Friday, January 20, 2017

[Alameda County] Latest Oakland firetrap underscores Libby Schaaf’s dilemma

Blog note: this article references a 2014 grand jury report.
The tightrope that Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf is walking in the aftermath of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire became clear when Alameda County sheriff’s deputies raided an abandoned East Oakland storefront where 28 people were living illegally — including a 5-year-old child who was being housed in a closet.
“They had a makeshift bed built for the child on a shelf, next to exposed wiring and debris,” said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly. “They had all sorts of nooks and crannies where people were sleeping. Electricity had been rigged up from the outside, and there was open sewage and all sorts of blight.
“It was a recipe for disaster,” Kelly said.
As with the Ghost Ship — where 36 people died Dec. 2 when fire broke out during a non-permitted concert — the storefront on the 6600 block of Bancroft Avenue appears to have gone undetected by Oakland fire and building inspectors, despite being on a busy street.
A disaster like the Ghost Ship blaze would have prompted a crackdown on illegal housing in most cities, but Oakland isn’t like most cities. Schaaf’s celebration of the art-warehouse culture was well-known before the fire, and she’s been careful since Dec. 2 to reassure artists and musicians that they won’t be chased out of town.
Unlike an artists warehouse, no one is going to raise a cry over a raid and evictions at a vacant East Oakland storefront. Most people living there when deputies arrived last week were parolees with suspected ties to the Norteños street gang. They were arrested on suspicion of gun and drug crimes and prostitution, and quickly found new homes in the Santa Rita jail. Building inspectors red-tagged the building.
But the raid does underscore the question of how — or whether — Oakland is looking for possible firetraps.
The Alameda County civil grand jury learned of one glaring issue when looking into the city’s fire inspections in 2014: The database the Fire Department used to identify buildings that needed checking was based on active business licenses — not the county tax assessor’s property reports that list all taxable real estate, and describe the property as being residential, commercial or industrial.
It’s uncertain if using the assessor records would have made a difference in the case of the Bancroft Avenue building, but it does mean that thousands of structures weren’t on the Fire Department’s to-do list.
“They made a major blunder, and put a system in place that will pretty much ensure missing people who want to fly under the radar,” said one source who was involved with the grand jury report, but who wasn’t authorized to speak for the record.
Schaaf’s executive order last week laying out conditions for turning illegal residential spaces into legal ones was notably silent on the question of who would be looking for buildings that lack permits.
You might think the Bancroft Avenue raid would have sounded alarms at City Hall that all was not well, more than a month after Ghost Ship. But despite the extensive media coverage the raid received, Schaaf told us Friday that she hadn’t heard about it until we called.
“We are going to continue the proactive inspection program that I started a year ago and continue to respond to the increased number of complaints that we have received in the wake of the Ghost Ship tragedy,” Schaaf said.
Her spokeswoman, Erica Terry Derryck, later said, “The situation on Bancroft Avenue where alleged gang members were reportedly using a vacant building to shield criminal activity is not at all the same as the circumstances surrounding the (Ghost Ship) fire ... and no one should be led to believe that they are.”
January 15, 2017
San Francisco Chronicle
By Matier & Ross

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