In the Pandemic, Squatters Are Reclaiming Homes for the Families Who Need Them

In L.A. alone, 46,000 housing units sit completely vacant. ‘The Reclaimers’ believe these empty dwellings could be the key to ending housing insecurity in the city

It was only about a month ago that Ruby Gordillo, 33, was sitting in a tiny studio apartment, watching her three kids fight for space and wondering how much longer they could afford to be stuck there — literally and figuratively. 

Her husband was already doing his best to help, sleeping in his car and working at a convenience store. Rent for that studio ate up half the family’s paycheck, leaving little to cover all the expenses for the five of them. Gordillo’s mind often wandered to the news she’d witnessed from Oakland in November, when homeless mothers banded together to occupy a vacant home with an unlocked door. It was an action spurred by desperation that ultimately led to success. Gordillo was desperate, too. 

So desperate that she, along with a collection of nonprofit advocates and housing activists, had already begun planning a similar occupation in Southern California. They tracked down details on nearly 200 vacant homes owned by the state transportation agency, Caltrans, and chose a cluster of properties just east of Downtown L.A. On Saturday, March 14th, Gordillo and her family moved into a petite single-story house with white columns framing the porch. Joining her was another family with a single mother (Martha), as well as a 64-year-old man (Benito Flores). 

“And then COVID showed up,” Gordillo tells me. “Martha was in one room, I was in the other, Benito was in the living room. We had to think about, ‘Okay, they’re asking us to socially distance and self-quarantine.’ But we’re working people, we have kids and the virus pressured us into realizing, ‘Okay, we really need one home per household. This isn’t going to be as easy as we thought it would be.’” 

Just four days after the initial move-in, Gordillo moved her family into a house across the street. Her former roommate, Flores, took another. So did 10 other families. And as soon as Gordillo shut the door on her new house, she realized what a difference it could make: “It’s embarrassing to say, but just the living room to the front door was as big as the studio apartment,” she tells me.

Her two girls (12 and 14) and her eight-year-old boy have found new peace in the house. A favorite space of theirs is the backyard garden, where they’ve planted corn, strawberries, carrots and greens (with the help of some volunteers). This home and this newfound community is a haven for Gordillo, amid a global pandemic that’s wrecking people’s health and finances with little warning. Now, other eyes are turning to more properties that could feasibly shelter more families. Occupying a house that’s not yours doesn’t feel so radical when being homeless is the alternative, she tells me. 

Illegally moving into unoccupied homes is nothing new; laws around “squatting” have existed for decades, and activists have been organizing similar efforts in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But the victory of “Moms 4 Housing” in Oakland, and the wide public support it garnered, is proving that this kind of direct action can grow more popular in years to come, with the opportunity to shift actual housing policy. In L.A., the “Reclaim Our Homes” movement led by Gordillo and others was made possible because the state purchased more than 200 properties to demolish and make way for a freeway expansion. That plan has been abandoned, but it could be years before these empty homes land in lawful hands. “These homes were bought with taxpayer money. Why shouldn’t we be able to take them back?” Gordillo notes. 

Beyond empty houses owned by the government, census data suggests that in 2017, the City of L.A. alone had 46,000 vacant units that were not available on the market, creating a weird scenario in which vacant homes exist but don’t alleviate a housing crisis. Speculative investment in real estate, especially in red-hot markets like San Francisco, has gotten so bad that California legislators have proposed levying fines on property owners sitting on empty homes. It’s not just the case on the development-happy West Coast, either. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates there are potentially more than 10 million empty homes around the country. Some of them are untouched foreclosures, others have structural issues and many more are just locked up behind government red tape. 

Meanwhile, housing insecurity continues to mount for Americans as rents and home prices spiral upward. Things got so tough that Martha Escudero, 42, left the country in 2017 to raise her daughters (now 8 and 10) outside of the U.S. After two years in rural Chile, however, Escudero realized that she missed the people, culture and opportunities in L.A. She expected a challenging transition back — paying the bills as a social worker hadn’t been easy when she left. “But I was in shock when I returned. I’d been paying $1,200 in rent. Now, I was expected to pay double for the same thing,” she says. “It was really scary coming back, actually. My daughters and I had increasing anxiety and depression. I wasn’t really able to hold a full-time job.” 

Looking for help, Escudero moved in with her mother, all four of them sharing a bedroom. Later, they drifted between the living rooms of various family and friends. The uncertainty lasted for 18 months, and she tells me that it hurt her ability to homeschool her kids. Gordillo, too, had struggles with mental health, although in a more explicit way: While living with her mother and brother, a series of incidents with the latter’s erratic behavior led to an eviction notice. Gordillo believes her sibling has undiagnosed schizophrenia, but pleas for understanding were rejected by her landlord. It was a long way from the two-bedroom home that the former teacher had lived in, before her husband lost his longtime job at a tony L.A. outdoor mall

These shared stories of struggle, repeated by different faces in different cities, are helping inspire creative activist tactics. Gordillo says that the keys for the first home that she and Escudero moved into actually came directly from the previous tenant, who saw a “150 percent” rent increase and harassment from Caltrans about late payments. (Caltrans didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.) They’ve had to work around attempts by the state agency to block utilities to the reclaimed homes. One mother-daughter duo came home to find that the lock had been changed on the door. And the families have experienced increased surveillance from law enforcement, under the auspices of “safety” for the rest of the community. (A spokesman for the California Highway Patrol said Wednesday that there are currently no officers assigned to patrol the occupied homes, other than on an incident-by-incident basis.) 

“The city has stated that they’re not going to evict us during a pandemic, so I feel pretty safe. But I know other people have dealt with harassment, including from police, with knocks on the door and things like that,” Escudero says. “Hopefully there are no more issues. If Caltrans tries to block utilities or something, that’s just immoral during this time.”

Housing insecurity often has major mental health impacts, and research continues to show that poor mental health is a factor for physical illness. That’s a crucial detail during the pandemic, and especially pointed for people of color given the racial disparities in both housing and health. Gordillo is diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and her teen daughters have health issues as well (high-functioning autism and migraines, respectively). “Being crammed into a studio, not being able to do their work, developing anger issues about their home environment, it’s not a way they can thrive,” she says. “I’ve been told by the pediatrician, by the therapist, even by social workers, that the kids really need a bigger space so that they can play, so that they can stretch, so that they can sleep comfortably. Sleeping is a major part of development, and they weren’t getting adequate sleep because of things like Michelle being up in the middle of the night due to her autism.” 

It’s unclear what comes next for the 11 “reclaimer” families. Gordillo and Escudero want to eventually pay rent for these homes and become a permanent part of the community. For now, Gordillo is hanging on while burning through food stamps in quarantine. She can’t wait for the $1,200 the federal stimulus has promised people. But she also can’t help but think of undocumented immigrants and homeless people who won’t have access to that money. Assistance for the homeless has been hard to come by during the virus pandemic, with L.A. failing its most basic duties to provide hand-washing stations and the state dawdling on plans to move people without shelter into empty hotel rooms. The consequences are dire: The rate of new cases among the homeless in Massachusetts, for one, is seven times higher than the rest of its population. 

“How can we ask someone to shelter-in-place while simultaneously denying them shelter? It sounds cruel and counterintuitive,” writes Abhisake Kole, a doctor in San Francisco. “After our shelter-in-place orders were enacted, restaurants and businesses scrambled to restructure their operations. Washington injected over two trillion dollars into the economy to keep corporations afloat. The individual will only get $1200, perhaps months later and only if the IRS has an address or a bank account on file. And the unhoused population is once again an afterthought.”

Escudero reiterates to me that people should be able to live in a home while paying an equitable amount that’s proportional to their income. Instead, all of California is getting more and more unaffordable — “Are we all supposed to leave?” she wonders. For now, though, she’s soaking in a newfound peace of mind. The berries are starting to appear in her backyard garden — a luxury she’s never experienced before.

“I think I speak for other reclaimers when I say we love this community. Some of us have already been living in East L.A. for a long time, so the support has been incredible to see. There are some neighbors who oppose us being here, sure,” Escudero says. “But we told them we’d share our corn and strawberries when the crops grow up.”