With the Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Ion Almena very much in the spotlight following Friday's deadly fire, another, less corporeal object of potential blame has emerged in some circles: the Bay Area affordable housing crisis, and the need for artists' spaces. People have begun to ask why artists were living in such a squalid space — which reportedly frequently lacked basic amenities like hot water and heat — in the first place, and if the many other live/work artist collectives in Oakland are just Ghost Ship-style tragedies waiting to happen. Meanwhile, at least one artist familiar with the Oakland scene says high prices aren't to blame, and that any space can be made safe if such work is prioritized.
“It’s the lesser of two evils: Would you rather live someplace dangerous or be homeless?” Carmen Brito, a Ghost Ship resident who managed to escape the fire, told the East Bay Times. And she wasn't the only one interviewed by the paper who shared similar sentiments. “Five hundred dollars a month right now is a golden ticket to have a place to cook and shower and sleep," Oakland musician Jonah Strauss told the paper. "It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you can make your art and be part of a community, but we’re being forced into the worst places because of the economic, political and social climate in the city."
There is no doubt that with the second fastest growing rents in the country, Oakland housing costs have moved in step with the rest of the Bay Area. This reality combined with the fact that Ghost Ship reportedly offered live/work space ranging in price from $700 to $1,500 per month surely made it an appealing option for those looking for an affordable place to rest their heads. However, the idea that simply because a space is relatively affordable and not permitted for residential use it will necessarily be unsafe doesn't sit well with at least one Oakland artist.
Chuck DeGuida is the man behind Oakland's Jingletown Art Studios, and he told CBS 5 that the dangerous conditions leading to Friday's fire had nothing to do with the housing market. “Any place can be a safe place if that’s the way you’re looking at it," he explained. "It doesn’t have to be palatial. The place that they had could have been a safe place with some extra effort."
Basically, he told the channel, if you prioritize safety your space will be safe. Speaking of his own studio, he made it clear that that had been his approach. “It took six months to feel that it was safe for people to move in, and that it was a usable space, and a place that would attract people that wanted to come and see art.”
The city of Oakland, now facing an independent investigation into how it handled complaints relating to the Ghost Ship building, is not waiting for blame to be assigned. The Chronicle reports that investigators already paid a visit Monday to a West Oakland live/work space with the incredibly unfortunate name of "Deathtrap." The building inspector said it was his second stop of the day, and that the city is trying to “empower tenants, not displace them” in light of the fire.
A Deathtrap tenant declined to speak with the Chronicle reporter, and the building's Facebook Events page was removed yesterday. The inspector didn't go inside.
Meanwhile, the owner of a popular downtown Oakland restaurant held a press conference of her own to call out another allegedly illegal arts and event venue at 411 Second Street. As CBS 5 reports, Everett & Jones BBQ owner Dorothy King says the building next door to her restaurant, called The Salt Lick, poses a similar threat to the Ghost Ship space, with lines she says that go around the block for weekend parties. "I know for a fact there’s only one way in or one way out," she said.
Many people around the Bay Area have commiserated in recent days about how many sketchy warehouses we've been in for parties like the one Friday night and that it was just luck of the draw that this fire broke out in this particular space, though fires have broken out in other artists' warehouses in Oakland before, just never to such devastating effect. After about two decades of increasing population and rising housing costs, and the gentrification/re-occupation of formerly industrial areas of Oakland, it's inevitable that artists and other warehouse dwellers are going to be feeling the heat in the coming months with so much national attention on this tragedy.
In related news, a similar enclave in Baltimore, the two-story Bell Foundry arts collective, was quickly boarded up and declared a safety hazard on Monday, as the Baltimore Sun reports, in direct response to the Oakland fire.
A Baltimore city spokesperson said that occupants "are not allowed to use the building until the proper use and occupancy permit is received and the building is up to code."
Artist tenants called the eviction a "raid" and a "spectacle," with one, Jacob Kenna, telling the paper, "This is how cities show solidarity. They crash down on people."