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Vacant House “Reclaimers” Fight on Two Fronts

Some neighbors support the Reclaimers with donations of food and clothing. Others are loudly opposed to their presence.

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Ruby Gordillo (right) watches as her daughter works in the backyard of the home they seized days earlier. (All photos by Steve Appleford)

On a quiet street in East Los Angeles, the weekend unfolds at a subdued, uneasy pace in the time of social distancing and COVID-19. A white California Highway Patrol cruiser drifts slowly past a stretch of small, single-family bungalows as neighbors walk their dogs or sit watching outside their houses. In one driveway, a bearded man works under the hood of his car. But several homes are boarded up and wrapped in yellow caution tape, with the same unwelcome notice posted out front: “Trespassing, Loitering Forbidden By Law.”

Also Read: “Homeless Moms Seize Houses as Coronavirus Rages”

There are other signs too, spread across windows, porches and picket fences, indicating a new rift between neighbors (and within families) in this mostly Latino working class enclave of El Sereno. Handmade signs declare, “No Squatting.” Others agitate for “People Over Profit” and “#Reclaim L.A.”

The source of this friction emerged unexpectedly last month, when an activist group of homeless and home-insecure families took control of 11 vacant, state-owned houses (forcibly entered the previous night and left unlocked for them by supporters). It was a dramatic act of protest from a group that calls itself Reclaim Our Homes, or the Reclaimers, and landed just as California’s housing crisis was further complicated by the deadly new threat of COVID-19.

Reclaimers

Ruby Gordillo

Reactions in the community have been mixed. Some neighbors offered support and donations of food and clothing, while others are loudly opposed.

“Sometimes the parents are opposed to it, but the sons and daughters are not. So it’s also divided homes,” says Martha Escudero, 42, a Reclaimer and the mother of two young daughters, who took the first house on March 14.
 


“Things had been getting a little hostile with neighbors,” says one of the Reclaimers. “So we have to build our own community  to look out for each other.”


 
Directly across the street, grandmother and neighborhood activist Marie Salas has been aghast at the taking of the houses and stretched a large banner across her front yard: “Squatting Is Not the Answer.”

“Right now, we are so divided with the current situation,” says Salas, who offers child day care in her rented stucco house. “I said, ‘I’m not going to be part of that. You guys are creating a crime.’” The Reclaimers’ action was planned long before concern over the coronavirus peaked later in the month, and was inspired by the example of mothers in West Oakland who took over a vacant house amid the Bay Area’s housing shortage.
 


State Senator Maria Elena Durazo: “Caltrans is not meant to be and should not be a landlord over a long period of time.”


 
Group members have been greeted with both warmth and conflict in the weeks since their arrival, says Ruby Gordillo, 33, an unemployed mom who seized a vacant house with her three children. She describes seeing locals pass one of the houses and making a throat-cutting motion at volunteers, though others have welcomed her with donations of food and cash. “Things had been getting a little hostile with neighbors and them making threats,” she says. “So we have to build our own community within the community and make sure that we are able to look out for each other.”

*   *   *

The properties represent a small fraction of the area homes owned by Caltrans, the state transportation agency, which originally bought the houses through eminent domain beginning in the 1950s to make way for a planned expansion of the 710 Freeway. And for two weeks in March, CHP cars patrolled the neighborhood, while Caltrans workers boarded up their remaining empty houses.

After the 710 Freeway expansion was delayed though six decades of court battles and environmental impact reports, the plan was finally killed in 2018. That still left Caltrans as owner of 264 units in El Sereno alone. Of these, 121 are currently being leased, while 133 are vacant and legally uninhabitable for health and safety reasons, according to the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA).

Among the problems discovered by L.A. County inspectors were black mold, roofing and flooring issues, and foundation problems. While the homes targeted by Reclaimers were mostly in good condition and previously inhabited within the past year, dozens more in the same neighborhood were in disrepair and essentially abandoned by state bureaucracy – at the height of a housing crisis, no less – leaving them as eyesores and an invitation to vandalism, squatters and more.
 


Some Reclaimers remained inside their houses since “a lot of them were afraid to step out of their homes because they feared harassment.”


 
The Reclaimers’ act of protest is a late addition to that story. Caltrans did not respond to requests for comment.

“They did a very poor job as landlords, but they didn’t see themselves as landlords,” says State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, whose District 24 includes El Sereno, her home for 30 years. In February, Durazo introduced legislation (Senate Bill 1453 and SB 1454) aimed at resolving the crisis and transferring management of the homes from Caltrans to a more responsive government agency.

“Caltrans is not meant to be and should not be a landlord over a long period of time,” Durazo argues. “There’s a difference between buying a property for a very short period of time to enable a highway, but not as the landlord over decades.”

Durazo has been contacted by a number of residents, some alarmed at the timing of the protest during the pandemic, others concerned with the “fairness of taking something when others in need follow the law,” says Steven Veres, district director for Durazo’s office.

The senator called El Sereno “a really great neighborhood,” even if the half-century battle over the freeway expansion has been a source of ongoing anxiety. “Can you imagine living there and you don’t know if and when a freeway’s going to be built?”

The end of the freeway plan finally came when its funding was allocated to other SoCal transit projects and was “a big relief legally,” she says, creating an opportunity to restructure management of the large collection of single-family homes and multifamily units. While the plan’s eminent domain acquisitions included properties in Alhambra, Pasadena and South Pasadena, the senator’s legislation specifically targets the L.A. portion of the Caltrans houses, where neighborhood concerns may differ from those of other communities.
 


Sen. Durazo: Maintain El Sereno as a working class community and avoid the tsunami of gentrification.


 
The recent actions taken by the Reclaimers have drawn new attention and urgency to the situation, but Durazo is calling for an orderly process that leads to more affordable housing in the area. “We need a fair process — not just anybody can walk in and say, ‘I need it,’” Durazo says. “Unfortunately, there’s thousands of people who need it.”

Durazo wants to not only preserve the houses now occupied by the Reclaimers as affordable units, but to repair the large numbers of Caltrans homes now considered uninhabitable and reserve at least some empty lots as park space. Her goal is to maintain the neighborhood as a working class community, rather than release it to the open market and a tsunami of gentrification. “That’s the last thing in the world that we want,” she says.

Rules established in the 1979 Roberti Act say that when a property is taken by Caltrans via eminent domain, but is then determined to be no longer needed, it must first be offered to the original owner or a current tenant — at an affordable price inevitably below the current sky-high market value for a house in Los Angeles. (That might leave a path for some Reclaimers to eventually live in the homes, but it would be the same path open to others.)

*   *   *

Inside a white, wooden clapboard, Ruby Gordillo is packing up food donations to share with other Reclaimers, while also “trying to keep the kids from choking each other.” Around her are bags of oranges, grapefruit and lettuce, boxes of buttermilk pancake mix and bottles of maple syrup, peanut butter and ketchup. There’s also canned goods, tortillas, rice and beans, pasta and granola bars.

“We’re just super blessed. Lots of support,” says Gordillo. “Right now it’s messy because we were making sure that things got out to everyone.”

Reclaimers

Out in the backyard is her eldest daughter, Michelle, 14, in a surgical mask, gloves and black track suit, working in the garden with two volunteers.

The house was empty when they moved in March 18, but in the days after, supporters brought over a couch, microwave and a large TV, with a first-generation PlayStation console that her son has been playing every day since. There’s a refrigerator now but no stove. The water, power, gas and Internet are turned on.

“I’m realistic and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to stay here forever,” she says, happily leading a tour through the house. “I hope to be able to rent through Caltrans. One of our goals is to be able to transfer these houses away from Caltrans to some kind of housing.”

The first night, Gordillo and her kids slept in the same room. “I felt people peeking through the windows and it was kind of scary,” she says. “I didn’t know who it was — if it was CHP, or if it was somebody else.”

When several CHP cruisers were parked or rolling up and down the street, she says now, it was both intimidating and a source of comfort as the Reclaimers began to feel the anger of certain neighbors. “It was a little scary because I didn’t know, like, is it safe for me to unpack?” she says. “Should I just keep everything in our bags for now?”

A few houses away with her two daughters, Escudero says some Reclaimers remained inside their houses because “a lot of them were afraid to step out of their homes because they feared harassment.”

Gordillo is politically active and openly supported last year’s teachers strike in Los Angeles. She also volunteered for Jackie Goldberg’s successful campaign for school board.

During the strike, she says, “We educated ourselves on how the system is not working for the people. At that time, I decided I have this awareness, and my responsibility and my duty is to go and share with the rest of the community. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Down the street, Salas has been a community leader for years in El Sereno, and for a time was active with the Eastside Café, a local Zapatista-inspired cultural center that years later became a hub for the Reclaimers’ movement. “Oh, it was an amazing place at that time,” Salas says as she recalls working against the planned 710 Freeway extension and “a lot of wonderful things with basic human rights.”

Salas points to her success creating two “pocket parks” in El Sereno on open lots owned by Caltrans, after winning support from the Los Angeles City Council, the mayor, and an award of $150,000 for the project. Her willingness to work within the system, she says, in part led to leave the Eastside Café a decade ago, so she couldn’t support the Reclaimers’ seizing houses.

“I never had to break a law. I never had to squat. I never had to break a chain. I never exploited little children,” Salas says firmly. “I feel what I’m doing is right because I’ve been an activist all my life. I know the way to be an activist is to do it the right way. Educate yourself, work with the city.”

Salas has been approached by some of the Reclaimers, and she’s had several conversations with moms who have moved into nearby homes.

“She doesn’t want to support us,” says a resigned Gordillo. “She says she understands that we have needs, but this is not the right way to do it. I told her that I understand that she feels that way, but there’s no other way to get to Caltrans. They’re not addressing our issues and our needs. So we really feel that we had to do what we had to do.”

Salas moved into a Caltrans house 20 years ago. When the house needed significant repairs to its foundation, the agency gave her the option of relocating to another house on the same block, which is where she currently remains. Salas says she is happy to stay a renter but would sign up if the chance to buy came along.

“With our good neighbors, we’ve kind of formed a neighborhood watch and so we keep a lookout,” she says. “With these squatters now coming in, all our hard work is going to go down the drain.”


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