EL SERENO, Calif. — Many homes in El Sereno community remain empty as the housing crisis intensifies.
Angelenos without a place to live want to move into vacant homes owned by Caltrans as shelter-in-place orders continue, but the state agency says many of the homes are currently uninhabitable.
Sasha Atkins and her son Raymond have been homeless for three years and need a permanent place to stay, following months of asking organizations for help with housing.
“Everyone is referring me to different places because no one has any money,” Atkins said. “For three years, it’s been a run-around circle of trying to get on the Caltrans list, trying to get on the PATH list.”
Atkins is part of Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community, a community organization which helped “reclaimers” and unhoused people like her move into the vacant homes in November 2020. The group believes the state-owned properties paid for by taxpayers should be made available to the unhoused.
Caltrans deployed CHP officers to remove, cite, and arrest the reclaimers for trespassing and have since been guarding the homes.
"I pay my taxes to the state," said Atkins. "I don’t understand how the state can pay for all this security to watch this empty houses. I put money into the state, and it can’t just let me stay here? I’ll pay rent."
Atkins and her son have stayed with different family members until the pandemic. Now they are unable to bounce from home to home. Atkins is also unable to work — she's a cosmetologist and has worked in catering for L.A. sports teams, but both jobs have shut down.
Atkins now collects unemployment and stays with her son at motels. She receives $1,200 dollars per month, but their rooms cost an average of $2,000 dollars a month.
"This last year my son told me, 'I know Santa isn’t real because, how is he going to know to come find me in a hotel?'" said Atkins. "That sucks for him to have to think like that."
Caltrans says the homes that were broken into are unsafe and uninhabitable. The agency said in a statement:
“Caltrans requested the CHP remove trespassers so that the properties can be re-secured and boarded up. For the safety of residents in the El Sereno community and to minimize disruption, we have increased security patrols in order to respond to attempted break-ins. Caltrans is currently pursuing regulatory changes needed to expedite the sale of these vacant homes. Caltrans also recently leased 22 vacant properties in this area to the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles for the city’s transitional housing program and are in discussions to lease additional properties.”
Atkins has been advocating for Caltrans to sell many of the homes to the El Sereno Community Land Trust to be used as long-term affordable housing. The trust was created more than two years ago to address the community’s need for housing.
L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis introduced a motion in December to address the homes. She said in a statement:
“The State-Route 710 North Project has been a community issue in El Sereno since the late 1950s. The acquisition of homes by Caltrans for the project has significantly altered this predominantly Latino community's social, cultural, and economic fabric… I introduced a motion on December 8 that was unanimously passed by the Board, to move ownership of SR-710 properties away from Caltrans, secure long-term affordability of homes in El Sereno, and prioritize community engagement for the use of these state-owned parcels. Los Angeles County's Sacramento Legislative Affairs Branch and my office will continue to work with the State during this legislative session to support proposals that would enable the county to acquire these properties and to preserve them for long-term affordable housing."
Caltrans purchased roughly 300 homes decades ago to eventually demolish and expand the 710 freeway. That project is now defunct. Some of the homes are occupied with tenants who have lived in the community for decades, and other homes remain vacant.
A GoFundMe page has been created to help reclaimers like Atkins.