Forgotten Oakland fire victims struggle with housing, neglect
2551 San Pablo Avenue had been getting code complaints for years. After it burned down, some residents had to move onto the street.
Richard “Double R” Myers wasn’t home on March 27th when 2551 San Pablo burned down.
“I was with my girlfriend who's pregnant,” he explains. “Five months pregnant.”
They were at a hotel in Fairfield that night, halfway between Oakland and where she lives in Sacramento.
“I was channel surfing, and something caught my eye on the local news about a fire in Oakland and I started nudging my girl saying ‘That's my place!’”
When Myers arrived back in Oakland, he was homeless along with 100 other residents of the building.
Six months on, he’s still bouncing between hotel rooms and his grandmother’s home.
Myers had helped out around 2551 San Pablo Avenue and interacted with most of the residents — including Edwarn Anderson, a deacon and one of the four casualties.
“Whenever you see him always willing to help,” he remembers, “always a smile. That's gone. That man's underground now because of someone's neglect, and they need to pay for that.”
Poor people being killed
The “San Pablo Fire,” as this one is often called, was just one of a string of recent fires that made the news: the Ghost Ship Fire in Oakland, a series of arsons at construction sites around Oakland, apartment fires in San Francisco’s Mission district, and fires at homeless encampments in both cities.
Stats don’t show that there have been more fires in either Oakland or San Francisco in recent years. But Oakland city officials do say that the housing crisis makes it harder to keep buildings safe: renters are afraid of bringing up code issues because they can’t afford to move.
Jonah Strauss, executive director of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition, sees a connection between all these fires: poor people are being pushed into unsafe conditions.
“Look at Ghost Ship,” says Strauss. “I mean these were universally low-income folks. Look, this is poor people being killed.”
Strauss did a lot of organizing after the Ghost Ship fire and after a fire burnt down his own home in 2015. He says those without resources have few options.
“People get pushed out of traditional living situations, they don't have anywhere to go, they end up in buildings such as this.”
“A known fire hazard”
The fire started in a unit whose power had been shut off, which was common in the building, Strauss says. The person living in that apartment was using a candle on a styrofoam plate for light and that was what ignited the fire. Even though the building had had numerous city inspections — including three in the months before the fire — it was a wreck.
“It had full-grown rats and roaches by the time of that fire,” remembers Myers. “Bedbugs. It was an accident waiting to happen.”
Ceilings were caving in and there was mold. Inspectors had noted: “This address is a known fire hazard.” Just three days before the fire they had walked through with the owner, and told him to immediately fix to sprinkler system and the fire alarms, and to clear the hallways. Regardless of these inspections, the building still burned down.
While it wasn’t healthy, this was one of the few places Myers could stay. After working full time with a multi-hour commute, he could still barely afford his $300 rent.
“They didn't require a down deposit to house you,” which he says made it easy to move in — and stay, during those times when he couldn't pay his full monthly rent.
Like the Ghost Ship, residents have scattered since this fire. At least three are in jail. One has died.
It’s really hard to know for certain, but Jonah Strauss guesses about a third have found their own housing locally, another third have had to move in with their family or leave the state, and a final third are like Richard Myers: here but still without a home. At least four are even living on the street, says Strauss.
“People are actually in tents in one of the many encampments in west Oakland,” Strauss explains. “There's one person on my list who I know if I need to get in touch with her I have to go to this encampment at this particular place to go find her.”
Disparities in fundraising
But there’s at least one huge difference between the Ghost Ship fire and the San Pablo fire: fundraising. The people who lived in Myers’ building had especially few resources. While residents of Ghost Ship were not necessarily well off, they did get support. Both from their social networks and from a sympathetic public.
After Ghost Ship, where 36 people died and around 20 were displaced, over $2 million worth of donations poured in. After the San Pablo Fire, which saw 4 people die and over 100 people lose their homes, a series of fundraisers brought ina little over $100,000 dollars, Strauss says. That’s twenty times less.
It can be hard to monetize or compare tragedies in this way. But Strauss — who personally started fundraisers for both fires right after each happened — sees an imbalance.
“I think of the two significant disastrous events on the same level,” he says. “The lack of fundraisers and lack of support in the long run is heavily indicative of racism. And there's no other way around it.”
Fire victim Richard “Double R” Myers agrees.
“It has a lot to do with race,” he says. “The majority of people in that building were Black. Specifically African American families.”
He points to a fundraiser he started for himself as an example.
“I set up a GoFundMe page and only raised 90 bucks.”
Victims of the San Pablo Fire did get around $9,000 each directly from the city of Oakland. Money that the landlord, Keith Kim, is required to reimburse. He hasn’t yet.
Landlords are legally responsible for paying relocation funds when their property becomes uninhabitable. But Strauss says a lot of residents quickly went through that money paying for hotel rooms because they had nowhere else to go.
Who is responsible?
Six months after his home was destroyed, Richard “Double R” Myers blames the city for the fire and points to the inspections.
“The city came through a few times,” he explains. “And if they came through a few times and that place wasn't right, they should have done something about it. They should have enforced their codes.”
He also blames his former landlord.
“You mean to tell me you had a multiple-unit building that didn't have smoke detectors in it? Didn't have fire extinguishers ready to use? To try to put out a fire that probably could have been put out? And lives were lost? Oh yeah.”
Myers is currently suing the landlord, as well as the three low-income housing providers that were middlemen between the landlord and many of the residents. His lawsuit is one of a half-dozen from other residents of the building.
But he’s still without stable housing. There’s just nowhere that’s affordable for him and his partner to move in together.
“Now that I have a baby on the way the pressure is there to try to get something to go right.”
Their first child is due in a couple months.