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Oakland fire draws national scrutiny to illegal use of warehouses

New York City has long been known for its vibrant arts scene. Buildings and warehouses across the city are used as artists' lofts, galleries and event spaces -- sometimes illegally.

After the tragic fire in an Oakland, California, warehouse on Dec. 2 that killed 36 people, there's growing concern across the country about the safety of these spaces that have largely flown under the radar of city regulations.

Many young people reside in these spaces because they're in or close to downtown areas, yet inexpensive. However, the properties often aren't zoned for people to live in and some aren't even safe to be in.

The Oakland fire occurred in a warehouse called the Ghost Ship during a concert. Most of the victims were in their 20s and 30s. The youngest was just 17. Currently, the cause of the fire is believed to be an overloaded electrical system.

For many New Yorkers who were around in 1990, it was a reminder of the fire at the Bronx's Happy Land Social Club that killed almost 90. That tragedy resulted in a task force that inspects spaces (both legal and illegal) for compliance violations.

In the aftermath of the Oakland fire, people who illegally live and/or work in these spaces are fearing eviction. Many of these buildings have long been ignored by fire inspectors. Now they're gaining more attention. Cities are calling on people living near these buildings to report activity like the party that night in Oakland.

Likely, artists and musicians will still gravitate to these spaces despite the recent tragedy and increased scrutiny. Philadelphia officials noted that "artists are resourceful in identifying spaces that meet their distinct, creative needs." However, "our priority remains their and the public's safety."

It remains to be seen whether the property's owner, landlord and/or city officials are held liable for the Oakland fire. However, it's essential for property owners to be aware of how their buildings are being used.

Even if people are there illegally, it may be possible to be held civilly and even criminally responsible for injuries and worse if the building wasn't properly secured or managed. An experienced New York real estate attorney can provide guidance if you have questions about any of your properties.

Source: New York Times, "Oakland Fire Leads to Crackdown on Illegal Warehouses Nationwide," Conor Dougherty, Dec. 08, 2016

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