Reclaim Our Homes

By Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris, MPH

Organizing for Maintenance

Yesterday I was door-knocking my rent-controlled building to see if my elderly upstairs neighbors needed help getting our landlord to comply with needed maintenance requests. Our front door is shoddy; people can easily break in. Our mailboxes can also be easily opened; those who rely on social security checks to pay their rent and bills often must have their mail sent to someone else, so they continue to live here in the shadow of the Hollywood hills.

I am a member of the Los Angeles Tenants Union; I got a text from a random number. “The Reclaimers have been served eviction notices. We are ready to fight for our rights. We were told evictions are the only solution. We will NOT accept that especially NOW! Join us tomorrow Sunday, Nov. 27 at 7:00 am to rally in front of Sen. Durazo’s residence in 90032.”

Supporting the Occupiers

In 2020, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, a group of unhoused families moved into vacant homes in El Sereno owned by the California Department of Transportation.

SB 51 was introduced by Maria Elena Durazo in response this occupation. According to the Assembly floor analysis of SB 51, “beginning in the 1950s, Caltrans began acquiring property by eminent domain to extend the State Route (SR) 710 freeway through Alhambra, El Sereno, South Pasadena, and Pasadena…. Caltrans currently owns over 400 properties in the SR 710 corridor, including 330 homes and 103 multi-family housing units. Additionally, six nonprofits currently reside in properties owned by Caltrans within this corridor.”

The bill analysis contains a complicated set of provisions to sell these properties to housing related entities which would then control who would be able to live in these subsidized homes under strict means-tested income requirements. According to the bill analysis, “the United Caltrans Tenant Association (UCTA) are opposed to SB 51 because it removes the requirement that properties in the El Sereno portion of the 710 corridors be offered first for sale as a housing cooperative.”

Maria Elena Durazo’s Home

The morning of November 27th, at 7 am, it was bitter cold for Los Angeles in front of State Senator Maria Elena Durazo’s home on a green, tree lined street. She lived in modest home, with dull yellow stucco, and a small bush hanging with oranges on the right side of her abode. Maria Elena Durazo was a migrant farmworker who worked alongside her parents following crops up and down the west coast. She went to college, and graduated college in 1975. Politicized by the Chicano Movement in college, she worked for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, then went to law school, graduating from the People’s College of Law, then helping a rank-n-file reform slate take power in the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. She would later become the first woman Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and serve on the national AFL-CIO executive council.

On the opposite side of the street, the El Sereno residents who had occupied homes during the pandemic gathered. One had a Gina Viola button affixed to his hat. Viola had ran to the left of Karen Bass in the June 2022 Los Angeles Mayoral primary.

Rent Up & Min Wage Low

Four Chicano youth, one with his sister who had green died hair, wore death to capitalism hoodies with a cartoonish kid wearing a hoodie with the words JAS holding a sickle like the grim reaper. A black man with sunglasses wore a multicolored hoodie with pictures of black Egyptians on it. Another black woman wore a shirt that said stop evictions in bright red. A red sign read, “City Council Created Homelessness with 2 laws: Rent Up & Min Wage Low.”

Six people approached the front door and knocked. Two more had their cell phones live streaming the encounter. After repeated knocks a man came to the door and asked the delegation to visit the district office. They said they had tried but had been getting the run-around.

The man at the door said he wasn’t sure if she was home but would check.

“Stop the Evictions,” one yelled, “so families can stay in their place. Instead of evicting existing tenants and then doing some merry go round about building affordable housing, push Caltrans back to the negotiating table instead of evicting families out of their homes.”

After fifteen minutes of standing quietly, Senator Maria Elena Durazo wouldn’t come to the door. So a man started drumming on an empty five gallon jug, and then shouting what sounded like an Indian war cry – whooo-oooooo.

“Caltrans, HACLA [Housing Authority of the City of LA], we demand justice. Good morning beautiful people in El Sereno, we are fed up with the system.” A woman spoke on an amplified microphone. “Come out Maria Elena”

“Aqui estamos y no nos vamos, y si nos echan, nos regresamos.”

“We are calling out Maria Elena Durazo. We are the people of El Sereno and we want to talk to you. Not tomorrow, not next week, but today.”

“Tu necessitas hablar con la gente.”

We stood there. A bus sign said Metro 256 to Cal State LA.

“We are tired of this corruption. We do not want to be evicted. We are tired of the corruption between you, Kevin De Leon, and everyone else who doesn’t care. We are really tired of this corruption.”

“We know we are in a housing crisis. People are still recovering from the hard times, and they want to put us out on the street.”

“We want answers or at least a meeting. We need you to commit to a meeting. We don’t want to lose our homes you don’t want to lose your home either.”

“We are forced to do our own thing because of the politicians. You represent capitalism and profit. If you were for workers’ rights, you’d be for housing for all. We are your constituents. You need to speak to us.”

They started chanting. “Open the door. Open the door.” One sign read, People Over Profit.

“You control the rent. You are responsible for the homeless people. These people the real estate people. You have the authority to control the minimum wage.”

The Fight Against Homelessness

There are 75,000 homeless in LA. We cannot pay rent on the minimum wage. You say you are socialist. You go to Europe and all over the world. But we want a house. You destroy the cooperatives in El Sereno. You are taking money from the real estate industry for keeping the rent up. Evictions is violence. Impending doom. Evictions is violence. We are compelled to speak out, to alert the people who are asleep. Where people are doing violence to us, this is not acceptable. You want the poor people to vanish. 30 years ago, there were jobs and people could live. The real estate industry hiked up the rent.”

“You keep the minimum wage low. With 41.18 [the police sweep of homeless encampments] it is illegal to live in the streets. We are illegal, living in the street is illegal. You are ok with homeless being pushed outside the city. It is a crime; you are committing this crime. We have been talking to Steve Veres, representative of Sen. Durazo. At the start of the pandemic, families reclaimed homes from the California Department of Transportation. Now the state and city and HACLA [Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles] issued eviction notices.”

“They got the green light by CalTrans and the state to evict families. Public agencies that receive public dollars are supposed to serve the public good. It could easily be solved with a swift signature. There are 12 families in El Serrano. We are your neighbors. We are counting on elected officials to step in.”

“We want community-controlled solutions. If you are searching for the solution to the housing crisis, we are creating the solution here and now. We are going to stay here until you open the door.”

After 30 minutes of chanting and noisemaking they knocked again. No one answered.

“Fight Fight Fight! Housing is a human right. People remember who you were before you sold out. But you’re not listening to la gente anymore. You sold out. We’re giving you a chance to redeem yourself. We have some solutions. We may not have a lot of big degrees or power in the political scene, but we need to listen to each other to create real changes that will be better for everyone.”

“Maria Elena escucha, estamos en la lucha.”

“Aqui estamos y no nos vamos y si nos echan nos regresamos. We waited two years for this conversation. We will continue to be outside your door. This conversation must be had now- 2 years ago.”

“How many more people do you want to have died because you choose greed over people. You have helped to sell it to developers. Why do you want to displace your community. It takes courage to have this conversation. Your actions don’t represent me. Where there is people there is power. Eviction is death.”

Poetry is Power

They had a portable speaker, and a microphone, one young woman walked up the stairs back to the home’s front porch and placed the speaker right facing to the home and cued up her phone’s playlist. It was Uprising by Muse.

They will not force us
They will stop degrading us
They will not control us
We will be victorious
(So come on)

Interchanging mind control
Come, let the revolution take its toll
If you could flick the switch and open your third eye
You’d see that we should never be afraid to die
(So come on)

Rise up and take the power back
It’s time the fat cats had a heart attack
You know that their time’s coming to an end
We have to unify and watch our flag ascend
(So come on)

Skid Row

After this action, I decided to drop off four cases of bottled water at the Los Angeles Mission on Skid Row. As I unloaded the water from my car a half block north of 5th and Wall, Oliver approached me and asked if I wanted a receipt. He looked Asian.

“I am in the discipleship program. It is like a drug and alcohol program, a bible based one year program. After I graduate, they will help me find a job or they are absorbed as an employee. I first graduated in 2020, left, and came back in August 2022. I want to kick the drugs in my system. I am focused on recovering. As part of my work assignment, I accept donations and give people receipts. Donated clothes we separate between men and women. Where homeless shower we give clothes. We cannot take anything unless we get permission from our supervisor. My supervisor is Victor Lozano, the operation support services Manager. He manages the warehouse and laundry. A banner above the loading dock read “Heroes Work Here.” Another banner read “Black Lives Matter.”

This water goes to the kitchen. Water and food go to the kitchen and the kitchen will distribute it to the homeless. This is my only hope here.

When I came in I had probation. I thought I’d be deported. I am only a permanent resident alien. I should be deported if I didn’t have my charges thrown out. On August 13th I went to court—They said you are good. Stay in the Los Angeles Mission. Finish your program. Then apply for citizenship. Loyola law school will help me apply for citizenship. Ill stay for three years.

In skid row on Sunday morning a working man in a vest was sweeping the streets. A table called pit stop manned by a brown skinned individual stood with three porta potties outside. Trash was being cleaned up. Non-profits like The People Concern and Weingart Center had buildings on skid row. All the residents in tents cramming every square inch of sidewalk were black.

The Eviction Moratorium

According to a November 23rd 2022 article in the LA Times, “a judge has tossed out a federal lawsuit filed by a developer who said his real estate companies should have been compensated for losses they incurred as a result of emergency tenant protections approved in Los Angeles following the outbreak of COVID-19.

In his 15-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson said the city’s ordinance, which barred landlords from removing tenants who were unable to pay rent because of COVID-19, did not constitute a “taking” of private property as defined by federal law.

Pregerson said the eviction ordinance, which was approved in 2020 and remains in effect, covers only a limited period of time and does not constitute a permanent taking of property, which would have required the city to compensate landlords. The judge also found that the law “indisputably promotes the common good.”

“There can be little dispute that, absent the moratorium’s protections, significant numbers of tenants with COVID-related loss of income would have been evicted, resulting not only in the harms typical of mass displacements, but exacerbating the spread of COVID-19 as well, to the detriment of all,” Pregerson wrote.”

The Los Angeles eviction moratorium is set to end sometime in 2023.

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