The Oakland Warehouse Coalition (OWC) sent a scathing letter Friday to the head of inspections at the City of Oakland, accusing his unit of ignoring the mayor's orders regarding safety violations at warehouse spaces.
The letter to Rich Fielding, supervisor for the inspection unit at Oakland's Department of Building and Planning, states that in the majority of warehouse evictions this past year, inspectors found safety violations but did not work on a plan with tenants to fix them. Tenants were also barred from working directly with inspectors.
Such evictions are in direct defiance Executive Order 2017-1, issued by Mayor Libby Schaaf a month after the deadly Ghost Ship fire. The order requires that those who own buildings not permitted for residential use but have tenants and or don’t conform to codes must make a plan with city officials within 60 days to correct the space’s issues. Landlords are also asked to not displace tenants in those buildings if none of its code violations are life-threatening.
"While I'm not sure where the break is in the chain of command from the Mayor to the inspectors that you supervise, one thing is clear: if you were instructed to abide by the guidelines in Executive Order 2017-1, you did not effectively integrate them into your workflow, and both you and your inspectors continue to disregard Ms. Schaaf's directives to this day," OWC executive director Jonah Strauss wrote.
The letter came after the East Bay Express reported that city inspectors had ordered evictions at 10 nonresidential spaces, thereby displacing 45 people within an eight-month period following the fire. The report also claims that the city's approach to such inspections did not change following the order, despite directives from the planning department to change protocol. Landlords and tenants at other spaces said they expected more evictions to come.
Following the Ghost Ship fire, which killed 36 people, warehouse spaces in Nashville and Baltimore were evicted almost immediately. There were calls from activists for city officials to pass legislation similar to New York City's 2010 Loft Law. Trying to appease the large community of Oakland residents that live in warehouse spaces or "warehomes," Schaaf instead issued executive order 2017-1. Though it took into account that many warehouse tenants would probably be priced out of Oakland if they had to move, it did little to prevent evictions.
But the OWC's letter goes even further in its castigation of the city's inspectors, claiming that the department is under-reporting the number of evictions and shutting down warehomes that don't "harbor imminent life safety hazards." By ignoring the executive order, "intimidated or opportunistic landlords are encouraged to remove their tenants by the easiest, most rapid means available," Strauss says, and the OWC has found no proof of landlords providing relocation funds for displaced tenants.
"Most tenants displaced since Ghost Ship lack the education, vocabulary, or means to pursue appropriate legal action, and choose to focus instead on survival," Strauss wrote. "They are forced to seek new housing in the midst of an untenable shortage, which is universally more expensive than the affordable housing they were renting – sometimes double or triple the cost."
Strauss said he sent the letter Friday to Fielding several other city officials to raise awareness of what the city inspectors are doing.
"We have worked tirelessly throughout this first year to introduce both legislative and internal policy measures, and though we have seen a slowly dawning understanding result from Ms. Cappio, Mr. Ranelletti, and now Mr. Gilchrist, zero progress has been made from Mr. Fielding downwards," Strauss said.
As for a response to the letter from Fielding or other city officials, Strauss said he doesn't expect much.
"While we are speaking here primarily about overreach, we could just as easily criticize their lack of action," Strauss said. "The exact messages expressed in the letter have been expressed literally hundreds of times, and in fact have significantly influenced the practices, language, and PR attempts of the Fire Safety Task Force."
"Given Mr. Fielding's extensive history of ordering owners to remove their tenants from buildings with real and perceived hazards alike, we feel he should be fired. But because there exists a murky structure whereby he appears untouchable, we will settle for the next best thing: the total reorganization of his department," Strauss added.
Attempts to reach Fielding were not returned by press time.