Warehouse Dwellers Stay in Stealth Mode As They Fight Evictions

Thursday, March 2, 2017
Jeremy Dalmas
KALW

The Oakland mayor’s office officially knows of 18 large industrial spaces doubling as unpermitted homes, but other estimates say there are dozens more, maybe as many as 60.

It’s hard to know since so many of these spaces are trying to hide from the city to avoid evictions.

In the three months since the Ghost Ship fire, many spaces around the Bay have gotten inspections or eviction notices. A Richmond space known as Burnt Ramen, and another one just a few blocks from the Ghost Ship in East Oakland have both been closed by their respective cities.

Many warehouse residents are on edge and not just because of increased scrutiny since December. The Ghost Ship fire came at the end of a year in which two of the most high profile live/work spaces in West Oakland were evicted. 1919 Market, which housed dozens of people, and Lobot, which was well known for music and art shows.

Then there’s the space Vague Threats. Over the past 16 years, the people who’ve lived here have put a lot of work into their home.

“This was all one empty space,” says Margo as she tours the space, “we built a shower right here. We put in both these bathrooms as well.”

Parts of the space are beautiful, but you can’t hear about them. Margo isn’t Margo’s real name and Vague Threats isn’t even the name of this space. This is not a legal residence -- it’s just supposed to be art studios. And if they get found out, they’ll likely lose their home.

People have been tenuously living here since the early 2000s, before Margo’s time. “It was derelict,” she says. “They kept being like, ‘we're going to get kicked out in 3 months, or 6 months, or a year,’ and 2 years goes by.”

he space used to be heavily involved in the local electronic music scene, but they’ve stopped hosting shows in recent years.

“All this time goes by,” she explains, “and the landlord's like ‘Whatever, rent, whatever. I don't want to know anything. I don't want to deal with anything. I'm not going to fix anything.’”

Hands-off landlords are common in these spaces. Often, like here, renters have a commercial lease — which means they can be responsible for repairs and upgrades on the building, but they’re also allowed to make renovations they could never do in a typical apartment. Theres also a potential legal advantage. When a landlord can claim they didn’t know anyone was living in their building, tenants have fewer rights to stay, and the landlord might not be held responsible if anything goes wrong.

Vague Threats had relative stability for years. Then the fire happened.

Bill - not his real name - lives here with Margo, and he knows people who died at Ghost Ship. On his way home from a friend’s funeral, he realized what was going to happen.

BIll says was in the car. And he thought: “Wow. they're going to start coming after us.” Then, he said, “it just started, like a train just coming through.”

Within days, they got a notice from the city saying they were going to get inspected.

Margo explains that it was all hands on deck. “We were all here for 12 hours every day, for like 14 days. And we are all also getting in cars and going to memorials and fielding phone calls from friends who are crying.”

Even though this was triggered by the fire at Ghost Ship, they didn’t just get a fire inspection. They got a building inspection, a health inspection, a plumbing inspection, an electrical inspection, and the police came by. And all this time - they’re pretending they don’t live there. These are inspections just to use the space as art studios. They passed the fire and the health inspection, but the space needs work, and there are thousands of dollars in fines. The landlord gave them an eviction notice, but Vague Threats was able to strike a bargain: they deal with everything and in exchange, they get to stay.

“Yeah the only reason that he's complying,” explains Margo, “is he's not putting a single penny of the rent that we paid him over the past 16 years into this building. He was like 'Nope. No money for permits, no money for nothing. I don't want to hear about it.'”

But even with the deal, they’re still in limbo, at the whim of their landlord. They’re on a month-to-month commercial lease and have no tenant protections.

What does Margo want? “I wish there was a way for there to be safety inspections that didn't threaten our existence,” she says. “Because if you really want to talk about stopping fires from happening, that's what you need to be talking about. That's how you have a system that saves peoples’ lives.”

Jonah Strauss is working on just that. “I've always lived and worked in warehouses since 2001.”says Strauss, who helped start the Oakland Warehouse Coalition.

“I had a couple of days, post ghost ship, of mourning and reflection for my friends and for the community. And after the weekend ended it became clear that an organization was going to need to step in to protect our rights.”

Strauss says that any safety problems that were in warehouses quickly got fixed after the fire. To him and his peers, dangers like the deadly winding pallet staircase at Ghost Ship were an outlier.

“Nobody does that,” he explains. “Nobody uses those construction techniques. Nobody uses a bunch of pallets and builds rooms out of them and suspects them to be sustainable.”

And his organization is working to stop exactly the problem that is threatening spaces like Vague Threats: No tenant protections.

“We've seen time and time again,” he says, “that as soon as there's a code complaint, a building inspection, it triggers a set of events that can lead to you losing your home.”

Their big push is to work with the city to pass the Emergency Tenant Protection Ordinance. It would temporarily give spaces the same protections that a typical apartment-dweller has, and it has a path to turn the buildings into permanent affordable housing. Strauss points to a precedent from another disaster.

“When we had the earthquake in ‘89,” he explains, “you had 3,200 buildings that were red-tagged, and the city loosened the permitting process and loosened the inspection process.”

He sees both the earthquake and the current crises as emergency housing situations, and the solution to both is what he calls compassionate code compliance. The emergency ordinance wouldn’t just protect warehouse-dwelling artists, it would cover everyone living in a unit that isn’t legal according to the city. That could be a converted garage, an in-law unit, or a storefront. These are spaces that are all over Oakland, and the people living in them - who are often poorer and may not speak english well - have few tenants rights and typically not a lot of resources.

“There's a ton of them,” says Strauss. “There's no way the building department is going to get to all of these, and it's important that these people are protected.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf issued an executive order in January that tried to ease some of the stress, but it falls well short of what warehouse dwellers want - full protection.

And with the current state of housing around the Bay Area, warehouse spaces are staying in stealth mode. They don’t trust the government -- they just don’t see the benefit. They feel like they made their homes fire safe themselves, and the fear is that any official attention will start with a fight over building codes, and end in an eviction. Back at Vague Threats, Bill wants life to go back to what it was before December.

“We just want to live under the radar,” he says, “we don't want to be above the radar. Leave us alone, and everything will be fine.”

But for now, there’s no break. Today they have to sweep the roof and check for leaks.

Issue: 
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