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Caltrans owns 163 empty homes around Pasadena. Homeless families want to live in them.

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Protestors have taken over 11 homes in El Sereno: “The community has to take matters into their own hands”

Protestors outside a Caltrans-owned El Sereno bungalow on Wednesday.
Zoie Matthew

The number of state-owned homes in El Sereno occupied by protestors trying to draw attention to the region’s severe housing affordability crisis has grown to nearly a dozen.

The protesters, who are calling their movement Reclaiming Our Homes, are now living in 11 of the estimated 163 vacant properties that are owned by CalTrans in the area. They have demanded that public officials use these homes and other publicly-owned vacant properties to shelter people immediately, especially as the threat of a global pandemic looms.

Over the weekend, two moms, their children, and 64-year-old Benito Flores took over the first of the houses, and on Wednesday, eight new “reclaimers” joined them in occupying other properties nearby. Citing concerns about COVID-19 and social distancing, one of the original moms, Ruby Gordillo, took over an additional house on Wednesday, along with Flores.

During a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Gordillo stood on the porch of the white bungalow she and her children had just moved into, growing emotional as she described the small, cramped one-bedroom she had shared with her three children before the movement began.

“With this health crisis and this housing crisis we need every vacant house to be a home for those who don’t have a safe and stable place to sleep in,” said Gordillo.

In the yard before her, advocates, some of whom were donning medical masks, broke into a chorus of This Little Light of Mine. Between them were draped ropes that measured six feet long, the recommended distance individuals should stand from each other to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

United Teachers Union of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl said the threat of a global pandemic has laid bare truths that housing advocates have known “for a long time.”

“We need to fundamentally reimagine our society,” he said. “We cannot have vacant, publicly owned houses without people living in them, when thousands of people are on the street.”

The moms who moved into the El Sereno house were inspired by a similar protest in Oakland.

The protest was inspired by the women of Moms 4 Housing, who drew national attention for their occupation of a house in Oakland earlier this year. But unlike the Oakland house, which was owned by the Redondo Beach-based house-flipping giant Wedgewood Inc., the modest, two-bedroom bungalow on Sheffield Avenue in El Sereno is the property of the state transportation agency Caltrans.

Throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, Caltrans bought hundreds of houses in El Sereno, Alhambra, and Pasadena to make way for an extension of the 710 freeway, only to nix the project after it faced substantial community backlash. Today, as many as 163 of these homes still sit empty in the area, according to a Pasadena Star-News investigation from last year. Caltrans did not respond to requests for comment.

Marie Salas, who lives across the street from the occupied house, watched the proceedings warily from her yard over the weekend.

Salas says that while she is supportive of affordable housing, she doesn’t agree with the techniques the protesters are using, and wishes organizers would have communicated more with her and her neighbors.

“I’m hoping that the empty homes will be open to people so that they can rent them—it’s the decent, humane thing to do,” says Salas. “I’m just worried about the way it was presented to the community. All I heard was, ‘we’re having squatters.’”

As the novel coronavirus has continued its spread in Los Angeles, advocates and public officials have grown concerned about how it will impact the nearly 60,000 homeless residents in the region. Experts say homeless individuals—who may have difficulty self-quarantining, social distancing, or accessing stable hygiene facilities—run a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and are more likely to suffer from complicating health conditions.

In an emergency motion passed on Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council instructed clean-up crews and outreach workers to allow homeless individuals to leave their tents up during the day to more easily comply with public health recommendations, and requested a list of vacant or under-used city properties that might be used for emergency housing during the pandemic.

Mayor Eric Garcetti also announced Wednesday the city will convert 42 recreation centers into temporary homeless shelters, adding about 6,000 shelter beds.

In a list of demands released Wednesday, Reclaiming Our Homes members urged government officials to convert more publicly-owned properties into housing right away, in addition to houses that are being kept vacant by housing speculators. Members also asked that stronger emergency measures be taken to prevent vulnerable individuals from losing their housing, including a rent freeze or rental assistance.

Earlier this week, a group of state lawmakers sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom urging him to prepare the vacant CalTrans houses for occupancy immediately. The transit agency previously said that the houses, which were bought decades ago in order to make room for an extension of the 710 freeway that was never built, need to be sold according to state laws, but it is unclear if and when that is happening.

After the first house’s occupation, Garcetti said he was looking into the feasibility of acquiring the properties from CalTrans.

“We’ve asked CalTrans to see whether or not our housing authority might be able to get that house and many other houses, and make that affordable housing for folks that today need that, or who are homeless. But that will require state action,” he said.

Martha Escudero, who had been homeless for a year and a half, moved into one of the El Sereno homes with her two children on Saturday.

“I’m really hoping the governor is able to be empathetic with this cause and be able to meet our demands,” she says. “Because if he’s not, and the government itself is not doing anything about it, the community has to take matters into their own hands.”

Gardillo says she hoped the city’s emergency eviction moratorium would prevent the reclaimers from being removed from the houses, at least for now.