Oakland’s Ghost Ship Isn’t a Rarity

As with many things, the issue at the crux of last year’s tragic Ghost Ship warehouse fire comes down to money. With the infamously skyrocketing rent prices of the Bay Area, it should come as no surprise to anyone that young artists, gypsies, and other thrifty Californians are hungry for the affordable and the aesthetic. Welcome illegally converted warehouses.

Unfortunately, these nouveau residences rarely see the upgrades they need to appropriately transition from their original commercial and industrial purposes. This means few or no safety inspections by city investigators. Without these, owners are often left in the dark about what’s necessary and the city itself cannot require owners to either make necessary code improvements or force residents out.

For example, Ghost Ship, before that deadly fire, was not inspected internally by a code inspector for over 30 years. There were reports by former residents of illegal occupancy and even notes by police officials who were inside for other reasons. But no official report regarding residency by any Oakland code inspector. Lack of oversight no doubt contributed to the building’s tragic fire in December.

As we reported earlier, the informal live/work space known as Ghost Ship erupted into a building-wide inferno on December 2, 2016. Authorities believe the fire began in the kitchen due to faulty and overloaded electrical appliances. Once started, the billowing smoke trapped residents and guests on the second level. 36 people died that night, making the fire the deadliest fire in the United States in over a decade.

A Fleet of Unsafe Spaces

Sadly, Ghost Ship wasn’t exactly a unique space. While there is no official list, city officials privately estimate the city has about 50 similar such illegal work/live communities. All of which exist in buildings of various disrepair and lacking adequate safety features. Yet, despite residents describing such spaces as ‘death traps’, officials mostly ignored these unofficial residencies.

Community news publisher Yeon Lee purchased one such warehouse back in 2003. Informally known as ‘Magnolia Street’, people were already living when he bought it and more arrived afterward.

“We knew they lived there,” Lee told The Times. “The city knew too. The city didn’t say anything about it, and there are so many warehouses like that.”

Lee considered previously converting the building to official residential use but found the required measures to be too expensive.

But with the Ghost Ship fire, the landscape of these informal communities has irrevocably changed. Community volunteers have organized themselves to offer off-the-record safety checks and point out issues to landlords so they might correct fire hazards before the city steps in. Investigators are already acting on new complaints filed by neighbors and other city officials.

Photo: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times