Oakland Fire: Landlord Moved to Evict Tenants From 'Deathtrap' After Ghost Ship Blaze

Monday, March 27, 2017
Matthias Gafni
San Jose Mercury News

The San Pablo Avenue residential building where Monday’s early morning blaze claimed at least three lives had a history of code violations, a growing reputation as a “deathtrap” and a landlord working to evict dozens of tenants in a contentious housing battle.

Property owner Keith Kim said he leased the building to Urojas Community Services, a nonprofit that provides transitional housing. But it’s not exactly clear who was managing the building where three organizations provided low-income housing to more than 80 people who escaped the four-alarm fire early Monday morning. One person was still unaccounted for late Monday, and the cause of the fire is under investigation.

Monday’s blaze brought back fresh memories of Oakland’s deadliest fire on Dec. 2, which killed 36 people attending a dance party at a Fruitvale warehouse known as the Ghost Ship.

That fire brought intense scrutiny on the city’s fire department, inspection programs and underground housing stock. Immediately following the blaze, the city cracked down on warehouse spaces, artist collectives and other venues that may not have been up to code.

Kim first moved to evict one of the organizations on Dec. 11, pointing to the deadly December fire as justification.

Brenda Corley — a housing manager for Urojas at the three-story West Oakland building at 2551 San Pablo Ave. — said Kim and a group of men began bullying, threatening and assaulting tenants, as the property slid into further disrepair. Multiple tenants took out at least four temporary restraining orders against Kim and his associates.

A nonprofit manager stationed on the first and second floors of the San Pablo Avenue building said squatters had overtaken the top floor, leading to rampant drug use and dangerous conditions. The Rev. Dr. Jasper Lowery, the founder and director of Urojas, spoke to this newspaper last week about the ongoing eviction drama. “It’s a deathtrap in there,” he said.

“This is another Ghost Ship because of the violations on the building, things aren’t up to code and things weren’t fixed, and that’s always been a concern,” Lowery said.

Firefighters responded to the blaze around 5:40 a.m., pulling residents from inside the building and plucking others from fire escapes as flames licked the rooftop. Four residents were hospitalized with minor injuries.

Because it had more than three dwelling units, it should have been inspected annually, according to state fire code. However, Oakland fire inspectors only visited the building in 2010, 2012 and 2015, city records show.

The building passed the 2010 and 2012 inspections, data show, but the 2015 inspection was listed with a result of a “referral.” Fire Marshall Miguel Trujillo did not return messages Monday. Battalion Chief Erik Logan, who spoke at a department news conference late Monday afternoon, said he didn’t know the building’s inspection history.

Over the past decade, the city has received 20 complaints about rodent infestation, electrical issues, mold, trash, graffiti, floors caving in, roof leaks and other blight issues. Eighteen of those complaints occurred within the past five years, including the Urojas request on March 2 for an inspection of the facility by code enforcement for “alleged deferred maintenance by (the) landlord.” The city verified the violation, according to city records.

On Feb. 23, the city sent a notice of violation after a neighbor complained about the building, saying there was a “large amount of trash and debris, building materials, furniture in back of property.” On Dec. 29, a few weeks after the Ghost Ship fire, the city opened an investigation into a housing-habitability complaint, which stated: “No working heat throughout the building, electrical issues and a large pest infestation.”

In an interview last Tuesday, Kim said problems with Urojas began roughly six months ago over an unpaid water bill. Kim said he wanted another service provider to operate the re-entry, homeless and veterans transitional housing programs inside the building. Urojas shared the property with two other nonprofits — House of Change and Dignity Housing West, according to Lowery — but it was the third floor that became a problem.

“People stopped paying their rent, then squatters started coming in and claiming rooms, then some drug activity started happening,” Lowery said last week.

The Rev. Curtis Flemming, the director of Dignity Housing West, which is an affordable housing developer, said the group was attempting to purchase the building, but the dispute between Kim and Urojas put those plans on hold.

“We were going to rehab one section and then move the tenants there and then rehab around them,” Flemming said. “That was the intention, but it didn’t work out.”

Dignity Housing West sent fliers to residents in October and December telling them to sign a new lease with them. Not long afterward, the intimidation began, Corley said.

A string of restraining orders taken out by Corley in the months leading up to Monday’s fire alleged that Kim and associates barged into the building, and one time, Corley said, she was hospitalized after they pushed her into a wall.

On Valentine’s Day, Corley alleged that Kim and a dozen men changed locks and removed items from apartments.

“They threw out items into the street. They removed food, beds and any other items that they could find,” Corley wrote. “He wants to circumvent the court system to evict us from the building.”

Lowery turned to Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represents West Oakland, to mediate. McElhaney set up a meeting with representatives from Urojas and Kim in late February to discuss the condition of the building and talk about how to bring in “additional resources,” including volunteers and donations to make improvements to the building.

On Monday, she told this newspaper that she was not aware Kim wanted to change the service provider operating in the building. “I have no knowledge of eviction actions,” she said.

But in an email to Lowery dated March 14, McElhaney, who toured the building earlier this month, referred to the mediation meeting and said, “Keith Kim agreed to: drop eviction actions and forgive past accounts … (and) work with Urojas on smooth transition plan.”

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