Just days before Christmas, Bernadette Bohan was at home in the Mission District warehouse where she lives when a fire inspector showed up at her door.
Someone had filed a complaint against the Box Factory, an arts space Bohan has run and lived at since 2008, in the wake of a warehouse fire in Oakland that killed three dozen people last month.
“I had a scary feeling getting a complaint,” Bohan said, remembering that the complaint left her with a “lump in her throat” during her trip to the East Coast over the holidays.
Bohan lives in one of an unusually high number of warehouses that fire officials have inspected since a deadly blaze tore through the “Ghost Ship”warehouse in Oakland on Dec. 2, marking the worst structure fire in California since 1906.
The inspections are part of a heightened response to fire safety hazards in warehouses from city government that many expected following the fire. Meanwhile, artists and others who live in makeshift conditions in San Francisco and Oakland because of the affordability crisis fear they will lose their homes.
Fire Marshal Daniel De Cossio told fire commissioners Wednesday that the San Francisco Fire Department has investigated 15 complaints regarding the illegal use of warehouses following the Ghost Ship fire.
Of those complaints, fire officials issued notices to vacate to tenants at three of the properties in San Francisco, including one with a basement packed with beds and styrofoam walls, where De Cossio said a fire likely would have killed someone.
In another situation at an upholstery shop, De Cossio said tenants walked a plank to reach a makeshift mezzanine.
“For us not to take action would be irresponsible,” De Cossio said. “It is a difficult topic because people get displaced.”
There are an estimated 1,000 warehouses in San Francisco. The fire department is not required to inspect a warehouse unless a complaint is filed and will only issue a notice to vacate if a building is lacking permits and the exits are blocked.
“It means you are occupying a building that is unsafe,” De Cossio said of the notices. “The chances of you dying in a fire in this building are so high that you should not be occupying this building for this use.”
Bohan’s space was not one of those buildings. On Wednesday, the Box Factory had its sprinkler system cleared out and fire alarm system tested.
“We’re good to go and we’re safe,” Bohan said, noting that she had a positive experience with fire and building inspectors who visited the warehouse. “It’s just really unfair that people are complaining and freaking out the people who are living here. It’s just not fair.”
In response to the fear of displacement, a communications person based in San Francisco helped set up an organization to support artists living in warehouses by providing them with guidance to make their buildings safe.
“The morning after the Ghost Ship tragedy, we woke up and kind of looked down the line and saw what was going to happen, that shit was going to hit the fan,” said Will Chase, the co-founder of We the Artists of the Bay Area. “We realized we had to defend the creative community.”
Chase said WABA has supported three warehouses in San Francisco and many more in Oakland, where the problem is more acute.
“Quite frankly, San Francisco has already lost its artists,” Chase said. “They got decimated in the Dot-Com Boom.”
Part of what WABA is trying to do is help tenants, landlords and city government meet in middle ground so that no one is displaced.
The warehouses that fire officials ordered vacated in San Francisco are in the Mission District and South of Market, according to fire department spokesperson Jonathan Baxter.
It is unclear if the residents who lived there were artists. All have complied with the order to vacate, Baxter said.
“It’s not just low-income artists that are living in these situations, it’s across the board in this city,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Committee. “Nobody wants people to live in unsafe conditions, nobody wants a repeat of the tragedy in Oakland, but the reality is the rents are so freaking high that people are being forced to live in these situations.”