Warehouse in deadly Oakland fire never inspected for safety

By David Brown
9 December 2016

City officials concluded the search for bodies Wednesday with a final count of 36 dead in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire. The immediate cause of the fire is as yet unknown, but details are emerging about long-term official negligence that left the building uninspected for decades.

The warehouse that burned down had been operating without permits for three years as a set of artist studios, which doubled as informal housing and a music venue. The fire broke out during a music show and those attending were quickly trapped in the building that lacked basic fire safety measures like exit signs, extinguishers, or sprinklers.

Such a large death toll is the result of a confluence of factors: soaring housing costs driving artists and youth to seek low rents in substandard housing; property owners renting out old and poorly maintained buildings; and city officials leaving inspection departments understaffed and underfunded.

The city’s interim Director of Planning and Building told reporters Wednesday that there had been no inspections because “we had no applications for permits in the last 30 years, and there were no violations that were submitted for interior work within the main building.” The city has only 11 building code inspectors.

Several complaints had been filed against the building in the past three years, and inspectors were sent to the building as recently as a few weeks before the fire, but according to the inspectors' report, they did not gain access to the building.

Separately from building code inspections, every commercial building and multiunit residence in the city is supposed to receive a fire inspection each year. But an anonymous city employee told the East Bay Times that the warehouse is “not on the inspection rolls,” and that there is no record in their database of it ever being inspected.

An Alameda County grand jury report in 2014 estimated that of the 11,000 commercial buildings in Oakland as many as 4,000 are not inspected in a given year. The city’s Fire Prevention Bureau responsible for scrutinizing these properties has only nine inspectors.

The Oakland fire department has been criticized over the past few years by Zac Unger, the vice president of the local 55 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Unger told the New York Times that he had complained regularly about the lack of inspectors and criticized the Fire Chief for going several years without a Fire Marshal to oversee inspections.

“I said specifically,” he told the Times, “the mismanagement of the Fire Department is going to lead to a tragedy and you need to do something about it now, and I am heartbroken to have been proven right and to have all of these people dead.”

Police department records show that officers had also repeatedly gone to the Ghost Ship to investigate criminal complaints but at no point did that result in a referral to the city’s inspectors. Sgt. Barry Donelan denied that officers had any responsibility in the matter. “You can’t be effective in arrests and imposing building codes,” he told the Times “that’s ludicrous.”

While the precise cause of the fire remains unknown, fire investigators stated that it broke out in a part of the warehouse with several appliances, suggesting a possible electrical fire.

Much of the national media has focused its search for someone to blame on the master tenants, a married couple Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison, who rented the warehouse from the landlady, Chor Ng, and then sublet parts of it to roughly 20 others.

So far, Almena has given one emotional interview on the Today show where the hosts asked him provocative questions about whether he was a profiteer who should be held accountable. Almena refused to respond other than by emphasizing that he himself lived in the warehouse with his three children and had tried to make a nurturing place for artists.

Whatever decisions tenants may have made that contributed to the fire, the basic cause remains the lack of affordable housing, which drives people into a gray market of repurposed buildings. Rental prices have been skyrocketing, with the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Oakland jumping 19 percent between 2015 and 2016 to $2,700 a month. In these conditions the alternative to surreptitiously living in an industrial warehouse is often homelessness.

One Oakland city councilor estimated that there are roughly 200 warehouses that people live in “that have no papers, no permit, no fire code, nothing.”

Since the Oakland fire, city officials across the country have launched a crackdown on informal housing that is resulting in evictions of the generally young and poor residents. Oakland public records show inspectors have been to five different warehouses this week examining old complaints of potentially illegal housing.

Other cities with high rents and abandoned industrial centers are following suit. The city attorney of Los Angeles announced he was citing a commercial building that had been converted to residences without a permit. City officials in Baltimore announced they had condemned a building housing dozens of artists.

These evictions are punishing those too poor to afford safe housing while doing nothing to alleviate the underlying social causes.

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