Oakland Considers Next Steps After Warehouse Fire

By HELEN CHRISTOPHI

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – The wife of the Ghost Ship warehouse’s master tenant appeared at an Oakland City Council meeting on Monday to decry the “terrible” treatment she and her family had suffered since the Dec. 2 fire that killed 36 concertgoers.

That same day, her attorneys charged that the inferno started not in the warehouse but in an adjacent building.

“It’s been pretty terrible what they’ve done to my family,” said Micah Allison, who along with her husband Derick Almena lived in the Ghost Ship artists’ collective and rented space there to other tenants.

The City Council had been discussing an emergency moratorium on evictions from illegal warehouses in the wake of the fire as well as legislation to increase relocation assistance to tenants displaced for code compliance repairs when Allison made her unexpected appearance.

She told the Council that her family had been struggling to stay off the street since the Ghost Ship burned down, describing how their old neighbors tried to run them out of a house they had lived in previously and to which they had returned after the fire.

“The neighbors, who were my friends during the entire time I lived in that house before, got wind that we were going to move back into the house because our landlord really loved us and wanted to help our family,” she said. “They contacted the landlord and said that if they let us move back into the house that they would cause a lot of trouble for him over his house.”

Allison urged the council to pass both pieces of legislation to help her family “get stable.”

“In order to keep my kids in school, I need a house,” she said. She then turned to the audience, brimming with local artists still visibly shaken by their friends’ deaths in the fire, to apologize.

“The main thing I wanted to say is how sorry I am for what happened on Dec. 2,” Allison said. “I wish that more had been done before, because we carry a really heavy weight on our shoulders right now.”

The City Council will vote on the emergency tenant protection ordinance – which includes the moratorium – at a later meeting. It passed the relocation assistance statute unanimously.

Written by housing activists and the artists affected by the fire, the proposed tenant protection ordinance would place temporary moratoriums on evictions of tenants living in buildings that aren’t zoned for residential use and on red-tagging buildings for non-life-threatening code violations. It would also provide amnesty to landlords who lease unpermitted buildings to residents.

The Ghost Ship was neither permitted for residential use nor as an entertainment venue. Nonetheless, as many as 18 artists and musicians lived in RVs and improvised bedrooms on the building’s first floor, and hundreds were expected to attend a concert there the night it went up in flames.

The moratorium on red-tagging would be similar to New York City’s Loft Law. The 1982 statute allows tenants to apply to legalize converted warehouses without worrying about eviction, and to continue living in them while they’re being renovated, as long as they don’t pose any safety threats.

City Council President Lynette Gibson-McElhaney had suggested in December that the council would consider its own version of the Loft Law to stanch displacement while tenants bring their buildings up to code.

But Assistant City Administrator Claudia Cappio urged the council on Monday to instead adopt Mayor Libby Schaff’s executive order aimed at improving safety in unpermitted buildings while avoiding displacement, arguing that moratoriums on evictions and red-tagging would hinder the city’s effort to head off another deadly catastrophe.

Schaff’s executive order calls for property owners to enter into abatement and compliance plans with the city within 60 days as long as the building is safe.

Though the ordinance was sponsored by Councilman Noel Gallo – whose district includes the site of the Ghost Ship – and Councilmember at-Large Rebecca Kaplan, neither they nor the other council members indicated how they would vote when the ordinance comes back to the council for final approval.

Both Allison and Almena were sued in late December by the families of two victims who died in the fire. The families claimed the victims died because of Allison and Almena’s negligence and failure to evict tenants from a space not zoned as a residence.

Allison and Almena’s defense team, led by legendary civil rights attorney Tony Serra, issued a 10-page report on Monday claiming that the fire started in the building next door to the warehouse. The report also suggested that Pacific Gas & Electric was to blame for installing inadequate wiring.

“Such should reasonably foreclose any criminal negligence charges against Mr. Almena,” the family’s attorneys wrote. “Recall that the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] could not conclude where the fire originated. The reasonable doubt here is overwhelming.”

The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office is conducting its own investigation into the fire that could see Allison and Almena, along with the building’s elusive owner, Chor Ng, slapped with criminal charges.