Elected officials in Oakland, artists and activists brainstormed and vented Wednesday night at a community forum on the city’s housing affordability crisis in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people in an illegally converted warehouse.
With rents and home prices surging, participants urged officials to protect vulnerable communities, from low-income families and immigrants to artists and musicians.
Jonah Strauss, an audio engineer leading up the newly founded Oakland Warehouse Coalition, called for a moment of silence in memory of the people who died in the fire on Dec. 2. When he asked how many people knew someone who had died that night, dozens of people all around the room raised their hands.
“We owe it to them to keep Oakland diverse and protect those at risk,” Strauss said. Code inspectors should prioritize verified life-threatening conditions.
One survivor of the fire, Carmen Brito, who lived at the Ghost Ship, urged city officials to act fast.
“Fire doesn’t wait. It doesn’t wait for a permit, for a fire department that’s a block away. The housing crisis is a fire that won’t wait. Don’t wait. There are so many people who are going home tonight to a car or a tent. We can’t wait,” she said.
Brito promised to call city council members’ offices in a year to ask what has been done for people living paycheck to paycheck.
“Any inspector who isn’t working on life and safety things and has time to look at 50-year-old maps and find nit-picky things – that’s not how we should be treating the community,” said Councilmember-at-Large Rebecca Kaplan, who organized the town hall. Councilmen Noel Gallo and Dan Kalb attended.
Kaplan told the crowd that she has an ordinance before the Community Development Committee next week that would better protect more renters who have to move because of building code violations.
Many residents of warehouses say the renewed concern for unsafe living conditions at industrial and commercial buildings where people live means that people are fearful of eviction and hiding instead of proactively addressing real safety hazards.
Proposed solutions to the housing affordability crisis ran the gamut from repealing Proposition 13 and extending tenant protections to non-residential buildings to removing the event permitting process from police control and setting up authorized homeless encampments where charities can do outreach.
Kaplan’s staff took notes, posted more ideas on the walls of the City Council chamber and encouraged participants to jot down more ideas on Post-It notes.
Many speakers talked about teaming up, faith communities with developers, artists with city administrators, private industry with philanthropists. But suspicions remained.
“We can’t open the city to speculation from developers without having the current community in mind,” urged Cherri Murphy, with Oakland Justice Coalition.
Steven DeCaprio, a musician, housing activist with Land Action and self-described squatter, said there are enough abandoned buildings in Oakland to house the city’s homeless. He talked about a friend he lost in the warehouse fire and his belief that housing stock is being kept empty on purpose, that the housing crisis is fabricated.
“I’m wary of turning our grief into an excuse to give developers another windfall,” he said.
Brito, the 29-year-old substitute teacher and artist, survived the blaze and escaped with only the clothes on her back. She lost friends and all sense of normalcy. But after the meeting, she said she feels an obligation to hold officials accountable.
“We, the survivors, have received a lot of love and support from the community,” she said. “It’s hard to listen to all the sidejabs and politicking. I had to be here tonight. I hope this is the catalyst for change.”
She said people are being evicted from their homes because of over-zealous code inspections or complaining neighbors, which is a tragedy on top of a tragedy.
As she grieves and pieces her life back together, she didn’t even think about moving home to Grass Valley because her community is here. She recently moved into a room in a house near Lake Merritt and plans to keep attending meetings at City Hall.