Monday, December 12, 2016

Pointing the Ghost Ship Finger in the Right Direction

Building on International Boulevard near the Ghost Ship
I'm usually not one to talk back to the television during news broadcasts.  I may arch an occasional eyebrow if I find the understanding deficient on a key point, but that’s usually my limit.

However, there are exceptions.  One recently occurred during the reporting on the Ghost Ship fire.  For those who don't live in California, or have been in a monastery for the past week, a warehouse that had been illegally converted into residential space near the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland burned a week ago at the loss of 36 lives. 

During a news broadcast a couple of days after the fire, an Oakland City Councilmember took advantage of his 15 minutes of fame to describe the tragedy as a failure of the code enforcement role of the Oakland Fire Department.

His comments missed the fundamental point. And I expressed my thinking in strong words, interrupting my wife's viewing of the broadcast.

The problem is ultimately much deeper than whether the nine Fire Marshals of the Oakland Fire Department should have somehow inspected 20,000 commercial properties every year.  Instead the two root level issues are that we don't provide enough funds to many civic functions such that there can be any reasonable chance of complying with the multiplicity of laws and that we don’t have a commitment to provide housing for all.

Our cities are severely deprived of funds, a situation that has been inescapably and inexorably getting worse since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13.  We know this to be true, the civic balance sheets show it clearly, and yet we don’t accept responsibility for the shortfalls.

There have been letters in the Bay Area papers arguing that excuses of inadequate resources or staffing aren’t appropriate responses to a loss of human life in the Ghost Ship.  Poppycock.  We can’t ask public employees to perform their duties at impossible speeds so our tax bills can be a little lower, especially when none of us work at superhuman rates at our jobs.  Municipal services have reasonable costs and we must be prepared to pay them.

And with regard to the availability of housing, as long as we allow housing to be the product of a free market and a patchwork of subsidies, public and private, there will be people who fall through the cracks and needs the low rents of places like the Ghost Ship to avoid living on the street.  This is particularly true in a region that has a chronic housing shortage.

So, what are the connections between these two issues and the walkable urbanism which is the primary topic of this blog?  Walkable urbanism is a less expensive way of building cities, freeing up funds for other civic obligations such as fire inspections.

And walkable urban settings are the least expensive places to add new housing.  Walkable urban place won’t solve housing shortages just by existing, but they make it easier to solve the shortages if we choose to do so.

Walkable urbanism is the answer to many questions.  And the Ghost Ship fire illustrates exactly that if only we will listen and not blabber about simplistic and unhelpful answers such as the failures of overwhelmed fire marshals.

My next post will return to the proposed road diet in my town.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


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