Since the end of World War II, the property where Benito Flores lives has survived many failed state projects, including lanes for a northerly extension of the Long Beach Freeway, a 6.3-mile-long freeway tunnel with exhaust vents, new 710 Freeway feeder roads, and multi-family housing projects.
In that 75-year span, none of those things happened.
Instead, the “freeway homes” bought by Caltrans in El Sereno and most of the homes bought in South Pasadena and Pasadena to make way for the freeway, remain standing.
While some are rented, many have stood vacant for years. They are the ghosts of the dead freeway project killed by Caltrans in 2018.
In March 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Flores and other unhoused people simply moved in — they took over many of the vacant, ghost homes of El Sereno, a Los Angeles city community near Alhambra made up of a majority of ow-income, Latino residents.
Not only were they allowed to stay, they were moved into more habitable Caltrans homes in the area, becoming part of a transitional housing program involving 26 properties leased from Caltrans by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA).
But now, Flores and five other “home reclaimers” face a survival test of their own. In the coming days, they must vacate their reclaimed homes. On or around Oct. 25, they will write another chapter in the failed 710 Freeway extension saga that never seems to end.
Flores, standing in front of his residence on Shelley Street on a cloudy Tuesday morning, said he and his attorneys will advocate for his right to stay.
“We are going to fight it in court.” he said, adding that if law enforcement shows up to remove him, he’ll prevail. “And we will fight here, when they come.”
At issue is one sentence of the California state health and safety code (Section 50801, subsection i) that says transitional housing can only last for 24 months. Since Flores’ contract began on Oct. 25, 2020, his two years are nearly up.
Martha Escudero, 44, a single mother of two daughters, 10 and 13, is in the same boat. She is being ordered to vacate on Oct. 25 the Caltrans house she lives in on Sheffield Avenue. She turned down HACLA’s offers for housing in the San Fernando Valley and South Los Angeles because they are too far from her support system and her kids’ schools in El Sereno and nearby East Los Angeles, she said.
“I don’t have other options,” she said on Wednesday, Oct. 12. “I will be houseless with my two daughters. I don’t think it is humane to do that. It is more logical to transition in place, where I have my support system.”
Tina Booth, HACLA’s director of asset management, said the agency is bound by the 24-month time limit in the state code. This immediately affects six reclaimer contracts and eventually will affect all of them, she said.
The master lease executed in June 2020 was recently extended through June 2023, according to an email from Courtney Gladney, media specialist with HACLA. While that seems like 36 months, HACLA and Caltrans say the other 20 reclaimers signed contracts in October 2021 or January 2022, meaning their time is not yet up but all will have to leave when the master lease ends in 2023, Booth said.
If this seems confusing, it is, said Angela Flores, an organizer with the group Reclaiming Our Homes. Flores, no relation to Benito, said she’d heard from Caltrans that the extension would last until September 2023, not June. When the group marched on Caltrans headquarters in Los Angeles last month, they were reassured that the reclaimers could stay in the homes until fall 2023, she said.
While the dates keep changing, the group did not know about eviction notices sent to the six residents until late September when the residents contacted the group. They’d left the meeting with Caltrans thinking all 26 residents were being treated the same.
“We are going to get the community together to prevent this from happening,” Angela Flores said on Monday, Oct. 10. “These are mostly low-income people of color who have no place to go.”
Benito Flores, 67, was asked where he will go when forced to leave his a one-bedroom duplex near busy Huntington Drive, for which he pays $200 a month in rent.
“I am going to live in the street, in a van,” he said. He said he was homeless for 14 years before he reclaimed the house in El Sereno, traveling from San Fernando to Pico Rivera to Los Angeles in his van.
Flores worked as a welder, sometimes for others, then he tried to make it on his own. He could not afford his living expenses and became homeless. Today, he’s advocating for a minimum wage raise from $15 an hour to $39 to prevent more from becoming homeless. He is opposes plans by HACLA and its partner, People Assisting The Homeless (PATH), to place him and others in temporary housing.
“Temporary housing is a mistake,” he said. “You only get a bed and there are other people in the same room.”
He said he has never been offered a specific permanent housing location. He said the agencies require a signed application from the perspective tenant, without telling them to the address or specific location. He said often there are restrictions such as no pets or no alcohol.
“They treat people like children,” he said.
Booth at HACLA said sometimes there are restrictions. But she said “a few” of the 710 Freeway reclaimers have taken Section 8 housing vouchers, which are part of a federal program requiring the landlord to rent at low rates. But often, landlords turn away those with the vouchers, experts say. One household has moved into a permanent three-bedroom apartment in Boyle Heights, HACLA reported.
Many have turned down these options, Booth said. “I don’t know why someone would not take advantage,” she added.
If the reclaimers facing eviction don’t leave when their stay is up, HACLA is prepared to send in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies or take the matter to court, Booth said. She says HACLA will work with reclaimers to find other housing options up to the last-minute.
“We want to do everything we can to find stable, permanent housing for these people. I have heard it said ‘You just want to throw us on the street.’ That is not true,” Booth said.
Once the reclaimers are out of the homes, Booth said, “We will then pull in other homeless individuals who need housing.”
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Benito Flores compared the policy to a revolving door, sending formerly homeless people living in the reclaimed properties back onto the streets and adding to the 42,000 homeless, while providing shelter for other homeless people.
Booth said the purpose of the reclaimer contracts was not to offer permanent housing but transitional housing that hopefully leads to a permanent home.
Angela Flores said Caltrans has not been a good landlord, saying many of the homes along the defunct 710 extension are empty and could be used to help more homeless. Some on Benito Flores’ street were vacant, with signs in the windows saying “state property” and “No trespassing.” He estimated 170 houses have been kept empty during the past 50 years in El Sereno, South Pasadena and Pasadena.
An investigation by this newspaper group in August 2019 reported 163 vacant dwelling units along the corridor, mostly single-family homes with a few multi-family residences, out of about 460 homes Caltrans bought to make way for the freeway extension.
Caltrans is selling an estimated 120 vacant single-family homes and multi-family units in the three communities, according to an email from Caltrans. Vacant properties are being offered to housing-related entities and “will specifically be used for affordable housing,” the agency reported.
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