Will Cities Learn from the Ghost Ship Tragedy?

Two years ago today, on December 2, 2016, at 11:20 p.m., a fire broke out in an Oakland, California warehouse known as the Ghost Ship. The building was packed with musicians and concertgoers, and its lack of required fire exits left thirty-six people dead. All but one were visitors to the warehouse for the evening’s music. All the residents who called the Ghost Ship their home were displaced.

It seemed impossible that so many talented and creative young people could have their lives cut short by attending a concert in a building that lacked the legal right to house residents or hold public events. Oakland’s young, upcoming creative class was living in unsafe buildings because their generation had been priced out of safe and affordable housing.

Media headlines on the tragedy spoke volumes: “Ghost Ship Tragedy Puts Focus on Plight of Oakland Artists Dealing with Soaring Bay Area Housing Costs”; “Rising Prices in Oakland Push Artists into Risky Housing”; and “Take Note, California: Oakland Tragedy Shows the Cost of Too Little Housing Construction.” Like New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, which killed 146 workers and brought pressure for workplace protection for sweatshop workers, the Ghost Ship tragedy highlights the housing affordability crisis afflicting many of the nation’s cities.

The Ghost Ship deaths highlighted how cities must act far more urgently to stop the pricing out of working- and middle-class residents. This requires protecting existing tenants, preserving rental housing, and building new housing to meet jobs and population growth. Yet none of the nation’s most progressive cities have done what they could to promote greater inclusion and racial diversity. Politicians talk about these goals, but nearly all of these cities maintain land use laws that reduce housing options for the non-wealthy.

What Austin, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and other blue cities have in common are exclusionary zoning laws that ban new apartments in most residential areas. All also have powerful, boomer-dominated homeowner groups that fight efforts to legalize new apartments in their neighborhoods. Even a heavily tenant-majority city like San Francisco allows mansions for the wealthy to be built in neighborhoods where apartments affordable to the middle-class are prohibited.

Unfortunately, there is a sharp generational divide around the urban affordability crisis. Just as young people were the overwhelming victims at the Ghost Ship, millennials are most impacted by skyrocketing rents and home prices caused by boomers’ refusal to allow new multi-unit buildings in their neighborhoods. Boomer homeowners aggressively work to keep these exclusionary zoning laws in place even when it means that millennials seeking housing must undergo hour long commutes to their city jobs. These long commutes cause greenhouse gas emissions and promote climate change, but boomers in Bay Area cities and elsewhere feel that so long as drive a Prius and recycle that they are doing their part for the environment. The City Council in my hometown of Berkeley twice denied a three unit project on a site zoned for four units, apparently preferring that future jobholders in the city join the 120,000 other commuters currently driving each day from Sacramento to the Bay Area.

The pricing out of the middle class used to be a story only heard in San Francisco, New York, and affluent sections of other cities. But times have changed. Austin’s boom times have left working- and middle-class Latino and African American families behind. Long-affordable Portland is a housing bargain no more. Those seeking housing in Los Angeles often must choose between living in a converted garage, renting a living room in a flat, or commuting an hour or more. Boulder, Colorado’s housing prices rival San Francisco’s. Berkeley and Cambridge are best known as college towns, but their housing prices are exorbitant. Seattle and Denver have done the best job of any progressive city at getting housing built, but rising job growth has left both far more expensive than a decade ago. The unaffordability of desirable, high-employment cities now defines urban America. A generation of young people is unable to live in cities that have long been open to all.

Something is very wrong with this picture.

When did it become acceptable for America’s politically progressive and culturally diverse cities to price out the non-rich? And why are progressive cities — those that back minimum-wage hikes, LGBTQ rights, health care for all, and greater racial and gender equity — allowing and often promoting increased housing inequality? That the Ghost Ship tragedy occurred in long affordable Oakland shows how desperate urban unaffordability has come. When artists and working people are priced out of cities like Oakland, urban America’s future as a nucleus for our creative class is at risk.

Fortunately, millennials, many associated with the rising YIMBY movement (Yes In My Backyard), are fighting back. YIMBYs pack public hearings to support new housing, help elect pro-housing candidates and push policies to legalize apartments in single-family zoned neighborhoods. For the first time in decades millennial activism is offering resistance to homeowners’ exclusionary housing policies, and cities are now under pressure to expand and preserve housing opportunities for those previously priced out. California’s recent wildfires have renewed emphasis on climate change, and more and more people are realizing that building infill housing and stopping sprawl is an essential green strategy.

The working and middle-class deserve to live in America’s most popular and progressive cities. Whether this happens depends on millennials’ overcoming boomer homeowners’ entrenched opposition to new apartments in their neighborhoods. For all progressive cities two years after the Ghost Ship, it is a question of political will.

Randy Shaw is the author of Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America, just released from the University of California Press.