- Photo by Scott Morris
The West Oakland building that burned down a year ago, killing four people, housed some of Oakland's poorest residents. Its operator, Pastor Jasper Lowery, felt he had a divine mission to keep people from being homeless, so he took in those who had nowhere else to go. Some were disabled, recently released from jail, or suffering from mental illness. But he had trouble adequately maintaining the building, which hadn't been renovated for 25 years.
The building's owners, aware of issues with maintenance, had been trying to push Lowery out for months before the fire. City records show that there were serious building code and fire safety violations in the building, located at 2551 San Pablo Ave. When it burned on March 27, 2017, four people died and many of the residents were left homeless.
The people killed in the fire were Edwarn Anderson, 64, known as "Deacon Anderson," who would help with minor repairs and try to keep out anyone who didn't belong in the building; Cassandra Robertson, 50, the mother of two daughters, including one who was in high school at the time of the fire; Olatunde Adejumobi, 36, a Nigerian who participated in UC Berkeley's Summer Undergraduate Program in Engineering Research at Berkeley in 2004, but later suffered from mental health problems; and his roommate, 41-year-old Ashantikee Wilson.
Under normal circumstances, the 2551 San Pablo blaze would have been one of the worst tragedies in Oakland in years. But less than four months earlier, the Ghost Ship warehouse erupted in flames, killing 36. It was the deadliest fire in city history and also happened in a highly dangerous building. It was natural to compare the fire at 2551 San Pablo to Ghost Ship.
But in many ways, they were very different fires. While many more people died in Ghost Ship, far more lost their homes in 2551 San Pablo. And while the Ghost Ship warehouse was converted to living space in a highly irresponsible manner, 2551 San Pablo was always intended to be housing and only became dangerous through years of neglect.
It remains an open wound in West Oakland.
Today, 2551 San Pablo looks nearly the same as it did a week after the fire. Its ground floor windows have been boarded up, and a short chain-link fence has been erected around it, but passersby can still peer up through the second- and third-floor windows and the scarred roof to see the sky above.
Many people who lived there are still traumatized and struggling. WookSun Hong, an attorney who represents eight former residents in one of seven lawsuits filed against the building's owners, Lowery, and the city, said that all but one of his clients were homeless for months after the fire, including a mother of two children. That mother left her kids with their grandmother but couldn't stay there herself and ended up on the streets. Hong said one client remains homeless and difficult to reach.
Ken Greenstein, an attorney representing 35 people in a separate lawsuit, said some of his clients remain homeless as well. The brutal housing market coupled with a lack of resources made recovering after the fire incredibly difficult for many of the building's residents, particularly if they didn't have family in the area. "It obviously was devastating for everybody, but some people are more resourced than others," Greenstein said.
The Oakland City Council allocated $700,000 in relocation assistance nearly a month after the fire — funds that enabled many former residents to rent a new apartment. But some residents say the money didn't make it to everyone who lived there.
"A lot of people I know ended up homeless to this day because of the fact that the city couldn't prove that they lived in the building," said Eliza Anderson, a resident of the building since 2012 and the mother of three children. "They don't have nowhere to stay; a lot of those people are living in tents on 23rd and Martin Luther King."
One former resident, 34-year-old Dominic "Boobie" Jarvis, who provided building security, was living in a homeless camp at 27th Street and Northgate Avenue, less than a half-mile from the building, when he was shot and killed there in September.
But public records reviewed by the Express show that the owners of 2551 San Pablo — two brothers, Keith and Hahn Kim — have fared far better than their tenants. Just two months after the fire, a company controlled by Hahn Kim — DCSI Holdings — purchased a $1.6 million house in Norris Canyon Estates, a gated community near San Ramon. Keith Kim now lists that 5-bedroom, 5,300-square-foot home as his official place of residence, state records show. "Norris Canyon Estates is truly a haven, which is tucked away, exclusive, and peaceful," the community's website states. "A place where you feel away from it all yet know that you are just minutes from everything."
It's also not the first time that Keith Kim's address has been an expensive house owned by a company controlled by his brother, records show. Two years before the fire, while his tenants lived in squalor at 2551 San Pablo, Keith Kim resided in an 8,000-square-foot mansion in Piedmont that's valued at more than $4 million. Later, he moved into a 4,700-square-foot Montclair house, also owned by his brother, valued at $2.9 million. Hahn Kim, meanwhile, resides next door to that Montclair property, in a three-bedroom, 1,670-square-foot home, worth an estimated $1.1 million.
After the first lawsuit was filed following the fire, Keith Kim's attorney, William Kronenberg, issued a statement blaming Pastor Lowery for the conditions at 2551 San Pablo. But records obtained by the Express show that Keith Kim had commissioned a report of the building in 2015 detailing some of the dangerous conditions in it and had personally led an analyst on a tour of the property.