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Protestors in Oakland advancing housing justice legislation.
Members of the group Moms 4 Housing, Tolani King, left, Misty Cross, center, and Sharena Thomas, right, interrupt a press conference announcing revisions to Senate Bill 50 the “More HOMES Act” on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020 in Oakland, California.
MediaNews Group via Getty Images

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People need homes to fight coronavirus

Rent strikes, home occupations, and how the pandemic underscores the need to fight for housing justice.

For Martha Escudero, a 42-year-old caregiver living in Los Angeles, the debates around housing today come down to a simple question of fairness. Her father, an immigrant from Mexico, only has an elementary-school education and works as a janitor, and was still able to buy a home for his family when his children were growing up. Born and raised in the U.S., Escudero has a college degree, speaks English, has a job in the medical field, and can’t even afford to rent a house in the Boyle Heights neighborhood for herself and her daughters, Victoria, 10, and Meztli, 8.

“Things aren’t right, and we need to do things to make it right,” she says.

That’s one of the reasons why Escudero took action and joined the Reclaimers, a group of homeless and housing-insecure moms and housing activists in Los Angeles. Earlier this month, they took over homes owned by Caltrans, the state transportation authority, arguing they shouldn’t be left vacant during a pandemic when people need places to live. The homes, located in the El Sereno neighborhood near Pasadena, were purchased decades ago to make way for an extension of the 710 freeway that was never built, and roughly 163 are still standing and vacant.

Escudero is now living with her daughters in one of 13 homes occupied by the movement, a blue two-bedroom bungalow where they’ve already planted gardens in the front and the back to grow herbs, tomatoes, and corn. Volunteers with the group, a coalition of local housing-justice organizations, work around the clock providing security for the Reclaimers. Escudero says her daughters are “extremely excited” to have a home after years of bouncing between temporary living situations with friends, and have nicknamed the vegetables growing outside the “garden of love and kindness.”

Not everyone is happy about her new home, however. “I keep hearing, ‘Why don’t you wait like everybody else?’” Escudero says. In other words, why don’t you get housing assistance instead of occupying a home? “Well there are families in shelters who have been waiting four years,” she says. “What a lot of people aren’t aware of is there are lots of vacant homes owned by cities, counties, and school districts, and they belong to us. The government has been hoarding these homes. Housing is a human right and shouldn’t be commodified by investors. The government just isn’t working fast enough.”

Escudero and others point to Moms 4 Housing, the group of Oakland-area activists who staged their own takeover of a vacant home beginning last November—in their case owned by Wedgewood Properties, a national firm focused on home flipping—as a big inspiration for their actions.

The burgeoning housing-justice movement already had plenty of momentum to fight against what it sees as rampant inequality and unaffordability. Now, the coronavirus crisis has exacerbated everything, and activists across the country see this as a crucial moment to push the housing-justice platform. The nation is facing an unprecedented economic crisis, one that will make it hard for millions to pay rent, underscores risks to the homeless population, and highlights what they see as an unjust and unfair housing system based on speculation. The simple fact is, if you don’t have a house to stay home in, you can’t do your part to fight coronavirus.

“I think some people in Washington aren’t considering the impact this crisis will have on people on the ground,” says Peter Gowan, policy associate for the Democracy Collaborative, a progressive nonprofit. “There’s a lot of talk about bailing out big companies, and making sure people stay employed and on unemployment benefits. But so many people are going to fall through the cracks. It’s very possible these funds run out before the economy is fully recovered.”

Escudero and others in the Reclaimers movement say they’ll stay in the houses as long as they can, and believe their actions only prove that if the government has the will to work fast, it can provide permanent housing for everybody, especially during a pandemic. Matt Rocco, a Caltrans spokesperson, says the department is aware of the situation, “and Caltrans is currently in discussions regarding the use of these properties.”

El Sereno may soon be seen as one of many fronts in a growing, nationwide push for housing rights and housing justice, as calls for collective action grow and #RentStrike and #CancelRent trend on social media. Carroll Fife, a long-time Bay Area activist and regional director of Alliance of Californians for Community, who helped the members of Moms 4 Housing organize and strategize, says to “stay tuned.” She says there are plans to get the Moms and Reclaimers together to meet, and she’s fielding phone calls from across the country from people asking for advice on how to reclaim homes.

Groups across the country are rapidly mobilizing, pushing for emergency legislation and support and organizing tenant rent strikes across the nation. This morning, housing activists and advocacy groups from across the country will get together for a tele-townhall to advocate for legislation to push a #CancelRent agenda, which includes a moratorium on work requirements for housing and housing for the unhoused, featuring comments from progressive Democratic Reps. Jesús “Chuy” García and Rashida Tlaib. In the Bronx in New York City at 6 p.m., organizers with groups including the Justice Center en el Barrio will ask tenants to start banging on pots and pans and chant “Cancel the Rent” and “Cancela la Renta,” part of a broader campaign asking for a 90-day rent cancellation.

“There are going to be a wave of several different types of actions to address the housing crisis, which is now a health crisis,” Fife says. “We’re preparing a toolkit for people who can’t pay their rent, so they can learn what their rights are and how to weather the storm.”

Gowan says that activists around the country are discussing the tactics used by Moms 4 Housing and the Reclaimers.

“People will be looking to organize people in encampments of unhoused people,” he says. “Lots of people are talking about forming tenant unions in their buildings.”

This push to make housing a human right has a number of concrete policy goals, according to Fife. The first is establishing a right for housing, which would then legally compel the government to provide housing for the unhoused population. She also wants to see more funding for community land trusts, which would help promote community ownership and take units off the speculative housing market. She’s hoping that California can allocate more state and local funding for these organizations. Fife points to bills in the California Assembly, such as State Sen. Nancy Skinner’s proposal around vacant housing, which would fine corporations that own multiple single-family homes if they keep houses vacant for more than 90 days, and give local governments first rights to use such vacant properties for affordable housing.

On the national level, organizers are pushing for the Homes Guarantee, a legislative platform introduced last fall and backed by a nationwide coalition of local housing justice organizations. That plan, which would invest billions of dollars in housing infrastructure and radically reshape the way the housing market works, would be funded in part by both a $1 trillion investment in the Housing Trust Fund and a $1 trillion bond offering. Sen. Bernie Sanders has endorsed the platform, and more and more candidates at every level of government have adopted very progressive housing platforms during the 2020 presidential campaign.

Gowan says the stimulus package passed in response to the pandemic is geared too much toward property owners and big business. There should be rent cancellation right now as tenants try to navigate economic uncertainty, and the property owners are the ones who should be applying for relief, not individual tenants, he believes.

“We need to press pause on the housing market right now,” he says. “Otherwise, the consequence will be a wave of evictions.”

The housing-occupation movement has provided a potent argument, and strong visuals, during a crucial pivot point for housing legislation. As the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on politics and policy remains to be seen, housing justice advocates say that such a disruption only points toward better things in the future.

“The overarching objective is to not go back to the same systems that have brought us to this place,” says Fife. “We need to move from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy, where people have what they need to thrive.”

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