Catch 'em, hang 'em. Except that it's California, the sanctuary state for criminals of all types.
After a series of unsolved arsons at housing projects under construction in the East Bay, Oakland developers said Monday they hope hundreds of thousands of dollars in reward money will attract a useful tipster and end the destruction.
Members of the Jobs and Housing Coalition, a lobbying group of Oakland developers and businesses, announced a $300,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of a responsible party.
“Clearly this is a disturbed individual who really has no regard for life or property or concern for the current state of housing in our Bay Area,” said Fire Chief Darin White, who joined the group for the announcement at City Hall.
Motives are uncertain behind four suspicious fires in Oakland and Emeryville since 2016, and it isn’t clear if one or more arsonists are setting them. But Oakland leaders suspect those responsible oppose gentrification.
At a news conference to announce the reward money, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the perpetrators “endangered human life” and “were specifically targeting residential construction.”
“We are in a housing crisis. Every new unit of housing is going to help this Bay Area region start to stabilize what is now an unsustainable housing market,” Schaaf said. “You will not get away with destroying a residential construction project in Oakland.”
Schaaf spoke days after the anniversary of a fire on July 7, 2017 in the Auto Row neighborhood north of downtown Oakland, which burned down the Alta Waverly construction project that was to build nearly 200 apartment units and 32,000 square feet of retail space. The blaze also damaged a crane, temporarily displacing 700 residents in neighboring buildings as it swiveled out of control.
That fire, its cause could not be determined, came just a few months after the second of two fires at a $35 million project in Emeryville near the Oakland border. On May 13, 2017, surveillance footage captured photos of a suspected arsonist riding a bike to the scene. Investigators said the fire was deliberately set. It delayed construction about nine months on the 105-unit building with 21,000 square feet of retail space. The same project was damaged the previous July in similar circumstances.
Arson was also ruled the cause of an October 2016 fire at an unfinished 41-unit site on Lester Avenue in Oakland.
Another arson, in Concord, is not included in the reward offer. Investigators said an arsonist also burned down a 180-unit project in Concord on April 24, forcing 250 people in a neighboring apartment complex to flee their homes. Two people were treated for smoke inhalation.
Greg McConnell, president and CEO of the coalition offering the reward, said his members have reported tripling or quadrupling their spending on security since the arsons. They have outfitted construction sites with video cameras, fencing, alarms, bright lights and round-the-clock security guards. Some builders have even started using products designed to be fire retardant, McConnell said.
If the arsonist or arsonists are indeed motivated by hostility toward a development boom and displacement, their actions are self-defeating, McConnell said.
“There’s this theory that if you stop building, gentrification will go away,” he said. “It’s exactly the opposite. If you decrease building, people are still coming to town and they are competing with the Oakland resident, and they have greater resources. So if you don’t build new housing stock for them to occupy, they are going to out-compete the existing Oakland resident.”