San Francisco

‘Witch-Hunts': Artists, Activists Call for Moratorium on Fire Inspections, Evictions After Deadly Oakland Warehouse Blaze

A group of San Francisco Bay Area artists have created a petition in hopes to place building fire inspections on hold in the wake of a deadly Oakland warehouse fire, while housing advocates are asking for a similar moratorium on evictions.

"City governments in San Francisco and Oakland are making things worse in their response," the petition by Julie Mastrine claims. "These cities are conducting witch-hunts of artist warehouse spaces, knocking on their doors and evicting the mostly low-income artists living there.”

Mastrine, who works with Care2, delivered the petition signatures in person at the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection public meeting at City Hall on Wednesday. So far, more than 11,000 people have signed the petition, which has a 12,000-person goal.

The plight is personal for Mastrine. Her sister lives in an art warehouse, and she fears her sibling could get evicted with the increased public scrutiny. Her petition seeks that cities stop unsolicited building inspections, stop heavy-handed enforcement and waive permit fees for warehouse upgrades.

"To me, it feels like sometimes they are removed from what actually goes on in the day-to-day lives of artists and warehouse spaces," Mastrine said. "And you know, the law is one thing, but community is another. And when you take a punitive approach you are displacing communites and you are hurting artists."

Other artists in San Francisco are also feeling the ripple effects of the devastating fire.

Nathan Wilkinson Cottam is a professional ballerina who has for the last two years lived in what’s known as the Bernal House in San Francisco, which he described as an “absolutely safe place to live.”

Cottam shared the $3,800 monthly rent with seven other artists. But their landlord terminated their lease agreement exactly 10 days after 36 people perished in the illegally converted Ghost Ship warehouse, he said.

On Wednesday, a handful of inspectors with the city’s fire department toured the Bernal House.

"If we lose this, I can’t imagine finding another place comparable that I can afford," Cottam said.

Singer and writer Tony Burgess agreed. 

"This is where we make magic," he said. “I think that losing something like this in the Bay Area means you lose a part of the community itself."

For his part, Tom Hui, of San Francisco's Department of Building Inspection said on behalf of the city, "We want to make sure that public safety is number one."

He added his department will indeed be called in if residents can't resolve fire safety issues. At a commission meeting, inspectors said they'd work with the fire department and code enforcement teams to find ways to legalize art spaces in San Francisco.

Similar steps against unpermitted warehouses used by artists have been taken around the country since the Ghost Ship fire, which was the nation's deadliest building fire in more than a decade.

Last week, Richmond officials closed a warehouse and punk-music venue known as the Burnt Ramen, and evicted its six residents. Fire officials say the problems included people living in crawl spaces and bars and chicken wire covering windows.

City Manager Bill Lindsay said authorities were willing to work with the venue's owner to make the building safe and legal.

"I do hope that things happen expeditiously and responsibly, so we can get this facility back to occupancy," Lindsay said.

A few dozen supporters of the Burnt Ramen carried protest signs to a Richmond City Council meeting Tuesday night, asking for time and guidance to fix safety and other code problems.

"They're not letting us fix our home,'' former resident Brandon Bailey, 29, told the San Francisco Chronicle at a small rally before the meeting.

The artists aren't alone in their attempt to find various long-terms solutions to their need for safe housing after the fatal deadly Dec. 2 blaze.

Abode Services, an affordable housing nonprofit in Fremont, sent a letter this week, urging Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and the Oakland City Council to impose an immediate moratorium on all evictions of live-work warehouse spaces. The group is trying to ensure a safe environment to transition these spaces into legal, permanent affordable housing.

Abode Services said in a statement that housing activists realize that Oakland leaders are receiving pressure from many sides to crack down quickly on similar spaces. But they wanted to remind city officials that these evictions are contributing to the overwhelming number of homeless people already seeking housing, and are reducing the overall housing stock in the city of Oakland.

Abode Services and others are trying to figure out how to make these buildings become safe and code-compliant.

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