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Gentrifying West Oakland: ‘They wanted the building to burn’

March 29, 2017

by Vivi T., Poor News Network

“I’ll tell you … they really wanted that building to burn down,” said by one of elder survivors of the West Oakland apartment building fire, at 2551 San Pablo, which has taken four precious lives, hospitalized several people and displaced over 100 residents – disabled elders, community members and families with children – on a dark and cold morning on Monday, March 27, at 5:40 a.m.

Frightened by Oakland’s threat to crack down on building code violations after the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, the owner of 2551 San Pablo was trying to evict everyone, when suddenly the building “accidentally” exploded in flames in the early morning of Monday, March 27. “What a coincidence,” remarked one survivor. – Photo: NBC

This wrongful and preventable tragedy on our poor communities of color in Oakland is just another example of how low-income elders, disabled people and families are being forcibly displaced, so that big money property owners, speculators and developers can profit off the hyper gentrification and “gentricide” of our communities in the city of Oakland, pushing out long time community members at all costs – even with deadly consequences.

Many of the displaced folks that we talked to at the Red Cross emergency shelter, which was temporarily located at a church space in Oakland, said that the 43-unit apartment building had multiple building code violation problems, with mold, exposed wires, leaking water with flooded areas in the hallway near live electricity, empty fire extinguishers, defective plumbing, no heating in many of the apartment units and an endless infestation of rats, mice, roaches and bedbugs. Several people also said that when the fire broke out, they did not hear any smoke alarms nor did the broken sprinkler system in the building work.

“I’ll tell you … they really wanted that building to burn down,” said by one of elder survivors of the West Oakland apartment building fire at 2551 San Pablo.

One family with three small children who lived on the second floor was forced to break out a window in the hallway and escape the fire with their children on a flimsy exterior fire escape in the brisk cold. Another fire survivor said that the electricity went out in the apartment building, so many people were unable to find their way out of the thick black smoke that made it very difficult to see in the early morning darkness and breathe.

When the fire broke out on the top floor – third floor – of the apartment building, most people were still sleeping, so many woke up to the fire without warning, feeling very disoriented, their throats burning from smoke inhalation. Another fire survivor said, “Many of us had to break down several locks to escape.”

Not only are four people dead and over a hundred displaced, but now there’s one less building for poor people to live in in Oakland. – Photo: Poor News Network

A few other displaced community members from this tragic fire who had lived in the building for several years said that the apartment had been recently sold to another landlord, who has been very difficult to deal with as this new landlord has outright refused to fix anything in the building, forcing all of the tenants, including very disabled elders with severe physical impairments to live in extremely dangerous and substandard conditions. They also stated that the landlord had also recently moved in a bunch of “his own tenants” onto the third floor of the apartment, where the fire started.

One woman, who lived in a unit on the first floor but had courageously rescued her other family members from an upstairs second floor apartment, getting them all out safely, said that last Friday without warning the landlord had given everyone living there a 30-day eviction notice. In mid-February 2017, the landlord also attempted to physically remove tenants from their units, putting on new locks and throwing some of the tenant’s belongings out on to the street after showing up at the apartment with a dozen men, trying to force people out through intimidation and fear.

Immediately after this horrible incident of tenants being terrorized by the landlord, they obtained a restraining order against him and got legal representation. Court and city records show that the apartment building had dangerous and unsafe living conditions, which were known to the landlord, master tenant and City of Oakland officials.

The building’s landlord was seeking to evict an Oakland-based, local nonprofit organization who leased part of the apartment building for a transitional-housing program that served dozens of homeless and very-low-income elders, disabled adults and families; however, the tenants refused to be displaced and are fighting the wrongful eviction.

 Attorney James Cook of the John L. Burris Law Offices, who is representing the organization and its tenants and community members, said that the landlord, who has “deferred maintenance” on the apartment building, allowing it to become dilapidated, had initially tried to evict the nonprofit right after the deadly Ghost Ship fire last December 2016 and that the legal battle has escalated in the past few weeks. He also said that he wants the fire to be investigated as an act of “arson.”

Court and city records show that the apartment building had dangerous and unsafe living conditions, which were known to the landlord, master tenant and City of Oakland officials.

Also, on March 3, 2017, a “housing habitability complaint” was filed with the City of Oakland and the apartment building was inspected by a city inspector, who cited major plumbing leakage that was spilling sewage into the first and second floors and that the third floor was occupied with squatters. In 2013, another city building inspector had cited the building’s owner for “hazardous and injurious” conditions. That cost the landlord $3,239 in fines.

All who can are encouraged to help the fire survivors.

In 2005, a complaint was investigated by city inspectors that women and young children were living in substandard living conditions, infested with mold and leaky plumbing. “Babies are getting asthma and very sick,” read one of the inspector’s comments. Also, in 1996, another substantiated building violation was that the fire escape had been “tied up” so tenants cannot get away in case of a fire.” According to county records, the landlord purchased the apartment building in 1991 through Mead Avenue Housing Associates.

As a wrongfully displaced community who were literally put out in the cold struggle to make ends meet while being temporarily placed at the West Oakland Youth Center facility without any of their personal belongings and the uncertainty of what will happen next to them and where they will be able to live, many community members affected by the fire said that nobody has really told them anything and that they have lost everything, that they need help with basic living needs, such as clothing, toiletries and personal care items.

So many, broken-hearted, exhausted and anxious, the children without anything to do, as these elders, disabled community members, adults and families wait with uncertainty in a temporary space, forced to lay their tired bodies on hard, military style cots. This is the price of gentrification.

The most vulnerable communities take the hit every time. As one of the survivors said about the fire, “What a coincidence.”

How you can help

Gift cards are appreciated as a form of donation to the survivors. Through Thursday, the temporary shelter is at 3222 Market St. in West Oakland. After Thursday, please email poormag@gmail.com for updates.

Vivi T. is an activist and journalist with POOR Magazine and Poor News Network. She can be reached via poormag@gmail.com. To learn more, visit www.poormagazine.org and www.racepovertymediajustice.org.

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32 thoughts on “Gentrifying West Oakland: ‘They wanted the building to burn’

  1. OaktownJim

    What proof do you have that the building was caused by arson? You are inventing a narrative that this building was set on fire as gentrification tactic. We could agree with this if when and if proof comes about that the building owners deliberately set the building on fire. This is a bit irresponsible from a journalistic standpoint.

    Reply
    1. kate

      the writer doesn't claim that it's arson, she just lays out the reasons that people are speculating, and the fact that the attorney wants to look into it

      Reply
  2. Mandy

    Having worked at EBCRP, the organization that occupied that building for many years prior to 2012, I find it interesting that the San Jose Mercury news has identified the owner of the building as Mead Ave. Housing Associates. It appears this corporation has owned the building since 1991. East Bay Community Recovery Project started in 1991 with Joan E. Zweben as the owner of that organization. Project Pride was the source of the complaint in the above cited 1995 complaint regarding women and children. Project Pride was part of EBCRP and housed in the building. I have not been able to find any annual reports that all corporations are required to give annually. There were many code violations while I was there as an employee. I think there is a more in depth story here. Please research further.

    Reply
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