The Coronavirus Spurs a Movement of People Reclaiming Vacant Homes


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.

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