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Occupations, Forced Removals, Arrests in El Sereno: The Fight Over 'Reclaiming' Vacant Homes

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On Wednesday and Thursday, California Highway Patrol officers forcibly removed activists occupying empty homes in El Sereno and made numerous arrests. But members of the group say they won't stop advocating for the vacant homes to be used to shelter the unhoused population.

The targeted properties were among 460 the California Department of Transportation bought in decades past as part of the plan to connect the 710 to the 210 in Pasadena. That plan collapsed; the state has sold or leased most of the homes, but 163 remain empty.

Members of the Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community coalition first took shelter Wednesday morning in 20 of the vacant homes. The last group of occupiers, or "reclaimers," as they call themselves, were removed late Thursday night.

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CHP made 62 arrests over two days: 21 people who refused to vacate the homes and 41 protestors who were trying to prevent the removals. Video from the scene showed officers in full tactical gear dragging people out of the homes and using battering rams to enter some houses.

"It did not come as a surprise but it was disheartening to see that they would execute that type of violence in front of our families," said Iris De Anza, a Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community member who occupied one of the homes.

The CHP defended its actions, saying the people occupying the properties were given the opportunity to vacate before they were removed.

'THESE FAMILIES HAVE TRIED EVERYTHING'

"The images I saw last night are heartbreaking and unacceptable," said LA City Councilman Kevin De Leon, in a statement Thursday. De Leon, who represents El Sereno, said his office is providing hotel vouchers to provide temporary shelter to the families removed by CHP.

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But the activists don't want a temporary solution. They're asking Caltrans to transfer ownership of all the homes to the El Sereno Community Land Trust, which they say will ensure the properties are used for the unhoused.

"These families have tried everything," said De Anza, a freelance artist and mother of three who was recently living in her car. "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."

In a statement, Caltrans said the activists had to be removed because the homes are unsafe. It said it's been working to lease several homes as temporary shelters, and recently signed a lease with the city of L.A. to use 22 of them as transitional housing.

The agency said it's working to sell the remaining homes, and is committed to making sure they're used for affordable housing.

PART OF A LARGER MOVEMENT

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The effort by De Anza and the 20 families in her coalition is part of a larger movement in Los Angeles and beyond to "reclaim" vacant properties.

In March, a group called Reclaiming Our Homes began occupying a dozen other houses in El Sereno owned by Caltrans. Earlier this month, that group announced it would be moving into some of those properties legally, as a result of the deal between Caltrans and the city. Those 22 previously vacant homes will be leased to the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles for up to three years and managed as part of the city's Transitional Housing Program.

The local "reclaiming" initiative also takes inspiration from a recent effort in Oakland, where a group called Moms 4 Housing occupied a home and convinced the owner to sell it to the Oakland Community Land Trust on their behalf.

"Land trusts are good vehicles for ensuring that property development serves the community," said Sua Hernandez, El Sereno Community Land Trust's executive director.

Hernandez said the state and city haven't determined whether the trust will play a role in managing the Caltrans properties, but conversations have begun.

"Community folks feel that those vacant properties should come back to the community because of the history of how they were taken away from the community," said Hernandez. "Caltrans time and time again took affordable housing out of circulation to build freeways through poor communities."

Meanwhile, activists are urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow the families to return to the houses they were occupying. They're also asking for all charges against those arrested in recent days to be dropped.