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Oakland Fire: Why Did Building Inspectors Miss the Ghost Ship?

Bay Area building inspectors describe protocols that leave much up to chance. And few satisfying answers.

A photo taken inside the Ghost Ship before it burned.

 

Some years ago, San Francisco building inspectors busted a man making biodiesel fuel in a Hunters Point warehouse without any licenses or permitting and without even the most basic of safety precautions. “We’re lucky he didn’t blow up the entire block,” recalls one of the inspectors on the scene. 

And how was this man caught? Simple: He left the door open and the inspectors walked right in. “I have walked in the door many times,” confirms the inspector. 

Friday’s fire at the Ghost Ship at 1305 31st Avenue in Oakland—a concert space, art collective, and illegal residence—has left at least 36 people dead and shaken the region to its core. In the wake of the blaze, media accounts have emerged of conditions befitting a refugee camp—makeshift wiring, liberal use of generators and propane heaters, labyrinthine wooden emplacements. Self-claimed acquaintances have turned their wrath upon Derick Ion Almena, the shady 46-year-old impresario who ran the Ghost Ship, claiming he blew off their warnings that the 4,000-square-foot warehouse was a tinder box. 

Neighbors complained, too. On November 17, a building inspector was dispatched to the property to eyeball an alleged “Illegal interior building structure.” But nobody left the door open for the inspector to walk into. And that was that. The inspector couldn’t gain entry and, a shade over two weeks later, the warehouse burned. There was no follow-up visit.    

Friday’s fire was the most calamitous in Oakland history in terms of loss of life and the worst in this state since the fateful year of 1906; Alameda County prosecutors could, conceivably, bring murder charges against whomever they determine to be at fault. 

Just what the city of Oakland should have done to intercede prior to what, in retrospect, seems to be an inevitable disaster will be the question on the minds of family and community members (and their lawyers) for many months to come. But what a building inspector can do to gain entry to private property its denizens don’t wish him or her to enter is more limited. 

Why no inspection follow-up took place after November 17 remains unknown. Darin Ranelletti, the interim director of Oakland’s Planning and Building Department, hasn’t returned our messages. But, weeks prior to the Ghost Ship blaze, Joe Tobener, a San Francisco tenants’ attorney, had pitched San Francisco on a story: Why not write about how Oakland building inspectors are terrible at following up? “They are poor at citing landlords for violations,” he claimed, “and they are poor at following up once they do cite landlords.” 

Oakland’s city attorneys are, no doubt, already manning their battle stations, preparing for an onslaught of litigation. But half a dozen Bay Area building inspectors contacted by San Francisco pointed out that they’re not cops, they can’t kick down doors, and there’s only so much they can do to inspect complaints made against properties when those living or working there don’t wish for that to happen. “People are belligerent,” notes one San Francisco inspector. “They don’t want to let you in; I’ve had pit bulls come at me.” 

When inspectors knock on the door and nobody answers, more often than not, they’ll write “refused entry” on a report. They can’t enter the premises and arrest people. In a case like the November 17 visit to the Ghost Ship, the next logical step might have been to write a warning letter that would be sent to the property owner. But a pen-and-ink finger-wagging is only so effective against a serial scofflaw. (Perhaps more problematic for Oakland, a Chronicle story indicates the police—who of course can make arrests—were not infrequent visitors to the illegal dwelling.) 

Local building inspectors tell us that, in the event of evident life-threatening situations, the city attorney will be brought into the picture and a judge’s ruling will be required for a forcible intervention (this rarely occurs; one inspector with nearly two decades on the job told us that he’s never had to take this step). But the allegation triggering November’s Oakland inspection—“Illegal interior building structure”—doesn’t necessarily rise to that level. Nor do four prior complaints leveled against the building dating back to 2004, which are listed on Oakland’s Planning and Building website—all of which involve refuse, junker cars, vermin, or other signs of blight. Other than the most recent case, which is now tragically moot, these issues were either closed or abated. 

But that’s cold comfort for friends and family of the deceased or missing. “What I don’t understand is why weren’t they able to gain access, and if that was the case, why didn’t they stay there until they could?” Dan Vega, whose 22-year-old brother Alex Vega is missing, told the East Bay Times. Joe Tobener and Vega's laments notwithstanding, inspectors are often responsible for visiting more than a dozen properties a day. And Vega's brother, and so many more, may be the victims of a cruel Catch-22: The inspectors who could have acted regarding code violations appear to have never gained entry to the premises; if the cops did indeed gain entry, they appear to have paid little heed to code violations. And even if the city had, somehow, acted decisively before the tragedy, it likely would have put many, many struggling artists out into the street. There are no easy answers, a great many people are dead far too soon, and everyone's lawyering up. 

When asked what they would have done if they showed up at the Ghost Ship on November 17, the building inspectors we spoke to provided a number of intriguing answers (none said they'd do nothing, which is what happened). If the warehouse were in San Francisco and not Oakland, per the city’s guidelines, the inspector should have left a slip with his phone number on it, requesting an inspection time be worked out in the near future (good luck with that). Less officially, one San Francisco inspector said he’d call people he grew up with who now work in the fire department here, and have them take action—a charmingly small-town response. Another inspector said he’d simply drive around and return periodically until he caught someone loading or unloading, and talk his way inside. “You can walk through an open door,” he reminds us. A building inspector actually has more leeway than a cop to march through such open doors and onto properties: “I guarantee you I’d have gotten into that building.” 

But that opportunity never presented itself. And, now, it never will. 


Coda
: Following publication of this article, attorney Joe Tobener pointed out a very salient difference between San Francisco's Department of Building Inspection and its Oakland counterpart. Tenants in illegal units in San Francisco can call DBI to report safety violations and allow inspectors into their units with confidence they will not be automatically booted out of red-tagged buildings and any citations will be delievered to their landlords. Oakland residents of illegal units do not enjoy this protection, thereby incetivizing them to live in dangerous situations, not call inspectors, and bar inspectors from the premises. Tobener suggests inhabitants of illegal units "should have a private inspector come out and work with the landlord. San Francisco is less hostile than Oakland, but they will still red-tag."  

Neither city has nearly so tenant-friendly a law as New York City

 


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