The Coronavirus Spurs a Movement of People Reclaiming Vacant Homes

This article is reprinted from 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.

For years, Flores and his organization, United Caltrans Tenants, have been petitioning Caltrans to make the houses available for sale or rent at affordable prices, and the coronavirus has sharpened the urgency. “It is not the case where we took advantage of COVID-19, but COVID-19 gave us more of a reason why we had to do this,” he told me. “It’s not, like, ‘Oh, yes, this is the time to do it.’ It’s ‘Oh, shit. This is more of a reason we have to do this.’ It’s not just putting people in houses—it’s saving lives, allowing families to self-isolate and keep their children safe.” He and other activists identified the safest houses, in the best condition, and matched them with potential occupants, good custodians who would work to improve the houses. It was important, he said, to limit the reclamations; his ultimate goal was not to have people squatting in the houses but to add moral force to the argument they are making to Caltrans. “Of course, anyone can do it. But there’s a lot of respect here for us and what we do and our opinion. I say, ‘You want to ruin the movement? We’re not going to take anymore; we’re going to work on the ones we have.’ ”

Among the Reclaimers is Ruby Gordillo, a thirty-three-year-old, L.A.-born mother of three who had been living several miles away, with her children and husband, in a small studio apartment. Her queen-size bed doubled as a dining table/homework area/trampoline, and the kids, aged eight to fourteen, slept in a triple-decker bunk an arm’s length away. Rent was just under a thousand dollars a month, about half of what Gordillo’s husband earns as a convenience-store attendant at a gas station: unaffordable, even in decent economic conditions, and potentially disastrous in those posed by the pandemic. For the six months before the family found the studio, they had no home of their own. Gordillo and the kids stayed on a futon at her brother’s house while her husband slept elsewhere.

Living on top of one another, especially in someone else’s space, was problematic: Gordillo’s children have neurological challenges, and also respiratory conditions. Several months ago, on social media, she learned about a group of homeless mothers in the Bay Area who had moved into a developer-owned vacant house in West Oakland, sparking a movement called Moms 4 Housing. (The Oakland moms, removed by the sheriff’s department under court order, are negotiating with the city of Oakland and the developer for the property to be sold to a land trust, which would allow the families to return.) After researching properties owned by the city, state, school district, and Metro, and talking to the local homeless community, Gordillo went door-knocking in El Sereno to learn more about the empty Caltrans homes.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, Gordillo decided that she could no longer wait. As she sees it, the pandemic has exposed the reality of many lives like her own, including those of her former neighbors. “For us, in the apartment, there are twenty units like mine, and folks have roommates because they can’t afford to pay the rent—they get paid very little. A lot may be undocumented, very underpaid—they’re going to work every day and having different jobs and being exposed to many people and coming back and hanging out in the building,” she said. “You’re constantly near somebody. . . . With COVID-19, if we’re constantly being exposed to others, it’s going to spread, and it’s going to spread real quick.”

Gordillo found the house unlocked—Flores told me that anonymous housing activists had “facilitated entry”—and moved her family into a vacant three-bedroom house owned by Caltrans. They hung a bedsheet across the lintel on which they had written, in thick, black Sharpie, “Shelter in the Storm.” I talked to Gordillo over FaceTime a few hours before the mayor’s orders took full effect, instructing everyone in the city to stay indoors. Her hair, dark and curly, was white at the roots. She smiled tensely—a jittery combination of delight and fear. “It’s a very beautiful home,” she said. It appeared to date to the nineteen-thirties; growth charts pencilled in doorways suggested that its last occupants left in 2013. Had they been forced out? Would she be?

“You want a tour?” Gordillo asked, turning the camera around as she walked me through the rooms: a living room, with a built-in desk and a faux fireplace, a dining room, and breakfast nook. In the kitchen, I could see the remains of breakfast: a bunch of bananas and a large bag of Mocha Mix out on the counter, a stack of plates in the sink. There was no stove, but volunteers had brought over a donated washer-dryer, and, because of abundant shelves and cupboards, Gordillo finally had a place to store canned food away from detergent.

Off a hallway lined with duffel bags was a bedroom, with suitcases on the bed. Up a short flight of stairs, Gordillo showed me another bedroom, a spacious master bedroom with a donated king-size bed and a walk-in closet. The master bath had turquoise-and-yellow tile, seemingly original. “This is a girl’s dream come true,” Gordillo said. But she didn’t feel settled. “The first night we all slept in the same room,” she told me. “We were iffy, scared a little. Then, last night, the girls slept in one room, and my son and I slept in the other.” She went on, “At 11 P.M., California Highway Patrol”—the law-enforcement body with jurisdiction over the Caltrans houses—“came through, with twelve patrol vehicles into the street, driving up to the driveways to the known vacant houses. They knew we were here, and they shone lights in the windows, took photographs.” Home alone with the kids, she was scared to see the men outside her window: “I was here by myself. I want to be vigilant. I’m being real; I’m a woman.” She made her children put on their shoes, just in case, triggering a panic attack in her eldest, who is on the autism spectrum.

In mid-March, Mayor Garcetti temporarily suspended evictions for those unable to pay rent due to the economic effects of COVID-19. The Reclaimers are hoping that these provisions apply to them. But at least one woman who moved into an El Sereno house may have been prevented from reëntering by the California Highway Patrol. (A spokesperson for the C.H.P denies that they have locked out any of the Reclaimers.) Flores, the tenants-rights activist, told me that the woman is a sixty-seven-year-old housekeeper and aide who left the house to go to work. In the evening, she returned to find that the front door, which she had left open by mistake, was locked; her key only worked on the deadbolt, so she could not get in. Flores says that for now the woman is back to sleeping in a one-bedroom house with her disabled son, his pregnant wife, and their teen-ager. Before the eviction moratorium, the family was on the brink of being kicked out of their home. Caltrans has said little publicly about the Reclaimers. “We are aware of the situation, and Caltrans is currently in discussions regarding the use of these properties,” Matt Rocco, a spokesman for the agency, wrote to me in an e-mail.

Gordillo pointed the camera of her phone out the window. The street was leafy, with grassy medians, dotted with black-and-white patrol cars. “C.H.P. just drove by,” she said. “They said they’re not going to try to evict—they’re just inspecting. But their inspection is very scary. They’re parked in the driveway of that vacant house, the one that’s burnt.” She showed me another house, where she had moved originally, with a group of Reclaimers, before anxiety about crowding spurred her to move to her own place. “C.H.P. officers are standing right across the street from it,” she said.

When she first entered her current home, Gordillo said, she asked the house to help her family thrive. “I walked around, and I was just dumbified with so much joy with the house,” she said. In the back yard, she discovered a brick barbecue. An activist who was with her posted it on Instagram, and soon a woman commented that the house had belonged to her grandmother and that she hoped it would bring Gordillo’s family as much happiness as it had her own. For me, Gordillo panned her phone around the yard, then toward the street again. “Oh, man,” she said. “There’s another patrol car, driving back in the other direction.” Her strategy, to avoid infection and thwart the C.H.P., is to never leave the house again.

Dana Goodyear, a staff writer for The New Yorker, was on the editorial staff of The New Yorker from 1999 to 2007, when she began writing full time for the magazine.

Featured image credit: Frederic J. Brown / AFP