People want to live in San Francisco. However, the price of housing is really, really high. So, people want to live in Oakland as a fallback. Here the price of housing is merely really high. Even so, Oakland rents have spiked by 70 percent over the last five years. Oakland rents for a one bedroom apartment now average $2,500 a month, or $36,000 a year. However, many of the potential tenants are “artsy”—musicians and artists–so they don’t have any money. (I suppose they could live in North Richmond. However, North Richmond lacks panache, in addition to other deficiencies.) How to square this circle?
The Fruitvale section of Oakland provided an alternative solution. Chor Nar Su Ng had bought an old warehouse in 1988; in 2013, she rented the building to Derick Almena. Almena then sub-let space in the warehouse at a really low rate of $600 a head. This became the now-gruesomely-named “Ghost Ship” warehouse/art space/residence.
On 2 December 2016, a fast-moving, smoky fire broke out during a concert and party at the “Ghost Ship.” In the end, 36 people died. Now, people want to know why.
The state of California requires that certain buildings be inspected on a regular basis, but most other buildings are inspected on local initiative. Oakland’s Fire Department compiled a database of buildings to inspect in about 2000. According to Oakland authorities, the Fire Department’s database had become outdated. Oakland’s Fire Department had been without a Fire Marshall for three years before Teresa Deloach Reed won the position in Spring 2016. Oakland’s Fire Department still is 62 people under complement, in spite of adequate funding.
Reed had a lot of ground to make up. Neither the Oakland Fire Department nor the Building Department had inspected the warehouse that came to house the “Ghost Ship” in thirty years. However, several near-by businesses said that they had been inspected on an annual basis. The warehouse had been inhabited for several years, but the men in the firehouse 200 yards down the street had never noticed people—rather than trucks—going in and out of the “warehouse” at all hours. From 2014 to 2016, someone filed five complaints about the “Ghost Ship” building and an adjoining lot with the Building Department. The complainants alleged “unsafe conditions.” So, why didn’t anyone inspect the “Ghost Ship”? Well, building inspectors needed the approval of the owner to enter the building. Apparently, no such approval was forthcoming, so no inspectors entered the building. Finally, the concert, during which the fire broke out, was required to be registered with the city. No one registered it.
It turns out that the “Ghost Ship” is but one of at least a dozen similar arrangements. There are hints that the city gave them a conscious pass on safety regulations. According to the New York Times, “Oakland is trying to strike a difficult balance: keeping residents safe without making them homeless.”
It is worth asking if there are limits to what government regulation can achieve. This isn’t a libertarian tirade against all regulation. Regulations have to be enforced to be effective. Enforcement depends on adequate human and financial resources. Those aren’t always available. Regulations can increase faster than do resources. Then, social and political circumstances can change, as when Oakland became home to an arts community.
To some—uncertain—degree, personal judgment and responsibility are essential.
 Thomas Fuller et al, “A ‘Ghost Ship’ All but Unseen, Until 36 Died,” NYT, 23 December 2016.