Pressure Mounts for Caltrans to Sell 130 Vacant Homes
An improbable vanguard of poor people is “reclaiming” vacant homes — forcing policymakers to rethink affordable housing strategies.
On the night before Thanksgiving last year, Sasha Atkins, a 31-year-old hair stylist and single mom, hauled a few carefully chosen belongings – her phone, blankets, pillows and a laptop – into a vacant duplex on Shelley Street in Los Angeles’ El Sereno neighborhood and held her breath. Busting into an empty house was a last resort, but the pandemic has turned her precarious housing situation into an emergency. For three years, she and her son couch surfed or occasionally landed a motel room. But work had become scarce, and friends and family feared COVID-19 if they let new people into their homes. So, even though she was afraid, she moved forward.
“I knew my reasons were greater than my fears,” she said. “I would do anything for my son.”
Atkins had grown up in and out of foster care, and wants her son to have the stability and sense of belonging that she never had. “I moved 23 times before I was 21,” she said. Atkins would like her days of roaming from home to home to be over, and now finds herself in the improbable vanguard of poor people whose attempt to “reclaim” vacant homes has caught on around the country. The actions have begun to push policymakers to rethink affordable housing strategies.
Beginning in the 1950s the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) had purchased some 460 homes and apartment complexes on the eastern edge of El Sereno, and in South Pasadena and Pasadena, to demolish them and make way for a freeway extension connecting the 710 with the 210 in Pasadena. For decades the agency rented out the homes as it pressed its case for the freeway extension; the project was finally shelved in 2018. However, as tenants have moved on, the agency hasn’t rerented their units, and about 130 homes or apartments lie vacant.
Atkins was inspired by a similar successful takeover of Caltrans homes in March 2020, when 13 reclaimers, as those who take over vacant homes call themselves, were allowed to stay in their homes.