Dec 5, 2016
21 comments

By Richmond Mayor Tom Butt

I am saddened to report that victims of the Oakland Warehouse (“Ghost Ship”) fire included two recent employees of the West Contra Costa Unified School District, Travis Hough and Sara Hoda. I have been informed by District sources that Mr. Hough and Ms. Hoda were among the 36 known victims of the devastating warehouse fire that took place Friday evening in Oakland.

Mr. Hough was an expressive arts therapist at Montalvin Manor and worked with the District through a partnership with Bay Area Community Resources. He served in a similar role at King Elementary during the 2015-16 school year and started as an intern at Helms Middle School during the 2014-15 year. A GoFundMe account has been set up for Mr. Hough and can be accessed at this link.

Ms. Hoda was a kindergarten teacher at Coronado Elementary for the August 2014 through June 2016 before taking a teaching job in Oakland.

This is, ironically, a teachable moment.

As both an architect and a mayor, I am compelled to respond to many comments in the media, social and otherwise, that the root cause of the fatalities was a shortage of affordable housing and studio space for artists, example, “Oakland fire puts spotlight on lack of affordable spaces for artists,” USA Today and “Oakland warehouse fire is product of housing crisis, say artists and advocates,” Oakland Guardian).

I have to disagree. The root cause of the fatalities was that a building owner and a prime tenant were apparently using the building for an illegal and dangerous purpose, putting people in grave danger while making money from it. From news accounts, the building was not approved for residential purposes, and it did not have fundamental safety features like accessible stairways, emergency lighting, fire alarms or sprinklers.

It’s not even clear how many residents the building had (the owner says none), but the fatalities were a result not of occupancy by residents (if any) but from the use of the hard to reach second floor for a large party attended by far more people than those who may have actually lived there. In architectural and building code jargon, this is called an “Assembly Occupancy,” which has special requirements related to life safety.

The building and fire codes we are required by law to live by come from the State of California and are, collectively, the 2013 California Building Standards Code, Title 24, California Code of Regulations, also known as the California Building Code. They include the California Fire Code as well as codes for buildings, including plumbing, electrical, mechanical, etc. Most cities have their own set of amendments that, if adopted, must be stricter than the state codes. The original purpose of building codes was to make buildings safer from fire. Before building codes, cities all over were regularly consumed by fire.

All cities and counties are required by the state to be the enforcer of these codes. Making sure that buildings are safe for not only their permanent occupants but also for the public that uses them periodically, is a core responsibility of cities, but not all cities do a very good job of this for a number of reasons. Enforcing codes in existing buildings, including making required inspections, is a low priority for many cities. It can be tedious and time consuming and often requires a level of persistence that code compliance employees are reluctant to exercise. News reports indicate that Oakland inspectors made a single effort to gain access to the “Ghost Ship” sometime prior to the fire but were unable to do so. Apparently, they gave up and never came back.

Cities also get a lot of pushback when trying to enforce codes. Everyone wants to be excused or some reason. Artists want to be excused because they are well – artists. And other people are also sympathetic, explaining that the overzealous city should let them be – artists – just doing their thing. Apparently finding a cheap studio or place to crash is more important than life itself.

Which brings us to Richmond. I am actually proud of our City staff for bearing down on code enforcement lately, even though we have a long way to go. Richmond has long been known as a place that doesn’t take code enforcement seriously, and even some City Council members, like former council member Corky Booze, who is still being pursued legally by the City for his illegal junkyards, have championed lax code enforcement.

One recent and highly publicized enforcement action in Richmond involves a large, unpermitted commercial horse stable (Horses in Richmond? December 2, 2016). Many critics of the enforcement action have urged the City to back off (“The horses aren’t bothering anybody, and “ This is the only place that an ordinary blue collar person can afford to board a horse.” Well, the stables aren’t just for horses. Horse owners and care givers are in there all the time, including children. Haphazard wood frame construction and hay all over the place is a disaster waiting to happen.  The place is an acknowledged firetrap. There is no permit, no business license, and there have been no fire inspections. One of the reasons is that such inspections typically tier off a business license, and when there is none; the premises are under the radar. Just like the Ghost Ship, the property owner and prime sub-tenant are making money from the operation, and many people are justifying it because it’s about only – horses.

We even have our own “Ghost Ship” in Richmond, a place called “Burnt Ramen” at 111 Espee Avenue, an unpermitted, unlicensed night club that boldly bill its self as “an unsafe place for all ages.” Because it has no business license, it has never been inspected.

Building and fire codes are there for a reason, to keep us all safe and alive. We need to embrace them and hold those accountable who flout them, particularly for the purpose of making money.

This article was originally posted in Mayor Tom Butt’s e-forum newsletter

Comments

  1. The mayor is absolutely correct. This has been going on for decades in artist warehouses where people build spaces and run electrical wiring without permits and little to no knowledge or respect for building codes or safety. I remember seeing this in Oakland even back in the mid 1980’s. I hear too many people complain about building codes as if they are some unreasonably high standard. Building codes are generally MINIMAL standards for safety and not necessarily for adequacy. You often want to exceed code requirements for an adequate job.
    The Ghost Ship fire was a preventable tragedy if only the building owner and lease holders had valued the safety and lives of their tennents by abiding by Oaklands building regulations.

    Richmond Resident | Dec 5th, 2016
  2. Poorly written article by an idiot of a mayor. Have some compassion and respect for these people and their family. Wonderful way to figure out the root cause from an Artiches standpoint. What you fail to realize is that this is not the moment to blame people or toot your own horn because your city does a good job at enforcing codes.

    Instead of focusing on the lives that were lost you repurposed this article to defend some actions that the city has taken and you’ve recently received push back for.

    Let’s face it, your city has much bigger problems than horses or Burnt Ramen.

    Your 23rd street is a stretch of about 2.5 miles with anywhere from 25-50 prostitues, pimps, and drug dealers on any given night. The hotel across the street from City Hall is a full blown brothel and your police department is involved in a child sex scandal, but wait you’re great at enforcing codes and you’re and architect. Good job!

    I say you keep the horses in Richmond to go along with the zoo you operate at city hall. Keep the illegal night club to go along with the illegal brothel across from your office.

    I say you go back to drawing buildings on your nice graph paper and let someone who can lead, lead our city. Let’s face it your city can barley manage it books and employees.

    tom butt is an idiot | Dec 5th, 2016
  3. Have some compassion and respect for these people and their family. Wonderful way to figure out the root cause from an Artiches standpoint. What you fail to realize is that this is not the moment to blame people or toot your own horn because your city does a good job at enforcing codes.

    Instead of focusing on the lives that were lost you repurposed this article to defend some actions that the city has taken and you’ve recently received push back for.

    Let’s face it, your city has much bigger problems than horses or Burnt Ramen.

    Your 23rd street is a stretch of about 2.5 miles with anywhere from 25-50 prostitues, pimps, and drug dealers on any given night. The hotel across the street from City Hall is a full blown brothel and your police department is involved in a child sex scandal, but wait you’re great at enforcing codes and you’re and architect. Good job!

    I say you keep the horses in Richmond to go along with the zoo you operate at city hall. Keep the illegal night club to go along with the illegal brothel across from your office.

    I say you go back to drawing buildings on your nice graph paper and let someone who can lead, lead our city. Let’s face it your city can barley manage it books and employees.

    Richmond resident | Dec 5th, 2016
  4. Burnt ramen is next and almost all those will be underage. There is a full service cash liquor bar that the owner himself serves underage kids all night long. There is also adult predators preying on intoxicated underage females. Just like the ghost ship burnt ramen has illegally tapped into the electricity and has people living upstairs with gas powered generators running in each room .if our community cares, our city officials will put a stop to an already known problem in our community.

    don nunez | Dec 6th, 2016
  5. “Poorly written article by an idiot…….”
    Look who’s talking.

    Richmond Resident | Dec 6th, 2016
  6. Don Nunez: care to explain or are you just here to type your life away? Learn to spell your last name correctly and then we can discuss. It’s Nuñez! Please don’t be ashamed of your roots buddy. You’ll be okay.

    Richmond resident | Dec 6th, 2016
  7. Umm ..YOU SEEM TO NOT GRASP THE MEANING OF “ROOT CAUSE”

    Joe derick | Dec 6th, 2016
  8. Mr. Mayor, with all due respect your “qualifications” to comment as an architect and mayor actually provide a solid example of your profound conflicts of interest in this case. You live in a rapidly-gentrifying city and promote policies that expressly-promote overpriced market-rate development in the style of Oakland and San Francisco; hoping for increased tax revenue it is very much in your interest to remove long-term, lower-income residents (including people around Burnt Ramen – which has been an established space for decades and has no evidence of unsafe conditions outside their intentionally-humorous slogan) and replace them with tech workers of means. Additionally, as an architect, your connections in that world inextricably connect you to developers and builders and land speculators who are profiting off the bay area’s displacement boom. You are acting like a vulture AND a predatory, speculative capitalist, preying on the remains of our community’s grief and simultaneously pushing a very specific agenda that the forces of displacement have been pushing for years.

    You should be ashamed of yourself. I lost friends in that fire, am from the Richmond area (El Sobrante), and am also a teacher in public schools; and I am ashamed of you – and I will use your words in my classroom as a potential example of the callousness of opportunists such as yourself.

    John No | Dec 6th, 2016
  9. Travis was my closest friend. He was the best man at my wedding, we made music together over the years and I was a member of Ghost of Lightning.

    Mr Mayor- Travis deeply cared for the children that he served in your city. He provided therapy and comfort to those who have endured sever tragedy and trauma. He gave himself to the point that we would discuss how he would manage what he called “compassion fatigue”. His passing is a great loss to all of us.

    I would ask you and anyone in this thread to please stop co-opting this tragedy to make political points. If you must, if you feel that your political position requires you to have an opinion, then please respect the feelings of those who passed.

    Travis was a champion for affordable housing. He struggled as we all do with being able to stay in the Bay Area. It’s never been as bad as it is now.

    If your response to this tragedy is to go enforce building codes and crack down on these spaces, your short term result will be to displace and potentially make homeless people just like Travis. You will be attacking his community in his name. And as you so aptly point out, enforcing these codes on a grand scale is difficult and requires resources that are scarce. You may be able to do so for a short period of time, perhaps until this news cycle fades, maybe even for the rest of your term. But these are spaces have always existed and will continue to exist when there are no alternatives. Your short term solution will just kick the can down the road until the next mayor has to tighten the belt of the city budget. Your bandaid will fall off one day.

    A long term solution would be to reach out to these spaces and provide resources to bring them up to code and to rezone them to legalize them safely. If a space truly can’t be rehabilitated then we need to find alternate housing for the residents before we put them on the street.

    If this sounds naive and too impossible a task, then I ask you to honor Travis’ memory and attempt it anyways, for that is what he did when he served the children in your city. How can a 35 year old art therapist possibly help a Richmond teenager who has witnessed a murder? How naive is it to think that letting a kid play bongos and record his lyrics into a mic could ever possibly help him forget the violent death of a loved one?

    Travis was the best man at my wedding. Chelsea Dolan was my wife’s maid of honor. We had many more friends who died that night, I can’t even count. If any one of those people had died on their own we would be crushed, but instead we lost our entire support group.

    I would have thought this was an impossible situation to survive. But those of us who are left are banding together. We are making google docs and coordinating who is going to bring food and sit with people, in shifts, so that we all have someone there for us right now, 24/7. Our small community is banding together to beat the impossible task of surviving this.

    These are the same people who continue to live in the spaces that you are going to crack down. These are the same people that you are effectively advocating be evicted from their homes. Because enforcement requiring remediation won’t work for people who don’t have the means to afford the remediation.

    If you truly honor Travis and everyone who died, you will take my words seriously and you will do everything in your power to help instead of hurt.

    Eric Bateman | Dec 6th, 2016
  10. Reality: If there are no venues/spaces available to artists (low income), they will make a space.

    Culture and arts are vital to our communities and are important DESPITE NOT BEING DONE FOR PROFIT.

    Whether you feel places like Ghost Ship and Burnt Ramen should or should not exist, the solution is the same. Cities need to make space for culture and art, which they clearly do not because it doesn’t make a lot of monetary profit.

    Tristin Campbell | Dec 6th, 2016
  11. One positive response to this tragedy is for cities like Richmond to take seriously the need for all ages, free event spaces for art, music and performance. We all need places to gather and express ourselves and build community. Young folks especially need accessible spaces. Mayors like Tom Butt could do well for their cities and towns by creating dedicated funding to support all ages spaces, whether they be event spaces, studios, community media centers or just informal places to gather and create. Rather than shut something down that is expressing a real need for community let us continue to build safe spaces to meet those needs. We don’t need city government support to do it. But if they want to support their residents they can start by offering resources rather than just removing what little has been carved out of marginal spaces.

    Otis d Lerer | Dec 6th, 2016
  12. Mayor Butt says that the housing crisis and lack of safe affordable studio space for artists has nothing to do with the tragedy that occurred last Friday night, and that it’s solely due to the greed of warehouse owners. Let me ask Mayor Butt – where are all these people supposed to live and work? Are you going to provide subsidized housing and studio space that meets code to all of these people? No? Do you expect Oakland or the state of California to do that? No? Not everyone has a cushy government job that pays enough money to live in a safe comfortable 3 bedroom house with back yard and two car garage. Where are these people supposed to go? Stop looking at it from your privileged perspective and start looking at it from their position!

    Paul Silver | Dec 6th, 2016
  13. Lots of emotional reactions here, and it’s understandable. But I don’t agree that the mayor was trying to make a political point or diminish the memory of those who died in any way at all. He is simply trying to point out to people the importance of the building codes, because the city gets a lot of gripe from many who do not understand why the city insists on upholding them. Difficult housing market or not, they must be followed if you do not want these kind of preventable tragedies to happen.

    Richmond Resident | Dec 6th, 2016
  14. Mayor Butt and everyone else; on behalf of all Richmond residents I would like to apologize for our mayors article and lack of compassion during this very difficult time. Oakland and its neighboring communities have lost many citizens and loved ones because of this dramatic event. Instead of attempting to find the “root cause,” The mayor should be offering Richmond’s assistance to Oakland and the families and friends of those who lost their loved ones. Below is a statement from our country’s leader. Mayor Tom Butt please take notes and learn how to be compassionate during a difficult and traumatic event.

    “Today our prayers go out to the people of Oakland, California in the aftermath of this weekend’s deadly warehouse fire – one of the worst fires in the state’s history. While we still don’t know the full toll of this disaster, we do know that an American community has been devastated, and many people – including young men and women with their whole futures ahead of them – have tragically lost their lives. I want to thank the dedicated first responders who have been working tirelessly for days to contain the situation, recover victims, and treat the wounded. My Administration is in close contact with our state and local partners on the ground to make sure that authorities have everything they need as they continue response operations and investigate the cause of the fire. Oakland is one of the most diverse and creative cities in our country, and as families and residents pull together in the wake of this awful tragedy, they will have the unwavering support of the American people.”

    Tom Butt is an Idiot | Dec 6th, 2016
  15. The mayor is absolutely right. Building codes save lives. That can’t be debated. And enforcing them is a thankless task. No one wants a building inspector poking around until lives are lost. Then everyone wants to know why the inspectors “didn’t do their jobs.”

    I spent a lot of time in warehouses like this one as a younger self. I had great times and met wonderful people but I naively gave little thought to my safety in many situations that were very similar to the concert that took place on Friday night. I’m sure I expected the owners and residents of those buildings from my past to have everyone’s safety as a first priority. It’s easy to see now that they likely didn’t. Clearly, the safety of the visitors to Ghost Ship last Friday was a very low priority for the people who invited them there. And that’s why building codes and a robust code inspection culture are so important.

    Yes, we very much need artists in our lives and those artists need us to support their livelihoods and ability to survive and flourish in an increasingly expensive bay area. That support should include finding ways to make living and working spaces affordable.

    None of that trumps the need for building codes and their enforcement. Everyone should be able to expect that any space they reside in or visit was constructed and is operated safely. That’s true for the residents of detatched homes, apartments, and condos. That’s true for workers in offices and factories. That’s true for shoppers and patients and school kids. That’s true for artists in live/work spaces and for their guests. No one gets a pass. No end justifies the means of getting there. If it can’t be done safely find another way to do it.

    John | Dec 6th, 2016
  16. As for affordable housing and studio space, it all comes down to the bottom line.

    I’ve seen many illegal apartments made out of garages and storage sheds and vans/motorhomes parked in backyards in Richmond. The electrical work is scary at best, and most often outright dangerous. Often “bathrooms” are outhouses, and water from sinks drains right onto the ground. The reason why there are so many of these hovels is because the “landlords” CAN rent them out, and never have them inspected or brought up to code because of the prohibitive costs of permits from the city. Also, the “landlord” would have to pay taxes on the income from these rentals. Other than poverty, the other cause of these makeshift homes is that the people who build and live in them see it as perfectly normal because that is how things are done in the country they came from.

    Any complaint about unsafe housing and studio space should be investigated asap, especially now with the cold weather inspiring people to use unsafe methods of heating.

    Cynically, Richmond should be able to spare the man-power to do it, since they already have nearly twice as many City Employees as they need. Compared to any other Bay Area city with similar population. Perhaps THAT’S why the City never has enough money to fund the programs it wants?

    richmond citizen | Dec 7th, 2016
  17. […] Richmond, a city just north of Oakland, the mayor Tom Butt wrote an op-ed raising concerns about an an unpermitted, unlicensed night club that he called our own Ghost […]

    pingback Underground artists fear Oakland fire will spur a wave of mass evictions | BuzzWare | Dec 7th, 2016
  18. […] Richmond, a city just north of Oakland, the mayor Tom Butt wrote an op-ed raising concerns about an “an unpermitted, unlicensed night club” that he called “our own […]

    pingback Underground artists fear Oakland fire will spur a wave of mass evictions - Independent news and blog | Dec 8th, 2016
  19. I stand with the Mayor on something that should not require discussion.

    For “artists” to practice their craft they first must remain alive, and building codes represent the collective will of the people in order to accomplish exactly that.

    I place quotations around artists because many are not very good, honestly, and hide behind that phrase to excuse lack of endeavor and community contribution, not to mention justifying a slum existence. Yes, I do know many.

    We should remember those who lost their lives and seek to remedy the cause (which Mayor Butt correctly pointed out was profiteering by illegal landlords); he is correct . But some responses here are merely politically motivated attacks and serve no other purpose: building codes will NOT be relaxed, operation by prostitutes and pimps are irrelevant, and subsidized housing is a marginally effective solution for the unemployed not the unmotivated neer do well.

    Richmond has other borderline situations in which this community prospers. Some local “artists collectives” offer 24 hour access but in fact are non-residentally zoned storage facilities masquerading as “studios”.

    While not as egregious as the Ghost Ship, they also exchange profit for safety.

    Average Citizen | Dec 8th, 2016
  20. Anarchy is the ultimate form of Right Wing ideology. Not just a reduction in government, regulations, and leadership; but a complete absence of all three. Many of these “artists” are anarchists. They will not comply, they will find additional ways around the regulations and the norms of society.

    The pursuit of the endeavors of local “artists” is not a right, it’s a privilege. If it is so important, they will find a way to do it. Most responsible artists that I know have a day job, and have bought or rented a house that has adequate space to practice their art. People who have borderline personality disorder and are thus a stone’s throw away from living on the street cannot function at this level, and will not. They see regulations and laws as personal insults, not as safety measures.

    richmond citizen | Dec 8th, 2016
  21. She is right. These tinder boxes are also dens of underage drug abuse and resulting unreported rapes. This is a huge public safety issue that has flown under the radar for too long.

    Bay Area Resident | Dec 11th, 2016