The father of one of 36 people killed in the massive Oakland warehouse fire in December urged California lawmakers on Wednesday to think of the disaster as a housing problem and create more affordable spaces for artists to live, work and perform in communities where they are increasingly being displaced or forced underground.
“One of the main problems is the soaring rent and housing costs that are driving people into living in dangerous places like the Ghost Ship, and more important, performing there,” said Ed Bernbaum, whose son, Jonathan, was a video projection artist attending the concert at the Ghost Ship artist collective the night of the deadly blaze.
Bernbaum said Jonathan and his friends had known for years that the Ghost Ship was dangerous, but as other venues for practicing and performing became too expensive, they “gradually drifted back.”
“These are not the established artists. It’s not like funding the symphony. These are the people that are developing new art forms,” Bernbaum said. If they don’t have places to work and live, he added, the culture of the Bay Area and other places in California will be “gutted.”
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His comments came during a Senate Governance and Finance Committee oversight hearing on the fire, in which legislators acknowledged the housing pressures that contributed to the tragedy, but largely focused on possible changes to the California fire code and local health and safety inspection requirements. Sens. Mike McGuire, the Healdsburg Democrat who chairs the committee, and Nancy Skinner, the Berkeley Democrat whose district included the Ghost Ship, pledged to introduce legislation in the coming months.
State and city fire and safety inspection officials said California law already gives them sufficient enforcement powers, but tight budgets can constrain them from investigating every complaint they receive.
McGuire also focused on the difficulty of getting unwilling owners to fix health and safety problems that have been identified at their buildings. The officials testified that the cost of bringing old buildings up to modern standards is too high for many owners.
“If collaboration runs out,” McGuire said, “my concern is, particularly on large apartment health and safety issues, is the time it takes to be able to look at significant action.”