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Oakland landlord makes statement 10 days after deadly fire

Kim Keith said that he was "heartbroken" and was "in shock" after the fire gutted the three-story, 43-unit building


By David DeBolt and Matthias Gafni
East Bay Times

OAKLAND, Calif. — The owner of a West Oakland building where four people died in a fire last week issued his first statement since the blaze Thursday, saying he is “heartbroken” and grieving for the dead, their families and more than 80 tenants forced from their homes.

“We are in shock at this tragedy,” Kim Keith said in a written statement issued by spokesman Sam Singer, 10 days after the March 27 inferno.

The four-alarm fire gutted the three-story, 43-unit building at 2551 San Pablo Ave., which Kim has owned for 25 years. It provided transitional and long-term housing for low-income families and people with mental health or addiction problems. Three of the four people killed have been identified. Kim said he paid for the funeral for one of the victims.

City officials have identified the preliminary cause as an accidental fire caused by a candle, but fire investigators from Oakland and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives continued the probe Wednesday, interviewing leaders of Urojas, a nonprofit which leased space in the building.

In the months before the fire, Urojas’ Rev. Jasper Lowery reached out to attorney James Cook to fight an eviction notice from Kim. Urojas has claimed Kim failed to improve deteriorating conditions at the building and was using the Dec. 3 Ghost Ship fire, in which 36 people were killed, as a means to force them out.

Tenants had complained about unhealthy conditions at the building, and fire inspectors had recommended that it be shut down due to a lack of fire safety as early as January.

Kim, after hiring Singer, went on the offensive Thursday, saying he began the eviction process in 2016 after noticing Urojas had not paid its water bill for three years. Singer said Kim leased the building to nonprofits since he purchased it and had no problems until Urojas became the master tenant.

Kim contacted city and county leaders in an attempt to evict Urojas, Singer said.

“It is important to note that Mr. Kim was only evicting Urojas and Pastor Lowery from managing the building,” Singer said. “The action was not against the tenants, whom he and the city and county desired to remain in place.”

Kim took Oakland by storm in the 1990s, saving two landmark Oakland businesses, the Merritt Bakery and Granny Goose, and hundreds of jobs in the process. However, those businesses eventually failed and Kim found himself owing millions of dollars in income taxes, embroiled in lawsuits and eventually bankrupt.

He jumped back onto the scene recently when he partnered up to develop a West Oakland apartment complex near BART, but the day after the San Pablo Avenue fire, the Oakland council voted to transfer those development rights to another company.

At a press conference Wednesday, Urojas’ attorney, Cook, once against called the San Pablo Avenue fire “suspicious” and asked for a thorough investigation. Cook said Lowery and the Rev. Aurea Lewis met with Oakland fire investigator Javan Smith and ATF investigator Barbara Maxwell on Wednesday and answered questions about Kim, his business partners and building manager Monsa Nitoto.

Smith acknowledged the interview took place but declined further comment. ATF spokeswoman Alicia Corneiro said her agency is assisting and supporting the Oakland Fire Department investigation.

“Their tones, their questions, some of the things they wanted to know indicate everything is still under investigation,” Cook said.

Copyright 2017 East Bay Times
All Rights Reserved

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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