They Wanted this Place to Burn- West Oakland Fire of Po Folks Housing
“I’ll tell you…they really wanted that building to burn down”, said by one of elder survivors of the West Oakland apartment fire which has taken four precious lives, hospitalized several people and has now displaced over 100 people; disabled elders, community members and families with children in a dark and cold brisk morning on Monday, March 26, 2017 at about 6:15 a.m..
This wrongful and preventable tragedy on our poor communities of color in Oakland is just another example of how low-income elders, disabled 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 hall way near live electricity, empty fire extinguishers, defected plumbing, no heating in many of the apartment units and had an endless infestation of rats/mice/roaches/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.
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 fire 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 immense black smoke which made it very difficult to see in the early morning darkness and breathe. When the fire broke out on the top floor (3rd floor) of the apartment building, most people were still sleeping, so many woke up to the fire without warning, feeling very disoriented with burning throats from smoke inhalation. Another fire survivor also said: “Many of us had to break down several locks to escape.”
A few other displaced community members from this tragic fire who had lived in the building for several years had 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 living 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 had started.
One woman, who lived in a unit the 1st floor, but had courageously rescued her other family members from an upstairs 2nd floor apartment unit, getting them all out safely said that the landlord had given everyone living there a 30-day eviction notice to quit this last Friday without warning. 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 the landlord 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/community members, said that the landlord, who has ‘deferred maintenance’ on the apartment building, allowing it to dilapidate 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’.
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 of Oakland inspector, citing major plumbing leakage that was spilling sewage into the first and second floors and that the 3rd floor was occupied with squatters. However in 2013, another City of Oakland building inspector had cited the building's owner for ‘hazardous and injurious’ conditions which cost the landlord $3,239.00 in fines.
In 2005, a complaint was investigated by City of Oakland 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 City of Oakland building inspector's comments. Also in 1996, another founded 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 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 await 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…”