A fourth victim has been confirmed in the deadly fire that burned down a three-story building on San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland on Monday, and as the investigation into the fire gets underway, the Chronicle has taken deep dive into the building's recent history and that of its landlord.
The four dead in the fire include 64-year-old Edwarn Anderson, and Cassandra Robertson, 50, and the other two victims have not been publicly identified. The fire also displaced more than 80 people, most of them formerly homeless, and some of them disabled or mentally ill. Among those were apparently squatters who were occupying the third floor of the building outside the purview of a nonprofit that was managing the units on the first two floors.
The parallels with the Ghost Ship fire in December are several, but namely, as the Chronicle puts it, it was "both a cherished source of [affordable] housing and an unusual trouble spot in Oakland well before the fire."
In addition to the eviction notice we learned of yesterday, served to master tenant Urojas Community Services shortly after the Ghost Ship tragedy, the Chronicle reports that the halfway house was formerly run by the East Bay Community Recovery Project from 1994 to 2011, which provides housing to women in recovery and their children. That group ultimately moved to new space next door six years ago after failing to get landlord Keith Kim to make necessary improvements at the property.
But Urojas Community Services, founded 20 years ago by the Rev. Jasper Lowery, is "a bit of a mystery" to the Chronicle, which notes that group may have owed back rent to Kim, with an eviction notice in January that claimed they owed him $118,000. Urojas claims that they had tried to pay rent but that Kim refused to accept it.
There is also a bit of weirdness in Kim's past, too. Once upon a time the owner of the iconic Merritt Bakery, swooping in to bail it out of a bankruptcy in 1994, Kim also stepped in to try to save Granny Goose, the local potato chip company that folded in 2000. He was implicated in an insider-trading case in 2001, and despite a bankruptcy filing in 2011 in which he apparently owed upwards of $25 million, he resides in a multimillion dollar home in Piedmont.
Yesterday we learned that city inspectors had visited the property where the fire occurred as recently as Friday, noting a number of safety hazards including extension cords strung between rooms and fire alarms and sprinklers in need of testing, but as Mayor Libby Schaaf said to the Chronicle, "Those violations did not support what we would call red-tagging. They did not amount to an imminent life safety threat."
The timing of the fire, amidst an eviction fight and shortly after this inspection, has raised suspicions of arson.
Meanwhile, 50 of the 80+ displaced tenants and squatters at the property have been temporarily housed in a shelter at the West Oakland Youth Center, however as NBC Bay Area reports they've been told they will need to find somewhere else to go by Friday.
29-year-old Eliza Anderson, who has been staying in the shelter with her three daughters, tells the Chronicle, "I’m feeling like I have no hope. I don't know what to do."
Wayne Caluya, 53, tells the paper that he decided just to sleep in his car rather than stay on a hard cot. He works as a cook at Oracle Arena, and moved to the burned building with his brother two years ago after another home they shared also burned down. "I don’t know if the devil’s testing or if God is testing us, but we just gotta hold on," he tells the Chronicle.
"I’m worried about everything. The streets don’t care about nothing. They will eat you up and spit you out alive if you’re vulnerable. You gotta stay strong."