A Tenants Union Is Taking on the Landlord of This Massive Bay Area Warehouse Complex

A mural at the Vulcan lofts in 2016. (Photo by Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

On an early December night in 2016, residents of the Vulcan, a massive live-work warehouse space in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California, flooded to their rooftop. Some had heard the sirens from passing fire trucks, others had received calls from friends. They squinted to the west where, about a mile away, they could see the flames and smoke billowing up into the night sky. There had been a fire at the massive warehouse known as Ghost Ship.

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When the full accounting was done, 36 people died in that fire. Some were friends, or friends of friends, to Vulcan residents. It was the deadliest structural blaze in California since the 1906 earthquake, and the emotional shockwaves that swept through the area’s—and country’s—arts and music scene are still being felt. But the tenants at the Vulcan knew that their own lives would be affected in other ways, as well. While Ghost Ship was underground, with little to no safety oversight, as an officially converted space, the Vulcan had long been aboveground in the eyes of the city. Even so, the fire almost certainly meant more oversight was coming to the area’s storied warehouse scene, long a laxly regulated arena.

To fight back, the Vulcan tenants eventually realized that their best course of action was the same tactic that protects workers from being overly exploited by their bosses: Form a union.

After Ghost Ship, the crackdowns on the area’s warehouses came swiftly. A space called Burnt Ramen was evicted by the neighbor city of Richmond within weeks, tenants at the Salt Lick in Jack London Square were given the boot by landlords, and Oakland forced landlords at a West Oakland place named The Deathtrap to stop allowing people to live there. These evictions meant a new cohort seeking space in an already cramped housing market. Some of the lucky ones landed at the Vulcan.

The Vulcan began its life as a steel foundry, but as deindustrialization lessened the needs for such large factory spaces, it shifted into a space for people to live in sometime in the 1980s. It’s a collection of about 16 buildings, 105,000 square feet in all, sandwiched between the elevated BART rail, a freight train rail line, and a sheet metal processing plant next door, making it a pure industrial space that’s mostly cut off from the rest of nearby Fruitvale. According to tenants, about 200 people call it home.

The common spaces between the autonomous lofts are hallway mazes decorated with beautiful art fashioned by current residents or those who came before. There’s a scattering of outdoor gardens serving as hubs for conversation and trading ideas. There’s even a dog park—helpfully dubbed “Dog Shit Park”—that was erected when tenants decided to repurpose an unused street cul-de-sac into something worthwhile. Inside it are trees, bricked pathways, and wooden furniture, and its borders are made from busted old pianos. Someone recently installed a custom wrought-iron gate.

It’s a place for artistic freedom in a “here’s the space, do what you want” kind of way. But it’s also an example of how the shared space of communal living can provide people the ability to inhabit an area that would otherwise be unaffordable.

Andrew Pulkrabek moved to the Bay Area from Seattle almost a decade ago. San Francisco was already too expensive, so he looked east into Oakland. A juggler by trade, Pulkrabek had heard stories about the Vulcan, which had become a sort of West Coast hub for that scene, so he checked it out. “I absolutely fell in love with the place,” he said. “I dug in my heels, and started a business. My community is here.”

Pulkrabek lives in a large studio room with high ceilings and exquisitely-detailed decoration that he’s tweaked a fair amount over the years. His walls are stocked with materials for his variety gigs (in addition to a juggler, he’s a more general object manipulator, and performs for children’s parties), and the space is filled with furniture he snagged at garage sales in the neighboring, wealthy enclave of Oakland Hills. His roommates are also in the arts—a few other jugglers, drag performers, dancers, and otherwise performer-adjacent professionals. Upstairs are two shared bathrooms and a spacious shared kitchen, and downstairs they built a large dance floor, used for performance practice and to host gatherings.

Other parts of the Vulcan have similar set-ups—sometimes, the units are occupied by visual artists, sometimes by builders. Pulkrabek recalled the time their unit flooded in the middle of the night, and neighbors came by to bail them out with buckets and rags. And he told me about the time he needed to make a realistic Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers helmet at the last minute for a wealthy client, only pulling it off by leaning on the varied artistic expertise of his neighbors. While the units may not always interact, there a real cooperative community here.

The city knows about all this, as Vulcan has had an official permit to exist as a live-work space since 1987. Since 2006, it’s been owned by Madison Park Financial, a property ownership firm with around $350 million in assets, mostly in Oakland. Madison Park is headed by John Protopappas, “one of Oakland’s most prolific housing developers.” However, it’s unclear how long Madison Park is going to hang onto it.

Last year, Madison Park put the Vulcan on the market with an asking price of $16.2 million. The listing, obtained by local news outlet KQED, pitched the Vulcan as “Rent Control Exempt: A rare opportunity in Oakland,” explaining that “by increasing rent 15 percent and passing more utilities costs on to tenants, a buyer could nearly double the Vulcan’s current gross profit annually.” If sold, there would also presumably be upgrades made to the units, a large chunk of which might be passed onto tenants.

In other words, tenants are expecting rent hikes sooner or later.

Of course, that’s not necessarily the worst outcome. In 2015, management of the Oakland warehouse space “1919 Market” was passed from Protopappas’s Madison Park to another real estate company. Soon thereafter, it was shut down by the city, and then demolished, leaving dozens of former tenants back on the housing market. To halt or at least reduce anticipated rent hikes, Pulkrabek said, roughly half of the Vulcan’s occupants formed the tenants union and filed a petition to the city claiming their space should be exempt from increases under local rent control laws.

What’s up for debate is when, exactly, the Vulcan became a residence.

It gets a little in the weeds, but essentially: Oakland’s rent control laws allow for anything that was built after 1983 to be exempt—that is, not have rent control. And while the Vulcan was clearly built before then, since the permit that allowed it to be converted from an industrial site to a live/work space was issued in 1987, the city had viewed the Vulcan’s life as starting that year, depriving its residents of rent-control protections. What the tenants union is arguing is that people lived there well before 1987, and that the date on the permit is invalid.

“The reality is this residence Vulcan was occupied prior to the issuance of certificate of occupancy,” said Hasmik Geghamyan, the lawyer representing the tenants union. “There’s a lot of historical evidence that this place was used.”

In advance of an April 15 hearing, tenants were holding a series of fundraising events to reach their goal of at least $50,000—which they did—to pay for legal fees, as well as a private investigator to track down former Vulcan residents.

For now, Vulcan’s sale doesn’t seem imminent. One conclusion reached by some residents was that owners wanted the rent-control question resolved before finding a buyer so they could get a better price. But Simon Chen, COO of Madison Park, disputed this, claiming the property had been pulled due to uncertainty around last fall’s vote on Proposition 10, which would have bolstered rent control in the state. That measure lost by over 18 percentage points, but Chen said in an interview that Madison Park currently had no plans to re-list the property.

The ideal situation for the Vulcan tenants would probably be for the entire space to be covered under rent control, potentially plummeting its market value—maybe even to the point where residents could buy it themselves with some outside help. But, at the very least, the fact that this petition exists could send a signal to other developers.

“Oakland went from a place where it was the wild, wild west where anything goes,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, lead of the Tenant Rights Program at Oakland’s Centro Legal de la Raza, a community-based legal organization. “There was no protections for tenants, no enforcement, and developers could do whatever they wanted. But this is part of the transition happening in Oakland where it’s not true anymore. It’s a sign of how protections are getting stronger, and developers can’t just do whatever they want regardless of the impact.”

A ruling in tenants’ favor could also have a “ripple effect,” as an advocate for tenants put it to KQED, throughout other Oakland warehouse spaces. If a new standard emerged that the key date for rent control purposes was when people began living in a space—as opposed to the date on the conversion document—it could make for a swath of rent-controlled warehouses throughout Oakland. Along the way, a sliver of Oakland’s contemporary soul might be saved.

“We entertain your kids, we paint your murals, we do the chalkboards at your cafe that charges $5 for an espresso,” Pulkrabek said. “We make your fancy clothes, build your Burning Man art cars, entertain at your fancy corporate parties, make the art that hangs on your walls. We clean your houses.”

What would happen if this judgement went against the tenants—as a previous, but not identical, petition did in 2005? It might mean an eventual sale, and another 200 working-class people thrown back onto the Bay’s outrageous housing market. In other words, disaster.

“People would leave entirely,” Pulkrabek told me. “This community would scatter to the winds.”

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