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Pressure Mounts for Caltrans to Sell 130 Vacant Homes

Busting into an empty house was a last resort, but the pandemic has turned her precarious housing situation into an emergency.

Reclaimer Benito Flores,Robin Urevich

On the night before Thanksgiving last year, Sasha Atkins, a 31-year-old hair stylist and single mom, hauled a few carefully chosen belongings – her phone, blankets, pillows and a laptop – into a vacant duplex on Shelley Street in Los Angeles’ El Sereno neighborhood and held her breath. Busting into an empty house was a last resort, but the pandemic has turned her precarious housing situation into an emergency. For three years, she and her son couch surfed or occasionally landed a motel room. But work had become scarce, and friends and family feared COVID-19 if they let new people into their homes. So, even though she was afraid, she moved forward.

“I knew my reasons were greater than my fears,” she said. “I would do anything for my son.”

Atkins had grown up in and out of foster care, and wants her son to have the stability and sense of belonging that she never had. “I moved 23 times before I was 21,” she said. Atkins would like her days of roaming from home to home to be over, and now finds herself in the improbable vanguard of poor people whose attempt to “reclaim” vacant homes has caught on around the country. The actions have begun to push policymakers to rethink affordable housing strategies.

Beginning in the 1950s the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) had purchased some 460 homes and apartment complexes on the eastern edge of El Sereno, and in South Pasadena and Pasadena, to demolish them and make way for a freeway extension connecting the 710 with the 210 in Pasadena. For decades the agency rented out the homes as it pressed its case for the freeway extension; the project was finally shelved in 2018. However, as tenants have moved on, the agency hasn’t rerented their units, and about 130 homes or apartments lie vacant.

Atkins was inspired by a similar successful takeover of Caltrans homes in March 2020, when 13 reclaimers, as those who take over vacant homes call themselves, were allowed to stay in their homes. One of them, 65-year-old Benito Flores, said, “I feel like a little king,” as he looked out the kitchen window of his one bedroom duplex where dozens of tents are pitched on a Huntington Drive traffic median. For 14 years, Flores, a welder, lived in an ancient yellow van – now parked outside his home and festooned with political slogans – because he could no longer afford the rent on his Echo Park apartment. However, he said, “I have mixed feelings,” because after so many years, he sleeps inside while others cannot.

Before both takeovers, the reclaimers sent Gov. Gavin Newsom letters announcing plans to peacefully occupy the homes, and asking the state to show restraint.

California Highway Patrol officers largely did so in March. But in November, Sasha Atkins had been in her would-be home for just two hours when dozens of black clad, helmeted CHP officers wielding batons and guns lined otherwise quiet residential Sheffield Avenue, poised to evict fellow reclaimers just a few blocks away.

Her son was safe at her mom’s house, but she was afraid she’d be arrested as she watched her chance to stay on Shelley Street slip away.

On her video feed, phalanxes of officers lined up in front of the homes, while the occupiers or their supporters were handcuffed and led outside.

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But that night Atkins remained in her duplex, undisturbed.

“They didn’t know I was there until noon the next day,” she said. “When I saw all the cops come, my neighbor from our movement, she hid me from the CHP.”

From her hiding spot, Atkins could hear the officers opening and closing doors in the house she’d taken. When the officers knocked at her neighbor’s door, and asked to check her home to make sure no “trespassers” had taken refuge inside, she said no, thanks.

“She’s my angel,” Atkins said. “She hid me. She fed me.” Atkins knew she couldn’t go back inside the home.

But, she and other reclaimers say they’re not giving up.

One local housing official who asked not to be named said the aggressive law enforcement tactic was likely meant as a deterrent to future housing takeovers.

“You can’t promote anarchy,” the official said, adding that in rewarding “an illegal action,” “You are opening up a huge can of worms.”

Still, Atkins hasn’t given up on the takeovers. “If they said, ‘Let’s go’ again, my bag is packed.”

Even pre-pandemic, housing insecurity and homelessness had become so dire that more people than ever have been willing to take risks to press their cases for housing, organizers say. They argue that now – with tens of thousands of people unable to pay rent — their demands are more likely to be met.

Last fall, activists in Philadelphia pushed the local housing authority to agree to turn over 59 vacant homes to a community land trust, while in Oakland the Moms 4 Housing group was able to arrange for the purchase of a vacant home it occupied so that it could also be placed in a land trust.

Community land trusts are still rare but gaining in popularity because they protect against displacement of people in gentrifying neighborhoods. The community-run nonprofit trusts acquire land and enter into long-term leases with potential buyers for the homes located on their property. Owners who sell collect only a portion of the increased home value, leaving any remaining equity in the trust, thus ensuring that housing costs remain low long term.

In Los Angeles, the County Board of Supervisors has established a land trust working group made up of five local trusts, including the El Sereno Community Land Trust, and invested $14 million to acquire property that could be used for low and moderate income housing.

Roberto Flores, a key organizer of the reclaimers effort, helped establish the El Sereno Community Land Trust three years ago; now, the reclaimers are demanding that the Caltrans homes be placed in the trust so that they can be affordable in perpetuity and under community control.

It is a big ask for a largely untested organization, but with public officials scrambling to solve the affordable housing shortage, and renewed interest in solutions like land trusts that preserve affordability, they may have a chance to control at least some of them.

The reclaimers, however, face an unlikely nemesis: state Sen. María Elena Durazo, arguably one of the most progressive legislators in Sacramento and a champion of worker and immigrant rights. Durazo, along with state Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, issued a joint statement after the November reclaiming action, calling it “a disheartening and frustrating incident.”

She noted that her office got calls from neighbors that were upset and confused about the upheaval in the neighborhood. Indeed, the community is far from united – some people vehemently oppose the reclaimers while others back them. Nearly everyone, however, shares the goal of putting the vacant homes to use and taking them out of Caltrans’ hands. But Durazo differs sharply from the reclaimers when it comes to how to do it.

She’s introduced Senate Bill 51, a measure that would give affordable housing developers the option to buy the Caltrans homes at the price the agency originally paid some 60 years ago, in exchange for agreeing to keep the homes affordable for 55 years. (Caltrans didn’t provide information on the original purchase prices for its El Sereno homes, but a newspaper clipping from the period shows houses in South Pasadena cost the agency between $14,000 and $50,000 in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One exception was a $850,000 home that was in escrow in 1972.)

“Let’s put it in the hands of responsible housing developers that know how to do housing [and] that have money to invest. Let’s put it into those hands and allow low and moderate income people to buy them,” Durazo told Capital & Main.

Under Durazo’s bill, low and moderate income tenants would have first dibs on buying the homes from Caltrans at affordable rates, but not at the rock bottom prices offered to developers. If tenants opt not to buy, developers would be next in line to purchase their homes.

“That’s totally against what we want,” said Roberto Flores (no relation to Benito Flores). The bill is a giveaway to developers, he said. “We don’t want a nonprofit coming in and exploiting the community.”

The bill favors developers, said United Caltrans Tenants attorney Chris Sutton, because it eliminates tenant-formed co-ops from the list of those allowed to purchase at reduced prices, and thus from competition with developers. He pointed to five such co-ops in Silver Lake that purchased Caltrans homes 38 years ago, and have kept them affordable. He argues the bill is discriminatory because it applies only to El Sereno, not to the other cities in the 710 corridor.

Flores, who rented from Caltrans for more than 20 years and is active with United Caltrans Tenants, an advocacy group for the agency’s renters, also questions a provision that requires purchasing tenants to be in good standing – or paid up on rent – with Caltrans. He says the agency has mismanaged recordkeeping and acted vindictively against those who demanded repairs.

Critics of Durazo’s bill also pointed out that once 55-year affordability agreements lapse, low income tenants can be out in the cold. For example, more than a hundred low income and elderly tenants at the Hillside Villa apartments in downtown L.A.’s Chinatown saw their rents triple last year when an agreement to maintain affordable rents for 30 years expired.

On a recent Saturday, some three dozen people had gathered at the Eastside Café, a community center Flores and his daughter Angela helped found, to launch a car caravan in support of the reclaimers.

Flores, 72, wore a slightly bemused expression that tempered his seriousness. He sported a black fedora, black rimmed glasses and a white rectangular beard that protruded slightly from his face mask as he straightened a 12-foot banner suspended from the building’s roof. It read, “A self-determined community makes bureaucrats obsolete” in big block letters.

Flores would place Durazo squarely in the bureaucrat category. But despite their differences, the two have a lot in common. Both worked as farmworkers alongside their families when they were young and went on to earn college degrees (plus, in Flores’ case, a Ph.D. in education). Both came of age in the movement for Mexican American rights. Flores helped organize high school walkouts in his hometown of Oxnard, and was active in unions as a factory worker/organizer.

Durazo counts Chicano civil rights leader Bert Corona as a mentor who introduced her to labor organizing. She became president of Los Angeles’ hotel workers union Local 11 in 1989 and turned it into an activist political powerhouse. She later led the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which championed the causes of low wage and immigrant workers. By her own reckoning she’s been arrested for civil disobedience “22 or 23 times.” But, she said, “I’ve certainly tried to do it in a way that was nonviolent. It had a purpose, a goal, a strategy to it.”

Flores is influenced by the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Southern Mexico and its view that poor and marginalized people abandoned by the government can establish their own parallel structures and essentially govern themselves. For nearly 20 years, he has worked to spread those ideas at the Eastside Café. Pre-pandemic, the café hosted a monthly crafts market, music and self-defense classes and renters’ rights workshops. In 2017, its community support was tested when a developer bought the café property and threatened eviction.

Roberto and Angela Flores were among those who persuaded the developer to sell, mostly likely because they convinced him they wouldn’t leave without a fight. More than 900 people pitched in to raise a down payment to purchase the building, including L.A. musicians Aloe Blacc and Maya Jupiter, who kicked in $60,000.

Across the street from the café, local gardeners grow vegetables at a community plot they’ve established on vacant Caltrans land.

Flores argues that after 50 years of Caltrans domination of the community, it’s time for residents to control their own destinies. For him, that would ideally mean that those who live on land trust properties would make their own rules about their housing.

Meanwhile, the state has announced an initiative that could put some families into the vacant Caltrans homes.

In an apparent nod to the reclaimers, three state agencies (including Caltrans) have issued a call for ideas, known as a request for interest (RFI), for the use of 33 Caltrans-owned single and multifamily homes and 13 vacant lots. The RFI noted “the demand from the community to put these homes to good use” — as well as the lack of consensus on how to do so. It goes on to call for “creative, locally driven and locally supported ideas,” including “out of the box” ones.

In Sacramento, Durazo’s bill has garnered unanimous approval in the Senate Transportation Committee and a 4-0 vote with two abstentions in the Senate Appropriations Committee, despite objections by the reclaimers, who have phoned in testimony in opposition to the bill.

Sasha Atkins is still struggling to find stable housing, but said the experience of reclaiming has been valuable in itself, and she isn’t giving up.

“When I came into it, I was maybe naïve or selfish,” she said. “I wanted a safe place for my son. But now it’s more than just me, it’s this community I’ve become a family with.”

Copyright 2021 Capital & Main  Reprinted with permission.

Robin Urevich is a journalist and radio reporter whose work has appeared on NPR, Marketplace, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Las Vegas Sun.