After Oakland fire, a nationwide crackdown on warehouse spaces

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A firefighter looks out of the burned out warehouse as recovery teams continue to investigate the fatal fire in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California, U.S. December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam - RTSUTJU

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JUDY WOODRUFF: A week after the deadly fire at an artists’ warehouse space in Oakland, California, known as the Ghost Ship killed 36 people, fire departments around the country are investigating so-called “live-work” spaces.

These are places often inhabited by artists and low-income residents. There’s ever less affordable housing today in many metro areas, pushing people to new measures and extremes.

And again to Hari, who’s been working with our team on this story.

RACHEL SAXER, Artist & DJ: Everybody is watching us in all the other cities. It’s like becoming a national crisis.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In art warehouses across Oakland, people are anxious their way of life is under threat.

RACHEL SAXER: All the survivors live warehouses or occupy warehouses. And we’re all grieving, and people who are survivors are now at risk for losing their home.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Fears of a backlash from city inspectors and property owners are beginning to materialize.

ANGELA SCRIVANI, Scrivani Productions: This week, my leaseholder told me the landlord was scared of people living in our space and has asked anybody living there to move out by January 3.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Painter and photographer Angela Scrivani has been living and working in this Oakland art studio for the past eight years. She’s asking city officials to differentiate between a dwelling that’s unsafe vs. one that’s just not permitted properly.

ANGELA SCRIVANI: A lot of the spaces that I have been in where we didn’t pull permits to build the areas in which we live and work, we built them to code.

It’s such a desperate situation that we were willing to take the risk and hoped that it wouldn’t come to this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Oakland is not alone in cracking down on buildings not zoned for residents. L.A., Dallas, Nashville and New Haven have all put landlords and tenants on notice to clear out buildings that might be substandard living conditions.

Baltimore is taking it a step further.

Que Pequeño is a multimedia artist. He had been living in this building known as the Bell Foundry until earlier this week. On Monday, the city evicted him and nine other artists without warning.

QUE PEQUENO, Multimedia Artist: Bell Foundry is just an example of what’s going to happen to, like, more spaces like this, in Baltimore — not only in Baltimore, but, like, in different cities.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Artists could live, work and party at the Bell Foundry. It was also a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community and artists of color, according to Pequeno.

QUE PEQUENO: My next move, hopefully, is to find a new safe space for black and brown artists, for black and brown people in Baltimore, from Baltimore.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Bell Foundry was never zoned for residential use, and it was unsafe, according to Kathleen Byrne, who is responsible for permits and code enforcement in Baltimore’s housing department.

KATHLEEN BYRNE, Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Baltimore Housing: It was an accident waiting to happen. There were tons of flammables and combustibles, as well as debris located. And it just — it warranted imminent danger. So, it wasn’t just a matter of not getting the proper permit.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even with the wakeup call in Oakland, these safety issues are nothing new for Baltimore.

KATHLEEN BYRNE: It’s probably every code enforcement official’s worst nightmare, what happened in Oakland. But these are things that we deal with on a daily basis. They’re just not in the public eye.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Bell Foundry’s closure has put other Baltimore artists on high alert that their spaces could be targeted.

STEWART WATSON, Artist, Area 405 Owner: I’m terrified. I feel like someone’s going to take it away.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Stewart Watson owns Area 405, a massive mixed-use space converted from a 19th century factory. Watson spent 14 years getting the building up to code.

STEWART WATSON: The sprinkler system happened pretty quickly. The firewalls and the stairwells was within the first couple of years. But the other things have taken time. You know, updating electrical and things like that has taken — has taken a long time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s a process, she says, must be done to keep artists safe.

STEWART WATSON: Not providing safety for the people who entrust their lives to you is unconscionable. People trust me with their lives, and I don’t take that lightly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Because many artists lack the resources to operate safe spaces, the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance advocates on their behalf.

Executive director Jeannie Howe:

JEANNIE HOWE, Executive Director, Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance: One of the most frequent calls we get is a search for space of some kind. And we have put together a couple of tools that help match folks with available space. We value this community tremendously. We value these artists and we value their contributions to the city. .

HARI SREENIVASAN: Robbie Kowal has been producing major outdoor music parties in San Francisco for 19 years. He says that if cities are serious about retaining their artists, they need to recognize that art spaces are critical.

ROBBIE KOWAL, Founder/Creative Director, HUSHconcerts: These warehouse spaces are the only places where they can afford to not only live, but pay that second rent to actually have a studio to create their work.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And he warns that regulatory effort could drive artists into more dangerous spaces.

ROBBIE KOWAL: Artists will find another place to make art.

So, I would just advise the public officials to concentrate on harm reduction over code compliance. Right? It’s a very big difference.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s what San Francisco does when it comes to regulating live performance spaces.

Jocelyn Kane heads the city’s Entertainment Commission.

JOCELYN KANE, Executive Director, San Francisco Entertainment Commission: We are much safer than other cities, where people are somewhat scared to come to government. And we have tools that we use in our toolbox to allow people to consider using, like, an out-of-the-box crazy space to do an event that would be unique or different. And then we can sort of guide them through in a way that feels safe to them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kane says that since many artists rely on income from live performances, it’s important they have easy access to spaces where they can safely host these events.

JOCELYN KANE: I’m sitting in City Hall. I’m a part of government, and I’m trying to be an advocate as much as possible, within the confines of what we call responsible hospitality.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Stewart Watson, owner of Area 405 in Baltimore, hopes more artists will also be able to invest in safe spaces.

STEWART WATSON: I want artists to buy places. I want them to fix them. I don’t want them to think that living in places that are not fixed up is OK.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And that’s just what Que Pequeño is climbing toward.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Hari Sreenivasan.

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