SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Former residents of a rundown California apartment building that caught fire and killed four people last month sued its owners and managers Wednesday, accusing them of ignoring numerous fire code violations.
The 15 tenants of the building in Oakland allege that it lacked smoke detectors and fire extinguishers and that fire exits were blocked, hindering their escape from the flames.
The building had faced numerous safety complaints. City officials say a candle accidentally ignited the March 27 blaze, which also injured six people and displaced about 100.
The blaze occurred nearly four months after the city became the site of the deadliest U.S. structure fire in a decade when 36 people died at a warehouse known as the Ghost Ship, which had been illegally converted into living and work space for artists.
The apartments in the building where four people died were home to recently released inmates, recovering drug addicts and others struggling to find affordable housing in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Owner Keith Kim rented most of the space to the financially struggling nonprofit Urojas Community Services, which works to find homes for low-income residents.
The owner and Urojas previously disputed who was responsible for maintaining the building and paying for repairs and improvements. Kim was in the process of evicting Urojas, which leased two of the building’s three floors at time of the fire.
William Kronenberg, a lawyer representing Kim, declined to comment on the lawsuit but said Kim “had operated the building without incident for 20 years providing a much needed resource to the less fortunate members of our community.”
Kronenberg said the problems with the building began in recent years when Urojas leased most of the units to sublet to low-income residents.
“Despite this, in the weeks since the fire Mr. Kim has been unfairly criticized in the media for the actions of the current master tenants,” Kronenberg said.
Urojas said it had asked the landlord to make necessary repairs, but founder Jasper Lowery said Kim ignored the pleas.
Steve Cook, a lawyer representing Urojas, said “the crux of the lawsuit is against Kim,” noting that only four of the 15 plaintiffs are suing Urojas and that none are demanding punitive damages from Urojas. All 15 plaintiffs are suing Kim and demanding punitive damages from him.
Cook also said the city of Oakland should improve its code enforcement process.
Residents complained of serious rodent infestations, plumbing and electrical problems, garbage-strewn hallways and an unusable kitchen on the first floor of the building.
An Oakland fire captain who inspected the building in January recommended that city officials shutter the building immediately “due to the danger to life safety.”
Acting assistant Fire Marshal Maria Sabatini responded that it was appropriate to give the owner 30 days to make repairs. After the fire, Mayor Libby Schaaf said officials lacked the authority to immediately shutter the building. She has since ordered an overhaul of Oakland’s fire inspection process.
Officials in December vowed to crack down on substandard housing and conduct more inspections.
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