San Francisco Artists and Fire Officials Find Common Ground on Warehouse Safety

Pacific Felt Factory Director Spike Kahn leads a safety discussion with San Francisco building and fire inspectors  (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

The lessons of Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire haunted a forum Tuesday night in which about 50 artists met with San Francisco building and fire officials. The event at the Mission District’s Brava Theatre featured presentations on everything from how to use a fire extinguisher and how building inspectors evaluate sprinkler systems, to tenants’ rights.

“I don’t know enough, and I just figured if I don’t know enough and I’m on a fire task force, then certainly individuals don’t know enough when they’re working on their art in their living room.” said Spike Kahn, an artist and Director of the Pacific Felt Factory, a studio complex she developed in San Francisco's Mission District. “No matter whether we’re to code or not, we can be safer than we were yesterday.”

One artists’ group was handing out free surge protectors, an alternative to extension cords, which can overheat and cause a fire. Federal officials believe an overloaded electrical system probably caused the Ghost Ship Fire in which 36 people died.

Pacific Felt Factory Director Spike Kahn shows off an electrical surge protector
Pacific Felt Factory Director Spike Kahn shows off an electrical surge protector (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

Kahn and San Francisco building and fire officials emphasized the forum was a secure space for artists to discuss fire safety, without fear they would be targeted for violations of building or fire codes.

But it demonstrated the anxiety artists are feeling about whether they can hold on to their studios and living spaces. Artists with questions from the audience didn't identify themselves. Since the fire, some landlords and city officials around the Bay Area have used safety concerns and zoning rules as an excuse to evict artists from warehouse spaces.

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“At least a third of the complaints we receive are without merit,” said Ron Allen, the chief electrical inspector with the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection, “but we don’t know that until we go out to investigate.”

Artists gather at the Brava Theater Center for a forum on fire safety and tenants' rights
Artists gather at the Brava Theater Center for a forum on fire safety and tenants' rights (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

That comment struck home for one Mission District artist at the forum, who said she’d had two surprise inspections recently, one from the fire department and one from the building department, after a neighbor complained about an event she held. “This stuff makes me feel I have to go more underground," said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t want to come from a place of fear. But now we’re like, oh my god, are they going to come and get us next.” The woman added that her live/work space passed both inspections without a problem, because "I'm super safety conscious."

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