violation of housing safety and welfare laws. They’re unsafe, oftentimes unsanitary, and the consequences can be graven.

At risk are not only the lives of the people living there — including more than just Millennials, but people of all ages young and old — but also the viability of the SF and Oakland Arts community. If we keep ignoring the housing crisis, we’ll lose the Arts community and so much of what drives the creativity of the SF Bay Area, its avant garde tech industry, its world-famous food scene, and its liberal and diverse citizens that drive progressive politics nationwide from the Occupy Movement to the Black Lives Matter Movement to the Bernie fever of the 2016 Primary season.

To stop the inevitable migration of artists, middle class families, and progressive white collar professionals from our nation’s cosmopolitan centers to outskirt towns and emerging middle American metro-areas, we need more aggressive housing safety regulations, much more expansive rent-control laws, and more affordable housing projects in Oakland and the cities across the nation like it, from Brooklyn, NY and Somerville, MA to LA, Austin, Seattle, and Portland.

The American housing crisis reflects the very same issues we heard Bernie arguing with Donald and Hillary about, the same issues that motivated the Occupy Movement, and the same gentrification and racism concerns igniting the BLM Movement.

We’ve lost lives this weekend in Oakland because of the housing crisis. But we should remember that low-income communities in Oakland and towns like it nationwide have been experiencing the pitfalls and dangers of unsafe housing and unsafe communities for decades.

So long as laws leave expansive room for unscrupulous financial profiteers in the housing market to “race to the bottom” by charging whatever they can get away with — feckless of the basic human right that is safe, solid, and affordable housing in thoughtful and neighborly communities — so long as politicians are beholden to the special interests of the 1%, then we will continue to lose the very basis of what makes our nation mean anything at all: community.

Next time you’re at the voting booth, please think about that. And in the meantime, let your representatives know, let the Press hear your voices, and please be careful where you choose to live.