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Despite city's attempts, Oakland warehouse owners still evicting tenants [The Mercury News :: BC-REAL-WAREHOUSES:SJ]

OAKLAND, Calif. - Evictions from live-work spaces in Oakland continue with alarming frequency in the wake of December's Ghost Ship fire, despite efforts by city leaders to work with landlords to prevent displacement in a city where affordable housing is a rare commodity.

"We are facing evictions weekly. The number of spaces out there that are untouched are decreasing," said Tom Dolan, an architect and author of Oakland's regulations governing warehouse conversions into legal live-work spaces.

Dolan has been working with the DIY Safety Group, which coalesced in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire to make immediate safety improvements to warehouse spaces. But many landlords seem unwilling to bother with the time and expense needed to upgrade and permit their buildings, choosing to sell them instead.

"It's kind of a race against time to come up with some resolution with landlords," he said.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf had hoped to offer some resolution to landlords in mid-January, when she issued an executive order directing city staff inspecting buildings to only order residents to leave if there is an imminent hazard to their safety. The order came after reports that tenants in dozens of warehouses and other unpermitted live-work spaces were getting the boot following the Dec. 2 Ghost Ship fire in the city's Fruitvale neighborhood, where 36 people lost their lives.

In a report to the City Council, staff said the city had identified 18 buildings as "potentially having unsanctioned occupancies that have both living and working spaces," but Claudia Cappio, the city's assistant city administrator, said it was able to eliminate three from the list that already had its requisite permits and was up to code.

Of the remaining 15, another three are listed as only hosting unpermitted events, not living spaces. Three more include retail stores with unsanctioned bedrooms but are not warehouses in the traditional sense. In at least one building, the landlord has given tenants 90 days to move out, despite it being listed as "working with" the city to prevent evictions.

"We are working, and we want to work, positively and productively with these owners," Cappio said. "We want to make sure the buildings can rise to a level where the occupants will be safe and (the buildings) continue to be used."

But the process can be complicated and costly depending on the kinds of modifications needed, making a sale more palatable.

That's the case with Terry Andrews, who owns a warehouse in West Oakland. The building has seven tenants, but he's asked them to leave so he can sell the building. He estimates the converted auto shop is worth about $1 million right now without being permitted as a live-work space, or double that for someone who does go through the city's process.

"I'm 76 years old, and I really don't feel like doing it," he said. "There's a lot of money there though for someone who does want to do it."

That put some of his tenants in a tenuous position. Darren Rowe moved into an unpermitted loft inside Andrews' warehouse so he could work on Harley Davidson motorcycles from his living room. He and some other tenants built out other rooms inside the space, including a kitchen and tiled shower in the bathroom. Now, he says he doesn't know where he will go.

"There's nothing out there like this," Rowe said. "I'll probably have to put all my stuff in storage and move in with my sister ... and that won't be good for either of us."

In Fruitvale, roughly a half-mile from the burned-out Ghost Ship building, tenants of an artist collective are in a similar situation. The owner of their building, Marc Weber, said he plans to expand his business into the space that more than a half dozen people call home. But tenants said the timing of their eviction notice made them question their landlord's intentions.

Erez Sas, the longest continuous tenant in the building, brought members of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition to see Weber and talk about some free safety improvements the group could make to the space. Weber balked at the group's plans, he said.

The next day, he sent a man to the property to ask the tenants to sign liability waivers and move out within two months, Sas said.

Sas moved in four years ago, and during that time, he said he never had any problems with Weber, who would occasionally conduct walk-throughs of the building or stop by to pick up rent. Despite the building's proximity to the Ghost Ship, Sas said that because it's a bit off the beaten path, he never thought it would draw the city's or his landlord's attention.

"We were so off the radar," he said. "I thought we were invisible, but we weren't."

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There's not much the city can do if a landlord wants to sell the building or change its use, Cappio said. Tenants can fight the orders, but Laura Lane, the East Bay Community Law Center's director of housing practice, said they often leave buildings without finding out whether they legally have to, giving up their rent-controlled units.

"It's very case specific," Lane said. "It depends on that particular building and what the landlord knew and how unsafe the building is, if at all. A lot of people are moving without talking to an attorney first, which is really unfortunate."

Selling a multi-unit building is not legal grounds for evicting tenants, she said. And tenants have the right to return to the building if the landlord needs them to vacate temporarily to make improvements to the building. Those who do have to move might be eligible for rental assistance.

At the same time, Cappio admits that landlords are in difficult positions. Although the city is taking a cooperative approach in working with landlords, it must address any safety hazards inspectors find.

A task force consisting of city staff and representatives from the community is working to amend zoning codes to make it easier for property owners to convert commercial buildings into legal living spaces without shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrades. Until that happens, though, Cappio said the city is stuck with the codes on the books.

David Keenan, a founding member of the Omni Commons, who has been active in the DIY Safety Group, said now that many life-safety issues have mostly been addressed, the focus has shifted to working with landlords.

"It's really weird to shift our energy from improving life safety and doing code-compliance work to trying to get through to landlords who just have their own impressions of what is going on," Keenan said. "We've been seeing landlords totally lawyer up, and all these spaces with supportive landlords, it's sort of flipped."

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