Agenda for a Just Future,Economic & Housing Justice

Housing is Health: Reclaiming Our Homes Demands Housing for the Most Vulnerable in the Wake of COVID-19

May 7, 2020
By Zahra Hajee and Jessa Orluk

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and a longstanding housing crisis, families are fighting for their right to a safe place to live. 

On March 14, Benito Flores, along with Martha Escudero, Ruby Gordillo, and their children moved into vacant homes in El Sereno. Their families have struggled with homelessness and housing instability for years. The empty homes are owned by Caltrans, our state transportation agency that bought the properties years ago for a now abandoned plan to extend the 710 freeway. Over the past few weeks other families have joined the movement, now called Reclaiming Our Homes, and are living in 12 of the estimated 163 vacant properties in the area. 

The families, otherwise known as the Reclaimers, have released a set of demands calling on elected officials across Los Angeles and California to act with urgency in getting people off the streets and into housing. Their demands include using all vacant publicly-owned properties to house people immediately. 

“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 Ruby Gordillo. Prior to Reclaiming Our Homes, Ruby was in an unstable housing situation, with her family of five living in a single bedroom

The Reclaiming Our Homes movement was inspired by Moms4Housing, a movement where a group of mothers occupied a corporate-owned vacant house in Oakland and successfully pressured the owner to sell the property to a community land trust. The protest drew national attention and the backing of Governor Gavin Newsom. 

In this fight, the Reclaimers are severely impacted by both an affordable housing crisis and the public health emergency of COVID-19. As Governor Newsom and Los Angeles County has implemented a Safer at Home order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Reclaimers are calling on the Governor and other state leaders to find solutions for those who don’t have a home to shield themselves from the growing global pandemic. State legislators have already begun urging the Governor to make the Caltrans properties available to the Reclaimers and others in need of housing, but the Governor has not yet responded. 

I am a mother of two daughters. I need a home,” said Martha Escudero, 42, who has spent the last 18 months living on couches with friends and family members in neighborhoods across East Los Angeles. “There’s these homes that are vacant, and they belong to the community.”

The actions of the Reclaiming Our Homes movement have drawn support from throughout the state, including longtime Liberty Hill partners Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, East LA Community Corporation, Eastside LEADS, the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action, and many more. 

“They say it’s a crime to come and occupy these houses,” Benito Flores said. “But this is not a crime. This is justice.”

As the uncertainty around the global pandemic continues,, we need to call upon the full power of our community to ensure everyone has a home during this unprecedented housing and public health crisis. 

Read on to learn more about this issue and how you can get involved today.

Why does Caltrans own vacant homes? 

CalTrans acquired more than 200 homes that were set to be demolished in order to expand the 710 freeway. The expansion would have connected the current terminus of the 710 at Valley Boulevard to the 210, creating a clear path from the ports in southeast LA to Pasadena. Instead, the project was held up by litigation and abandoned in 2018. 

The current  process to unload these homes will take many years. Low-income tenants, Housing Related Entities (HREs), and other parties must be offered an opportunity to purchase. If none of these parties wanted to buy, the state would sell the homes at auction. 

Given our unprecedented housing, homeless, and public health crisis, the Reclaimers first demand is to speed up this process and immediately turn all vacant homes owned by Caltrans into permanently affordable housing for families, elders, and those with chronic illness. 

How can California quickly turn these homes into permanently affordable housing?

While there are likely many creative policy solutions to open these homes immediately, two solutions come up most often: public or social housing and community land trusts. 

  1. Transfer the homes to the local housing authority to create public or social housing. 
    In the process of trying to unload government owned property,  the state must notify “Housing Related Entities” (HREs) of the sale. These are entities like the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), which own and operate public housing throughout the city. HACLA could potentially purchase these units from Caltrans and add to their current stock of units. This is different from a social housing model. Social housing units are owned and operated by the state and  are available to everyone (not limited by income, like public housing). There are many examples of social housing around the world, the most famous being Vienna, Austria. 
  2. Sell the homes to a local community land trust.
    A community land trust (CLT) is an organization that can buy land and then own that land in perpetuity. The CLT can lease out parcels of its land, usually for residential or mixed-use purposes, or for open space or food production. The lease generally lasts for 99 years, which protects the value of the land from the ups and downs of the market. If the land value is stable then the value of buildings on top of the land are stable, which ultimately means rent is more stable.​

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