Mixed Reaction from Arts Activists as Oakland Mayor Says She'll Seek Another Term

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf at the Oakland warehouse known as the Ghost Ship. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Give Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf points for planning ahead: the mayoral election is nearly 19 months away, but she announced Monday plans to seek a second term in 2018.

That’s prompting a mixed assessment from arts activists, who’ve been following Schaaf’s administration since the Ghost Ship fire -- when 36 people died at a dance party in an Oakland warehouse that was home to many artists, but which had never been fully inspected by fire officials.

Since the tragedy, Schaaf has tried to walk a fine line between tougher safety enforcement and protecting artists from eviction. In announcing her plans for reelection, Schaaf wrote, “I will also fight to protect our small Oakland-grown businesses, artists and non-profit organizations from displacement.”

“Libby has really stepped out on a limb for us,” says Jon Sarriugarte, a commercial artist in West Oakland active in the group We the Artists of the Bay Area. He also serves on a pair of mayoral committees including one on housing retention. “All of us have been grateful, and for her statement in support of balancing art and safety.”

We the Artists of the Bay Area gave away free fire extinguishers and smoke alarms at a recent event
Jon Sarriugarte and others with We the Artists of the Bay Area gave away free fire extinguishers and smoke alarms at an event in January of this year. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

In January, Schaaf issued an executive order aimed at improving safety at unpermitted warehouses, but also offering residents protections, such as requiring a five-day warning to tenants before any inspectors enter the property.

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“I would say she's definitely trying,” says David Keenan, a member of the Omni Commons, a DIY collective in North Oakland. “But she's also facing substantial blocks from city agencies which move very slowly.”

After clearing an exhaustive planning review, Keenan’s own group briefly faced eviction when Oakland’s chief building official misread a zoning map.

Keenan said that despite Schaaf's good intentions, landlords are still evicting artists even without pressure from city inspectors. “Basically two weeks doesn’t go by," he says, "without my hearing about someone being given a 1-3 month notice to get out.”

David Keenan, an organizer with the DIY Safety Group and the Omni Commons collective
David Keenan, an organizer with the DIY Safety Group and the Omni Commons collective. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

Schaaf is recruiting a new fire chief, and Keenan says he’ll be watching to see if the Mayor finds someone who Keenan says "follows a philosophy of compassionate compliance, where officials balance concerns about whether the sprinklers are up to code with making sure the tenant has a roof over their head.”

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