The Oakland Warehouse Fire

Three big lessons from this catastrophe.

First, think before you wish for ‘job-killing, economy-crushing regulations’ to be swept away. Fire and housing codes would have saved 33 36 young lives here if they had been enforced; an enormous fire in Cambridge the same day killed no-one, partly because there weren’t as many people crammed into one space, partly because the eleven old buildings involved met codes, or close, and had many ways out, partly because they weren’t full of paint thinner and the kind of flammables artists use at work.

Second, primary responsibility obviously rests with the owner and the building manager. But this was an implementation/management failure, not a policy failure: Oakland’s codes are entirely adequate to prevent this kind of thing, but they weren’t effectively used, whether because California has crippled its local governments financially by Proposition 13 and other short-sighted tax choices, or because the enforcement function in Oakland was incompetent or feckless.

The inspector who visited this deathtrap on Nov. 18 was “unable to gain access” and apparently the matter dropped there. It’s possible California needs some new legislation. For example, I have no trouble with the idea that the owner of anything larger than a single-family house has a duty to make himself  (or a subordinate or attorney with the keys) reachable for purposes of inspection access within 48 hours of any complaint the city chooses to act on. If he doesn’t open the building for the inspector, the inspector can admit himself, by force if necessary, during business hours.

Berkeley had a similar episode a decade ago, which unfolded quite differently because the city kept after the landlord. No fire, no deaths, no tragedy…

…but a bunch of artists out on the street. Third, the housing/workspace crisis for artists in happening cities is real (not to mention for teachers, students, civil servants, and every kind of poor person). The resistance to cleaning up the Drayage building came from the tenants whose safety was the point of the enforcement action, and they correctly understood that they had no workable options; things are worse for artists now.  Running around rousting artists from improvised housing and homeless from tent camps won’t fix this. Unless we make it easier to build, confront NIMBYism, and shovel out more housing supply–yes, including subsidized live-work spaces–we will have nightmares like the Ghost Ship and homeless camps under freeway ramps. People who can’t afford housing, whose price (in the Bay Area, and other places) has sailed into a completely unattainable stratosphere, will live somewhere, and that somewhere will be inhumane, intolerable, and dangerous in so many ways.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.