Political activist squatters who lived for years in a vacant building in Oakland that burned early Wednesday morning were set to be evicted the day before the fire broke out, one of the activists said on Thursday.
The building at the corner of West MacArthur Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Way housed a former RCA repair shop and several apartments, but burned in a one-alarm fire that broke out at about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, fire Battalion Chief Erik Logan said.
The fire began outside the building and spread inside, causing significant damage to the interior walls and an exterior wall behind the building, where it appears it started, Logan said. The cause of the fire has not been determined.
Logan said that because of a lack of furniture and possessions inside, it appeared that no one was living there at the time the fire started. He said firefighters had difficulty contacting the property owner.
According to the Alameda County Assessor’s Office, the property is owned by Rockridge Properties LLC. That company, which names Joseph Consos as its registered agent, was involved in a long legal battle to evict squatters residing there since 2010 and had an eviction date set for Tuesday. Consos did not return calls for comment.
Squatters occupied the building late in 2010 and used it as a living space, for fundraisers, music shows, meetings and other activities along with an adjacent occupied home on West MacArthur called the “Hot Mess House.” It was frequently adorned with political banners, including on a large billboard on the building’s roof.
Steven DeCaprio, an activist involved in the legal defense of the RCA building, said that the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office was serving an eviction notice at the Hot Mess House on Thursday morning.
DeCaprio said that while people were still staying in the Hot Mess House, he did not know who, if anyone, might have been staying in the RCA building when the fire broke out.
The activists had a lawsuit brought by Rockridge Properties dismissed last year, successfully arguing that when the building was foreclosed on they were not provided adequate notice to attempt to keep the property, DeCaprio said.
He said the ownership situation of the building when they moved in was unclear — when the activists first examined taking over the building in 2010, it had been owned by a company named Grove Park LLC, which was dissolved with its owner in bankruptcy proceedings.
They had intended to occupy the space for five years, pay the back taxes on it, and assume ownership under California law, DeCaprio said. But instead the building was foreclosed on, sold at auction, then sold to Rockridge Properties. Eventually, Rockridge Properties prevailed in forcing the activists out.
DeCaprio said his band played in the space and it was also used for art and lectures. They had hopes for turning it into a social center similar to projects in squatted buildings in New York and Europe.
“The reason why people are fighting so hard for this property is not just for this property alone, but because this property represents the gateway between Ghost Town and West Oakland and Temescal.”
He said the activists are concerned that the property might be used to construct condominiums, raising property values and pushing long-term residents out of the neighborhood:
“I want to make sure we have an inclusive development in our neighborhoods.”
— Scott Morris, Bay City News