Bay Area/ Oakland/ Crime & Emergencies
Published on April 07, 2017
Landlord Blames Tenant For Fire Safety Violations Before Deadly BlazePhotos: Scott Morris/Hoodline

The owner of a West Oakland building where four people died in a fire last month yesterday said he was “heartbroken," but blamed numerous safety violations on master tenant Urojas Community Services.

Property owner Keith Kim hired public relations representative Sam Singer and released a statement yesterday claiming that Urojas, which operated transitional housing, had been the building’s master tenant for about four years and was responsible for its maintenance.  

Kim started eviction proceedings last year when he discovered how far the building had deteriorated and that Urojas hadn’t paid its water bill in years, according to Singer.

A fire inspection just days before the fire found numerous violations, including broken fire alarms, sprinkler systems, lack of fire extinguishers, extension cords running through hallways, and more. Emails revealed that firefighters had concerns about the building since January or earlier and discussed shutting it down, but had difficulties determining who was in charge of the property.

“We are in shock at this tragedy,” Kim said in a statement. “I am heartbroken by what has occurred. We grieve for the four lives lost and for the residents, family and friends who are impacted by the tragedy.” According to Singer, Kim helped the family of one of the four people killed with funeral expenses.

A PG&E crew arrives at the scene of the deadly fire at 2551 San Pablo Ave. on March 27.

Singer said Kim had been working with the city and county on replacing Urojas as the building’s manager while seeking to keep the existing tenants. But as concerns about the safety of the building mounted, no evidence has come to light indicating that Kim stepped in to make necessary repairs.

Attorney James Cook was working with Urojas and its founder, the Rev. Dr. Jasper Lowery, to fight the eviction, blaming the health and safety hazards on Kim and vowing to file a lawsuit on behalf of the tenants killed and displaced.

“It's been more than a week, almost two weeks, and I don't think hiring a publicist is a way to express regret for the death of four people in a building you own,” Cook said Thursday. He said that while Lowery had tried to use what little money he had to make repairs, it was ultimately not his responsibility.

"Dr. Lowery was trying to create a space for people who were in vulnerable situations, and I'm sure that at some point Kim figured out that was not a profitable way to use the space anymore, at least not in West Oakland," Cook said.

Singer said Kim’s previous tenant, which operated a shelter for battered women, kept the building in excellent condition for 18 years. But records released by the city’s Building and Planning Department going back 10 years indicate there were code complaints about mold and mildew infestation dating back to 2007, before Urojas became involved in its maintenance.

The most recent complaint was filed on March 2 by Urojas and Lowery himself for deferred maintenance by the landlord, including major leaks and electrical violations.

The fire that broke out on March 27 gutted the three-story building. Numerous residents displaced by the blaze had been staying at a temporary shelter at the West Oakland Youth Center that closed on Wednesday.

According to the city, there were still 11 staying at the shelter as of Monday night, down from 71 the day after the fire. Many of the displaced were trying to overcome homelessness and drug addiction and had few resources to fall back on.

There have been some fundraising efforts, including one started by Johan Strauss of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition, an advocacy group founded after December’s Ghost Ship fire, that raised nearly $29,000 as of Thursday. Mayor Libby Schaaf on Wednesday recommended donating to the First Presbyterian Church of Oakland’s fire relief fund