After housing seizures, El Sereno tenants face eviction

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, more than a dozen families who were homeless or at risk of homelessness confiscated vacant, public homes in El Sereno, an action they say was driven by the astronomical cost of living in Los Angeles and the need to protect yourself from the virus.

Some have stayed, taking advantage of a deal that allowed them to legally live in single-family bungalows owned by the state. Families have planted gardens outside their homes and sent their children to neighborhood schools.

But now, almost three years later, their leases are expiring and they are not allowed to renew. A standoff ensues between officials who want families to move out and some families who don’t want it.

“Right now I plan to stay,” said Martha Escudero, 44, a mother of two who was one of the first to take over a home in the neighborhood. “I see no other option.”

It’s the latest dispute in a long fight over the homes that began in the 1960s, when the California Department of Transportation began buying hundreds of lots in El Sereno and neighboring communities in preparation for an expansion of the 710 Freeway. After decades of fighting, Caltrans abandoned the Freeway plans in 2018.

Meanwhile, Caltrans-owned homes fester under the cloud of possible demolition. Some stood empty and rotting, with faulty wiring and leaking roofs.

But with persistently high levels of homelessness, overcrowding and relentlessly rising rents in the LA area, the families and activists who support them have chosen to make a statement: There should be no vacant publicly owned apartments during a housing crisis.

In a series of coordinated actions, they confiscated 13 of the houses in March 2020. Among those who took over properties: a family of five who’d squeezed into a 350-square-foot apartment in Westlake, a retirement-age welder who lived in his van, and Escudero and her daughters who’d slept on the couch. Surfing at Boyle Heights.

Caltrans had claimed the houses were unsafe and uninhabitable. But the agency agreed to make repairs and lease more than two dozen of them to the City of Los Angeles housing department for use as temporary housing. Families who had homes confiscated were able to stay while they searched for permanent housing.

Eight families signed leases for the homes in the fall of 2020, agreeing to work with the agencies to find new homes and vacate the properties after two years.

Circumstances inspired others to seek the same accommodations. On the night before Thanksgiving 2020, another group of activists attempted to take over more vacant state homes in El Sereno by breaking into the properties with bolt cutters. Police pulled her out that same night in a confrontation that resulted in 62 arrests.

Many El Sereno residents are wary of the constant activity in the neighborhood and have called on the state and city of Los Angeles to move forward with plans to redevelop the lots into long-term affordable housing, parks and other amenities.

The two-year leases signed by the eight families are now expiring. According to Tina Booth, director of property management for the housing authority, two have left the homes and moved to permanent housing elsewhere. But half a dozen remain. Escudero and another tenant’s time expired this week; the other dates are in November.

Booth said the terms of the leases with both Caltrans and the families were clear from the start and the two-year limit could not be extended.

“These homes were never intended as a permanent living solution,” Booth said. “We don’t have the legal right to convert them into something they aren’t.”

The families, she said, have been offered alternative housing options and received supportive services over the past two years.

“We know people want to stay,” Booth said. “It’s just not an option that we have and can’t offer at this time.”

Escudero said none of the options proposed by the housing authority would benefit her family; they were apartments that were smaller than the single-family house in which she lives now. Some were in Inglewood or the San Fernando Valley, more than 20 miles from El Sereno, she said. The distance would make it difficult to maintain ties with the community, including the school her 10-year-old daughter attends, which is a short walk from the El Sereno home.

“The help they give is not that much help,” Escudero said. “As soon as you move into this house, they try to push you out. Once you establish a community and a home, they should just let you stay there.”

Booth said the Housing Authority is planning this week to issue formal eviction notices to households whose leases have expired, a preliminary step to filing an eviction notice. Booth said the agency has no plans to evict the families immediately, but the notices will launch a month-long last-ditch effort to find alternative housing for them. After housing seizures, El Sereno tenants face eviction

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