Artists Respond to Fire Safety Crackdown By Calling on the Fire Department

Debra Walker in her art studio at Developing Environments. She lives in the adjoining unit. Photo by Brian Rinker.Debra Walker in her art studio at Developing Environments. She lives in the adjoining unit. Photo by Brian Rinker.

In the wake of the tragic fire in Oakland that claimed 36 lives and the city crackdowns that resulted, the founder of a Mission District arts space will bring together firefighters with managers of both underground and above-board arts spaces to help improve fire safety.

Spike Kahn, a prominent housing activist who has also been active in a fire safety advocacy group, is spearheading the effort that will allow owners and tenants in legal and un-permitted spaces to learn how to make the spaces safer. 

In fact, Kahn says, she wants the city to more tightly regulate people like herself.

“I’m a landlord… I did not have a fire extinguishers because the law does not require it, but I am trying to get the city to require them in every kitchen that has a gas stove,” she said.

The effort comes at a time when there has been pushback against the city responding to the Oakland tragedy by enforcing restrictions. 

At a Building Inspection Commission meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 21, a woman delivered a petition with 10,000 signatures (the online petition has since garnered nearly 15,000 signatures) imploring the city to stop a crackdown on  live-work artist spaces that have not been permitted or are not up to code.  The effort is aimed at sparing artists living in these spaces from eviction.

Reports of two such spaces being inspected have surfaced. In one case, a landlord’s inspection following the Oakland fire resulted in eviction notices being sent. The Cycleside Swearhouse in the Bayview survived its inspection without anyone needing to move out, but warranted or not, fears of evictions in the name of safety are widespread.

Kahn is taking an alternative approach.  She’s inviting tenants and managers of such spaces to take part in an educational workshop and learn what they can do to fix up their spaces, without revealing where those spaces are or inviting in inspectors.

Together with the Fire Department and representatives from the Department of Building Inspections, Kahn will host a workshop at the Brava Theater Center on January 3 to educate managers of artistic spaces and live-work spaces on how to improve safety.

“We don’t want to open the flood gates and risk being evicted. We want to protect our creative spaces, and our artists,” Kahn wrote on Facebook. “Even if your studio is in your kitchen (and not zoned live/work), you can upgrade your safety conditions yourself without drawing attention to any alleged illegal use.”

Part of the workshop will be dedicated to straightforward fire safety precautions anyone can install – preventing overloaded circuits, installing smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, and other infrastructure measures.

But Kahn also invited anyone who runs or lives in an artist live-work space, illegal or permitted, to bring their questions to the firefighters, without having to give away where they operate.

The workshop is a more hands-on, opt-in approach that invites proactive participation from landlords and artists.

Debra Walker, a building inspection commissioner who responded to the petition with enthusiastic support last Wednesday, emphasized that the purpose of the workshop will be to give people who live in and run arts spaces the tools to improve safety, not to scrutinize them.

“I know that everybody is freaking out that the [building inspection] department is going to come down on buildings, and I don’t think that’s the case,” Walker said. “I think we’re trying to be thoughtful and conscientious about this and respect people’s homes.”

Walker herself lives in an artist live-work space, Developing Environments. When artists first moved into the space, she said, residents hung parachutes to separate their spaces. Now she pays 1200 a month for two units, one to live in, and one where she works. She has no plumbing in her unit and must share a bathroom and water with other residents in a common area.

The creation of city ordinances governing live-work spaces and “accessory uses” helped bring the space into compliances, Walker said.

But Kahn said legal or not, many spaces have fire safety issues.

“There are legal ones that are still unsafe,” she said. Of the 10 legal spaces she knew of, she said, “I would say that none of them are perfectly safe.”  

Hundreds, she guessed, fly under the radar.

“People are working in their garages and sharing it with their friends. Off the top of my head, I can think of three – well established, and using their kitchen as their studio,” Kahn said.

Artist live-work spaces can be done safelly – Walker named Project Artaud, the Goodman Building, and Developing Environments as examples of what works. She noted that these spaces began as illegally occupied art studios before securing city approvals that allowed them to carry on and make improvements.

The fire safety workshop will be held Tuesday, January 3 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Brava Theater Center on 24th Street.

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