Potentially dangerous living spaces still a problem 2 years after Ghost Ship fire

The agony created by the Ghost Ship fire back in 2016 remains a very real danger today as officials try to bring about safety code compliance without causing mass evictions. 

Two years ago, the fire that raced through the illegal, un-permitted work/live space called the Ghost Ship killed 36 people who were unable to escape. Since then, the city if Oakland says it has tripled the number of fire inspectors to 22 and doubled the building code enforcement staff to 27. The city says it has red tagged two illegal live/work buildings and put another 38 on fire watch for faulty alarm systems and another 21 may soon also be put on fire watch requiring 24/7 fire monitoring. But not one of these fire watch buildings has fully complied with fire and building code.

"We've assisted approximately 120 buildings, 100 of which we've actually be able to get on a path towards compliance," said David Keenan, director of Safer DIY Spaces, a non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to making life safety improvements to un-permitted dwellings. The group also advocates for building code changes to allow such dwellings and to help tenants move into legal dwellings.

The mayor has issued an executive order to avoid displacement unless there is an imminent hazard. The problem is implementation.

"We did find that the order was universally ignored by the  actual regulators," said Keenan.

Keenan also said that while at the highest levels of Oakland government, there's sympathy for the plight of the tenants. But, at the permitting level there are hard and fast rules that has left tenants, for the last two years, essentially living in limbo. Not one single unpermitted building has yet to attain legal status, even though many illegal live/work buildings still exist.

"What you create is a game of whack-a-mole. You've closed down one warehouse. Well, guess what, there's two or three small warehouses maybe that are slowly percolating up," said Keenan.

A former illegal live/work space in West Oakland, once called the Deathtrap at the time of the Ghost Ship fire, is now being converted to a coffee shop and two other commercial spaces.