Safer DIY Spaces

Safer DIY Spaces has been trying to preserve infrastructure and hold space for community organizing since 2012. Part of the work is trying to buy buildings and part is trying to get orgs eligible to apply for grants. The event that was taking place at Ghost Ship the night of the fire had asked to use Omni Commons (which is up to code) as a venue, but they were rejected because the city had already tried to shut Omni down three times and Omni was worried about noise complaints from the neighbors and how long the show would go.

“There’s a law in Oakland that says it’s illegal to dance after 1 AM. This is why people are refused special event permits. These kinds of bureaucratic conditions are part of the reason people hold events in informal spaces, in improvised spaces, in homes and so on.”

DIY Safer Spaces includes a number of architects and artists from different communities in Oakland. Their number one priority is legalization. The city will often shut down spaces out of alleged safety concerns, but this ends up pushing the evicted into even unsafer conditions. “I have had several inspectors tell me that people are safer being homeless and living in tents than in the building that needed $5,000 worth of safety improvements.” Contrary to what these inspectors are saying, Oakland’s homeless encampments have a reputation, and it’s not for safety. These encampments are often also evicted because they are reported to be unsafe or unsanitary. There have also been a number of fires at these encampments.

“We must preserve low-income, accessible, affordable spaces for people to pursue cultural production.” Safer DIY Spaces focuses on live/work spaces in particular, sometimes referred to as “mixed use.” “We’ve helped well over 100 buildings [that were served eviction notices]. That’s over 700,000 square feet of space preserved.” Though city inspectors use safety concerns as an excuse to evict low-income artists living in live/work spaces, historical research shows that building codes and fire codes are not about preserving life safety, they are about property rights. Also, codes are selectively enforced against marginal buildings (populated by marginal people in marginal parts of town). Rule enforcers assume that if you are living in a non-compliant building, you can and should move into a compliant building. If you can’t afford to… well, that’s not their problem.

Safer DIY Spaces is the only org in the Bay that provides this kind of hands-on technical assistance: representing tenants (and sometimes building owners) when they have to deal with the city, helping people get their buildings to comply with local codes, and ultimately (ideally) purchasing the buildings for themselves.

“Right after Ghost Ship, I was getting about 30 messages an hour from people I didn’t know. That was the scale and degree of concern.” David is referring here to other people who were worried about getting shut down and wanted to get their buildings into compliance.

“Nobody I’ve ever met wants to live in a building that’s not safe.” This should be obvious, but there was a surprising amount of victim-blaming happening in Oakland after the fire. Some people seemed to be misguided into believing that young people “like” danger, when in reality it’s high rents that have pushed people and parties into unsafe spaces.

Part of the problem is that people in low-income communities doesn’t have access to architects who can help explain how their buildings could be made safe/brought into compliance affordably. This is one of the ways Safer DIY Spaces can help.