By Elizabeth Chou firstname.lastname@example.org @reporterliz on Twitter
In a protest that appeared to be a convergence of California crises, a group of housing activists on Saturday aimed to “reclaim” vacant homes owned by Caltrans in El Sereno.
One by one, activists filed up a set of front steps in an act of civil disobedience, carrying a small writing desk, dining chair, an ornate glass coffee table and other furniture into a twobedroom house on Sheffield Avenue.
Among them, 33-year-old Ruby Gordillo carried a small pot of flowers that she set down on the coffee table. She and her three children live in a cramped, one-bedroom unit in an apartment building in the Westlake Pico-Union area, she said. But for as many days as she is able to, Gordillo plans to call this El Sereno bungalow her new home.
The house is in a residential neighborhood where many of the properties have been vacant for years. The homes were purchased by Caltrans in anticipation of a project to close a gap in the 710 Freeway. But that project, first proposed in the late 1950s, faced decades of opposition and was halted in 2017.
Across the street, two other vacant homes bore signs in their windows that read “Warning, State Property, Trespassing, Loitering Forbidden By Law.”
But in the window of the “occupied” home, a piece of paper was hung that read “self-quarantine in process,” referencing the practice recommended for people who want to stay isolated from others because they may have the novel coronavirus. No one on site appeared to have the virus; the sign was intended to echo the group’s political statement.
Gordillo said the recent fight to reduce the spread of the illness, which has immobilized corners of the planet and put everyday life in America on hold, has brought to the fore Southern California’s severe housing disparities. In her crowded complex, she said, she and her children and neighbors have too little space to implement the isolating methods recommended to prevent the virus’ spread.
She is part of a group, calling themselves the Reclaimers, made up of economically precarious and homeless families and individuals. They issued an open letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom demanding that he turn on the utilities for the property and allow Gordillo and others to stay in the house.
The activists demanded that “all unused and empty state, county, city and school district buildings and properties be immediately used to house the thousands of unhoused individuals and families.”
They modeled themselves after Moms 4 Housing, activists who occupied a vacant home in Oakland for two months until they were forced out by law enforcement.
Southern California’s housing-related worries have become more pressing, with the economy slowing amid response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Local officials in Los Angeles across the state are now weighing eviction bans to avoid exacerbating the existing housing crisis.
With thousands homeless in L.A., “we are here to reclaim these homes,” said Benito Flores, who is also squatting in the house. “They say it is a crime to occupy these houses, but this is not a crime,” said Flores, who lives in his van. “This is justice.”
Caltrans officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the occupation. In recent years, the number of Caltrans-owned homes along the project’s corridor, which includes Alhambra and South Pasadena, had grown to as many as 163, according to a 2019 report by Southern California News Group.
Five California Highway Patrol officers arrived about an hour after the activists moved into the house. Several activists hooked arms to create a barricade in front of the home.
As of Saturday evening, the officers had not taken action to remove anyone from the property.
The City News Service reported there were two arrests in the area for burglary, but it wasn’t clear if they were related to the protest.
Activists say they are hope to expand to other vacant buildings in the neighborhood.
“This is a bigger cause,” said 42-year-old Martha Escudero, who also moved into the house with her two children on Saturday.
The thought of hundreds of homes such as the one on Sheffield Avenue sitting empty struck her as “ludicrous,” especially in a housing crisis that may become magnified amid a pandemic.
“We should be here, to make it ours, to make it beautiful,” she said. “I feel like every house needs a family. And a lot of families here need a home. So why not?”