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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Oakland Weighs Loft Law in Wake of Deadly Fire

In the wake of a deadly warehouse fire that killed 36 people, the Oakland City Council on Thursday promised to work with artists living in similar buildings to legalize their homes – a move that could ultimately seed the Bay Area's long-overdue effort to address its housing crisis.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – The Oakland City Council on Thursday sought to ease the intense fear and anger raging in the city’s arts community following the death of 36 people in a converted warehouse fire, promising to work with artists living in similar buildings to legalize their homes – a move that could ultimately seed the Bay Area's long-overdue effort to address its housing crisis.

Over the past week, local artists have denounced the city's response to the fire as a "witch hunt," reporting visits to their warehouses from suddenly zealous fire inspectors and eviction notices from skittish landlords eager to dodge a catastrophe like the one that hit the Ghost Ship artists' collective in the city's Fruitvale District this past weekend.

"My friends have lost 10 friends in one night and now they have the fire marshal coming to their house asking questions and not allowing them to breathe," local artist Shawna Scroggins told the City Council during a special meeting Thursday, where it signed off on a resolution to declare a local emergency so the city can qualify for disaster funds to deal with the fire. "I do not think we should be criminalized, especially in this time of mourning."

Illegally occupied warehouses aren't new, and they're not confined to Oakland. Lured by cheap rent and the chance to build their community, artists in cities around the globe have been turning abandoned warehouses into live/work spaces, galleries and music venues for decades.

The warehouses exist under the radar, and city officials sometimes ignore them despite frequent violations of fire and residential safety codes. Earlier this week, the Oakland Planning and Building Department chief said building inspectors hadn't been inside the Ghost Ship in 30 years despite multiple blight complaints, and media reports suggest fire inspectors may have never gone there at all.

"I want to be clear we will not scapegoat city employees in the wake of this disaster," Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff said in a statement Wednesday, addressing criticism that the city didn't do enough to prevent the fire. "Rather, we will provide them the guidance, clarity and support they need and deserve to do their jobs."

Local artists at Thursday afternoon's meeting and at a Rules and Legislation Committee meeting earlier in the day implored councilmembers to work with them to legalize their spaces, suggesting that inspectors perform life-and-safety inspections to ensure the safety of residents but letting them slide on other types of code violations while their buildings are brought into compliance.

"There's a world of difference between unpermitted use and unsafe use," Brian Emlen, who works with tenant rights group East Bay Forward, told the council. He was referring to the Ghost Ship's fatal code violations that touched off the nation's deadliest fire in 13 years, including exposed and overloaded wiring, propane tanks heating the showers and a makeshift staircase made of wood pallets.

"Ghost Ship was uniquely an unsafe place."

That's how New York handles its illegal warehouses according to David Frazer, an attorney specializing in the 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. It also provides rent stabilization at the end of the residential permitting process.

"That's why we haven't had an incident like Ghost Ship," Frazer said.

The Ghost Ship was neither permitted for residential use nor as an entertainment venue. Nonetheless, as many as 18 artists, musicians and poets 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.

In response to demands by local artists that the city refrain from cracking down on unpermitted live/work spaces, City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney said Thursday the city is looking into designing a law similar to New York's Loft Law as an option for legalizing such spaces.

According to Michael Kozek, a partner with Ween & Kozek in New York who also specializes in the Loft Law, the law has allowed thousands of tenants to keep their rentals and bring them up to code.

Landlords whose warehouses are located in industrial zones benefit too, he said: the buildings can be permitted for residential use and when tenants move out, landlords can rent them at market rates for much more than they could have before the neighborhood allowed residential spaces.

The law isn't without risks, however. Some landlords evict their tenants when they apply for Loft Law coverage and bring in a new group of tenants "who won't be as meddlesome," Kozek said.

"It's more frequent than not,” he said. "It's profitable to rent out illegal spaces for residential use."

Although Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley is conducting a criminal investigation into the Oakland fire that could result in murder or manslaughter charges against the Ghost Ship's owner and master lessee, Gibson McElhaney stressed Thursday that the city won't punish other landlords who allow people to live in unpermitted buildings – as long as they're willing to work with the city to legalize them.

The City Council is considering amnesty for cooperative landlords and a moratorium on evictions.

"I really want to say to our landlords who may be listening, our intent is to work with landlords. And we're not looking to bring in the hammer and see mass evictions," she said.

Asked after the council meeting whether Oakland can adopt an effective version of New York's Loft Law, Gibson McElhaney said it must.

"This impacts communities we're not seeing," she added, referring to immigrant communities and communities of color that are also living in unpermitted buildings because they can't afford Oakland's skyrocketing rents. "We want to reach out to them as well."

City staff is scheduled to make recommendations to the council on how to legalize unpermitted buildings, including the option of designing a local version of the Loft Law by February, Gibson McElhaney said.

Other councilmembers on Thursday also couched the housing emergency now facing Oakland's artists within the context of the Bay Area's larger housing crisis.

Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan suggested Bay Area officials now have no choice but to rein in rents. A loft law, the ultimate focus of which is rent stabilization, would be a step in that direction.

"That pressure is coming from the whole region" in the wake of the fire, Kaplan said.

"I hope the region will step up because Oakland can't provide all of the affordable housing for the region without [San Francisco and San Jose] stepping up too."

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