At the start of the pandemic, a small group of unhoused and housing-insecure Angelenos made a radical decision.
Dozens of homes in the Northeast LA neighborhood of El Sereno sat vacant, bought by the state transit agency Caltrans decades ago for a now-abandoned expansion of the 710 freeway. Many had been boarded up for years. The activists argued there was no excuse for keeping those houses empty when tens of thousands of people were living on the street, and said they had a right to live in the publicly-owned properties. They decided to occupy a handful of the homes, calling themselves the Reclaimers.
Throughout 2020, they fought for — and won — the right to live in those houses temporarily, under a transitional housing program managed by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA). But now, their leases are coming to an end, and the Reclaimers are fighting once again — this time, to stay in the houses permanently.
Martha Escudero was one of the first Reclaimers to receive a three-day notice to vacate her home. While she wasn’t surprised by the news, it still wasn’t easy to stomach.
“I guess I already expected it, but I just didn't think it would be so soon,” she says.
Tucked away on a quiet street just off busy Huntington Boulevard, the cozy two-bedroom home she shares with her daughters is filled with traces of the life they’ve built there over the past two years — school worksheets are scattered on a desk in the living room, native plants and herbs tumble out of a raised bed in the front lawn, and an altar atop the mantle is decorated with candles, trinkets, and photos of lost loved ones.
Martha finds it absurd that she and her daughters can’t just stay in this home, which has offered them stability and room to breathe. Before living here, they spent a year and a half unhoused and couch surfing, often finding themselves living in cramped spaces, or sleeping on the floor at the homes of friends and family members.
“It would just make it much easier for everybody if they made a pathway to transition-in-place in [these] homes,” she says. “These are not shelters, so I don't see the need, like the logical humane need, to be transferred.”
Escudero says the community she has formed here has lightened the load of being a single mom. Over the past two years, she’s formed a homeschooling co-op with her neighbors, become involved with the local garden, and started sending her youngest daughter to the nearby Indigeonous school Anahuacalmecac.
“It's been really exciting creating these networks of relationships,” says Escudero. “Not just mutual aid organizations or charity, but actual relationships with people that create some safety and support.”
While HACLA has offered Escudero some alternative housing options, including city-run hotel rooms and apartments in other neighborhoods, Escudero says all of them are either too expensive or too far away, located in areas like South LA or the valley.
“That means I would have to move outside my support system in my community. And that is actually, in my opinion, violent and traumatic,” she says.
But the HACLA program was never meant to be permanent — from the get-go, its goal was to transition the Reclaimers into other housing. The organization says when they allowed the activists to stay in the homes it was for 24-months only, a limit mandated by a state health code, and it cannot extend the Reclaimers’ contracts.
“We sit down when we first enter the contracts, and then when we renew the contract agreements with the households, and we remind them of those issues and those limitations to the program,” says Jenny Scanlin, HACLA’s strategic development officer. “So it's an ongoing conversation with the households, and it's not a surprise to anyone.”
The Reclaimers have their own long-term vision for the neighborhood, though, which they’ve also been clear about since the beginning: They want the houses returned to community control.
For years, a nonprofit called the El Sereno Community Land Trust has been helping them look for ways to buy the Caltrans houses, so they can live in them permanently.
Community land trusts are designed to keep land affordable while stewarding it on behalf of a community, often by setting up housing cooperatives that allow low-income residents to own their homes.
“The vision from the community is really that all these resources be in the service of the community, in perpetuity,” says Sua Hernandez, the Land Trust’s executive director.
Hernandez says this model is more sustainable than government-run programs like the HACLA one, which are often temporary and force participants to comply with strict rules.
She has fielded repeated complaints from the Reclaimers about the restrictions outlined in their HACLA contracts.
“There are strict curfews about when people have to come in and out, strict curfews about who can come see you, strict curfews about what you can consume,” she says. “That is carceral housing, it's one step away from having the door shut and locked on you on a regular basis.”
But in the coming months, the Reclaimers might have a chance to see their goal of community ownership come to fruition. Caltrans has begun to auction off some of the vacant houses, and in October, the Land Trust teamed up with two other local nonprofits to place a bid on 37 of the El Sereno properties.
To be clear, these aren’t the same houses HACLA is leasing, or where Escudero lives. But the goals outlined in the bid reflect the same ones the Reclaimers have been pushing for since the beginning.
If their plan is selected by Caltrans, they’ll be able to establish a housing cooperative for low-income tenants and create opportunities for homeownership. They also plan to refurbish the houses and add backyard units and multifamily apartments.
But the El Sereno Land Trust isn’t the only one vying for the properties. Eight other organizations are also bidding to create or rehab affordable housing here — including the City of Los Angeles. In December, Councilmember Kevin de León announced his sweeping Vision El Sereno Plan, which aims to buy up these and other properties in the 710 corridor to make way for hundreds of affordable housing units.
The city has already set aside funding for that plan, and a few months ago, it would have been a tough bid to beat — but that was before de León was implicated in a scandal in which he and other council members were caught making racist remarks on tape. De León did not respond to KCRW’s requests for comments on the status of the plan.
Now it remains to be seen which vision for El Sereno Caltrans will endorse. And Escudero, too, remains uncertain about her future — if the land trust is awarded the houses, she might be able to move into one of them eventually, and could even have a shot at home ownership.
That could take quite a while, though — and Escudero says that for now, she’d rather just find a way to stay where she is.
“The main goal is just not to have the community being displaced, so we could all be able to stay in our homes and stay in our community,” she says. Meanwhile, she says, the Reclaimers plan to keep fighting for the El Sereno homes until they can stay.