Friday, March 31, 2017

West Oakland Fire Survivors Say City's Response Is Unacceptable and Victim Assistance Is Lacking

by Darwin BondGraham
Fri, Mar 31, 2017 at 5:33 PM

Many of the West Oakland residents displaced by Monday's deadly San Pablo Avenue fire say that media outlets, the public, and city officials are down-playing, and even ignoring, the tragedy.

They're shocked, for instance, that so little money to assist victims has been raised so far. And they wonder why the city has yet to declare a state of emergency, especially since more than 80 people were displaced by the fire, in addition to the four deaths.

Daryle Allums spoke to the Express and was blunt about why he thinks the fire survivors have drawn such little support: "It's because the people we're dealing with are African-American. People don't care."

"We're begging for crumbs."

Allums has been volunteering at the West Oakland Youth Center, where many of the fire survivors are currently sleeping on cots. He said the building is too small to safely fit everyone, and that tensions are running high.

"It's like a jail," he said of the crowded conditions and spartan environment.

He did say that the Red Cross and volunteers from the neighborhood have been helpful. And he praised Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney and her staff for being present over long hours, and fighting to get more resources.

But he said the rest of the city's leaders have been missing-in-action. None have stopped by, and none have offered to open up facilities in their districts to temporarily house survivors.

Allums couldn't help but compare the West Oakland fire's response to the public outpouring that followed the Ghost Ship tragedy.

After the Ghost Ship blaze, the city blocked off International Boulevard for more than a week and set up a media-briefing stage. News stations and reporters from all over the world descended on the scene and some stayed for weeks. Every detail about the fire, its survivors, and the landlord and warehouse operator were examined under a microscope. The city also secured the Ghost Ship warehouse to conduct an investigation that took weeks.

Workers employed by the landlord were allowed back onto the property today and were disposing of the wreckage.
  • Workers employed by the landlord were allowed back onto the property today and were disposing of the wreckage.
In contrast, four days after the San Pablo fire, the building has already been handed back to the owner. The city already determined the fire was caused by a candle, which was knocked over. Workers employed by the landlord were already tearing down parts of the building today.

Only a few local TV news vans set up at the scene for the first several days. They're gone now.

And city officials never held a single press conference outside the burned structure, said Allums.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf's first communication about the fire was at 4:35 p.m. on the day of the incident. But her short emailed statement only came after three press releases earlier in the day, two about the Raiders football team, and the other an invitation to a media event with the Oakland Athletics on City Hall's roof.

This afternoon Schaaf and City Administrator Sabrina Landreth did announce an order to "overhaul" the city's fire safety inspection program, and "double" the size of the fire prevention bureau responsible for inspecting buildings.

But some positions in the fire prevention bureau, including the job of fire marshal and assistant fire marshal, were already funded, going on years. The city's administration simply failed to hire for the jobs.

People working to raise money for the San Pablo fire victims also report difficulties.

"I’m really shocked — well, I’m not shocked, but I’m dismayed — that my fundraiser is the only one in existence at all," said Jonah Strauss, an Oakland resident who set up an online donation site for victims of the San Pablo Fire. "Why aren’t there eight fundraisers?" he questioned.

One of the websites set up to benefit the Ghost Ship survivors managed to raise more than $250,000 in just three days after the tragedy. Donations poured in from all over the world. The Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, which oversaw the fund, ultimately was able to raise $923,702.

Many more victims perished in the Ghost Ship fire. But more people were displaced from housing by the San Pablo Avenue fire.

The Athletics and Raiders both donated $30,000 to the Ghost Ship fire relief effort, too, and even the Warriors chipped in $125,000.

But after the San Pablo fire, "the Raiders only stood here and gave out some food," said Bobby Bishop, a survivor. "Don't give me that shit," he complained.

Bishop, who struggles with alcoholism and was staying in the building with his wife after a bout of homelessness, said the West Oakland Youth Center is too crowded to shelter all those displaced. He was given hotel vouchers for two nights, but said others, including people with mental-health issues, shouldn't be packed in to the center.

He also said that the city hasn't offered other places for survivors to stay as social workers search for longer-term housing options.

When asked why he thinks the city's assistance effort has been lacking, Bishop said, "these are Black, African-Americans. They don't give a fuck about us."

A case in point: Strauss' fundraiser has only managed to raise $16,000, as of Friday afternoon.

"Why isn't this fully funded yet?! We need to keep re-posting and getting the money to these families," commented one donor on the YouCaring.com site.

Strauss is a member of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition, which was set up after Ghost Ship. He lost close friends when the Fruitvale warehouse burned, and said it's not necessary to compare the responses to the two fires to see that the victims of the San Pablo Avenue blaze aren't getting the help they need.

Residents temporarily housed at the youth center said Keith Kim, the landlord who owned the West Oakland building that burned, hasn't shown his face. Allums said he was unaware of any financial donation, or other contribution made to the recovery effort, by Kim.

"Hopefully this evening we'll know if there's more housing available to move people into," he said.

But as of this morning, Allums was so upset with the city's response to the fire that he posted a video to Facebook, which condemned Oakland's response and called for more help from the community:

"They don't care about us," he said. "We gotta come together, or they gonna delete us."



Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Beat Won’t Go On: Chicago Landlord Evicts Coffee With A Beat, Longtime Adams Point Shops

Fama’s African Braids and Oakland Spa also will be evicted.

by Brian Krans
Thu, Mar 30, 2017 at 5:22 PM

Three businesses in the same building at the corner of Grand Avenue and Perkins streets — Coffee With a Beat, Fama’s African Braids, and Oakland Spa — are being evicted by their new landlord. Their last day of business is tomorrow — Friday.

Thursday, owners of the Oakland Spa moved items from their store while Nate Smith, owner of Coffee With a Beat, sold photos, books, and other memorabilia on the sidewalk in front of his iconic coffee shop. He’s been in the same spot for nearly 16 years.

“It’s not up to us,” Smith told the Express.

The building’s current owner, according to county records, is Urban Neighborhood Bay Area, LLC. (UNBA), a Delaware company with a Denver mailing address. That company is a subsidiary of the Laramar Group, a multi-billion dollar firm that is headquartered in Chicago and owns and manages over 12,000 housing units nationwide.

A representative of Laramar Group’s San Francisco office declined to comment on the evictions when contacted by the Express today.

The residential units are not affected by the evictions because they’re protected under Oakland’s Just Cause ordinance. However, several studios and apartments above the shops are currently for rent. According to Laramar’s web site for the property, a studio starts at $2,095 and a two-bedroom rents for $2,850 a month.

The company is advertising the building as being located “in the trendy Adams Point neighborhood of Oakland” and “within walking distance of some of the Bay Area's hottest bars and restaurants, popular shopping destinations and public transportation.”

The building changed ownership several times in the past few years before it was bought by Laramar. Smith says he tried to secure a lease with each of the three different building owners over the last four years.

“I wasn’t really worried at the time because I figured eventually someone would give me a lease,” he said. “The last people said they wouldn’t give me a lease, and if I don’t like it, just leave.”

But he didn’t leave. That was until Laramar gave all the merchants a two-month notice to move out.

It was a “big shock” to Majula Jallow, owner of Fama’s African Braids. She’s been operating a salon in the area for 12 years, the last eight of which were in the same building as Coffee With a Beat.

“I called [UNBA] and they said there’s nothing we could do,” Jallow told the Express. “They didn’t give me any reason.”

Her new store, which she expects to open by Saturday, is located at 2225 Park Blvd. on the East Side of Lake Merritt. She said she will miss the neighborhood she’s been in since 1996.

For Smith, the eviction means retirement. He was hoping to pass the shop onto one of his sons, but with higher rents across the city, he can’t find a place that would replicate the space and vibe of Coffee With a Beat.

Since word got around he was closing, plenty of people have come by to share their memories of the shop.

“The main concept was to have a neighborhood coffee shop, something like a Cheers where people come in and everyone knows your name, and people come to relax,” said Smith. “You can stay as long as you want. If you want to debate politics or sports or whatever, you could do it here with no threat. You wouldn’t have to worry about anyone being mad at you. You could just get your debate on, shake hands, and come back the next day.”

Smith will be there Friday, packing up the last of his belongings. He said he’s willing to hear more stories from those who used Coffee With a Beat as a second living room, an office, or just a place where friends come to meet.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

State Sen. Nancy Skinner: Latest Fatal Oakland Fire Was 'Preventable'

by Darwin BondGraham
Wed, Mar 29, 2017 at 11:57 AM

Nancy Skinner.
  • Nancy Skinner.
State Sen. Nancy Skinner called the most recent fatal Oakland fire "tragic and preventable," in a statement issued today.

Skinner said the building's long history of substandard and dangerous conditions, which were known to the city and landlord, should have prompted action much earlier to keep the tenants safe and avoid displacement.

"Unfortunately, this tragedy once again highlights a circumstance where building owners are aware of the derelict condition of a property, and despite complaints did not take remedial action to ensure safe and habitable conditions for their residents. Press reports indicate the building owner had initiated eviction actions; however the derelict conditions were present for years prior to this tragic incident. According to city records, tenants of this property have filed numerous health and safety complaints and the owner had not acted to remedy the situation. Given California’s housing crisis, evicting low income residents such as those who were at this facility is not an acceptable remedy to address conditions such as those that led to this tragedy which likely could have been prevented had the property been maintained and repaired in a timely manner."

Four people died in the blaze which destroyed the three-story apartment building located at 2551 San Pablo Avenue.

Residents of the building said they didn't hear smoke alarms and there weren't working sprinklers during Monday's fire.

The cause of the fire is currently being investigated.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Uber White Male

Uber's newly released diversity stats show a company dominated by white and Asian men.

by Darwin BondGraham
Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 2:21 PM

Ride hailing giant Uber released information regarding its employee demographics today, and the data shows what many have suspected: Uber's employees are predominantly white and Asian men, and white men occupy the company's upper-most echelons. Women, Blacks, and Latinos mainly hold lower-paying, non-tech and non-leadership jobs with the Silicon Valley giant.

According to Uber's stats, men make up 64 percent of its total workforce. Among its "tech jobs" — some of the best paid that involve engineering and coding — men account for 85 percent of Uber's workforce.

When it comes to racial diversity, the company's stats are just as stark: 50 percent of Uber's total workforce is white, while Asians account for another 31 percent. Black and "Hispanic" people account for only 9 and 6 percent, respectively.

UBER
  • Uber
With respect to Uber's tech jobs, Blacks and Latinos are virtually shut out.

Only 1 percent of tech workers at the company are Black. "Hispanics" make up only 2 percent of tech workers.

The data drops a week after Uber announced that it's scaling back its plans to move to Oakland, one of the most diverse cities in California with a large Black and Latino population.

"We applaud Uber for finally releasing the diversity data it's held onto for so long," said Orson Aguilar, president of the Greenlining Institute, a nonprofit based in Oakland. "But the company still clearly has a long way to go, given its extremely segregated tech workforce. Uber should strive to have its workforce meet the diversity of its drivers, who are 50% people of color."

Greenlining and other Oakland groups have been pressuring Uber over the past year to support local efforts aimed at diversifying the Bay Area tech workforce and protecting women and non-white owned businesses and nonprofits from the region's rapidly rising rents.

Many in Oakland cheered the tech firm's announcement it won't move thousands of employees here over the next couple of years, however. Uber's office workers are perceived as a force for gentrifying Oakland and further driving up the city's already extremely high price of housing.

In recent weeks, Uber has come under withering criticism for what critics call its white, male-dominated culture that has allegedly permitted sexual harassment and racism.

In response, Uber has expanded its racial diversity programs and brought in new leadership to try to soften its corporate image.

Uber isn't the only tech company with a diversity problem, however. Most tech companies are dominated by white and Asian employees, with men making up the majority of the workforce in "tech" occupations and management jobs.

In Silicon Valley venture capital firms, the demographics are similar, with white and Asian men leading the investment companies that own large stakes in firms like Uber.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Oakland Mayor Literally Raises A's Flag Over City Hall An Hour After Raiders-To-Vegas Vote

Mayor said her "heart aches" for Raiders fans.

by Nick Miller
Mon, Mar 27, 2017 at 1:16 PM

Literally an hour after NFL owners voted to allow the Raiders to relocate to Las Vegas, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf flew an Athletics flag at City Hall.


At a rooftop press conference attended by team president David Kaval and A's mascot Stomper, Schaaf raised the flag, in celebration of A's Spirt Week.

The mayor said in a statement that her "heart aches today for the Raider Nation."

"These are the most committed and passionate fans any city or team could hope to have. They deserved better.”

The Raiders intend to play two more seasons in the Coliseum before finalizing construction on a new arena in Las Vegas.

Landlord Of West Oakland Building Destroyed By Fire Was Working To Evict Tenants

A 2005 city inspector wrote that 'babies are getting asthma and very sick' in the building.

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, Mar 27, 2017 at 11:33 AM

Tenants of the San Pablo Avenue apartment building destroyed by a fire early this morning were resisting a controversial eviction, according to court records and interviews.

The residents even obtained a restraining order against the building's landlord. And, now, their lawyer is calling for an arson investigation.

Records also show that the West Oakland building's dangerous conditions were known to the landlord, master tenant, the City of Oakland, and other authorities.

The building's landlord, Keith Kim, was seeking to evict Urojas Community Services, a nonprofit that leased part of the building for a transitional-housing program that served dozens of homeless and very-low-income people.

But Urojas and some of its clients who lived in the building refused to leave.

James Cook, an attorney with John L. Burris Law Offices who is representing Urojas, said in an interview that Kim initially tried to evict the nonprofit right after the deadly Ghost Ship fire last December. Most recently, Kim gave Urojas a 30-day notice to vacate the building, but Urojas was fighting this eviction.

The legal battle had escalated in recent weeks.

"Next thing I know, I get up this morning, my client’s building is on fire, it’s up in smoke," Cook told the Express.

"I want it to be investigated as an arson."

Two have been confirmed dead in the fire and 86 people are displaced.

It's unclear what caused the blaze, but the structure has a recent history of numerous building code violations, including broken plumbing and heating, exposed wires, pests, electrical problems, and more.

Urojas Community Services filed the most recent complaint with the city, alleging that Kim had "deferred maintenance," allowing the building to fall into a state of disrepair. This housing-habitability complaint was verified by a city inspector who went to the address on March 3, according to city records.

The inspector noted that there was a major plumbing leak spilling sewage into the first and second floors. "The 3rd floor is occupied with squatters," the inspector wrote.

According to court records, Kim and a group of men tried to physically evict some of the residents in February. In response, the residents sought a court restraining order against Kim.

Tenant Brenda Corley, who also helped manage the Urojas program, wrote in a court document that Kim showed up with twelve men on February 14 to "forcibly remove items" and change locks.

"They threw our items into the street," Corley wrote. "The men threatened violence if anyone intervened."

According to Corley's account, Kim also told the building's tenants not to pay rent to Urojas Community Services, the master tenant. And Corley accused Kim of calling the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services agency to ask that Urojas' funding be cut off. (The county helps fund Urojas' programs.)

The Express was unable to reach Kim for comment, but a temporary restraining order was granted by the court on February 15 preventing him from physically evicting tenants from his building.

The restraining order was later dismissed, on March 6, after Corley and Kim both failed to show up to a court hearing.

Cook said that Oakland City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney had intervened in the dispute between Kim and Urojas to try to reach a deal. But Cook said that McElhaney was trying to resolve the situation by having Urojas vacate the building, and working with Kim to possibly secure it as an affordable-housing site.

Gibson McElhaney did not return a call or email seeking comment.

Oakland City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney and her staff toured the building in February, according to a building inspector's report. McElhaney was reportedly working with Dignity Housing West, Inc. to take over part of the building for an affordable housing center, a move that would have displaced Urojas.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives is on its way to conduct an investigation of the fire alongside the Oakland Fire Department.

So far, one person has been confirmed dead, and several seriously injured. Other bodies could be hidden in the three-story building.

The Alameda County Sheriff's office is flying a drone equipped with a thermal camera over the building to locate hot spots and search for survivors or victims.

The fire comes almost four months after the deadly Ghost Ship fire that killed 36.

Other city and court records show that the building's substandard condition was known to the landlord, Urojas, and other authorities.

In May of 2016 a city building inspector found that a smoke alarm was missing in one of the units leased by Urojas from Kim.

A lawsuit filed in August of last year by a woman who used to live in the building alleges that the complex had no locks on the doors, no heat, defective plumbing, inadequate wiring, and other serious defects, including "hazardous fluids and materials" on the premises.

The woman filed a complaint with the city and felt the landlord and property manager had been given adequate time to fix the building's defects. Instead, the woman was sexually assaulted in August 2015, according to the lawsuit, due to the fact that her unit had no locks on the door.

In 2013 Oakland building inspector Timothy Low cited the building's owner for "hazardous and injurious" conditions and hit Kim with $3,239 in fees.

In 2005 city inspectors were called to the building to investigate a complaint that women and young children were living in overcrowded rooms infested with mold and leaky plumbing. "Babies are getting asthma and very sick," reads a building inspector's comments.

In 1996 another building inspector found that the fire escape was "tied up so tenants cannot get away in case of a fire."

Keith Kim bought the building in 1991 through a company called Mead Avenue Housing Associates, according to county records.


Fire Destroys West Oakland Apartment Building. Multiple Rescues Reported.

Building has long, and recent, record of code violations.

by Darwin BondGraham
Mon, Mar 27, 2017 at 7:46 AM

A 4-alarm fire destroyed an apartment building at 2551 San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland early this morning.

According to the Oakland Fire Department's Twitter feed, some residents had to be rescued. Firefighters battled the blaze from truck ladders, spraying water onto the roof and through windows. The smoke plume could bee seen as far away as deep East Oakland.


Oakland Councilmember Abel Guillen wrote that some residents had to be rescued from the roof by firefighters.


The building, like many apartment structures in Oakland, has a long and recent history of code violations.

In December, a complaint filed with the city alleged that there was no working heat in the building, and that there were "electrical issues" and a large pest infestation.

On March 2 of this year, the Urojas Community Services group complained to the city that the building suffers from "deferred maintenance" by the landlord. Urojas leases space in the building to run a substance abuse treatment center and transitional housing.

Neighbors say the building has been in a state of disrepair for a long time.

It's unclear if anyone died in today's fire. Check back for updates.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Darwin BondGraham, Ali Winston Receive Society of Professional Journalists Award For Oakland Police Reporting

by Nick Miller
Wed, Mar 22, 2017 at 5:57 PM

10337762_10101094999968083_2735212270408761044_n.jpg

This evening, the Society of Professional Journalists — Northern California chapter will honor Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston with this year's James Madison Freedom of Information "Journalist Award," recognizing the reporters' work covering the Oakland Police Department sexual-exploitation scandal.

The SPJ's James Madison FOI award celebrates exceptional work in journalism that advances the public's access to government information.

In recognition of BondGraham and Winston, the SPJ committee wrote:
BondGraham and Winston overcame numerous obstacles to publish one of the biggest stories of 2016, an East Bay Express expose of the Oakland Police Department’s sexual exploitation of a minor and related misconduct, which made national headlines. BondGraham and Winston used public records, social media research and persistence to illustrate how OPD brass ignored the abuse. The journalists also weathered a leak investigation into the possible sources of their reporting, and scrupulously protected the privacy of the victim even when other outlets published her name.
BondGraham and Winston also won an SPJ Excellence in Journalism award last year for their reporting on the OPD series.

Other recipients this year include fellow weekly journalist Thadeus Greenson, of the North Coast Journal, and also reporters with KQED and The Sacramento Bee.

The James Madison awards also recognize whistleblowers, students, public officials, legal counsel, citizens, and nonprofits. Learn more at SPJNorcal.org.

Richmond Sues President Trump Over Threat To Cut Off Funds To Sanctuary Cities

by Alice Feller
Wed, Mar 22, 2017 at 5:38 PM

COURTESY WIKI/COMMONS
  • Courtesy Wiki/Commons
The city of Richmond is taking President Trump to court.

This afternoon, officials announced that the city filed a lawsuit challenging Trump's Executive Order 13768, which was issued on January 25 and that would deny federal funding to “sanctuary Jurisdictions" that don't abide federal immigration policy.

At a press conference, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt argued that ”statements by the Trump administration suggest that Richmond will be targeted for protecting our residents," and that Trump's "harmful approach" won't stand.

"We will not allow intimidation to disrupt our commitment to our residents and their safety," Butt said.

Richmond has one of the most racially diverse populations in the United States, if not the country, and police Chief Allwyn Brown said that the city “uses the proven, effective community-policing model, which recognizes that everyone is safer when there is trust and free interaction between the police and its residents.”

Joseph Cotchett, one of Richmond’s attorneys, called Trump's order unprecedented abuse. “With a wave of the pen, they can cut off funds that were granted by Congress.”

Richmond has been a sanctuary city since 1990, and receives approximately $77 million annually in federal monies annually, most of which is spent on affordable housing.

Cotchett added that the phrase “sanctuary jurisdiction” has no legal meaning, and that Trump's order is so broad that the administration could withdraw federal funding at any time, even without a hearing, and with little justification.

Funds for police protection and public education also could be withheld under the executive order. Medicare and Medicaid could also be cut off, a possibility that has the hospitals especially worried, Cotchett said.

The Richmond lawsuit states that, specifically, the order violates the Fourth and Tenth amendments, the separation of powers and spending clauses, and the due process clause because of vagueness.

Richmond is the second Bay Area city to sue President Trump over his sanctuary city threat.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

UC Berkeley Students Inspire Legislation That Would Make California Colleges Provide Abortion Pill On Campus

Lawmaker says Senate Bill 320 is crucial, given GOP attacks on Planned Parenthood.

by Suhauna Hussain
Tue, Mar 21, 2017 at 8:22 PM

Abortion pills such as Cytotec could be made available on California college campuses if a new bill passes the Legislature.
  • Abortion pills such as Cytotec could be made available on California college campuses if a new bill passes the Legislature.
UC Berkeley and other California colleges would be required to make abortion pills available on campus, if a bill inspired by local university students passes this year.

Introduced this past Friday by Sen. Connie Leyva, Senate Bill 320 would mandate that publicly funded health centers at UC, California State University, and California Community College campuses provide abortion pills — not to be confused with surgical abortions or the morning-after pill — to students.

The state senator advocated for direct access on campuses because it would mean increased equity for women. “Abortions are a constitutionally protected right. It's incredibly important for women to have control over their own bodies,” Leyva told the Express.

There are four facilities within four miles of the UC Berkeley campus that provide abortion pills, or perform surgical abortions, explained Kim LaPean, spokesperson for University Health Services.

Yet UC Berkeley student Adiba Khan says she has friends who encountered financial, transportation, and social barriers while trying to access an abortion through the campus health center's referral process. The Tang Center offers comprehensive reproductive health services on site, Khan said — everything except abortions.

She said both her friends were "really jaded" by the difficulty of their experience. "Abortion is really stigmatized," Khan said.

In fall 2015, Khan and Students United for Reproductive Justice began lobbying campus administration to bring medication abortions to the Tang Center. SURJ members met with campus administrators, collected faculty and student support, and secured grant money to cover costs of expanded services.

Although the students were unsuccessful in bringing the abortion pill to UC Berkeley, Sara Spriggs with ACCESS Women's Health Justice said their efforts inspired the bill that the Women's Policy Institute eventually brought to Leyva's office.

Marandah Field-Elliot, who is involved with SURJ and UC Berkeley’s student government, said that if accessing an abortion in Berkeley is that difficult, then women at other California colleges likely face even greater hardship.

Spriggs explained that the abortion-pill procedure simply involves ingesting two pills, which cause what feels like very heavy menstruation. One should be able to return to normal activities after a day or two.

With federal funding for Planned Parenthood under threat under Speaker Paul Ryan and the Trump administration, Leyva says her bill is crucial.

S.B. 320 is still in the early stages of the legislative process, but could reach the governor’s desk by September, Leyva explained. The University of California will begin analysis of the bill shortly, as it pertains to any possible systemwide implementation.

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