State Weighs Funding Artist Housing Improvements in Wake of Ghost Ship Fire

State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Oakland) is carrying SB 305, to fund upgrades to unsafe residences. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

California lawmakers heard testimony from artists, nonprofits and developers on Wednesday, in an effort to find out what the state can do to address a shortage of artist housing in the wake of Oakland's Ghost Ship fire.

The Legislature's Joint Committee on Arts held a hearing to review the state's "creative economy," but the discussion centered on how to house artists in safe and affordable settings.

The Ghost Ship warehouse fire in December killed 36 people, all involved in the Bay Area arts scene. The two-story building was an un-permitted living space that was hosting an electronic music show when the fire broke out.

Ron Vidal, one of the founders of the group We the Artists of the Bay Area, encouraged artists to engage with policymakers on housing affordability and safety issues.

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"Historically, the creative community hasn’t spoken in a collective voice," he said. "We’ve never really had to talk to the government."

Vidal warned state and local lawmakers against using the fire as a reason to pursue code violations against similar artist live-work spaces. He suggested that cities consider temporary moratoriums on compliance.

In January, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf signed an executive order that pushed property owners to come into compliance with building codes without evicting their tenants.

Still, members of the Oakland arts community expressed concern at Wednesday's hearing that landlords were clearing out tenants to avoid lawsuits.

"We have a lot of ‘liability-first’ concerns," said Jonah Strauss, executive director of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition. "We have some very reactionary landlords who go after tenants."

The lawmakers at the hearing said they had little power to directly revise local building codes.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Oakland) said she wants to direct some state funding to fix up spaces similar to the Ghost Ship. Her legislation, SB 305, would invest $20 million in low-interest loans to upgrade unsafe live-work buildings. The bill is currently in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"We wrote it to try to identify just some minimal safety standards that the loan would be able to be used for," Skinner said.

Skinner added that her colleague. Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), is convening a working group of the Senate Governance and Finance Committee to look at legislative fixes to state building codes.

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