Like many, I was horrified to learn of the fire at the Oakland artist warehouse “Ghost Ship” on Friday night last week. The tragedy obviously speaks to code violations and possible criminal negligence on the part of those who allowed the crowded, unsafe conditions in the building to fester.
Yet as housing advocates have pointed out in publications like The Guardian and Slate, the affordability problems in the Bay Area, brought out by a chronic under-supply of new housing to meet demand, was a major factor:
Fires and city shutdowns are not the only threat to the underground art scene. Many artists simply cannot afford to live here any more.
Oakland has some of the fastest-rising rents in the US, and activists have been increasingly concerned about gentrification and displacement caused by the technology boom in nearby San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
“The best spaces have been wiped out,” said Jonah Strauss, a recording engineer who was displaced in the 2015 fire that killed two people. “Lack of affordable living spaces is the single greatest threat to Oakland arts and music.”
The housing situation in the Bay Area is largely untenable for most struggling artists. They need affordable spaces to create and innovate the art that may one day define a region or lead to creative, mainstream cultural breakthroughs. There’s a reason this warehouse was affordable and an option to them, and not being up to code was a big part of it.
But the victims of the fire aren’t the only ones who have lost their lives to the housing crisis. How about all the people who have been injured or killed in long and dangerous car commutes from job centers in the city to affordable neighborhoods in the far-off exurbs? In short, the lack of adequate housing supply puts all sorts of people’s lives in danger, beyond just the economic and environmental impacts.
Certainly many people have the option of moving to cheaper metropolitan areas, although that’s a major sacrifice. But in the long run, the cultural vitality of an area is in so many ways defined by its artist community, and that same community can be a major economic driver if its members create trends that lead to new businesses and entertainment.
Our cities and surrounding communities should therefore respond to this tragedy by working to solve the housing undersupply problem that gave rise to it. It will not only help the environment and economy but protect human health and safety in the process.