Reclaiming Our Homes: the Movement to Occupy Vacant Housing : The Indicator from Planet Money Homes owned by California's department of transportation lay vacant. So people reclaimed them.
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Empty Houses, Reclaimed

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Empty Houses, Reclaimed

Empty Houses, Reclaimed

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It's Cardiff. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY, and today I'm joined by Robin Urevich. Robin is a staff writer at Capital & Main, a news organization based in Los Angeles.

Robin, hi. You've brought us this story about one of the biggest issues in the U.S. today, which is housing and homelessness.

ROBIN UREVICH: That's right. And the story starts with Sasha Atkins. She's a 31-year-old single mom. She lives in the LA area. She's a hairstylist who, before the pandemic, had a second job serving food at sports stadiums. But even when she was working, she didn't earn enough to rent her own place.

GARCIA: Yeah. Instead, she and her 9-year-old son lived with her mom at least until three years ago, when that relationship between her and her mom started to deteriorate. And since then, Sasha and her son have stayed with family or friends or occasionally in a motel. But when COVID hit, she lost both of her jobs and her housing options along with her jobs.

SASHA ATKINS: I had to keep in mind the safety of everybody, so it was harder to stay with family because it just made things more difficult. It made tensions higher. It made everything harder.

GARCIA: So hard that at one critical point last November, Sasha was facing the prospect of having to live on the street. She was desperate. And so as a result, she did something extremely risky; something illegal but also something that an increasing number of people around the country are doing to put a roof over their heads.

ATKINS: At this point, I just wanted to secure housing for my son and give him a safe place to live and a place to call home.

GARCIA: Robin is going to tell us more about Sasha's story right after a quick break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UREVICH: In March last year, a group of homeless and housing-insecure people broke into a number of empty homes in a neighborhood of Los Angeles and occupied them. They called themselves reclaimers.

GARCIA: And these houses that they occupied were owned by CALTRANS, which is California's transportation agency. CALTRANS had started buying homes, more than 400 of them, as far back as the 1950s as a way to make room for a freeway extension. But that extension was never built, and some of the homes lay empty for years.

UREVICH: The reclaimers said it was unacceptable that usable homes owned by the state were lying empty when people were homeless and living on the street.

GARCIA: And remarkably, none of the reclaimers were evicted. Instead, state officials agreed to lease more than 20 of the houses to the city's housing authority, which then allowed a dozen families to live in them for two years, part of a transitional housing program. And Sasha Atkins was inspired by this story. She had connected with a group of families who were like her. They were housing-insecure, struggling to find stable housing. And together with community organizers and local activists, they came up with a plan to reclaim some of those CALTRANS homes themselves and then see if they could strike a similar deal with housing officials to let them stay in those homes.

ATKINS: No one wants to break into a home and have to reclaim a home, you know? I mean, we all want a fair chance to be able to provide that for our own families. And unfortunately, it's not available to everybody, so it was definitely a last resort.

UREVICH: The night before Thanksgiving, Sasha left her son with her mom, grabbed her phone, blankets and a laptop. Along with a dozen other families, she went to the El Sereno neighborhood in Northeast LA, where there was a cluster of more than a hundred vacant CALTRANS homes.

GARCIA: The group went in quietly but not in secret. They carried signs to place in the window that said, quarantine in progress, so that everyone would know what their intentions were. Some of the group were longtime residents of the neighborhood who knew the history of the houses, and they helped identify houses that were in good enough shape to possibly accommodate a family.

UREVICH: That group also knew the homes would be locked, so they brought lock-picking kits along. Sasha learned how to use hers online.

ATKINS: YouTube is (unintelligible) (laughter). It was actually really easy, scarily easy, you know? But again, it was something that we needed to do to do this. And, you know, I didn't want to make a lot of noise and scare the neighbors. You know, I figured this was the best route.

UREVICH: Once Sasha made it inside the house she had chosen, she began moving from room to room, looking through spaces and boarded-up windows to see if law enforcement had been alerted.

ATKINS: So I was just going from one side of the house to the next. I was just trying to stay alert and just make sure, like, oh, God, you know, what am I going to do if they do come?

GARCIA: Sasha had never done anything like this before, so it was a scary experience. But later that night, when officers from the California Highway Patrol, the CHP, arrived on a nearby street, things got even more frightening.

ATKINS: I was watching Instagram Live, and I was just watching how the CHP were coming into the homes and, you know, forcibly removing people. That was scary. I just knew that I did not want that to be me, you know? And so I was very nervous. I was very scared. I was sad. I was crying a lot. But, like, after you've seen, you know, house after house get taped (ph) down, it just felt like it was a matter of time before they were going to come for me too.

GARCIA: Eventually, officers did come to the house she had occupied, and another group of reclaimers helped to hide her. But it was just clear to Sasha that this was not going to be a replay of the reclaimers' victory of seven months earlier. The city was not going to do a deal with her group. She just wasn't going to be able to stay in one of these homes. She had to leave.

ATKINS: It didn't work. It was a horrible feeling 'cause, like, my son - he just knew I was going to get a house and setting up a house for us, you know? He - and to have to come home and tell my son, like, oh, no, I'm sorry, we didn't get it, was just - it was a really crappy feeling. It was horrible.

UREVICH: There are vacant properties, private and state-owned, all over the U.S. that could be used to house families like Sasha's. Politics, legal issues, bureaucratic inertia have all made it hard to rent, develop or sell them.

GARCIA: But there are officials in some urban areas that are stricken by homelessness who are increasingly willing to consider some newer, innovative solutions to the housing crisis. To be clear, we're talking about solutions beyond the obvious, like allowing more homes to be built or building more affordable housing. And so one of these innovative ideas that's gotten some traction is to fold vacant government-owned dwellings into something called a community land trust. Once homes are in the trust, they can be developed for affordable housing.

UREVICH: Last fall, for example, a group of single moms took over a vacant house in Oakland, and they were able to arrange for a land trust to purchase it. Also last fall, Philadelphia activists pushed the local housing authority to turn over 59 houses to a local land trust so they can be rehabbed and remain affordable.

GARCIA: The idea has even gotten some traction in Los Angeles, where the County Board of Supervisors established a working group of five existing land trusts. It also allocated $14 million to try out the idea. Those trusts don't incorporate the CALTRANS homes that Sasha Atkins and her group had tried to reclaim, but the state legislature is considering a bill that would sell those homes so that they can then be developed to accommodate people who are homeless or housing-insecure.

UREVICH: But Sasha's still searching for permanent housing for her and her son, and the experience has given her a taste for the fight to push this city to create more affordable housing. She's still in touch with the reclaimers, who are keeping the pressure on elected officials. They're hoping to convince these officials to include those CALTRANS houses in El Sereno in a land trust. And if they do decide to stage another takeover...

ATKINS: I'm ready for them to let me know, hey, let's do this.

GARCIA: Robin Urevich, thanks so much for bringing us this story.

UREVICH: You're welcome.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and fact-checked by Sam Tsai (ph), and it was edited by Paddy Hirsch. You can read more of Robin Urevich's reporting, including more of Sasha Atkins' story, at capitalandmain.com. THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY is a production of NPR.

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