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Oakland City Council toughens tenant protections in wake of Ghost Ship fire

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Emergency personnel at the scene of the Oakland ‘Ghost Ship’ fire on Sunday, December 4, 2016. (Jonah Owen Lamb/S.F. Examiner)
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An emergency ordinance requiring landlords to pay more assistance to tenants evicted over code violations was passed unanimously by the Oakland City Council at a special meeting Monday.

The ordinance, introduced by at-large Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan and strongly supported by Mayor Libby Schaaf, will take effect immediately in an effort to help tenants displaced by new scrutiny over warehouse spaces used as live-work spaces in the wake of the deadly fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse last month.

On Monday, the City Council also declared Dec. 2 to be Ghost Ship Remembrance Day in honor of the 36 people killed in the fire — the deadliest in the city’s history.

During the public comments at Monday’s meeting, Micah Allison, the wife of Ghost Ship master tenant Derrick Ion Almena, spoke briefly about her sorrow over the fire and the struggles her family has faced since then.

Almena has gained national notoriety since the fire after writing a public Facebook post lamenting the loss of his possessions without acknowledging the massive loss of life, as well as giving a distraught interview on NBC’s “Today Show” days later.

The people killed were attending an electronic music show on the warehouse’s second floor and were unable to escape down the small wooden staircase before the building was engulfed.

Almena is facing multiple lawsuits and a criminal investigation over his role in safety violations that potentially created a space where a fire could start, spread quickly and would be difficult to escape.

Allison lashed out at the media for the attention paid to her family, saying that she was unable to move into a former house under an arrangement with a landlord who she previously rented from for 10 years because of backlash from neighbors, people she said were her friends.

“It’s been pretty terrible what they’ve done to my family,” she said, saying she was seeking to try to change the narrative that’s been spread about the Ghost Ship, her husband and her family.

“More than anything I just wanted to say how sorry I am for what happened on Dec. 2,” Allison said, thanking everyone at the meeting for their efforts to improve safety. “I wish more had been done before because we carry a very heavy weight on our shoulders right now.”

Numerous advocates both for the city’s artist community and for safety in general spoke in favor of the ordinance. Carmen Brito, a former tenant at the Ghost Ship, said people want better safety but are afraid to seek it out because they might be evicted.

“The only way to prevent this tragedy from happening again is to prevent people from getting evicted.” she said. “I work in education. If a student felt that they would fail a test if they asked for help, they wouldn’t raise their hand.”

Kaplan’s ordinance raises the assistance that landlords must pay if evicting tenants because of code or safety problems.

City law already requires some assistance, but Kaplan’s ordinance increases it to $6,500 for a one-bedroom unit, $8,000 for a two-bedroom and $9,875 for a three- or more bedroom unit. The assistance provided to evictions for code violations is now the same as for evictions under the state’s Ellis Act.

If repairs can be done in 60 days or less, the landlord only has to pay the cost of putting tenants up for a week.

Zack Unger of the International Association of Firefighters Local 55, the Oakland firefighters’ union, spoke strongly in support of Kaplan’s legislation.

“Our mantra is safety first, safety always, but we understand that safety and affordability don’t have to be in conflict,” Unger said.

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