“Housing Is Health”: Calls Grow for California to Give Vacant Homes to Unhoused People Amid Pandemic
DEMOCRACY NOW! - We look at the crisis of homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic in California, where the number of cases has passed 6,000 with 132 deaths. The entire state has been ordered to shelter in place, leaving the state’s massive unhoused population extremely vulnerable. As the state braces for a surge in cases, tens of thousands of people are living on the streets. A recent study estimates that nearly 2,600 unhoused people will need to be hospitalized for the virus in Los Angeles alone — and nearly 1,000 will need intensive care. We speak with Martha Escudero, a member of a group of unhoused mothers, elders and families who have moved into vacant houses, and Carroll Fife, director of the Oakland office for Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).
Interest in tenant activism has surged in the face of the coronavirus. Organizers are trying to seize the moment and build a movement.
THE NEW REPUBLIC - Last week, the head of the St. Louis Federal Reserve, James Bullard, predicted that in the second quarter of 2020, the U.S. economy could see a 30 percent unemployment rate and a 50 percent drop in gross domestic product. Both of these numbers far surpass their respective equivalencies during the Great Depression, with the slash in GDP dwarfing the downturn of the 2008 crash by factors of 10. “This is a planned, organized partial shutdown of the U.S. economy in the second quarter,” Bullard said during the press call, voice quiet and flat. “It is a huge shock, and we are trying to cope with it and keep it under control.”
As most workers in this country live paycheck to paycheck—some surveys place that number at half of the workforce, others reach closer to 80 percent—Bullard’s predictions point to an economic disaster that will likely hit people hardest in the area that consumes the majority of their paychecks: housing. Millions of new unemployment filings have surfaced in the last week, with several states’ unemployment and Medicare websites crashing due to the rise in applicants. Even with some supports from the stimulus bill, renters are still scrambling to come up with rent money on April 1. A $1,200 government check doesn’t mean much when it barely covers a month’s rent in many cities.
Across the country, rents have soared as real wages remain stagnant. Nearly half of New York City households are considered rent-burdened, which means they pay more than 30 percent of their income just to keep a roof over their heads. In Oakland, California, where rents have skyrocketed in recent years, a group of lifelong residents moved into a long-vacant house in protest of the lack of affordable housing. In the wake of the pandemic in Los Angeles, where minimum-wage workers need to pull nearly 80-hour shifts just to reach the “rent-burdened” threshold, unhoused families reclaimed 13 vacant homes, both as protest and a means of survival. As The New Republic reported last summer, even in America’s most affluent cities, low-income families fall through the cracks in a system so broken that it fails to even document the rapid spread of housing insecurity.
In response to a crisis further inflamed by the coronavirus, existing housing rights organizations have been struggling to meet new calls for organizing and resources, many of which have coalesced around a radical demand: A nationwide rent strike.
THE NEW YORKER - California has the worst housing crisis in the country—so bad that, when Governor Gavin Newsom took office, in 2019, he used his inaugural address to call for a “Marshall Plan for affordable housing,” entailing the construction of 3.5 million housing units by 2025. This month, with an uptick in covid-19 cases in Los Angeles, and orders from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti directing city residents to stay home at all costs, activists have turned their attention to hundreds of empty, publicly owned houses. There are thirty-six thousand homeless people in Los Angeles and countless others living in crowded, inadequate, and unstable situations. Wouldn’t they, too, be safer in a home? The acute crisis of the coronavirus, and the paradox of stay-at-home orders for a homeless population, might offer activists a chance to force decisive change.
In mid-March, a group of homeless and housing-insecure people calling themselves the Reclaimers took possession of eleven vacant houses in a quiet working-class neighborhood called El Sereno, east of downtown. The houses are among hundreds that Caltrans, the state’s transportation authority, bought last century, with the goal of demolishing them to make way for an expansion of the 710 Freeway. They were vacant—many of them unoccupied for years. According to Roberto Flores, a tenants-rights activist, after buying the houses, Caltrans rented them out, sometimes to their previous owners, then raised rents precipitously, forcing many of them out. (That’s what happened to him.) Recently, after decades of protest from environmentalists, preservationists, and social-justice activists in El Sereno, South Pasadena, and Pasadena, the freeway project was finally spiked, leaving the real estate in limbo—conspicuous waste amid a catastrophic housing shortage.
The Reclaimers, a Los Angeles group, are taking back government-owned properties to give the homeless a chance to stay healthy
The Guardian - Several Los Angeles families who have been forced to live in cars, shelters and other unsafe situations have seized control of 13 vacant homes owned by the government, with the goal of staying indefinitely – and staying alive.
“To me, this is life or death,” said Benito Flores, 64, who has been living out of his van for years and moved into a vacant two-bedroom house on Wednesday. Wearing a face mask and standing inside the dusty home as volunteers cleaned, Flores explained that he is diabetic and at risk of serious illness or worse if he catches Covid-19. “By doing this, I’m giving myself a chance at living and surviving this crisis.”
The homeless residents and their supporters, who have called themselves the Reclaimers, were inspired by Moms 4 Housing, a group of houseless mothers in Oakland who publicly occupied a corporate-owned vacant home for two months. That protest sparked international attention and support from some California lawmakers, and ultimately, the mothers were able to purchase the home.
LA TIMES - For years, dozens of perfectly good houses in El Sereno and nearby areas have sat empty, even as California’s housing shortage has grown more and more dire.
The houses are owned by Caltrans, the state’s transportation agency, which began acquiring them in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for the 710 Freeway extension. But the proposal to “close the gap” — by building the final 4.5-mile stretch to connect the 710 to the 210 Freeway — was finally and definitively killed in 2017. That left more than 400 properties, including houses, apartments, commercial buildings and vacant lots surplus. Some are occupied by tenants, but 87 single-family homes are vacant.
Last week, a group of families that are homeless or at risk of becoming so decided to start moving into some of those empty houses. As of Friday, the group, which calls itself Reclaiming Our Homes, had taken over 12 houses. The occupations are both a plea for help for struggling families and a protest against the state’s failure to move faster to solve the housing crisis — which is obviously an even greater concern at a time when Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered people to stay at home to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing politicians to act in ways that just weeks ago seemed unthinkable. And activists like the Reclaimers are opening the cracks still wider.
DISSENT - This past weekend, accompanied (at a safe distance) by a handful of friends and allies, Martha Escudero and Benito Flores moved into vacant homes in Los Angeles’s El Sereno neighborhood. Part of a movement calling itself Reclaiming Our Homes, and accompanied by signs reading “This house IS a home,” “Housing is healthcare,” and “Housing is a human right,” they flocked into the vacant homes, bearing flowers and with children in tow, and prepared for self-isolation as the coronavirus continued to spread. In the days following their move-in, other homeless families have reclaimed twelve additional vacant homes in the area, all owned by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). “Being homeless myself and seeing people literally dying on the streets, seeing sick people dying every day in L.A., made me start realizing that, ‘Well, we need to do something, and we should probably just start taking over these vacant homes,’” Flores told me through a translator.
Backed by the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action (LACCLA), the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Los Angeles Democratic Socialists of America, the LA Tenants Union, and Eastside Café, the Reclaimers were inspired by the Moms4Housing in Oakland, a group of housing-insecure black mothers who last November took up residence in a vacant, foreclosed home in the rapidly gentrifying city and won their battle to stay. The Reclaimers issued a set of demands, including turning “publicly-owned vacant property into public or social housing NOW,” opening up speculator-owned housing, a rent freeze and eviction and utility shut-off moratorium during the coronavirus emergency, and a halt to the criminalization of homelessness and the release of incarcerated people who do not pose a safety concern. Their arguments intrinsically link the housing and healthcare crises to the crisis of mass incarceration, understanding that the conditions created by an out-of-control housing market and an arrest-happy police department will only fuel the spread of illness. “The coronavirus pandemic—it is the spark that lit everything up, the drop that spilled the water,” Escudero explained by phone.
Facing a health crisis, California legislators call for a moratorium on evictions, utility shutoffs and foreclosures.
CAPITAL & MAIN - The red banner raised outside a modest suburban home in East Los Angeles was a dramatic new addition to the neighborhood. “Reclamando nuestros hogares,” it read in big block letters. It translates roughly as “Reclaiming our homes,” an explicit statement of protest and personal survival at a time of crisis on this quiet stretch of Sheffield Avenue.
Inside, Martha Escudero, 42, and her two young daughters, ages 8 and 10, were still settling in three days after the family and several community activists took control of the empty bungalow. The March 14 takeover was the first step in an ongoing campaign to provide shelter to homeless and housing-insecure Angelenos through the distribution of state-owned properties, just as the coronavirus pandemic reaches a crisis point.
In California, homeless and housing-insecure families struggle to find safe places to shelter from coronavirus.
marie claire - Across from two of the tall, unnervingly skinny palm trees Los Angeles is known for, there is a light blue bungalow in a row of neat, single-story structures. After a historically dry winter, the city has just seen a bout of rain, which drummed on the brown, sloping roof of the building and turned the front yard a vivid green. Now, in the muddy soil and shade from the still-clouded sky, the home’s youngest new inhabitants set about their task of the day: digging into that wet soil and sprinkling seeds—they’re creating a vegetable garden.
“They call it [the] ‘love and kindness garden,’” Martha Escudero tells me over the phone. In the background, a soft soundtrack of children’s voices pipes up intermittently.
As families across the United States prepare to ride out this medical crisis by self-isolating for weeks, or possibly longer, Escudero, a 42-year-old mother of two, is grateful for a safe space to call home. But the bungalow with the newly green yard isn’t actually theirs—it’s a vacant property, owned by the state of California.
Over the past week, health experts have increasingly called for communities to practice social distancing and self-isolation to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. But as reports of the sickness in California began trickling—then flooding—in and counties began calling for residents to “shelter in place,” Escudero and her daughters Victoria, 10, and Meztli, 8, didn’t know what to do. They had no place of their own to stay.