Above Photo: Sisters Meztli Escudero, 8, left, and Victoria Escudero, 10, stand in the window of a vacant house they and their families occupied on Saturday morning. The homeless and housing insecure protesters said they were inspired by a similar protest in Oakland earlier this year and by fear of the coronavirus outbreak. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Weeks after a group of homeless mothers took over a vacant house in Oakland and managed to keep it, another group of moms is trying to do the same in Los Angeles.
On Saturday morning, the protesters and their families moved into a two-bedroom bungalow in El Sereno. They say they plan to remain indefinitely and potentially take over more houses.
They are calling on state and local governments to use all publicly owned vacant homes, libraries, recreation centers and other properties to house people immediately. They say the region’s extreme lack of affordable housing and the threat of the novel coronavirus pushed them to act.
“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.”
Escudero and her family moved into the house with Ruby Gordillo, 33, and Gordillo’s three children. The Gordillos had been living in a small studio in Pico-Union. Joining the two families in the El Sereno home is Benito Flores, 64, a welder who had been living in his van.
Like the Moms 4 Housing group in Oakland, the protesters in L.A. are receiving assistance from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, an organizing group that has advocated for state measures to expand rent control and other tenant protections.
But unlike in Oakland, where the mothers successfully pressured Wedgewood Inc. of Redondo Beach to sell a vacant home that the company was planning to renovate and flip, the families in L.A. are moving into a home that they say is owned by the state.
The home is one of many that Caltrans bought years ago in preparation for a now-aborted plan to extend the 710 Freeway. Decades of litigation and legislation stalled the 6.2-mile project before construction could begin, leaving transportation officials as landlords for 460 properties that range from modest bungalows in El Sereno to Craftsman mansions on stately streets in South Pasadena.
One of the best-known is the childhood home of chef Julia Child. The Pasadena house, built in 1911, has been vacant for more than 35 years.
Caltrans has started the process of selling the homes, which are required by law to be offered first to former owners and current tenants who meet certain income requirements, but the vast majority are still owned by the state.
Caltrans did not respond to a request for comment.
Escudero, who works two days a week as an elderly caregiver, said the mothers in Oakland inspired her to occupy the vacant home on Saturday morning. She said the protesters are trying to push the state and city to take care of homeless residents and those without stable housing, especially given the new risks associated with the spread of COVID-19.
“With the coronavirus, they want us to be quarantined in our homes, but some of us don’t have homes,” she said.
In speaking to supporters, the protesters, who call themselves Reclaiming Our Homes, said they understood what they were doing is illegal, but the more significant issue was that homes were left vacant while people in the community were homeless.
“They say it’s a crime to come and occupy these houses,” Benito Flores said. “But this is not a crime. This is justice.”
Roberto Flores, 72, who is a part of United Caltrans Tenants, said that the state agency has long neglected its properties. Tenants have sued Caltrans, alleging it has not followed its own rules to ensure that low-income and longtime residents get access to the houses. He estimates 200 of the agency’s homes are now vacant.
“They’re not fixing them, and they’re not renting them,” he said.
Records kept by The Times show that in 2015, 37 of the El Sereno homes were listed as “uninhabitable,” including two dozen apartment units. Over the years, residents have complained of break-ins, mold and vermin infestations. That figure appears to have increased in recent years.
An investigation by the Pasadena Star-News found that 163 of the 460 homes sat vacant last year. Caltrans said at the time that the vacant homes would be sold according to state laws, but did not provide a timeline.
On Saturday morning, the families and their supporters moved furniture and plants from a U-Haul truck and into the bungalow. Escudero said they planned to bring in a generator for electricity and urged state and local officials to turn on water service.
Originally, the protesters had planned to take over multiple vacant, Caltrans-owned houses in El Sereno. But in the pre-dawn hours, the Los Angeles Police Department was alerted that multiple men were attempting to break into a property, said Los Angeles police Officer Drake Madison, an LAPD spokesman. Two people were arrested and cited for misdemeanor trespassing, Madison said.
By late morning, officers had gathered across the street but were not attempting to evict the families. While they watched, supporters stood, chanting, “Housing is a human right.”
In recent months, homeless and low-income residents in Los Angeles and the Bay Area have cited the state’s affordable housing crisis as justification for simply taking over houses. Saturday’s attempted occupation is just the latest example.
California has an estimated shortage of 1.4 million homes for low-income families and its homeless population stands at about 151,000 on any given night — an increase of 16% from last year.
Last month, Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo proposed using eminent domain to force a landlord in Chinatown to sell his building. Cedillo’s proposal came after tenants protested a plan for the building to switch to market-rate rentals following the expiration of an agreement with the city to keep rents low. His effort is awaiting a hearing at the L.A. City Council.
In Oakland, the group of mothers occupied the house for two months before they were evicted in January. After that happened, Wedgewood agreed to give community land trusts, affordable housing organizations and the city the right of first refusal for the vacant home and about 50 others it owned in Oakland. The company is finalizing a deal with the land trust for the property, which is intended to house those who had occupied it.
The case attracted national attention and Gov. Gavin Newsom helped broker the deal, which was announced on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and portrayed by some as a successful act of civil disobedience.
The protesters sent a letter to Newsom on Saturday morning, asking for his direct assistance.
In response to the broader homelessness crisis, Newsom has, among other actions, allowed state-owned travel trailers to be used as temporary homeless housing and offered state property to local governments for use as shelters and other solutions.
The protesters said their actions were aligned with the governor’s call to turn public property into homeless housing. But they maintained that Newsom and other elected officials needed to do more and work faster to get people off the streets and into stable housing.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“There’s so many vacant homes while there’s people on the streets,” Escudero said. “He should be able to empathize with that and figure out how to reach an agreement with us.”