Artists and musicians in Oakland faced a horrific task when they awoke on 3 December 2016: figuring out if their friends were dead or alive.
The fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse party that killed 36 people led to an agonizing weekend of futile searches, crowdsourced spreadsheets of missing people, and a rapidly rising body count. It felt like rock bottom for some – until the eviction threats began days later.
On 6 December, tenants of Burnt Ramen, a local underground punk venue and residential warehouse, were put on notice by city officials that they could be targeted due to unsafe conditions. Their friends’ funerals had not yet happened when news cameras showed up at their door in Richmond, a city just north of Oakland. Soon, they were evicted and forced to live out of their cars and on couches, and 20 months later, they are still fighting to return.
“You’re dealing with your community going through this huge loss and mourning, and it’s also the dead of winter and I’m about to be homeless,” Sadaf Zahoor, a former Burnt Ramen resident, recalled in a recent interview, adding: “I want my home and my family back.”
Two men behind Ghost Ship, where people became trapped on a second floor during the deadliest building fire in recent US history, are being sentenced this week for involuntary manslaughter. Families of the victims, many of them young artists, musicians and activists, have said the prosecutor’s plea deals for several years in prison did not feel like a just outcome.
For some friends of the deceased, the injustice of Ghost Ship was also what they described as a crackdown by exploitative landlords and ramped up government enforcement to displace low-income communities – a legacy of devastation that extends far beyond the 2016 inferno.
‘Torn this community apart’
The Ghost Ship warehouse was uniquely dangerous, described by some as a “tinderbox” and “deathtrap”. Derick Almena, who managed the 10,000-square-foot industrial space, had constructed dwellings inside without proper approvals, charging tenants anywhere from $300 to $1,400 to live there.
Inside was a maze-like labyrinth, packed floor to ceiling with wooden furniture, tapestries, antiques and old pianos. The night of the fire, about 100 people had arrived for a dance party, climbing up a ramshackle wooden staircase. It was the only way out after Max Harris, a party organizer and the second defendant in the state’s case, had blocked another exit, according to prosecutors.
The disaster sent shockwaves through Oakland’s underground DIY scene and LGBT community, with numerous queer and trans people among the deceased. It also served as a grim illustration of the severe local housing crisis, spurred by the Silicon Valley tech boom and the high cost of living in neighboring San Francisco.
Sinuba Dreem, a musician whose friend Joey Casio died in the fire, recalled the pain of hearing officials promising to take action on other unauthorized warehouses while people were still trying to identify victims.
“My best friend’s dead, and now you’re going to evict us?” said Dreem, who is non-binary and uses gender-neutral pronouns. They were eventually forced to vacate their home after the tragedy. “I was trying to help my friends not get kicked out, on top of grieving.”
Soon after the fire, hundreds of panicked artists and residents started gathering at town-hall events to organize.
“Everybody wanted to do something,” said Ayse Sercan, a local architect who attended the meetings. “There was a feeling like we had to make sure this never happened again.”
Sercan, Dreem and a few others ended up joining together in a group called Safer DIY Spaces to help residents in underground housing make safety improvements and navigate threats from the city and landlords. For some, it provided a temporary distraction from the grief: “I just threw myself into doing all this work,” said Dreem.
Sercan began with walkthroughs at dozens of places where tenants sought her help, finding that the vast majority were nothing like Ghost Ship, she said. They were often functional residences that needed smoke detectors and other cursory improvements.
But those realities didn’t seem to matter to some landlords, who launched urgent evictions. Some may have been concerned about liability while others were eager to sell and turn a profit or move in higher-paying tenants.
The city’s rush to do inspections and issue violations made it easier for owners to conduct “bad faith” evictions by claiming they couldn’t make their properties compliant, said the tenant attorney Jackie Zaneri.
The displacement post-fire had “torn this community apart”, said Jonah Strauss, a local recording engineer and executive director of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition. “We will never have the same kind of community again, because the most creative groundbreaking work in the arts is done by people who are living on the margins. Once the margins are erased, those people simply can’t exist.”
‘Black spaces are criminalized’
Hager Seven Asefaha founded the Alena Museum as an arts space dedicated to Afrofuturism, the African diaspora and combating gentrification in one of Oakland’s historically black neighborhoods. Now, his white landlords are displacing him.
Oakland, which is having a Hollywood moment this year, has a rich history of black arts and activism, once celebrated as the Harlem of the west and also known as the birthplace of the Black Panthers. Alena, however, is one of the few black-run artist warehouse spaces in the city.
Asefaha’s neighborhood, West Oakland, repeatedly suffered at the hands of racist government practices decades earlier, including freeway, train and other construction projects that divided and displaced African American communities.
“Having a place we run that showcases our identity in a strong and bold way is critical,” Asefaha said on a recent afternoon, sitting inside the 6,000-square-foot warehouse near a large sign that said “AFRIKA hold your SPACE”. He and four other tenants also live in an upstairs part of the warehouse that has been built out with bedrooms.
When Asefaha’s five-year lease recently expired, his landlord, Lynne Glassman, decided not to renew, citing Ghost Ship and other issues. The city and owners have also raised concerns about a shooting earlier this year that happened near the venue on the same day as an Alena event. Asefaha argued that it was racist to link his space to the incident, which he said was unrelated, and in court filings alleged that the eviction was discriminatory.
“Just as black people are constantly criminalized and dehumanized in the media, black spaces are also criminalized,” he said in an interview, adding: “Landlords used Ghost Ship to evict tenants they deemed dangerous. It’s this vulturistic, opportunistic hold on land.”
As part of a settlement in court this week, Asefaha agreed to restrictions on his events – and to move out in March next year. He is hoping to purchase a new location for his organization and said he hasn’t had time to think about where he might live. “We need safe spaces … We’re still fighting for the right to exist.”
Glassman declined to comment. His attorney Stephen Judson said the landlord “categorically denied” claims of discrimination and noted that he had no “legal obligation” to allow Asefaha to stay. He also said neighbors and the city had complained about activities at the venue.
It’s difficult to know how many underground warehouses or “live-work” spaces like Alena Museum have fallen since Ghost Ship. In a November 2017 memo, the city said it had investigated 32 spaces with possible unauthorized residences and was aware of evictions in five properties.
An East Bay Express investigation last year found 10 evicted spaces, and David Keenan of Safer DIY Spaces estimated this week that at least 15 sites in Oakland have been evicted or vacated since the fire. Given the size of some of these spaces – the city confirmed one evicted building had 13 tenants – it was possible hundreds of people had been displaced, Keenan said.
Despite stereotypes of young, white and privileged artists in Oakland warehouses, organizers said they mostly worked with vulnerable low-income tenants, including longtime older residents who have nowhere else to go.
Sercan said she had worked with undocumented immigrants, day laborers, craftsmen, tenants in their 50s and 60s and others who have ended up in non-traditional housing because it’s their only option.
“There is an intense fear about losing your home that is kind of hard to describe,” she said. “Sometimes, there is just a profound depression.”
Keenan said he had tried to explain to city officials that violation notices, burdensome permit fees and the resulting evictions typically didn’t make people safer.
Instead, he said, displaced tenants moved further underground into more substandard conditions where the threat of danger and tragedy were greater: “It’s going to come back to haunt them.”
Oakland officials insisted they were dedicated to minimizing displacement and supporting underground culture, with four government leaders outlining strategies and reforms in a recent wide-ranging interview.
“The city wants to both help and protect and preserve these artistic communities, but above all, needs to keep them safe,” said Kelley Kahn, policy director of art spaces.
The city also passed a law that activists had pushed that prevents owners from evicting live-work tenants and moving in cannabis businesses, since California’s marijuana legalization has created a huge demand for warehouses.
Michele Byrd, housing and community development director, said the city had also worked to educate tenants on their rights and assist them with the relocation process when displacement occurs. Sometimes, however, that means temporary shelters or housing far away from Oakland: “We are in a housing crisis, and the supply is limited.”
Officials were also exploring possible modifications to building codes that would make it easier to preserve live-work spaces. “Every step of the process is something we are going to examine,” said the planning director, William Gilchrist.
But to some, it all feels like too little too late.
“By the end of this year, I really don’t know if there’s going to be any of us left,” said Dreem, adding that the owner of the space where their late best friend Casio used to live was in the process of selling it.
Plastered on a wall inside is one of Casio’s murals, a collage of black-and-white geometric shapes that friends now think of as a self-portrait and “portal” to Casio.
Dreem plans to remove the artwork before the sale is finalized.
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