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Tragedy in Oakland highlights effects of gentrification
Fire victims, from top left: Alex F. Ghassan, Alex Vega, Amanda Kershaw (Allen), Ara Christina Jo, Barrett Clark, Benjamin Runnels, Billy Dixon, Brandon Chase Wittenauer, Cash Askew, Chelsea Dolan, David Cline, Donna Kellogg, Draven McGill, Edmond Lapine, Em Bohlka, Griffin Madden, Hanna Ruax, Jason McCarty, Jennifer Kiyomi Tanouye, Jennifer Mendiola, Jennifer Morris, Johnny Igaz, Jonathan Bernbaum, Joseph Matlock, Micah Danemayer, Michela Gregory, Michele Sylvan, Nicholas Walrath, Nicolas Gomez-Hall, Nicole Siegrist, Peter Wadsworth, Riley Fritz, Sara Hoda, Travis Hough, Vanessa Plotkin, Wolfgang Renner.
Fire victims, from top left: Alex F. Ghassan, Alex Vega, Amanda Kershaw (Allen), Ara Christina Jo, Barrett Clark, Benjamin Runnels, Billy Dixon, Brandon Chase Wittenauer, Cash Askew, Chelsea Dolan, David Cline, Donna Kellogg, Draven McGill, Edmond Lapine, Em Bohlka, Griffin Madden, Hanna Ruax, Jason McCarty, Jennifer Kiyomi Tanouye, Jennifer Mendiola, Jennifer Morris, Johnny Igaz, Jonathan Bernbaum, Joseph Matlock, Micah Danemayer,
Michela Gregory, Michele Sylvan, Nicholas Walrath, Nicolas Gomez-Hall, Nicole Siegrist, Peter Wadsworth, Riley Fritz, Sara Hoda, Travis Hough,
Vanessa Plotkin, Wolfgang Renner.

On Friday, Dec. 2, despite the tireless efforts of firefighters, the Oakland warehouse-turned artist space known as “Ghost Ship,” became a gravesite for 36 people.

Firefighters described the warehouse as “a maze-like labyrinth which was cluttered with discarded objects, including wooden pallets as stairs and haphazard structures of highly flammable materials.” Former tenants also confirmed the firefighters’ accounts, recalling how the building manager and Ghost Ship founder, Derick Ion Almena, was repeatedly put on notice. Almena regularly failed to secure the necessary permits or inspections for events held at the 10,000-square-foot space. Social media posts from former tenants clearly show that the space was packed to the ceiling with highly flammable materials.

The gruesome task of combing through remains of the dilapidated warehouse has been completed by investigators who have recovered and identified all 36 bodies. The city’s final task is to complete their investigation in order to determine the cause of the blaze.

While the initial cause is still unclear, first-hand accounts have revealed that  dangerous conditions within the walls of the warehouse all but insured the fire would end in tragedy. The space was described as being neither zoned for housing nor permitted to host events,  and as an illegally operating warehouse with hazardous construction, devoid of permits and in violation of multiple building, structure and fire safety codes. Local artist activist Favianna Rodriguez stated in her exclusive radio interview on KPFA that Almena was known in his Fruitvale community as a problematic individual. He had a criminal record and a history of unpredictable behavior .

Many individuals became dwellers of the Ghost Ship due to displacement, a result of the Bay Area’s sky-rocketing rents and gentrification making housing unaffordable, combined with the need for artist performances spaces. This begs the question: Does this lack of access to affordable housing justify the disregard of basic safety housing concerns by building managers and renters alike?

Since officials still do not know the cause of the fire, many are questioning if the city could have done more to prevent the Ghost Ship fire, and whether reports and complaints about the violations were ever properly investigated. But one thing is certain, the building did not have the necessary permits for residential living, even the special permits for the music concert were not filed or obtained by Almena.

The Alameda County Buildings department did send an inspector to the warehouse on Nov. 17, three days after the illegal construction complaint was filed, but the inspector was unable to gain entry. A fire department official said buildings are typically inspected every one to two years, and that on the most recent visit, they were unable to access the property as well. Oakland officials said the city takes illegal housing seriously, but there are so many converted spaces that building inspectors, firefighters and the police are overwhelmed. California law says that an inspector cannot enter unless admitted by an owner or resident, and officials say that its inhabitants often refuse to let inspectors in, fearing eviction. Many former dwellers of the building questioned whether an inspector even attempted inspection.

Ghost Ship was once a safe haven for the alternative creative community who were betrayed by stewards and landlords who exploited its space out of greed. We as activists express concern about the endangered spaces where artist survive, where the underground DIY culture exists locally and nationally. Only by organizing a collective of leaders who can effect change through local and national efforts, only as artists and testimonials can we right Ghost Ship’s wrongs.

Oakland’s rental costs are among the highest in America, many citizens live in unsafe housing conditions and far more today are homeless on the streets. Housing is an inalienable right in America not a luxury for the select few. This is a choice no one should have to make. No one should ever have to choose between safety, affordability or their lives.

Story by: Joey Krebs