The fire at the Ghost Ship in Oakland, California that claimed thirty six lives touched on several themes that all congealed in one tragic event. But before I get in to the particulars I’m going to take a couple of digressions.
A friend left San Francisco a couple of years ago to attend graduate school in another state. She came for dinner during a visit and explained that most young educated people don’t even consider moving to San Francisco these days no matter how good the employment or cultural scene might be. The cost and scarcity of housing overwhelms the benefits for people who don’t yet have a toehold in the city. Word is out. Don’t bother. Many of the young people who do come don’t stay for very long.
I have retirement age friends who own rental properties in various parts of the Bay Area. They bought some of these buildings decades ago and noticed the changing demographics of their tenants. One of their apartment complexes is in Stockton eighty miles east of San Francisco. When they first bought the property 90% of the tenants worked in Stockton. Today 80% commute to jobs in Oakland. The local Stockton population was supplanted as people were squeezed out of Oakland by ever increasing rents. Stockton is two hours from Oakland in soul crushing workday traffic.
Building anything new anywhere in coastal California is outrageously expensive and politically toxic. There’s such huge pent up demand for housing that even if regulations and community resistance were somehow overcome (don’t hold your breath) and an all out construction boom were launched it would still take twenty years to catch up.
The Ghost Ship was an illegally occupied commercial building that was pressed in to service as ad hoc affordable housing. Oakland is full of such buildings. They fill a gap not served by any other aspect of the housing market – public or private. Some are better organized and maintained than others. The fire at the Ghost Ship was the result of a whole series of factors. If any one of them had been addressed the fire wouldn’t have happened.
The landlord in this case was abscent and unresponsive to complaints of a faulty electrical system and a general lack of safety. The tenants cobbled together all manner of make shift solutions for heating and cooking involving propane tanks and extension cords. Improvised stairs, sleeping lofts, and interior partitions resulted in a maze of dangerous spaces. The city of Oakland, which is perpetually low on funds and personnel, hadn’t inspected this building for decades. (Ironically there’s a fire station directly around the corner.) And finally, a dance was held at the Ghost Ship which filled the building with even more people, many of whom weren’t familiar with the property’s unusual twists and quirks.
If the landlord had applied for official permission to convert the building to a residential use it’s not clear that city bureaucracies would have allowed it under the current zoning and planning regime. If permission was somehow granted the cost of electrical and plumbing upgrades, earthquake retrofits, fire sprinklers, handicapped accessibility provisions like an elevator, off street parking minimums (the list goes on and on – we’re talking a couple of million dollars minimum) would mean that only very high rents could justify the up front investment. This assumes the landlord had access to that kind of money in the first place and that a market for high end apartments existed in this specific location. In my mind I can see the outraged protesters picketing the site decrying the gentrification of the last semi-affordable neighborhood in the region by evil developers.
People living in these accommodations know that if they had to move out they wouldn’t just be leaving the building, they’d most likely be leaving the city or the Bay Area entirely. There’s no where else to go. So people live in substandard buildings and don’t reach out to the authorities when the landlord is negligent. Many – I suspect most – tenants do their best to keep their precarious habitations as safe as possible. But properties and humans exist on a continuum. The Ghost Ship clearly failed on multiple levels.
The question Oakland residents and government officials are dealing with at the moment is how to move forward with all the similar gray market accommodations in the area. Does the city rally the required inspectors and shut down all nonconforming properties? If they were given the task they would likely error on the side of professional caution and condemn properties that were perfectly safe, yet technically non compliant. For the record, if your home or apartment was build more than twenty years ago it absolutely wouldn’t meet the current regulatory standard since so many more rules have been piled on in recent years. And what if buildings were condemned on a mass scale? What does Oakland do with large additional numbers of people with no place to live? There are no good official solutions here.
The most likely immediate outcome of the Ghost Ship tragedy will be a series of prosecutions in which negligent individuals will be sued and/or jailed for their contribution to the carnage. A short lived policy of high visibility enforcement will close a select number of properties. And then everything will revert to the previous set of arrangements.
This is an excellent time for property owners and residents to work together to take care of the most dangerous elements of substandard buildings on a quiet voluntary level. Are there well placed smoke detectors with fresh batteries? Are there carbon monoxide alarms? Are there multiple permanent clear means of emergency egress? Are there fire extinguishers in strategic locations? These things are dirt cheap. Are there reasonably priced ways to upgrade the structure, pipes, and wires incrementally with modest and predictable rent increases over time? I say this as a landlord myself who has routinely done all of the above on my properties which are fully code compliant.
And finally, it may be time for many people to reluctantly find a new city in another state to colonize. The Bay Area is toast. It really has become your money or your life.