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'Reclaimers' Broke Into Empty Houses And Got To Stay — But Others Haven't Since

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In March of last year, a group called the Reclaimers broke into some empty homes in Los Angeles and occupied them. The houses were owned by California's Transportation Agency, which had bought them to make way for a freeway extension. But Caltrans never built that extension, and some of the homes had been empty for decades. Remarkably, the state let Reclaimers stay. Others who were inspired by the Reclaimers haven't been so lucky. Cardiff Garcia and Robin Urevich from our podcast The Indicator From Planet Money bring us the story of one of those people.

ROBIN UREVICH, BYLINE: The story starts with Sasha Atkins. She's a 31-year-old single mom. She's a hairstylist who, before the pandemic, had a second job serving food at sports stadiums.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: But when COVID hit, she lost both of her jobs and her housing options along with her jobs. Sasha was facing the prospect of having to live on the street. She was desperate. And so as a result, she did something extremely risky, something illegal but also something that an increasing number of people around the country are doing to put a roof over their heads.

SASHA ATKINS: No one wants to break into a home and have to reclaim a home.

UREVICH: The night before Thanksgiving, Sasha left her son with her mom, grabbed her phone, blankets and a laptop. Along with a dozen other families, she went to the El Sereno neighborhood in northeast LA, where there was a cluster of more than 100 vacant Caltrans homes.

GARCIA: The group went in quietly but not in secret.

UREVICH: The group also knew the homes would be locked, so they brought lock-picking kits along. Sasha learned how to use hers online.

ATKINS: YouTube is an amazing thing (laughter). It was actually really easy, scarily easy, you know?

GARCIA: Sasha had never done anything like this before, so it was a scary experience. But later that night, when officers from the California Highway Patrol - the CHP - arrived on a nearby street, things got even more frightening.

ATKINS: I was watching Instagram live, and I was just watching how the CHP were coming into the homes and, you know, forcibly removing people. That was scary. I just knew that I did not want that to be me.

GARCIA: Eventually, officers did come to the house she had occupied, and another group of Reclaimers helped to hide her. But it was just clear to Sasha that this was not going to be a replay of the Reclaimers' victory of seven months earlier.

ATKINS: To have to come home and tell my son, like, oh, no, I'm sorry, sweetie, we didn't get it, was just - it was a really crappy feeling.

UREVICH: There are vacant properties private and state-owned all over the U.S. that could be used to house families like Sasha's. Politics, legal issues, bureaucratic inertia have all made it hard to rent, develop or sell them.

GARCIA: But there are officials in some urban areas that are stricken by homelessness who are increasingly willing to consider some newer, innovative solutions to the housing crisis. And so one of these innovative ideas that's gotten some traction is to fold vacant government-owned dwellings into something called a Community Land Trust. Once homes are in the trust, they can be developed for affordable housing.

UREVICH: But Sasha's still searching for permanent housing for her and her son. She's still in touch with the Reclaimers, who are keeping the pressure on elected officials. They're hoping to convince these officials to include those Caltrans houses in El Sereno in a land trust. And if they do decide to stage another takeover...

ATKINS: I'm ready for them. Just let me know, hey; let's do this.

UREVICH: Robin Urevich.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "EXPLORE, BE CURIOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.