Our Backyard: If for Sports, Then Why Not for Artists and Musicians?

Oakland recently devised an innovative way to fund $200 million in public infrastructure for a new Raiders’ stadium. The city needs to be at least that creative for artists and musicians.


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Photo courtesy of the city of Oakland

On Dec. 9, the city of Oakland unveiled an innovative plan for funding $200 million in public infrastructure for a major new development at the Coliseum—a project that would include a new Raiders’ stadium, along with restaurants, bars, a hotel, and perhaps housing or office space. While greenlighting the proposal on Dec. 13, Oakland city councilmembers agreed that keeping the Raiders from leaving town was an important civic endeavor, because the football team, they argued, is an integral part of the city’s identity.

But there’s another integral part of Oakland’s soul that’s in even more immediate danger of displacement than the Raiders: the city’s artists and musicians, many of whom are already facing eviction in the wake of the tragic Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people on Dec. 2.

To be sure, there is plenty of blame to go around for that horrific blaze. Oakland’s building code enforcement office and its fire department, for instance, have no records of ever having inspected inside the Fruitvale district warehouse. Ghost Ship founder Derick Ion Almena created numerous dangerous conditions in the building, including a staircase made of old wooden pallets and a faulty, makeshift electrical system. And the building’s absentee landlord, Chor Ng, seemed to have no interest in what was going on inside the warehouse.

But perhaps the biggest culprit in the deadliest fire in Oakland history is the region’s extreme housing shortage and the dearth of affordable places to live for artists and musicians. According to the real estate tracking firm, Trulia, the median rent in Oakland in December was $3,200 a month—far higher than most artists and musicians can afford. As a result, creative people for years have banded together to illegally establish cheap live-work spaces in the city, because there is nowhere else for them to go.

Indeed, if city and fire inspectors had been doing their jobs, then the Ghost Ship and the dozens, perhaps, hundreds of other similar warehouses in the city likely would have been shut down, resulting in mass evictions and forcing artists and musicians to leave Oakland. That’s why the city needs to develop innovative plans to create safe, affordable living spaces for its artists and musicians. Simply fixing Oakland’s building code and fire inspections is not nearly enough.

“The tragedy is that people have to choose to live in fire traps or no place at all,” said Jeff Levin of the nonprofit affordable housing advocacy group, East Bay Housing Organizations. “We would certainly love to see the city find ways to help artists.”

New York City’s experiences with artists’ loft spaces in the Soho district might offer some lessons for Oakland, said Aaron Shkuda, a Princeton University historian. Shkuda completed extensive research on the subject for his book, The Lofts of Soho: Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980.

 

New York’s early experiences with artist spaces have eerie parallels with what’s going on now in Oakland. Shkuda noted in a recent interview that artists began moving into abandoned warehouses in Soho in the late 1950s and early 1960s, turning them into illegal live-work spaces. The city mostly ignored what was happening until a series of fires broke out (none nearly as bad as the Ghost Ship, however). “The only time people seemed to be concerned about it when there was a fire,” Shkuda said. “The concern over safety really did shape this neighborhood.”

Eventually, artists and New York officials devised special zoning and building codes for Soho warehouses so that spaces could be made safer and remain affordable. Some small artists communities also formed cooperatives and purchased the warehouses. However, artists in Soho were eventually the agents of their own demise—a phenomenon that has been repeated in many other cities during the past several decades. Artists made Soho a cool, hip place to be, and so they attracted cafes, restaurants, and boutiques—and young upscale professionals who decided they wanted to live in the district, too. Soho gentrified, property values soared, and many artists were priced out. A few artists still live in Soho, thanks to the innovative live-work laws and regulations adopted decades ago. But the district has changed dramatically.

Shkuda said that, looking back, New York did a lot, but it should have done more to protect its artists’ community—perhaps by helping more artists form coops and buy warehouses so that they could keep them permanently affordable. “That would have changed the trajectory of what would have developed,” he said.

Oakland’s problem, right now, is much more acute. Although Mayor Libby Schaaf has said there will be “no witch hunts” to close down illegal and unsafe warehouses, some landlords have been issuing eviction notices to artists for fear of becoming another Ghost Ship.

James Vann of the Oakland Tenants Union said current city law provides little protection for artists living in illegal live-work warehouses. But the city council could help artists in the short-term by enacting a 90-day moratorium on evictions in such spaces. And then during that time, the city should conduct a thorough inventory of these spaces and come up with long-term plans for making them safe, he said. The problem is no one really knows how many of these spaces exist.

Oakland has a live-work loft law, but bringing warehouses into compliance with current building codes can be prohibitively expensive. As a result, it’s easier for landlords to just sell the spaces to deep-pocketed developers and turn them into market-rate housing that artists and musicians can’t afford. Indeed, the East Bay Express reports that that’s happening in the city already.

One potential solution is for Oakland to tap into funds from Measure KK, the $600 million bond approved by city voters in November. According to city officials, Measure KK includes about $80 million that Oakland can use to buy and rehab low-cost housing and keep it affordable. Tenants rights activists and affordable housing advocates also note that the city can tap into Measure A1, a countywide $580 million affordable housing bond.

“I hope that the city go forward with plans to make these artists’ places legal without shutting them down,” Levin said. “And keep them affordable.”

Under Measure KK, the city could buy the warehouses and upgrade them, partner with artist coops, or turn the spaces over to nonprofit affordable housing developers. The city could then mandate that artists currently living in these spaces get first priority to move back in. Mayor Schaaf, who has repeatedly pointed with pride to the city’s thriving arts community, said her administration will look at such options in the days and weeks ahead. “Finding ways to create affordable, safe, live-work spaces for artists is absolutely something we want to do,” she said.

But keeping such spaces affordable long-term is a challenge, as New York learned. If Oakland doesn’t do that, then artists will eventually get priced out, as areas around the fixed-up warehouses gentrify.

Another question is whether Oakland should copy New York and create specific zoning and building code rules for current artists’ warehouses and keep those spaces available only to artists and musicians. After all, many Oaklanders, not just artists, have been displaced during the housing crisis and desperately need places to live.

Joshua Simon, executive director of the Oakland nonprofit developer East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), said that while Oakland should do what it can to help artists and musicians and upgrade warehouse spaces, Measure KK and Measure A1 funds should be employed equitably to assist low-income people and prevent displacement. He noted that EBALDC recently was inundated with nearly 12,000 applications for a 71-unit affordable housing development. “We need a range of housing of all types to make sure that people can afford to live and work here,” he said.

Simon is right, of course. Oakland and the rest of the region need a lot more housing.

But there’s also argument to be made that protecting artists and musicians from being displaced from a city with a rich cultural history like Oakland should be a top priority. It’s an important civic endeavor—arguably even more important than preventing a beloved sports team from moving to Las Vegas.

  

Our Backyard is an occasional column by senior editor Robert Gammon.

Published Dec. 15, 2016 at 3:05 p.m.

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