This Land Was Made For You And Me

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Amid the pandemic and housing crisis, an East L.A. community organization has fought to reclaim homes owned by Caltrans for a never-constructed highway and give them back to the people.

Photographs by Cerise Castle.

Slightly after 7 PM on a Wednesday night in late November 2020, a long line of California Highway Patrol vehicles crept slowly through the East L.A. neighborhood of El Sereno. They moved down Huntington Drive toward a group of houses that had been abandoned for over a half century. The California Department of Transportation, the agency that oversees California’s highway system, had purchased the homes beginning in the ‘60s to make room for a freeway that never came to be. 

Families who lacked homes had moved into the empty dwellings in early March. Many belonged to an activist group called Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community, which had formed earlier in the year out of frustration that these homes sat vacant while the local unhoused population dramatically increased. Just a few weeks before their action, California Governor Gavin Newsom had issued directives asking residents to shelter in place from the coronavirus pandemic and banning most evictions. 

“The reclaimers had the right to self-quarantine, we used that for our benefit,” says Angela Flores, who co-founded Reclaim and Rebuild our Community with her father, Roberto. On the first day of action, the reclaimers managed to occupy three homes; the next day, they succeeded in occupying a dozen more.

The success of the first reclamation inspired a second wave of people moving into the houses in the days leading up to Thanksgiving of 2020. Some were part of the Reclaim and Rebuild group, while others had been inspired by their actions and acted alone. But while the families made themselves at home, the CHP kept watch. Parking their vehicles outside the structures, they regularly circled the neighborhood, staring at anyone who walked by. As night fell on Thanksgiving eve, the officers’ numbers swelled, and they began to swoop in. 

The queue of law enforcement officers came to a stop on the corner of Concord Avenue and Allan Street. Black and white Dodge Chargers and Ford Interceptor SUVs blanketed the neighborhood with their red and blue flashing lights. The vehicles snaked around the overgrown and dried-out vegetation covering the hill on the east side of the intersection, closing off all possible exits on the street by car. A group of mothers taking refuge inside a home had begged the governor to tell law enforcement to stand down. Their pleas were met by a small unit of CHP personnel wearing body armor and helmets, with a select few carrying assault rifles and battering rams. 

A pair of peace officers used what appeared to be a crowbar and battering ram to pry into the metal screen door of the first home on Allan Street. Five others stood by with what appeared to be assault rifles, one of which was pointed at the window of the home. A crowd of neighbors, activists and observers gathered on the sidewalk outside. Clangs rang out as the officers decimated the door frame. Someone began chanting; others yelled out in protest. 

After a few minutes of struggle, the door gave out. The policemen moved into the home and, after a brief pause, pulled out the first occupant in handcuffs. Over the next few minutes, two more were removed. After CHP searched the home’s inhabitants on the lawn, they were walked down the hill into the waiting police cars and driven away to jail. The officers continued to the next house and on through the neighborhood, clearing occupied buildings one by one. Several hours later, law enforcement dragged a child, restrained at the wrist and ankles, into the street and pinned her on her side on live television. 

“It was awful,” says Flores. “But it was a way to wake up the elected politicians and to wake up the city and to know that the police are not protecting poor people of color who need housing.” 

In the ‘50s, Caltrans developed a map of Southern California that included several freeways that never came to be, including the Laurel Canyon Freeway, the Malibu Freeway and the Rosemead Boulevard Freeway. The Eisenhower administration had decided to invest in freeways in the interest of national defense. Steel prices were at a low, and belief in the transformative power of the automobile to move people was at an all-time high. Around the country, cities cleared whole swaths of neighborhoods, often explicitly Black and brown ones, in the name of progress.

“Freeways were just an unalloyed good,” says Christopher Sutton, a property rights attorney to many of the El Sereno residents staying in Caltrans-owned properties, including the Flores family. “Caltrans was a product of that kind of unrealistic optimism.”

In preparation for the planned freeways, Caltrans began to purchase properties in the construction corridors. For the Laurel Canyon Freeway, due to cross the 101 Freeway near Vermont Avenue and continue westward to end at the 405, these purchases included hundreds of properties in Echo Park, Silver Lake and Mid-Wilshire. When the California legislature scrapped the plans under pressure from wealthy, white residents in areas such as Beverly Hills, the homes were left to sit empty. 

By the late ‘70s, displaced residents had some tools to fight back. A piece of legislation known as the “Roberti law,” after its author David A. Roberti, required the state to sell unused homes from canceled projects back to current tenants with low or moderate incomes at the price Caltrans had originally paid for them. The tenants did not qualify if they had owned real estate in the past three years. With the help of this new law, many of the former residents in Echo Park were able to buy back their homes and establish housing co-operatives. Other houses, though, still remain on maps today as part of the Caltrans right-of-way; categorized as surplus, they do not qualify for sale.

In January 1973, the city of South Pasadena filed an environmental lawsuit seeking to stop the construction of the 710 freeway expansion. A court injunction ordered Caltrans to keep the homes occupied and maintain them while the 710 plan was reviewed. Different proposals and environmental impact statements were drawn up and rejected through 1999, when a new order was issued. This one allowed the transportation agency to evict tenants from its properties.

“Immediately after that injunction was issued, they started evicting people for all kinds of harebrained reasons and just not renting to them,” Sutton says. Since 1999, tenants have brought forth a series of lawsuits alleging they had roofs or ceilings collapse on them after the homes were neglected. Sutton says this was one of several techniques Caltrans used to get families out of their homes. “When the property was not in a bad situation, they would just set the rent so high that no one would rent it.”

In 2002, Robert Sassaman, then director for Caltrans District 7, where the corridor sits, went as far as to testify before the California Transportation Commission that he preferred to keep the properties empty. Since tenants do not pay rent to their district offices but rather to the central office, where it’s dumped into the general highway fund, there is little incentive to use the funding on property maintenance. 

Over time, these tactics have worked as intended, leaving dozens of houses unoccupied. This fact did not go unnoticed by residents in an area where home prices have climbed into the seven figures. But Caltrans has, in some respects, only doubled down on its commitment. According to documents reviewed by theLAnd, Caltrans contacted the CHP with a request that officers “provide security” on 20 homes along the 710 corridor through the end of 2021, at a total cost of $23 million.

“Caltrans was willing to pay huge amounts of money to keep the houses empty but not pay anything to make the houses habitable and rent them,” says Sutton. “This is bizarre.” 

Sutton grew up near the 710 corridor, and he remembers delivering newspapers as a child to the neighborhood. His high school English teacher was a Caltrans tenant. His family attended a church on the corner of Pasadena and California — until the building was purchased by Caltrans. When he became a lawyer, a few years after the passage of the Roberti law, he began taking on Caltrans on behalf of residents who had been harmed by tenuous freeway plans. The first person who contacted him as a young attorney in the mid-‘80s was that English teacher, who had received a letter from Caltrans attempting to evict him. The letter stated that the Department of Transportation had entered into a master lease with the Worldwide Church of God and subjected tenants who were not members to eviction within 90 days of receipt.

“I said, ‘How can they be so thick and stupid to send a letter like this on government stationery telling hundreds of people they’re going to have to move out if they have the wrong religion?’” Sutton recalled. Sutton told his teacher to call the ACLU, and soon, the letters disappeared. 

“They just don’t care. They pretend they do,” Sutton continued. “They’re really good at saying what people want to hear. And then they do whatever the hell they want.”

Caltrans was contacted multiple times with requests for an interview for this story. The agency declined an interview and issued the following statement: “Caltrans is working with local governments to lease its available vacant properties or land for affordable housing and temporary emergency shelter.” It continued: “Caltrans believes the community-based transit system/transit demand management alternative will be a multi-modal solution for the corridor. The local cities in the project area will now see active transportation, local streets and intersections, public transportation and upgrades with intelligent transportation systems to improve mobility throughout their communities.”  

“Caltrans was willing to pay huge amounts of money to keep the houses empty but not pay anything to make the houses habitable and rent them.”

Christopher Sutton

Roberto and Angela Flores, the father-daughter duo who lead Rebuild and Reclaim Our Community, identify as “socialists under a capitalist model.” Their family lived in El Sereno until 1992, when they moved into a white, two-story Caltrans home in South Pasadena. 

Two years later, Roberto received a fellowship to study the Zapatistas, a largely indigenous libertarian socialist group that controls a large portion of the southern Mexico state of Chiapas. Zapatistas believe in horizontal autonomy and mutual aid, which they implement through operating their own schools, health care systems, food and clothing cooperatives.

While Roberto was in Chiapas, the family home fell behind on maintenance, Angela recalled. Her mother’s calls to report grievances to their Caltrans landlord went unanswered. The same was true for their neighbors, she says, and many residents in the neighborhood were also subjected to harassment from Caltrans employees. Years later, when her family nearly lost their South Pasadena home to a rent hike, Angela took up litigation against the agency. Sutton is still battling in court over the price that Caltrans calculated to sell the Floreses their home — one that’s nearly $1 million higher than the $26,000 paid in the late ‘50s guaranteed by the Roberti law.

When Roberto Flores returned from Mexico, he began sharing what he had learned in weekly teach-ins at the family’s home with other Caltrans tenants, which he christened “Sangria Sundays.” Over the years, the group expanded to become what is now United Caltrans Tenants.

“I think people just wanted to see more of these holistic projects or small businesses or ‘How can we thrive and support and empower one another and have these spaces where we talk about social injustices?’ And we didn’t have those spaces,” Angela says. In 2001, the Floreses formed a collective based in El Sereno, inspired in part by Luna Sol Cafe, a worker-owned cooperative that served low-cost food and hosted multidisciplinary artists in the MacArthur Park neighborhood from 1996 to 2003.

“We decided to call our collective the Eastside Cafe: not necessarily a real cafe, but a mobile collective that would talk about autonomy and horizontality, collectivism and how we can build mutual aid networks so that we’re not relying on outside corporations or just capitalism in general,” Angela says. “A lot of people would ask, ‘If you don’t sell coffee, what do you do?’”

The Eastside Cafe secured a headquarters on the corner of Maycrest Avenue and Huntington Drive in 2017, protesting a real estate developer interested in the site until he agreed to sell them the property. In addition to the weekly discussion, the group developed programming to host at their new location, including classes in capoeira, jiu-jitsu, yoga, Danza and English as a second language. It was through these classes that Angela made contact with Martha Escudero. 

Escudero was born and raised in Boyle Heights, the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her father had only received an elementary school education, but he was able to get a union job and purchase property in California. Escudero earned her bachelor’s degree in gender, ethnicity and multicultural studies from Cal Poly Pomona, making her the first person in her family to matriculate at an American university. But due to rising L.A. housing costs, she was unable to achieve her own American dream for herself and her two daughters. She paid about $2,000 in rent each month for an apartment in Boyle Heights. She worked as a perinatal case manager at a local nonprofit but still relied on food stamps.

After Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Escudero began to feel despondent. Her community was slowly crumbling due to gentrification, and a racist demagogue who kicked off his campaign by claiming that Mexican immigrants were rapists only promised to make things worse. She decided to spend time living with Indigenous Mapuche in rural Chile. When she returned, she was unable to find housing, and she spent a year couch-surfing with her children. It was a time of great emotional instability.  

Hope came when she saw a group of mothers in Oakland called Moms4Housing take over a home that had sat empty for over two years under the ownership of a Los Angeles-based real estate investment firm, Wedgewood. Oakland police eventually raided the occupied home, but the group organized to get it turned over for sale to a land trust several days later.

“I was just really inspired by these Black mothers that were able to be so courageous in doing this illegal action,” Escudero says. “But it was for the love of their children and for their safety.”

“We’ve got to get people to see that there’s families, women and children who are being thrown out in the streets.”

Angela Flores

Angela Flores was also intrigued by what Moms4Housing had accomplished. She and her father had seen more people in the area sleeping in their cars or bouncing from sofa to sofa. As the houses along the abandoned 710 corridor continued to languish, some Caltrans tenants began receiving eviction notices. The agency had stopped accepting rent from others and was charging late fees. Some tenants had come to the Eastside Cafe looking for assistance. The collective had even considered occupying a house in El Sereno with unhoused local families in the past, but they were unsure of how exactly to pull it off.  

“Moms4Housing really affirmed that for us, and we thought, ‘This is it. This is what we have to do,’” Angela says. “So I put out a message on Facebook. I just went ahead and I put it out there and said, ‘If there’s anyone who’s interested in doing something like this, hit me up.’”

Escudero immediately responded. The two women had met nearly ten years prior, when the Eastside Cafe was working on a project with midwives, and stayed in touch online. Before Escudero saw Flores’s Facebook post, she says she had no idea about the empty homes. The two began talking on the phone in December of 2019 about their plans to move an unhoused family into one of the empty homes. By January of 2020, they began meeting in person with other organizations who wanted to assist and people who were interested in moving in. Many of the participants had been evicted from the houses themselves. 

“I told [Martha], ‘I’ll be honest, we don’t know how we’re going to do this, but we feel like it just needs to be done,’” Angela Flores says. “We’ve got to get people to see that there’s families, women and children who are being thrown out in the streets.” 

It wasn’t especially difficult entering the homes, according to Escudero, although California Highway Patrol officers did remove her from the first home that she was able to get into. The officer took down her name and phone number in order to connect her with “resources for housing” and released her and her frightened daughters. Shortly afterward, the group was able to reclaim another domicile. One week later, a dozen more buildings had families inside. The wave of successes prompted the group to distribute a press release and start a fundraiser on GoFundMe to assist with legal bills. 

Over the next few weeks, Escudero and volunteers who heard about the movement cleaned out the dusty blue house she was staying in. They taped white paper to the windows that spelled out “self-quarantine” in a neat typeface. For the first time in a long time, light poured in to hit the wood-panel walls in the living room. Furniture sat ready for the family to use. Slowly, she began to notice positive changes in her children: One daughter’s chronic anxiety eased, while the other’s asthma symptoms disappeared. Escudero reflected on her clients, many of whom are immigrants from rural communities in Guatemala and southern Mexico. She says now she understands the trauma that comes from leaving a close-knit community surrounded by nature for a city that faults those who cannot keep up with its demands.

“A lot of the most vulnerable and traumatized people, those are people of color or poor people, people with different abilities that aren’t able to keep up with this capitalist system,” Escudero says. “We shouldn’t be waiting years in shelters while our children suffer.”

Police harassment intensified. Flores says that while she was protesting at an empty house, a law enforcement officer pulled up to her and addressed her by her full name. “That kind of freaked me out. But then it was like, it makes sense. I’ve been doing all this work.” Escudero says that the police did not target her, but she observed law enforcement officers and private security hired by Caltrans shining lights into the windows of homes that were occupied. In another incident, one officer yelled profanities at another reclaimer. 

“So much of it really is traumatizing,” Escudero says. “I do want to pay rent. I just want something that’s equitable. … There’s so many other empty houses and buildings that are owned by the city, the county, that people don’t know.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood appreciated the new residents in the long-abandoned homes. Marie, a resident who declined to give her last name but who claimed to identify with the Zapatista movement, placed signs along the wooden fence outside of her home on Sheffield Avenue denouncing “squatters” and stating the group was “Taking Advantage!” She regularly yelled at the reclaimers and activists who assisted them, and she maintained the reclaimers are going about civil disobedience in the wrong way. Many neighbors did not want to comment at all for fear of retribution. Sutton says that some of his clients were upset that the reclaimers were “trying to get a free ride.” 

Flores argued that people should let go of the mentality of “pull[ing] yourself up by the bootstraps,” saying critics don’t understand that she and others have a right to protest. “This is a civil action where we’re talking about human rights.”   

Several months after Escudero reclaimed a home in the corridor, Caltrans entered into an unprecedented agreement with the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA).  Nearly two dozen properties that had sat empty for years were leased to the housing agency and placed in their Transitional Housing program. PATH, an L.A. nonprofit focused on providing services to unhoused people, was contracted to help to maintain the properties.

Beginning in fall of 2020, 13 reclaimers were allowed to move into the properties under a new housing services program for a term of two years. The contract, however, refers to the residents as “service recipients” instead of “tenants” in order to prevent them from gaining any rights to ownership of the property through the Roberti law, according to Sutton. He claimed that some homes used in the HACLA program had prior residents thrown out to make way for service recipients. 

In the fall of 2020, Escudero signed contracts with HACLA and PATH and moved into a different home in El Sereno. She appreciated being able to have her own space for her and her daughters, but she had issues with the program. The agreement she signed included provisions that gave her a curfew, forbade alcohol on the property and prohibited visitors. The house had received a fresh coat of paint, but otherwise it was poorly maintained. A rotten stair railing had been simply painted over instead of replaced. Her bathtub began to peel as soon as she began cleaning it. Her kitchen sink leaked. “I don’t understand why it’s taking so long if the repairs aren’t even good,” Escudero says. “It’s really unsafe [and] dehumanizing.”

Escudero also took issue with the two-year term of residency. She joined with the Floreses and other members of United Caltrans Tenants to form the El Sereno Land Trust, which seeks to place the homes into a private nonprofit co-op made up of current tenants. If successful, the co-op would keep the housing affordable for low-income families and focus on landscape restoration. They were inspired to create a land trust after watching the effects of the 2008 recession, which led to many properties being purchased and sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars above what local residents could afford. Seeing families struggle to make ends meet in the ongoing pandemic prompted them to organize to avoid a repeat of those circumstances.

State Senator Maria-Elena Durazo, who represents the area, agreed that Caltrans has been a “shoddy” manager with “poor oversight.” However, she says that many of the residents she has met with told her they felt the “squatters” made them feel as if they were “under siege.” Durazo says that while she has no issue with the activists drawing attention to the lack of affordable housing, RROC is “doing it in such a way that was unfortunately creating some real divisions in the community, … which was very dangerous.” Her chief deputy, Steve Veres, added that Angela and Roberto Flores operate together under a number of different groups without large support and misrepresent themselves as people living in El Sereno. He also disputed the viability of the co-op model, although several functioning examples have been operating in Echo Park on former Caltrans properties since the ‘80s.

“I do want to pay rent. I just want something that’s equitable.”

Martha Escudero

In December of 2020, Durazo introduced Senate Bill 51, which changed the Roberti law specifically for properties in L.A. — i.e., the El Sereno homes — to only allow the sale of surplus properties to existing renters, municipalities or “housing-related entities” that preserve affordability on-site for 55 years. Durazo’s stated goal was to close potential speculative loopholes in Roberti and streamline the creation of affordable housing. But the bill removed a clause that prioritized co-op housing, which means a group like the El Sereno Land Trust would have to bid against other potential buyers, including developers or the city itself. An accompanying piece of legislation for the City of South Pasadena, S.B. 381, requires the city be given priority to purchase surplus properties for affordable housing purposes ahead of any housing-related entities. Governor Gavin Newsom signed both bills into law this year. 

The district’s city councilmember, Kevin De León, maintained that Senator Durazo’s legislation will “facilitate the opportunity for the city to purchase” the homes in the corridor. He says that he is planning a “Vision Project” for the corridor that would “maximize the use of all of these properties so we can provide affordable housing for the housing insecure.” He held two town halls to discuss the plan and created a community engagement task force to “explore,” but a public records request for further details was not returned. When asked in an interview about the proposal for the El Sereno Land Trust, De León called it “absurd.”

Members of United Caltrans Tenants, the El Sereno Land Trust and the Eastside Cafe are all frustrated with Durazo’s legislation. “She’s promoting gentrification, and she’s not on the side of the people,” says Angela Flores. Flores argued that any plan that turns the housing into a rental model based on affordability will prevent populations that have been historically discriminated against from building wealth through property ownership. Escudero had lower expectations to begin with: “I have very little hope in politicians. They really lose themselves and propose bills that are harming our community instead of helping.”

Sutton, the attorney representing Caltrans tenants, doesn’t believe that Caltrans will be able to sell off the properties at all. The El Sereno Corridor will remain a roadway in Caltrans’s imagination until 2024, when the agency will be forced to sell the remaining properties within a year. Sutton suspects that Caltrans will pressure the legislature to extend the map’s expiration. “Unless we get a formal opinion or we get a judge, they just ignore what the law says,” Sutton says. “They just don’t really want to sell anything. They just want to cling to their evaporating bureaucratic existence.”

It’s unclear what will happen to the tenants of the homes temporarily leased to the city. They now have about one year before the terms of their agreements expire and they will be forced to move out, becoming unhoused once again.