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After El Sereno Eviction Incident, LA Councilman Has Plan to Lease Vacant Caltrans Homes

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By Phoenix Tso

Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de León has laid out a plan to turn the remaining vacant Caltrans-owned homes in El Sereno in the 710 corridor into affordable housing.

He introduced a motion during Tuesday's City Council meeting instructing the city to negotiate leases with Caltrans that would require the agency to rehabilitate the homes and rent them to tenants, with El Sereno residents getting priority. The motion also calls for the city to come up with a long-term plan for these homes and to solicit community response.

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Speaking with A Martinez on KPCC's Take Two, de León said he wants the city to be able to lease the homes to El Sereno renters as soon as possible.

"It's going to be up to housing agencies like HACLA [Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles], as well as other possibly non-profit entities, to get in there and start rehabbing those homes quicker rather than later. It should be months in my estimation," de León said.

A group of El Sereno residents calling themselves "Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community," working on behalf of unhoused and housing insecure families, occupied 20 of these homes the day before Thanksgiving.

Then, around midnight, the California Highway Patrol forcibly removed the occupiers at Caltrans' request. Photos on social media of the law enforcement response drew widespread denunciation.

"The images that I saw were heartbreaking and quite frankly, they were unacceptable," de León said.

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He added that the situation underscored the severity of the housing crisis, particularly in his district, which includes El Sereno and much of downtown LA. "If [Los Angeles is] the epicenter, then [Council District] 14 without question is Ground Zero."

NO WATER, NO POWER, NO GAS

In the 1950s, Caltrans bought bought 460 homes in El Sereno as part of a plan to connect the 710 freeway to the 210 in Pasadena. After that plan was scrapped, the state has sold or leased most of the homes, but 163 remain empty.

Many of these remaining homes have reportedly fallen into disrepair. Caltrans cited the conditions when it requested that CHP remove the occupiers, but de León said Caltrans was responsible for allowing the homes to deteriorate.

"They don't have running water. They don't have electricity. They don't have gas. They have asbestos, mold, broken windows, so they have fallen into disrepair."

In mid-November, the city struck a deal with Caltrans to lease 22 El Sereno homes, after another group of reclaimers occupied 13 of them
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in March. De León wants to do something similar with the rest of the vacant houses.

It's up to the state to authorize the lease and eventual sale of these properties. Once that happens, the city can get to work.

PROTECTIONS FOR RESIDENTS

As de León attempts to get people housed in these properties, there are questions over how to make sure these properties aren't sold at market rate. The Councilmember said that any protection needs to be spelled out at the state level.

"It has to be statutory, so you have to clearly spell it out," de León said. "Because if you let the forces of the free market take over, you can easily get in a situation where a developer comes in and swoops up a handful of properties, does a little repair work and all of a sudden sells it at $1.5 million."

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Yet as previously reported in LAist, there's frustration from members of Reclaiming and Rebuilding Our Community over what they said were unsuccessful negotiations with the city.

"These families have tried everything," Iris De Anza, a member of Reclaiming and Rebuilding Our Community, told KPCC/LAist Housing Reporter Aaron Schrank. "We've tried to work with the city. This became a last-ditch effort to take back these empty homes. It's a crime to have houses sitting empty, when so many people are out on the streets."

Reclaiming and Rebuilding Our Communities asked Caltrans to transfer ownership of these homes of the El Sereno Community Land Trust, to ensure that these homes are used for the unhoused.

De León did not comment on that proposal, but he feels a similar sense of urgency in getting his motion approved.

"I want to get this approved by next week," he said. "We have no time to waste."

He said that he hasn't met with Reclaiming and Rebuilding Our Communities yet, but is open to doing so.

Listen to Kevin de León's full interview with A Martinez: