The Oakland Inferno and Government Caused Poverty; Does a Lack Respect for Regulations and Codes Cause such Tragedies or is Poverty Resulting from Regulations and Codes Lead to Disrespect for the Law?

At the 6 Dec 16 meeting of the Committee of the Whole, a commissioner uncharacteristically commented at length on the recent Oakland fire; we heard that the warehouse had not been properly inspected and certified for occupancy for residency or for hosting shows. The tragedy illustrated the need for inspections and enforcement of codes. I would have answered immediately but was taken aback by the unexpected. Also, I lacked even the most basic understanding of the issues involved in Oakland.

Within minutes of arriving home after the meeting, I was looking at NYT articles which presented the Oakland warehouse fire and analysed the reasons why alleged artists lived in that building and tolerated dangerous conditions.

I copied the following snippets from the two NYT articles that are linked in the title;

About the Ghost Ship: “The city’s (Oakland) $2,899 median rent is now among the highest, and just short of median rents in Manhattan….rising rents and fears of eviction can push vulnerable people in a desperate search for housing to unsafe spaces….a vast gray economy of live/work spaces that, legal or not, are regarded as an important source of affordable housing…“You bring these places up to code and you end up pricing out the people who make Oakland such a great place,” Mr. Dolan said.”

Now this is a bone on which a skeptic, such as myself, can gnaw.

I may have written here about my own housing experience. In Texas, where they still respect private property, I paid 400 dollars per month for a furnished one bedroom. This residence would cost me 700 in Kentwood where we have zoning and planning, 800 in Grand Rapids where they add inspections to the mix and 2500 in Manhattan where the residents also have rent control and where the landlords are hated and bled white by innumerable government leeches. Regulations, inspections, taxes, harassment of owners all cost money, something that poor people don’t have and so they gravitate toward the Ghost Ship and others like it. (Parenthetically, over 20 years ago, I knew that over a dozen otherwise homeless individuals squatted in the old Mary Free Bed building on Cherry Street. What happened in Oakland is not unique. There are poor everywhere squeezed by the high cost of real estate.)

The flaws with the “need for inspections” are that 1) I can’t find evidence that inspections of electrical, plumbing, structural and heating projects have any impact on safety or livability. Maybe there is evidence but no one publishes their findings. If someone knows of such a study, please tell me where I can review it. 2) Individuals who want to can easily avoid inspections, or worse yet, bribe, influence or frustrate the inspectors and end up doing what they want. The owners/managers of the Ghost Ship certainly had mechanisms in place to evacuate residents and to hide other evidence of people living there. 3) Many places will escape inspections due to the bureaucracy and ineptness of government. In Oakland, “no one is responsible.” The mayor has deflected criticism from the inspectors who ignored the building even though the program is probably a money maker for the cash strapped city.

We seem to have a chicken and egg problem here. I will concede that there are structural problems that can be detected and corrected by inspections so possibly averting a border line number of tragedies. However, the cost of inspections falls squarely on the poor who are driven to find ways to get around the costs. There are scofflaws who operate below the radar to provide services for these poor people and whose properties are never inspected or worse yet, who bribe inspectors so disgracing the law and government.

I’ll admit that we will never get rid of inspections. Ordinary peaceful folks who obey the law will pay the fees and justify the expense because it makes them feel reassured that someone in authority has blessed whatever project that they have paid for. There is a phrase that I saw somewhere; “Keep the yokels insecure, and the money never stops.”

Less scrupulous folks and the desperately poor who have nothing to lose will collude and easily get around inspections. Some, tragically, will get burned.

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