PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — An Oakland warehouse obliterated in a massive fire during a party Friday night housed musicians, painters, woodworkers and other artists, despite not being zoned for people to live in.
So far, authorities say 36 people were killed in the “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire, and investigators who are still combing through the rubble say the death toll could continue to climb in the coming days.
Micah Allison wasn’t there during the fire, but she helped run the art collective in the Oakland warehouse. Her father, Michael, who lives in Portland, said he tried on numerous occasions to get her away from the building.
Former residents called the spot a “death trap” with few exits, a rickety makeshift staircase, piles of driftwood and a labyrinth of electrical cords.
Authorities began investigating the building just last month after repeated complaints from neighbors who said people were illegally living inside of it.
But “Ghost Ship” was just one of many illegal living communities in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. And across the Bay Area, countless people are living in structurally dangerous, non-residential spaces as the region’s cost of living soars.
“As it takes more time to make the money to afford less and less space, we’ve got an issue,” Alexander Rokoff, co-founder of Portland’s Falcon Art Community, said. “You have lots of people gathering in what ultimately are going to be unsafe buildings.”
One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, told KOIN 6 News she has lived illegally in 5 different warehouses across San Francisco and Oakland, including one down the street from “Ghost Ship”.
“There has been tension around my house since the news,” she said. “We know it’s only a matter of time before the city starts cracking down on spaces like ours, and it’s not like any of us has anywhere else to go when we get evicted.”
Since moving to the Bay Area 2 1/2 years ago, she said she has seen around 50 warehouses being used as residential spaces.
“Trying to find affordable housing in the Bay is a joke,” she said. “Unless you have a rent-controlled apartment, there is no way for artists, or anyone not working in tech for that matter, to afford living in San Francisco or metropolitan Oakland.”
But city officials aren’t completely blind to what’s going on. The woman said she was once approached by a city official while carrying a bag of groceries into a warehouse.
“He empathetically explained that he had been sent to investigate our building, but that he understood how difficult living in San Francisco was,” she said. “He just needed me to verbally verify that the building was only used for commercial studio spaces and he would be on his way.”
At another warehouse notorious for illegally housing residents, the woman said tenants were told to be prepared for the city to come in for scheduled searches.
“[The manager] showed me a trap door in a wall panel and explained that on the day of the searches, everyone dragged their mattresses and clothing racks into this room so it would appear that all the rooms were commercial use only,” she explained.
While rent in warehouses can be more affordable for artists and young professionals alike, the woman said she has “absolutely” felt unsafe in her living conditions.
“My current house has a ton of exposed electrical wiring and my bedroom is tucked into a back corner with no windows or other means of exiting,” she said. “Most places I’ve lived have actually caught fire at some point or another, though it’s always been small and quickly contained.”The Associated Press contributed to this report