In September, the warehouse — which formerly housed the anarchist publishing collective AK Press — was quietly sold to a company controlled by the developer Danny Haber.
No stranger to controversy, Haber is currently being sued by the displaced tenants of another Oakland warehouse, 1919 Market Street, and also by residents of the Travelers Hotel, an SRO in Chinatown. They allege Haber engaged in a campaign of harassment to drive them out of their homes in order to redevelop the buildings and maximize rents.
Now, Haber has filed plans with the city to turn the AK Press location into a 24-unit live-work space. He’s also in talks to purchase the adjoining warehouse, at 671 24th Street. Both warehouses were closed by the city in March 2015 after a fire.
Former residents of the two warehouses say their situation illustrates how, long before the Ghost Ship tragedy, the city was cracking down on counterculture spaces, and investors were exploiting fires and building-code problems to displace people from their homes.
“It doesn’t work for us. It works for people who can come in, gobble up these buildings, and take advantage of this situation,” said Jose Palafox, a past resident of the 23rd Street Warehouse.
Palafox lived there for eight years. Early in the morning of March 21, 2015, a fire tore through an apartment in the adjoining building, 671 24th Street. Two people died: Davis Letona, 27, and Daniel “Moe” Thomas, 36.
After the blaze, city building inspectors closed both properties. All of the residents, as well as AK Press and the collective 1984 Printing, were forced out. Many of them had hopes of returning after their landlords made repairs.
Jonah Strauss, who lived in the 24th Street warehouse where the fire started, described how residents had to wake up one-another and rush to safety as flames leapt from windows.
After the fire, he and other tenants in his building accused their landlord, Kim Marienthal, of delaying and not making the necessary repairs so they could move back in.
“He still hasn’t had any work done on the building,” Strauss said in a recent interview.
One email sent to Oakland Deputy City Attorney Richard Illgen by a former resident of the 24th Street warehouse, and obtained through a Public Records Act request, called Marienthal an “exceedingly difficult landlord.” The city redacted the renter’s name, but the sender accused Marienthal of attempting to use the fire to permanently evict his tenants.
“As is the story with too many buildings in Oakland these days, the owner is going to use this opportunity to do capital improvements and hike up rents,” the email’s sender claimed.
Marienthal told the Express that his tenants were wrong about his intentions, and that the city’s extremely strict demands were to blame.
“I would much rather have been able to rebuild the building right away, the way it was, and continue renting to the tenants who were there,” he said.
But the city rejected several rounds of plans, Marienthal claimed, which made it too expensive to rehab the units and keep rents affordable. “Finally, we came up with a plan the city found acceptable. But we basically had to redesign the building,” he said.
Marienthal says, though, that the final plan’s price tag was more than double the insurance payout he received from the fire. As a result, he confirmed that he has been in talks with Haber about selling his building, although he’s yet to sign any deal. Marienthal added that Haber appears to have access to financing that gives him the ability to make the kinds of changes to warehouse spaces that the city is demanding.
Haber has previously sought investment opportunities in fire-damaged buildings with displaced tenants. For example, in 2014, he leased a San Francisco SRO damaged by a fire several years earlier, and turned it into a tech-worker dormitory. He was later sued by the tenants who lived there before the fire; they claimed that Haber violated San Francisco’s renter-protection laws by not offering them units when reconstruction was completed.
Residents of the AK Press warehouse had a different experience than tenants in the neighboring 24th Street building. Relations with their landlord, Jux Beck, remained amicable after the fire, and they hoped to be able to return. According to city records and interviews, Beck worked for almost a year with officials to try to bring the property up to code and make repairs.
“Jux was extremely responsible with everything,” said Jason Willer, a musician and resident of the 23rd Street warehouse who helped renovate the interior in the early 2000s when Beck first purchased it. “He was the opposite of a slumlord. He installed smoke detectors and made the whole place very safe.”
According to Willer, when the fire broke out in the 24th Street building and spread into the old AK Press warehouse, alarms went off. Lives were saved and damage was minimized thanks to Beck’s safety precautions.
The Express was unable to contact Beck, but several of his former tenants said that the city made it too expensive and difficult for him to comply with current building and fire codes.
Charles Weigl of AK Press, which has since re-located to Chico, described Beck as “an old-school punk” who was “very concerned about helping sustain political and artistic communities in Oakland.”
Weigl said Beck did his best, but ultimately ran out of funds, forcing him to sell the property. But, even then, he “tried to find a buyer who would agree to retain aspects of the building’s former use and spirit, including a space for AK [Press] if we wanted it.”
“It would have cost millions to bring it up to 2015 code,” said Willer. He complained that city officials initially responded to the fire and displacement with sympathy, but that, when media attention died down, the city’s building department threw up expensive and time-consuming roadblocks.
Beck gave up in December of last year. “We are under contract to sell the property,” he explained in a letter to Oakland building officials.
He sold the warehouse to two people with ties to the East Bay punk community, Shammy Saenz and Zephyr Buechler. But then, on September 1 of this year, Saenz and Buechler sold the building to 674 23rd Street LLC, a company controlled by Haber. It’s unclear why they offloaded the property, and the Express was unable to reach both Saenz and Buechler.
Haber confirmed that he purchased the old AK Press warehouse. He said that Beuchler and Saenz “ran into problems” and were unable to finance the building’s rehab, so they sold it through the brokerage CBRE.
“Nobody was living there for two years. We’ll add 24 units to the housing stock,” Haber said.
According to county records, Haber bought the building with a $2.25 million loan from Red Tower Capital, a private-equity firm in San Francisco. Also in on the deal was Seth Jacobson, whose signature appears in loan documents. Jacobson was the owner of 1919 Market Street, and Madison Park Financial was the property manager for that warehouse during most of this time. That company was owned by John Protopappas, a close friend of Mayor Libby Schaaf. Protopappas also was the chair of Schaaf’s mayoral campaign.
The warehouse’s numerous fire and building-code violations were known to the city for years, but it was allowed to operate as a live-work space. However, when the city suddenly red-tagged 1919 Market this past January, dozens of renters were displaced. Many still haven’t found permanent homes. Some have been forced to leave Oakland.
According to public records, Jacobson sold 1919 Market to a company controlled by Haber in June. Haber later filed plans with the city to build a 63-unit live-work project on the site. Several former tenants are suing Haber, Jacobson, and Protopappas over the 1919 Market warehouse shutdown.
Jacobson didn’t respond to emails from the Express, and Haber declined to talk about Jacobson’s role in buying the 23rd Street building.
Haber said that none of the former tenants of the 23rd Street building have expressed interest in returning to their former units, but he said he’d be willing to make space for them — if the city would subsidize his project.
He said that a staff member in a city council member’s office recently told him he may be eligible to use some of the affordable-housing infrastructure bond money that voters approved in November. He declined to name the council member.
“We’d use the affordable housing bond to cover the subsidy so people come back. This way we can take these projects that have fire damage, bring them back to what they were in a safe, nice way,” Haber said.
However, Haber has no track record of developing affordable housing. In fact, at the Hotel Travelers, he demolished most of the 78 SRO units and is converting them into market-rate rentals, according to city records.
On Tuesday the Oakland City Council passed a 45-day moratorium on SRO conversions, partly in response to Haber’s elimination of affordable housing at Hotel Travelers.
Orlando Chavez, one of the hotel’s residents who is suing Haber over harassment, said tenants should be skeptical of his promises. “Based on my experience and what I know about him, he’ll do anything to get control of the building and then do what he wants. He’s motivated by profit,” Chavez said.
As for the previous tenants of the 23rd Street Warehouse, many of them have given up on Oakland because it is no longer affordable.
As Weigl of AK Press put it: “The obvious outcome was that political and community ideals didn’t survive the process.”