The Oakland Warehouse Fire

Three big lessons from this catastrophe.

First, think before you wish for ‘job-killing, economy-crushing regulations’ to be swept away. Fire and housing codes would have saved 33 36 young lives here if they had been enforced; an enormous fire in Cambridge the same day killed no-one, partly because there weren’t as many people crammed into one space, partly because the eleven old buildings involved met codes, or close, and had many ways out, partly because they weren’t full of paint thinner and the kind of flammables artists use at work.

Second, primary responsibility obviously rests with the owner and the building manager. But this was an implementation/management failure, not a policy failure: Oakland’s codes are entirely adequate to prevent this kind of thing, but they weren’t effectively used, whether because California has crippled its local governments financially by Proposition 13 and other short-sighted tax choices, or because the enforcement function in Oakland was incompetent or feckless.

The inspector who visited this deathtrap on Nov. 18 was “unable to gain access” and apparently the matter dropped there. It’s possible California needs some new legislation. For example, I have no trouble with the idea that the owner of anything larger than a single-family house has a duty to make himself  (or a subordinate or attorney with the keys) reachable for purposes of inspection access within 48 hours of any safety-related complaint the city chooses to act on. If he doesn’t open the building for the inspector, the inspector can admit himself, by force if necessary, during business hours.

Berkeley had a similar episode a decade ago, which unfolded quite differently because the city kept after the landlord. No fire, no deaths, no tragedy…

…but a bunch of artists out on the street. Third, the housing/workspace crisis for artists in happening cities is real (not to mention for teachers, students, civil servants, and every kind of poor person). The resistance to cleaning up the Drayage building came from the tenants whose safety was the point of the enforcement action, and they correctly understood that they had no workable options; things are worse for artists now.  Running around rousting artists from improvised housing and homeless from tent camps won’t fix this. Unless we make it easier to build, confront NIMBYism, and shovel out more housing supply-yes, including subsidized live-work spaces-we will have nightmares like the Ghost Ship and homeless camps under freeway ramps. People who can’t afford housing, whose price (in the Bay Area, and other places) has sailed into a completely unattainable stratosphere, will live somewhere, and that somewhere will be inhumane, intolerable, and dangerous in so many ways.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

9 thoughts on “The Oakland Warehouse Fire”

  1. Many solar advocates like me want to make it easy for householders to put solar panels on the roof and become suppliers of electricity to the grid as well as consumers. I Am Not An Electrician but the concerns or utilities and town halls about the safety and reliability of such installations are reasonable in principle, though they are sometimes overblown and a pretext for foot-dragging against competition. When a utility spots from the smart meter that a supplier's installation is playing up, it can reasonably require speedy access. The arrangements can be coordinated with those for fire hazards.

    PS. I should have begun by saying, yes, it was a dreadful tragedy.

    1. Yes, I agree. You should have edited before posting.

      And, I suggest, ALSO thought about how your hobby-horse issue is –>at best<– trivial vs the concerns of dozens of people dying after packing themselves into a deathtrap because they're inured to the risks of a debased environment.

      1. Take it easy, Walt. The number of people packed into deathtraps because the world is insisting on debasing its environment in the service of fossil fuel profit is in the hundreds of millions (e.g., the Ganges Delta).

  2. "..or because the enforcement function in Oakland was incompetent or feckless.." I'm gonna vote for feckless. Mike, you and I have both lived in Cambridge and Berkeley. When I lived in Cambridge in the 70s and 80s, there was living memory of the Coconut Grove fire, and code enforcement was NOT feckless. Pls correct me if I am wrong, but based on memory nothing close to that hideous had happened in the Bay Area in living memory, and it was easy for people (who had, after all, affordable space in Oakland) to pishtush the fire inspector.
    Somewhat similarly, earthquake code enforcement was fairly lax in the Bay Area until recent events. And after the Japan tsunami there was renewed interest in the stone monuments which Japanese people had put at the highest point the waters reached in previous events, hundreds of years ago.
    How we can keep people's attention on hazard prophylaxis during long periods of no crisis is a general problem.

    1. Interesting points. I have a paper in the works that will hopefully see print within the next year on this point in the context of global climate change.

  3. Thanks for an excellent post, Michael. I've spent my fair share of time in places like the Ghost Ship, and this whole incident really shook me up. I think you get it exactly right. Art requires artists. Most artists who are not hobbyists will never make very much money. These people need somewhere to live and work. In the cities with the worst housing crises, there is no longer affordable space readily available anywhere remotely proximate to the loci of cultural activity, so spaces like this pop up. Cities with competent enforcement agencies play whack-a-mole and shut them down. Others don't, and the specter of tragedy hangs over everything. Very sad.

  4. There should be severe penalties for city administrators who do not enforce the codes. In a country where the police can seize an individual's money and their car for no reason at all (civil 'forfeiture'), it's ridiculous that they let criminal negligence by landlords go on unabated. If fairness and the rule of law existed, the prisons would be full of landlords rather than weed dealers.

  5. This tragedy certainly arose from people struggling to live/work in substandard conditions. Our City Administrator recently told a group that a half million new jobs have happened in the Bay Area, with only about one-tenth that number of housing units, so of course there have been sharp cost increases that may take decades to sort out.

    But this tragedy ALSO happened because dozens were crammed into a space that never should've been a party/club environment. That has nothing to do with housing costs, but rather the fact that so many younger adults have so little income to afford better locations.

    Oakland has many clubs; they're not particularly geared at the rich but AFAICT, are reasonably inspected & safe. This location shouldn't have been one of them.

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