Evictions in Ghost Ship’s wake: Artists’ worst fears coming true
With some tenants already receiving eviction notices, those fears are indeed coming to fruition, and sooner than many imagined.
Painter and photographer Angela Scrivani has 27 days to vacate the West Oakland industrial warehouse space that she has lived in and used as a painting studio for the better of the past decade. And, some 13 blocks north, roughly a dozen tenants living in a converted machine shop in Oakland were served with a 30-day eviction notice Monday, according to four of the residents who spoke with the Bay Area News Group. The tenants said the building owners told them they fear for their safety.
The impact of the tragic fire at the Ghost Ship artists’ collective in the city’s Fruitvale district is reverberating far and wide. In Baltimore, the city’s fire department red-tagged a DIY artist space, according to the Baltimore City Paper. In Los Angeles, the city plans to address its own issue of unpermitted warehouse conversions, and has charged the owner of one such illegal warehouse, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In the Bay Area, inspectors in San Jose on Tuesday visited Citadel Arts Studios, which does not allow artists to live there, to make sure it was being used appropriately. And in Richmond, city officials are looking to meet with the owner of an underground performance space, called Burnt Ramen, which is located in a commercial warehouse.
Not all interactions have been entirely civil. On Wednesday, a shouting match erupted in Oakland’s Jack London Square after a well-known restaurateur called a news conference to accuse a nearby warehouse of putting her business at risk by operating an unregulated and dangerous music venue. Artists at the gathering, some who lost friends in the Ghost Ship fire, in turn called the conference a “witch hunt” that would further marginalize and displace them from scarce housing options.
But there’s a large gap between what could be considered an unsafe space — such as the tangled menagerie of Balinese wood, furniture and artwork that fueled the inferno that doomed Ghost Ship’s victims — and buildings that are zoned one way but used in another and are therefore technically “illegal,” said artist Jon Sarriugarte.
Sarriugarte has, over the past several days, been working to recruit outside fire inspectors, architects and, in light of the recent evictions, lawyers to survey spaces and provide advice without residents of unpermitted spaces fearing backlash from the city or their landlords. He’s teamed up with Michael Snook of NIMBY, a DIY maker-space in East Oakland, and Max Allstadt, a carpenter and former audio engineer who lived in West Oakland for 13 years.
Allstadt recently received a $5,000 donation for the purchase of fire extinguishers, exit signage, smoke detectors and other lifesaving equipment that becomes essential in the event of a conflagration like the Ghost Ship fire.
Ironically, a fire marshal did inspect their space in 2011 and required the then-inhabitants to make a number of changes, said Tyler, a resident who declined to give his last name for fear it might jeopardize attempts to work with the landlord to save their home. The residents installed an extra door, affixed exit signs and removed an interior dwelling space, among other things, Tyler said.
The fire marshal came back and approved of the changes, but a city representative had not been back to the place until Monday, when a fire inspector came to perform outreach in the wake of the Ghost Ship tragedy, he said. They’re willing to make further life safety improvements if the city says they need them, the housemates said.
At a news conference Wednesday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf did not offer specific plans to help artists currently facing evictions but said she would reconvene and expand a task force to address affordable living and working spaces for artists. She promised the arts community would be part of the discussions as the city addresses code compliance and other issues.
Council members Lynette Gibson McElhaney, Noel Gallo and Larry Reid are expected to ask staff on Thursday to look into how the city could go about legalizing such spaces, said Alex Marqusee, an aide to Gibson McElhaney.
“There’s definitely an appetite (for legalizing these spaces),” he said. “Recognizing there is a housing crisis, we need to think creatively.”
A half-dozen other artists who live in converted industrial spaces acknowledge more could be done to make their own spaces safer. Sara Huntley, a former resident of the Vulcan, a live-work warehouse in East Oakland, said she frequented a number of converted industrial spaces throughout the city.
“I’ve never felt as unsafe anywhere as I did (in the Ghost Ship),” she said, echoing many artists’ words that the space was a “worst-case scenario.”
When Huntley moved into the Vulcan, the property management company that owns the warehouse had just finished installing sprinklers. Ren Dodge, a photographer who has lived there for 10 years, said when that happened, his rent rose by 10 percent, a significant increase in part mitigated by the sheer number of people living in the more than 50 apartment units.
For smaller spaces, the cost of bringing a building up to code can be insurmountable, said Cheryl Edison, a consultant who works with cities to help them revamp older properties. Many Bay Area cities have outdated zoning restrictions that make it both time-consuming and incredibly costly to rezone properties, meaning only well-heeled developers can afford to do it, she said.
“Every effort that individuals make to ask for permission gets one very short answer — ‘No,'” Edison said. “People want to do the right thing, but the level of collaboration is not there.”
The Oakland Noodle Factory in West Oakland is an example, said Francis McIlveen of the Northern California Land Trust (NCLT). Dana Harrison purchased the former noodle factory in 1999 with the hope of converting it to a live-work space for her fellow Burning Man comrades — and then spent years mired in a morass of permits, plans and red tape. After draining her time and resources, she sought the help of the community land trust, which purchases and rehabilitates affordable housing.
NCLT secured a $4 million construction loan, gutted and rehabbed the space with solar voltaic panels, concrete floors with radiant heat, extra noise insulation for units that house drummers and more, McIlveen said.
When the housing market crashed in 2008, it took the noodle factory with it. McIlveen said the bank foreclosed on the property just as they were starting to lease it out.
Time is of the essence, Sarriugarte said. He has a list of lawyers ready to help slow down evictions, but he admits the underlying problems extend beyond his capabilities alone.
“I don’t have millions of dollars to back this up to make these changes, even if I wanted to,” he said. “I don’t have a staff here to do this. I’m so busy answering the phone right now. Who is going to help?”
For the artists facing evictions, it’s not just the homes they are losing, it’s their community. The spaces are more than buildings, they are fertile incubators for art forms credited with putting Oakland on the map as an arts hub, and, more recently, as a tourist destination.
“These places are not made by real estate developers or land owners. They don’t exist because someone is looking to make a profit; they are not profitable,” said Tanya, an architect and “flow artist” (or dancer), who lives in the former machine shop in West Oakland. “We need to be able to make them exist, and the Oakland planning (department) needs to … allow spaces like this to exist safely.”
Staff writer Aaron Davis contributed to this story.