EL SERENO — The way Martha Escudero sees it the pandemic revealed people’s true priorities. While officials urged everyone to shelter in place and socially distance, tens of thousands of Californians remained on the street without any shelter. She points specifically to dozens of vacant homes owned by Caltrans in the northeast LA neighborhood of El Sereno. Escudero believes those homes should be available for unhoused people to live in, but in the first year of the pandemic, when some families tried to move into them, officials insisted they stay vacant, or violently evicted those who tried to occupy them.

“These politicians don’t care about us,” says Escudero. “So we need to care about us.”

The housing organizer, who has been an integral part of a group of families calling themselves the “Reclaimers,” speaks from first hand experience. In 2020, five days before the statewide COVID lockdown began, she and a handful of unhoused, and housing-insecure families, decided to take action, occupying a dozen or so homes owned by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

They have lived there ever since.

They’ve been in discussion with government officials since then, negotiating to stay put, but in March of this year, some Reclaimers were served with unlawful detainers (California legal jargon for an eviction suit) and are expected in court in May.

These detainers are only the most recent development in a legal saga stretching back to 2020, when Caltrans struck a deal to transfer up to 26 vacant properties to the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) to use as temporary housing. From there, the city assumed management — though not ownership — of 23 of the properties, with the Housing Authority in effect leasing from Caltrans and then subletting to the Reclaimers until late 2022.

“We don’t deserve just bread. We deserve roses and joy and pleasure and fun and community.”

Martha Escudero

Now they want them out.

The story began 70 years ago — in the 1950s and ‘60s during the Southern California freeway building boom — when Caltrans acquired hundreds of homes in El Sereno, and the bordering cities of Pasadena and South Pasadena. After acquiring the homes, Caltrans’s plan was to demolish them and eventually connect Interstate 710 to the 210 freeway.* The agency held out hope of building the connection until 2018, when it was officially called off, but many of the homes have remained vacant. Caltrans has other tenants living in many of these homes, but there are dozens of homes in El Sereno that Caltrans has kept vacant — but still maintained — for decades.

In an interview and in public speeches, Escudero calls on people not to accept the current system that keeps these homes empty. “This is our opportunity to step up and make our own history and make these changes that are really going to create sustainability for us.”

In other words, living in these homes is about more than survival. “We don’t deserve just bread,” she says. “We deserve roses and joy and pleasure and fun and community.” She and the other Reclaimers are trying to talk to city and state officials, in the hopes that these officials recognize that the humane solution is keeping the Reclaimers housed in their community.

A precedent in NorCal

Before the pandemic, Escudero and her two kids were sometimes staying with family, sometimes with friends, sleeping in any available spare bedroom, or on a bed, couch or floor. She was inspired by the organization Moms 4 Housing, a group of unhoused or housing-insecure mothers who occupied a vacant house in Oakland in 2019 that at the time was owned by a real estate investment company.

People lock arms in front of vacant Caltrans-owned homes occupied by a group of unhoused and housing-insecure families in the northeast LA neighborhood of El Sereno in March 2020.
A group of unhoused and housing-insecure families and their supporters lock arms after occupying vacant Caltrans-owned homes in the northeast LA neighborhood of El Sereno on March 14, 2020. (Courtesy Martha Escudero)

On its website, Moms 4 Housing talks about housing using words that are philosophically similar as Escudero does. The group writes that “housing is a human right” and “no one should be homeless while homes sit empty.”

Moms 4 Housing also explains on their website that they tried “working through the system” and “following the rules” but were still unable to afford a home. “This system doesn’t work for people, it only works for banks and corporations.”

In 2020, the bank that owned the house sold it to the Oakland Community Land Trust for a little less than $600,000 and Moms 4 Housing announced plans to turn it into temporary housing for mothers.  

Escudero, a single mother herself, has a background in case management for expecting and new mothers considered high-risk. Her job included connecting them with resources like food, clothing and housing, so she knew that there weren’t any options for her and her family, outside of shelters and other temporary housing — places she describes as carceral and traumatic.

So she and the other Reclaimers turned their attention to the dozens of vacant homes in El Sereno. Escudero says some of the homes were in okay condition when the Reclaimers occupied them, while others had issues including mold and bad plumbing that the community fixed. To Escudero, these homes mean “a place where we can create our messes and clean up when we want. A place where we can feel safe being our authentic selves and yell out our feelings if we need to.”

According to Escudero, the Reclaimers didn’t hear from Caltrans when they first occupied the homes. She says some neighbors already living in El Sereno were supportive, while others were not at first. One neighbor did call them “squatters.” It wasn’t until three months after the Reclaimers first occupied the homes, in June 2020, that the city Housing Authority started leasing these properties.

Escudero thinks Caltrans didn’t get around to trying to evict the Reclaimers because of the chaos of the early pandemic.

“They weren’t even able to think of getting us out,” she said.

But around Thanksgiving of 2020, a different group of unhoused and housing-insecure people tried to reclaim some other empty Caltrans homes in El Sereno. The California Highway Patrol (CHP), which often works in conjunction with Caltrans, removed those families.

And now officials are trying to evict Escudero and some other members of that first group of Reclaimers. In an email, Housing Authority spokesperson Courtney Gladney describes these homes as part of a transitional housing program, which, per the California Health and Safety Code would allow people to only stay up to 24 months, with the goal of moving them into permanent housing elsewhere. Officials made a similar promise with Project Roomkey, a pandemic-era program that moved unhoused people off the streets into hotel rooms, but only one-third of those people found permanent housing.

People hold signs in the rain to support a group of unhoused and housing-insecure families who have occupied vacant homes in the northeast LA neighborhood of El Sereno.
Housing activists hold signs in support of a group of unhoused and housing-insecure families who occupied Caltrans-owned homes in the northeast LA neighborhood of El Sereno on March 14, 2020. (Courtesy Martha Escudero)

“I just find it more disgusting to have rules to protect these homes, while people are suffering on the streets,” Escudero says.

Gladney says the Reclaimers were given enough time to find permanent housing, and that the Housing Authority has assisted them with housing applications based on their needs and preferences, but that the “challenges of the housing market,” might make it difficult. Twenty families have lived in the El Sereno homes, according to the Housing Authority, with five of them having found a permanent place to live, while three are finalizing new leases. 

“After the participants failure to participate an [sic] transition into more permanent housing,” Gladney says, “We were left with no other option but to move forward with the court action.” She says other unhoused people are waiting to live in these homes. 

But Escudero says the department gave her listings that she can’t afford. The listings were also far from Northeast LA, where Escudero and her daughters have built a community. 

One of her daughters is thriving at a nearby school that is supportive of her mental health and emotional needs. “Transitions for her are really difficult as it is, and they don’t get it,” she said. “They’re like, well, ‘There’s good schools in Hollywood too, or the [San Fernando] Valley.’”

Escudero plans on staying put if discussions with officials don’t work out or if she can’t find affordable housing nearby. “I’ll fight till the end to stay in my community because there’s no other choices right now.”

Meetings that go nowhere

Since last fall, the Reclaimers have made various efforts to enter into dialogue with Caltrans, with varying success. At one of the meetings, after a protest at the Caltrans offices, then-Deputy District Director Edward Francis said the Reclaimers would be able to stay for another year, but Escudero says he never followed through.

Martha Escudero raises her fist and poses with her two daughters in front of a banner with "Reclaiming Our Homes" written in Spanish.
Martha Escudero poses with her two daughters in front of a banner with “Reclaiming our homes” written in Spanish, a few days after she and other unhoused and housing-insecure families occupied vacant Caltrans-owned homes in El Sereno on March 14, 2020. (Courtesy Martha Escudero)

Caltrans spokesperson Eric Menjivar says Francis promised to “make all efforts” to extend the agency’s agreement with the Housing Authority to provide temporary housing to people who need it. Menjivar says those in need include people who are not the Reclaimers, and that there is no agreement between the group and Caltrans.

In mid-December, Escudero and a few other Reclaimers met with the state senator for the 26th District, Maria Elena Durazo, without success. Durazo’s district includes El Sereno.

“I feel she has a bit more power as a senator, but she seems to be rigid, [saying] ‘You had this contract and there’s really nothing we should do about it,’” said Escudero. Durazo failed to provide a comment. 

Escudero is also on the board of the El Sereno Community Land Trust, a non-profit formed by a group of people which buys and manages land in perpetuity for the community. The land trust has put in a bid for 37 Caltrans-owned properties. None of those houses include the ones Escudero and the other Reclaimers are staying in.

“These are Caltrans homes,” Escudero said. “Ultimately, they have the power to make the changes, and none of them in that agency have been willing to speak to us in any way.” She recently wrote a letter to two other Caltrans officials, asking them to meet with the Reclaimers.

Menjivar says Caltrans has met several times with Housing Authority and the El Sereno housing program participants, but he didn’t specify if those participants include the Reclaimers, or what they discussed. He says that because Caltrans’s lease agreement is with the Housing Authority, Caltrans cannot interfere in the agreement between the Housing Authority and its tenants, but did not elaborate on why.

Amanda Del Cid Lugo contributed reporting to this article.

*Correction: This article previously stated that Caltrans used eminent domain to purchase homes to demolish for the Interstate 710 expansion. Caltrans claims they haven’t purchased any homes through eminent domain, but in at least one instance, they have discussed the possibility of seizing these homes through this practice.

Phoenix Tso is a journalist with a passion for hyperlocal storytelling. She is usually on the search for coffee, new food to try, or a nature walk.