For Sale sign on a California property during the COVID pandemic

A For Sale sign on a property in Monterey Park, California, in March 2020. Job losses during the coronavirus pandemic accelerated a housing crisis that traces back to the 2008 recession.

Growing up in California, Francesca Mari found herself in proximity to spaces that felt somewhat foreign. Decades later, her sense of story traces to her desire to understand how the world works.

The 35-year-old freelance journalist grew up in a small town nestled along State Route 1 south of San Francisco. Her parents — a small business owner and a nurse — cared deeply about education and enrolled her in private schools they couldn’t afford. Mari was 10 when her mother died, and her world constricted. “I always felt like I didn’t understand how the world worked, especially when I was attending school with people whose parents were CEOs of tech companies or lawyers at pharmaceutical companies,” Mari says.

Freelance writer Francesca Mari

Francesca Mari

She’s especially interested in the ways that power is concentrated — a deep curiosity that amplified when she attended Harvard University. Ever since, she’s been attracted to explanatory stories that break down how systems, like finance and government, operate and who they benefit. Or, as her website says, she writes about “housing, conmen and abuses of power.”

Mari now teaches nonfiction at Brown University. She built her journalism skills as an assistant to the literary editor at The New Republic, an intern at the New York Review of Books, and an associate editor at Texas Monthly. She worked as a fact-checker and wrote freelance pieces. In 2016, she became a senior editor at The California Sunday Magazine. That job drew her back home to California, her first time returning as an adult, and made her acutely aware of housing issues.

National news coverage has focused increasing attention on the housing affordability crisis on the West Coast. Yet reporters find it can prove difficult to make readers care enough to understand the present crisis’ roots in historic policy choices.

“It’s hard to look away from the housing crisis there, and I just became so keen to understand what had happened to my native city,” she says. Mari has chased that animating question through a number of sobering stories, including a recent New Yorker feature, “Using the Homeless to Guard Empty Houses,” which follows Augustus Evans, a poet who found himself homeless after a divorce. Evans found ironic work as a house-sitter, guarding empty Los Angeles houses that were getting flipped.

We discussed how her personal interest in systemic policies shapes her story craft. An annotation of the story follows our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

How did this particular assignment come about?
I wish what I’m about to tell you were replicable in any way. I had reported a story for The New York Times Magazine about the single-family rental home empires, the private equity-backed companies that originated in the wake of the financial crisis by buying foreclosed homes. I basically reported out two full stories’ worth of material and ended up not going with one because a survivor of wrongful foreclosure struck a deal with a private equity company and signed a nondisclosure agreement. Even though everything I reported prior to the signing of that NDA was fair game for me to use, I did not want to jeopardize her housing situation in any way, so I decided to scrap that.

The lawyer of that woman lived on this block in Pasadena, and I was touring the neighborhood with him. I noticed that the house next door, which had gone through foreclosure and been abandoned for quite some time, had sheets in the window. I pressed my face up against the window, saw snacks on a table, and knocked on the door. Nobody answered, but when I left and was midway down the block — I describe this in the story — Augustus Evans stepped out and asked if I needed help with anything. It was totally coincidental, but his story was fascinating.

While homeless house-sitters are not necessarily a large phenomenon, this is evocative of the financial forces operating on housing and the marginalization of certain people who have been excluded from credit or the housing market. Though it’s a small story, it really seemed emblematic of certain systems and things happening in L.A. and across the country.

Who did you hope that this story would reach?
I know that housing is not a subject that appeals to most people. And so one of my goals is always to make people more interested because I think it’s one of the more important factors contributing to inequality today. Housing is the largest asset class in the world. It’s the preferred investment of the world’s wealthy, even more so than equity markets. My mission and my goal is to make people as excited to understand it as I am.

You published this during the pandemic, but it’s not a COVID-focused story. Can you share a bit more about your timeline?
I pitched it the day before Thanksgiving in 2019. I got the assignment a week or two later, after my editor at the New Yorker, Willing Davidson, ran it up the flagpole. Augustus was about to move and we thought it would be good for me to track him from one gig to another, so that’s in part why we got a pretty quick answer. But I had reported probably half of the story, if not more, before I pitched it.

…I had reported probably half of the story, if not more, before I pitched it.

After the story was approved, I went out to L.A., followed Augustus’ move, and did a ton of reporting that is not reflected in the piece, where I tracked down other house-sitters and went to the courthouse, and found judgments against the owner of the company Augustus worked for. I filed the piece in February of 2020, before the pandemic. The editing process was so smooth — Willing is such a pro, and it was truly the most painless process I’ve ever been through. The piece was done by March, but because of the pandemic and George Floyd and the election — all of these really pressing, urgent news events — it sat for a while.

I was back in California in September to help out my dad during the pandemic and drove down to L.A. to visit Augustus — masked and distanced — and update the piece for COVID. But this was not a COVID story, in my mind.

You’ve written about different facets of this crisis, notably housing policy and the power structures influencing the market that have led to this point. How did you want this particular story to build on your previous work?
I wanted to be able to tell an intimate story about systemic forces and to have people empathize. I wanted to appeal to people who might not care about housing or racist housing policy — and to really show how it impacts a life. To show how an entire life can be marginalized as a result of these forces.

There are a ton of lovely details about Augustus Evans throughout the piece: his ambitions, his writing, his dreams. You close out the piece with one of his poems. What did you ultimately want to convey about his humanity, his life, his character?
There are so many preconceptions about who is homeless, and he is a member of the ever-increasing group of working homeless. Part of the reason it was such a pleasure to report on Augustus is that he was a writer and thought of his story narratively. He was a beautiful talker and was attuned to very interesting details. I included some of his poetry in part because he was so attuned to the inequities and systemic forces operating on him, yet powerless to change them. I found that heartbreaking. There are a number of people who are unaware of what’s causing their situation. He had some sense, yet he didn’t have the platform. So I wanted to give him that platform.

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Annotation: Storyboard’s questions and comments are in blue; Mari’s responses are in red. To read the story without the annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which can be found below the contributors’ list on the right-hand side of the web page, or at the top of your mobile screen.

 

Using the Homeless to Guard Empty Houses

As the pandemic makes an already terrible housing crisis worse, a new version of house-sitting signals a broken real-estate market.

(Published in the print edition of the December 7, 2020, issue, with the headline “A Lonely Occupation.”)

 

Wandering around Northwest Pasadena, I pressed my face against the window of a dingy pink stucco house at 265 Robinson Road. Why did you choose to insert yourself in the story right away? Originally I opened with the moment Augustus Evans became homeless and ended the first section with him securing his first house-sitting gig. This was the start of the second section. But my brilliant editor Willing Davidson thought it’d make a more unusual opening. That was the biggest structural change to the piece. It was April, 2019, and in two blocks I had passed thirteen bungalows, duplexes, and multifamily homes that had gone through foreclosure in the past fifteen years. Twelve of them were still unoccupied. No. 265 had been in foreclosure for a year and a half, and the two small houses on the property had long sat empty. But now, inside the rear house, there was a gallon jug of water and a bag of peanuts on a Formica kitchen counter. The walls were a mangy taupe, but African-print sheets hung over the windows. As I walked away, I heard a genteel Southern accent from behind me: “Can I help you?” A Black man with perfect posture, wearing loafers and a black T-shirt tucked into belted trousers, introduced himself as Augustus Evans. Can you share more about why you chose to write this kind of lede? Why did you feel it was crucial for these elements — your presence, a bit of exposition on foreclosures, and your protagonist, Evans — to set the stage? I’d visited this block often and dubbed it the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis, and so encountering Evans in the way that I did was so strange, but also so fitting. Exploitative systems are always hiding in plain sight. I could only recount our coincidental encounter, though, if I included myself, something I generally avoid.

 

I wasn’t the first person to wonder what Evans was doing there. A few weeks earlier, two sheriffs had knocked on the door around 11 p.m. and handcuffed him. In his car’s glove compartment, they found a letter of employment and the cell-phone number of a woman named Diane Montano, who runs Weekend Warriors, a company that provides security for vacant houses. Like many of Montano’s employees, Evans was homeless when he was hired. Now he lives in properties that are being flipped, guarding them through the renovation, staging, open-house, and inspection periods. In the past seven years, he has protected more than twenty-two homes, in thirteen neighborhoods around Los Angeles, almost all historically Black and Latino communities. A McMansion in Fontana; a four-unit apartment complex in Compton; a “baby mansion on the peak of the mountain” in East L.A., which had been left to a son who, according to the neighbors, borrowed so much against the equity of the house that he lost it to foreclosure. Before leaving, he poured liquid cement down the drains. Evans guarded the property as the plumbing system was replaced.

Empty houses are a strange sight in an area that has one of the most severe housing shortages in the United States. L.A. has the highest median home prices, relative to income, and among the lowest homeownership rates of any major city, according to the U.C.L.A. Center for Neighborhood Knowledge. Renting isn’t any easier. The area has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country, and the average rent is twenty-two hundred dollars a month. On any night, some sixty-six thousand people there sleep in cars, in shelters, or on the street, an increase of thirteen per cent since last year. How much background knowledge did you assume that your audience had about the housing crisis? I want anyone who comes across one of my stories to understand it without effort. I figure the less background a reader has, the better; those are the people I hope to reach. I really love immersive narratives, yet I often find that for the subjects that I’m interested in — because I’m interested in these questions of how things work — I need to provide quite a bit of exposition. I’m always trying to make that as painless as possible, but I’m always concerned that I’m failing.

The housing shortage was caused, in part, by restrictive zoning, rampant nimbyism, and the use of California’s environmental laws to thwart urban development. In 1960, Los Angeles was zoned to house some ten million people. By 1990, decades of downzoning had reduced that number to 3.9 million, roughly the city’s current population. Then, in 2008, the subprime-mortgage crisis struck, and in the years that followed thousands of foreclosed homes were sold at auction. Because they had to be purchased in cash, many of them were bought by wealthy investors, private-equity-backed real-estate funds, and countless other real-estate companies, leaving less inventory for individual buyers. In the end, the 2008 crash made housing in California even more expensive. You pull out of the narrative here to provide some big-picture background. Why? I wanted to make clear that the housing crisis was sewn through decades of bad policy. It didn’t begin with 2008. But the government’s response to 2008 ultimately worsened inequality. It favored the rich and the vulture investors, who drove home prices further out of reach for the middle and working classes.

No. 265, along with thousands of other homes in L.A., was acquired by Wedgewood, a real-estate company, founded in 1983, that specializes in flipping homes, managing everything from lockouts and financing to renovation and staging. In gentrifying neighborhoods, empty houses are sitting ducks, so companies like Wedgewood hire Weekend Warriors and other house-sitting services for cheap security. The “sitting duck” visualization is apt and powerful.  Around Robinson Road, several properties had been broken into. At No. 265, a middle-aged Black couple had recently crawled in through the front window. When Evans told them to leave, they apologized; the man was a jazz musician, and they said that they were struggling with crystal-meth dependency and that they used to sleep in this house before Evans arrived. The three went to the front porch and chatted while smoking cigarillos.

Evans, who was sixty-seven at the time, took me through the two houses on the lot. He’d laid a blue tarp over the cream-colored carpet, and, in one room, he’d set up an inflatable mattress neatly made with a floral fleece coverlet. A Haitian-flag baby blanket was wrapped around his pillow. He liked his room warm; when he woke up, he’d crank up his space heater, then brew a cup of coffee and read and write—poetry, essays, screenplays—at a plastic folding table by his bed. He was contemplating writing a memoir. These details are lovely, and give readers a really clear sense of the distinct, personal ways that Evans made this place feel like home for him.  “This is how I keep my sanity,” he told me. He had the run of both houses, but he kept to this one room, his life contained in several milk crates on the shelves. He showed me his eighth-grade diploma and a picture of a poetry venue that he had opened in Compton in the nineties. (It closed after becoming a target of the Crips gang.) Two of his screenplays were on the shelves, along with a book, “The Thoughts of Augustus the Final Poet,” which he had self-published in 2014: “Hey, Mr. Income / You’re my best friend. / My pockets are empty / Where have you been?” He’d saved a receipt from the Los Angeles Unified School District, which bought two hundred and eighty-five copies for its classrooms. Why did you feel that these particular details were emblematic of who Evans is? These were the few mementos Evans kept with him through his many moves, so whether they are emblematic or not, they were clearly meaningful. And I completely relate to saving a paystub! Still have my first stub from the New York Times.  

He spent most of his time inside, but when he wanted a change of scenery he sat in his S.U.V., a 2001 Infiniti, which he’d bought with his house-sitting savings. Evans dreamed of living in the Robincroft Castle, a seven-thousand-square-foot historic landmark across the street, which sold for $1.39 million in 2016 and three years later was listed for $2.49 million. And he took to caring for a colony of ants under a tree, feeding them chicken bones. The bones disappeared quickly, so he kept watch and spied a cat and a possum come by, and realized they weren’t just eating the bones but the ants and everything else. What did you want this metaphor to signal? I want to leave that open to interpretation.

 

Born to sharecroppers in the Arkansas Delta, Evans is the seventh of ten children. He picked cotton until he was eleven, when his family hitched a ride on a hay truck to Tulare, California. In school, the other children and teachers ridiculed him—for his accent, his coveralls, his lunches of fatback and collard greens. He dropped out after the eighth grade. At sixteen, he and some cousins were washing cars at a gas station when a money-green Cadillac Eldorado rolled in and a Black man stepped out. One of Evans’s cousins asked the man how he could afford such a car, and he told them that, if they came to Los Angeles, he could hook them up with a job that paid two hundred dollars a day. That afternoon, the boys took a Greyhound bus to Venice, where they began selling little balloons of heroin out of their mouths for ten dollars each. Not long afterward, Evans offered drugs to an undercover officer. He was arrested and sent to juvenile detention, where he joined the Nation of Islam. His faith estranged him from his Christian family. “The old Muslim people, they brainwashed him, I think,” his sister Ercell Murray told me. When Evans was released, he moved to Compton, the heart of L.A.’s Black activist community. In the seventies, he sold Amway products door to door and taught martial arts. He wanted to open a martial-arts academy, but no bank would give him a loan. In the fall of 1983, when Derrick Stevens, a friend from juvenile detention, asked if Evans wanted in on a bank robbery, Evans said yes. “I never thought of robbing a bank, but I did know that that’s the building with the money in it, and if you got a lot of money you could do anything you want in America,” Evans told me. What a powerful quote. How did you suss out that Augustus Evans was a compelling and credible character through which to tell the story? Was he willing to talk from the beginning, and how did your relationship develop? His life, as a descendant of slaves and sharecroppers, and as someone who lived in South L.A. in the ’70s and ’80s and then, because of incarceration, was unable to get jobs, really tracked with racist housing policies and the impact of incarceration on housing. And as a writer himself, he thought in terms of his life story. He processed things more than most people. I think he knew that he had a rich story. His concerns were about his job, but he also wanted to tell the story of how he ended up where he was. He did not take much convincing; I was extremely clear about the potential risks and that I was most interested in his role as a house-sitter. We built the rapport over time, but he was truly open from the beginning.

 

On a late October morning, Evans, Stevens, and two other men walked into the American Savings and Loan on Crenshaw Boulevard wearing rubber masks of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. The men bagged two hundred and twenty-eight thousand dollars and several exploding dye packs, in what was then the largest bank robbery in Los Angeles history. (It inspired scenes in the movie “Point Break.”) Three months later, Evans was caught in Tampa, Florida, just before boarding a cruise ship to the Bahamas, where he’d hoped to hide. He spent the next seven years locked up, reading, writing, and preaching. When he got out, it was hard to find work.

In 1998, Evans rented a derelict office in South L.A., across from the Magic Johnson Theatre, to work on his poetry and various business projects, including a short-lived toilet-paper-delivery service. One day, he gave a CD of himself performing his poetry to a woman who worked in the salon downstairs; he’d noticed her singing to herself as she braided hair. “She was a vocalist out of this world,” Evans told me. “I mean, she’s another Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston quality of a singer.” Soon they got married and he moved into her small apartment in South L.A., where they paid some six hundred dollars a month. They had two sons, and eventually, afraid that their children would become involved in the local gangs, they moved with Evans’s mother-in-law and brother-in-law to Moreno Valley, a suburb with a fast-growing Black population. They had another son, and, over the years, they rented homes that ranged from two thousand to four thousand dollars a month. Why did you take this space in the story to establish such a detailed history of Evans’ life? I wanted to show the richness of his life, and some of the emotional highs and lows, so that he couldn’t be reduced to any one thing.

As the world eased out of the Great Recession, in 2010, his wife told him that their differences had grown too great. Although she had a talent for singing, she’d earned her nursing degree, but he was still holding on to the hope of becoming a famous poet. “You can’t just get stagnated and stuck on a dream that has not materialized,” she told me. Was Evans’ ex-wife amenable to talking with you from the beginning, or did it take some convincing? She was warm and open and spoke with great perspective and wisdom about their relationship.  After their divorce was finalized, he put his belongings in a trash bag and walked out, beginning a life of homelessness. He got two weeks’ worth of motel vouchers from General Relief, and when those ran out he headed toward Union Station, where he hoped to sleep on a bench. He was crossing Normandie and Vernon when a couple he knew from the Black-consciousness community spotted him. They took him into their store, a Caribbean gift shop called Bles-sed Love, and told him that he could sleep there in exchange for some help at the counter. There was a windowless black-lit room in the back, with murals of Egyptian iconography on the walls and the solar system painted on the ceiling. He slept there for nearly two years, waking at dawn for morning prayers and opening the store two hours later.

One morning, a customer told Evans that he supplemented his Social Security income by house-sitting for Weekend Warriors. There were two types of gigs, he explained: 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., which paid five hundred dollars a month, and 24/7, which paid eight hundred dollars. All you needed was an I.D. Evans called Diane Montano at around 10 a.m., and at 2 p.m. a van picked him up and took him to a house in Riverside. You quickly introduce the concept of Weekend Warriors in the story’s opening, but then we take a long break before returning to it. Why did you structure the text this way? And how did you think about keeping the reader oriented along the way? I tend to think the more I can introduce things through narrative, the better.

The rules were simple: don’t leave, don’t host guests, and don’t talk to anyone—not contractors, property managers, real-estate agents, or prospective buyers. If you were working a 24/7, only short trips to the market or the laundromat were allowed. The premises had to be kept clean at all times, or pay would be docked. The driver supplied Evans with a mini-fridge, a small microwave, an inflatable mattress, and plastic floor coverings to protect the carpet.

The driver came by to check on Evans occasionally, always unannounced, photographing each room and sending the pictures to Montano, so that she could monitor Evans’s cleanliness and track the progress of the renovations. By the time Evans was living at No. 265, he had learned the rhythms of the gig. He knew that the driver wouldn’t come by at night or on Sundays. When he could, he’d steal out to Moreno Valley, an hour and twenty minutes away, to visit his sons. He kept loose change in a coffee cup in his car, and he’d give his youngest son all the coins he’d collected since his last visit. “They know Daddy has to work away from the house,” he told me. “They’re big boys now.”

Around the end of the month, the driver would deliver a check. In seven years of working for Montano, Evans has never met her. (Montano declined to comment for this article.) Wow. I’m struck that they never met. What was Montano’s reaction when she learned that you were working on this story? After many calls, I caught her on the phone once and we spoke for a minute before she said she had to go and would call me back. She never did. And she didn’t return my follow-up calls. She did speak briefly to the fact-checker. She was interested in knowing who I had talked to. When the fact-checker told her, she denied knowing Evans, hung up, and then called Evans to reprimand him. The fact-checker also gave her an opportunity to respond by email, which she didn’t do. A spokesperson for Wedgewood, the company that contracts Diane Montano and Weekend Warriors, confirmed that they use the company and claimed the idea to employ the unhoused to guard properties originated with them. Fortunately Weekend Warriors did not take revenge on Evans after the story came out and he’s currently guarding a house a couple hours outside of L.A.

 

At No. 265, two construction workers junked the decades-old kitchen appliances and Formica counters, tore up the carpeting, and laid down ash-wood laminate floors. By the end of June, the exterior was painted gray with slate-gray trim, the interiors a bright white. Shaker-style cabinets and granite countertops were installed in the kitchens. Edison bulbs hung from the ceiling in black metal light fixtures. Evans’s beat-up white microwave and mini-fridge looked incongruous. I appreciate how you sprinkle in details about Evans, painting a vivid contrast between what he owns and the space he occupies, as you describe the surroundings.  By October, the property was staged for showing, with wishbone chairs, reclaimed-wood tables, and woven wall hangings. In 2005, it had sold for four hundred and twenty thousand dollars; now it was listed for nine hundred and thirty thousand. A few weeks later, a termite tent went up to address bugs found during a home inspection, the final step in many L.A. real-estate transactions.

Montano told Evans to leave for a couple of days, to escape the fumes. Usually, he slept in his car (as does about a third of Los Angeles’s homeless population), but a strong El Niño had brought heavy rain to California. He accepted Montano’s offer to “bunk up” with another house sitter, in Compton, in South L.A., where the city’s rents are rising the fastest and where Black residents are most likely to be homeless. It’s also where many of the house sitters are assigned work. You weave in facts about L.A.’s homelessness crisis quite seamlessly into the story development and Evans’ personal history. Where did you learn to do that, and how do you typically strike a balance between narrative and exposition? I immersed myself in housing research and expert interviews so stats often came to mind naturally as I wrote (I think that’s the easiest way to write: know your material well, and go from memory and then cross-check. As for how I learned to do this, I really just look up to the great narrative nonfiction writers like Rachel Aviv and Pamela Colloff. I was a senior editor at California Sunday (RIP) for a couple of years and the editor-in-chief took great inspiration from his freelance work with This American Life; a listener can’t grasp complicated context by ear, and so good radio scripts are selective about when and how they dole out information during the narrative. A California Sunday story almost never has a contextual second section. It almost never has even several grafs of context. I admire the idea quite a bit, though I’m not entirely allergic to exposition.  When executed well–when crisp and surprising–it can often be rewarding, especially when the narrative has made the reader hungry for it. So I try to ask myself whether the context can be slipped into the narrative or whether it will be easier on the reader to pause from the narrative and break it out.

Mansa Moosa-El opened the door and was surprised to find that his bunkie was Augustus Evans. “He has tremendous respect on the street,” Moosa, who was born Adrian Rhone, told me. He knew that Evans had walked with Louis Farrakhan in the early eighties, and he had seen him at community events. “I’m the fantastic immortal classic,” Moosa, who is forty-nine and was born in Compton, told me. “He’s the one and only golden oldie.” Whereas Evans dressed in trousers, blazers, and loafers, Moosa, a Black Panther, preferred a louder look: he wore a leather jacket, rose-tinted sunglasses, and African beads, and carried a staff with a black plastic snake coiled around it. Learning that Evans was house-sitting made him feel less miserable about his own situation. Moosa walked Evans through the small three-bedroom house, pointing out the lack of sinks, cabinets, hot water, and heat. The only thing that functioned was the toilet.

Moosa’s life has been shaped by L.A.’s demographic trends. This is a tight, smooth segue.  As recent books like “The Color of Law,” by Richard Rothstein, and “Race for Profit,” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, explain, a number of inner-city ghettos, like Compton, were formed by government policy. During the Great Depression, the government tried to enlarge the middle class by encouraging homeownership through the creation of the thirty-year mortgage. But restrictive covenants prohibited Black people from buying houses in certain neighborhoods, and further limitations were imposed by redlining, which barred prospective buyers in areas with large numbers of people of color from receiving federally insured loans. Did you find it difficult to encapsulate the enormity and nuances of these histories in single sentences? Ha, yes. I wrote more than a page about this and then realized this piece can’t be everything and so boiled it down and down to what’s essential for the reader’s comprehension of the current housing market and the disproportionate number of black people experiencing homelessness.

During the Second World War, L.A.’s Black population almost doubled, as newcomers were drawn by factory jobs. Residents of Compton, which was then nearly all white, protested new housing for the workers. A large public-housing complex that had been planned for the neighborhood was moved to Watts, a racially mixed neighborhood nearby. “By 1958, it was 95% black,” Rothstein wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. “Public housing policy was largely responsible for this segregation.” It wasn’t long before white people fled Compton, where Moosa’s parents bought a house in the early seventies. By then, L.A. had the fastest-growing Black population outside the Southeast, three-quarters of it concentrated in South L.A. Moosa’s father worked for the city, in the records library, and as much as a fifth of the Black population had solid manufacturing jobs. But, by the eighties, those jobs had disappeared or gone overseas. Moosa, like many Black Gen X-ers, fared worse than his parents. 

The foreclosure crisis was ruinous to L.A.’s Black communities, in part because residents, after decades of being denied mortgages, had been disproportionately targeted for predatory loans and reverse mortgages. When the bubble burst, Black people were seventy-one per cent more likely than white people to lose their homes. Last year, Black homeownership reached its lowest rate since 1968, when housing discrimination was outlawed by the passage of the Fair Housing Act. These statistics are potent and damning.

Even as renters, Black people are in a uniquely precarious situation. Jacqueline Waggoner, a president of Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable-housing nonprofit, and the chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness, told me, “When people are severely rent burdened, they don’t really have anyone to call. Their siblings or family members—many of them are one paycheck away from being homeless themselves.” A 2016 report found that white households in L.A. have a median net worth of three hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars; the figure for Black households is four thousand dollars.

The pandemic is making a terrible housing crisis even worse. For the first time in more than a decade, rents have stopped rising, but income has fallen precipitously. It is estimated that, among renters in L.A. County—a group that is disproportionately Black and Latino—at least three hundred and sixty-five thousand households currently don’t have an adult with enough income to pay the rent. This pandemic paragraph is brief, and I imagine you could have gone much longer to elaborate on how this year has accelerated the pre-existing housing crisis. Why did you choose not to spend much time and space on this? I could and did. Willing, my editor, saved me from myself. Were you worried that COVID would overtake the storyline? How do you think the pandemic influenced a reader’s ability to take this in and care about it, in light of all the other things going on? I don’t know how COVID impacted the interest in or appetite for this story. What I do know is that COVID exacerbated this situation. The issues of disproportionate representation of Black people experiencing homelessness, and racist housing policy, preceded COVID. At no point did I think the story was no longer relevant. In fact, when there was a national racial reckoning, I thought, ‘Maybe people will be more inclined to sort of understand it or see it.’

Although only eight per cent of Los Angeles residents are Black, Black people make up forty-two per cent of the homeless population. “I come from a pretty good family,” Moosa told me. “I grew up with a two-parent household, and I still couldn’t make it work.”

Like Evans, Moosa found himself homeless after his marriage fell apart, in 2017. In 2018, half of all unhoused people in L.A. County were homeless for the first time in their lives. I’m struck by how often I hear about people experiencing homelessness for the first time after a divorce, death or family illness. I think people vastly underestimate the extent to which a single circumstance can lead to someone’s undoing, especially if they were teetering on the brink of economic instability before. I agree. The information gathered from the Point-In-Time Count surveys is often revealing.  A compounding factor for both Evans and Moosa was a criminal record, which made it harder to get a job and to pass credit and background checks. As a radical young activist, Moosa had served time for commercial burglary, possession of an explosive device, and assault and battery. His driver’s license had also been suspended. “Can’t be no Black Panther and follow all the rules,” he joked.

For a year, Moosa slept wherever he could: on couches, on someone’s laundry-room floor, and in cars and mobile homes that friends were trying to sell. He stayed until he wore out his welcome. “You can tell you have to walk,” he said. “Rather than make it all melodramatic, you better do that.” On April 1, 2017, he had a heart attack; a year and a half later, he had a stroke. (The average life expectancy of homeless people is estimated to be almost thirty years shorter than that of the general population.) When a doctor learned that he didn’t have a home, he was referred to a shelter.

Many of the people checking into the shelter were unbathed or mentally ill; the shelter felt like “county jail on the streets,” Moosa said. His younger brother, who had been house-sitting for a couple of years, shared Montano’s number. Moosa took a selfie and texted it to her along with a picture of his state I.D. Soon afterward, a driver picked up Moosa and took him to an apartment complex in Buena Park, an affluent area in Orange County. “I was, like, Yeah, all right, this is it!” he said. But as an outsider in white suburbia, without a car or money, he went hungry. After several days, he texted his brother, who drove him to a Wendy’s. Moosa took a sip of cold soda and his system was so shocked that his entire body began to shake.

“It’d be a lot of unpredictability and instability to it,” Moosa said of house-sitting. “There’s been times I feel like a turkey on Thanksgiving Eve.” If a property was listed for sale, he might find out at six in the morning, when a real-estate agent, wanting to beat traffic, arrived without warning. “I’ll be pumping a log, and they’ll come in before it hits the water,” Moosa said. “I’ll exit the bathroom and the Realtor is standing there, three feet away. ‘Oh, um, can we look in here?’ ” The employee-employer relationship comes across quite starkly here; it seems like Moosa is considered a worker before being a human being — with the need for space, privacy or autonomy. I noticed that you don’t ask your sources, or spend as much space in the text, exploring how these men feel about the relationship between them and their employer. Was that intentional? I asked the house-sitters how they felt about the gig and hoped to show how they felt through anecdotes and quotes (“like a turkey on Thanksgiving eve,” etc.).  

The house sitters aren’t told who owns the homes they’re protecting, but it’s apparent when the “For Sale” signs go up: Wedgewood and its subsidiary, Maxim Properties, which are based in Redondo Beach. In recent filings, the company has reported buying and selling several thousand homes in L.A. County each year, and many more up and down the West Coast and in Florida. The company uses more than a dozen different L.L.C. names, many of which sound like ski resorts, such as Catamount Properties and Breckenridge. This was a fantastic and quippy line. Did you press them on why they use different business names? Is the practice of using LLCs like this technically legal? It’s legal and common and often done by institutional investors to obfuscate ownership so that it’s more difficult to follow the money. (Jared Kushner used an LLC to hide the fact that he’s a predatory slumlord). And owning property through LLCs now has certain indefensible tax advantages, thanks to Trump. Alas, there’s no law requiring  LLC transparency. There should be. Real estate investors shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind shell companies. A significant number of its Los Angeles properties—and seemingly all of those assigned a house sitter—are in communities of color. How did you confirm these kinds of details without getting a comment from Montano? Wedgewood commented through a spokesperson and I had compiled lists of properties owned by Wedgewood LLCs and visited many of them. I also interviewed many more house-sitters than are represented in the piece. Rereading the story, I found myself wondering: Is this business legal? As readers, we don’t get a lot of information from you about the regulatory side, whether that’s the city’s response or the courts. That was the biggest question I had. My main consideration was, ‘What utility does it have to publish a hard-hitting like piece about this company, versus exploring the larger system of forces?’ I really wanted to be mindful of Augustus and other house-sitters who are still employed by the company. I didn’t want to cause them harm. This company is relatively small — and it is totally exploitative — but at the same time, for Augustus and some others, it is a lifesaver. There are such limited resources for people who aren’t “literally homeless.” Every time he tried to get assistance for senior housing, the lists were five to 10 years long. To me, the bigger story was about the systemic forces contributing to his situation. I think it’s clear enough that this is an opportunistic developer getting cheap labor, not paying taxes and paying everybody under the table. Yet what I did include was the full spectrum of perspectives — from Moosa, who’s like, ‘This is so exploitative and horrible, and I feel like a turkey on Thanksgiving Eve,” to Augustus, who’s like, “I thank Diane every day for shelter from the rain.”

“Many of the neighborhoods that were redlined are seeing investment pour back in for the first time since they were redlined in the nineteen-thirties,” Braden Crooks, a co-founder of Designing the We, a design and social-impact studio that has staged exhibits on redlining throughout the country, told me. “But, because of this historic wealth destruction, because people lost ownership and are mostly renters . . . you don’t see the speculative investment that’s pouring back into urban and redlined neighborhoods lifting everyone’s boats. You see it washing them away.”

Wedgewood’s role in the housing crisis hasn’t gone unnoticed. The week before Thanksgiving, 2019, a group of Black mothers calling themselves Moms 4 Housing occupied a Wedgewood property in West Oakland that they said had been vacant for years. They washed the walls, installed a water heater, and set up their children’s bunk beds. Then they began paying the water and electric bills. Two months later, Alameda County sheriff’s deputies arrived in riot gear and removed them.

Shelter-in-place orders to minimize the spread of covid-19 have brought new attention to vacant houses owned by investors. The Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment, which supported Moms 4 Housing, staged an occupation of vacant homes owned by Caltrans in L.A., and throughout the summer the group organized rent strikes and protests against eviction.

Mychael Lindsey, another house sitter, didn’t like how Wedgewood acquired properties from people who had lost them in distress, but he told me that he’d made his peace with it, and at least he loved how Wedgewood renovated them. This is a really powerful line. There’s a deeply upsetting and striking irony in the fact that house-sitters, who’ve fallen on hard times themselves, must inhabit the space of people who lost their own spaces. Yes.  “All of our signature houses have the pretty cream carpet, the gray wood floors that are really nice, that mix with the gray granite tops,” he said.

There was one house-sitting assignment that rested uneasily in Lindsey’s mind. A house in Compton that had been lived in by the same family for three generations was foreclosed on after the mother died. When Lindsey showed up, the family was still there. Rather than informing Weekend Warriors and calling the sheriff for a lockout, he decided to give them another week. He told his boss that the property was secure and that he could clear out the furniture himself. The family cried in relief when he told them. But, after the week was over, the construction workers arrived, and they had to leave.

I asked Moosa, as he stood smoking in the back yard, if it felt weird to work for a company that’s implicated in the gentrification of his neighborhood. “Hold on,” he said. “Man, wow. Does that shit feel weird?” He looked up at the sky, considering, and then snapped his head down. “No!” he yelled. “It feel like racist white folks still controlling my existence all the time, which is still the same reason why I don’t even vote!” What did you feel this quote revealed about Moosa’s character that you wanted readers to understand? Paging the political scientists… He’s lost faith in the democratic project. Understandably. The government, and especially its housing policy, has failed him.  

But Evans saw house-sitting as a blessing. “Unfortunately, I am one of those who need shelter of any kind, and I’ve got shelter with pay through the cold, raining months, thanks to Diane,” he said. The checks were often late, but they always came eventually, and he could concentrate on his reading and writing. “I get twenty-four-hour peace,” he said. His years in prison had accustomed him to solitude—he could sit there for ten, twelve hours a day. He tried to stay out of people’s way.

In November, 265 Robinson Road went into contract, and on a rainy Thursday in early December the new owner, a Black man in his forties, knocked on the door. He toured the house and told Evans that he would be moving in the next day. “All of this?” Evans said, pointing to his colorful African sheets and inflatable mattress. “It won’t be here tomorrow! It’ll be like I was never here.”

Montano had a new assignment for Evans: replacing a house sitter whom she didn’t trust at a condo that was under contract for three hundred and thirty thousand dollars in Panorama City, a predominantly Latino suburb. Intruders had left a large black stain on the carpet in the master bedroom. Montano told Evans to protect the property while the carpet was replaced. When he arrived at the beige stucco complex, a young man and woman were rolling a blunt on the front steps. Evans toured the premises: a living room with a fireplace, a dining area with a low-hanging light fixture. Upstairs were two bedrooms, with cream-colored carpet throughout. Evans put protective plastic on the floor of the smaller room, which had a view in two directions, and inflated his mattress.

At one-thirty in the morning, Evans heard the front door opening. He rose and walked to the top of the stairs and saw a man and a woman in their thirties. “Are you squatting in here?” the man asked, agitated. “I’m security,” Evans told them.

“Well, can a woman use the bathroom?” the man asked. “No, come on, let’s go,” the woman said.

The next morning, workers came to replace the bedroom carpet, and Montano texted Evans to tell him that he needed to be out by 11 a.m. He could bunk back in Compton.

For the first time in what seemed like years, it was Friday and Evans was off the clock. That night, he decided to go to one of the clubs he used to visit in his youth, order a Shirley Temple, and see some live music. But, before he could choose which club to go to, he got a text from Montano: the sale of the condo had fallen through—the roof was leaking and water was streaming into one of the bathrooms—and she needed him back there immediately. He got into his car and hoped it would make it back to Panorama City. The way you show that Evans’ situation can change in an instant at the whims of his employer — and how accustomed Evans is to that degree of variability — is really effective.

A couple of weeks later, at 9 a.m., Evans heard the front door open. A woman in her forties entered, with a bag full of recycling. She knew the smart-lock code and assumed that Evans was the boyfriend of the woman who’d given it to her. She’d come to take a shower. “A lot of times, when Diane hires someone, they’re pretty much homeless anyway, so they identify with the homeless and as a result they sympathize and break the rules,” Evans told me. “I can identify with the homeless myself.” Nevertheless, he told the woman that she had to leave. She walked to the complex’s trash area and began digging.

Moosa was fired from house-sitting in January, after a neighbor accused him of making racist comments. He told me that he had merely introduced himself to the neighbors, as instructed by Weekend Warriors. As the coronavirus began to ravage communities of color, his ex-wife agreed to let him move in temporarily with her and their children.

An early fatality was Evans’s ex-wife’s brother, whom Evans had lived with in Moreno Valley. He caught the coronavirus in a convalescent home, where he was recovering from a toe amputation necessitated by his diabetes. I’m continuously struck by these details, interwoven casually throughout your story, which reinforce the disparate health effects that racism has on Black communities. Alas, I didn’t have to look hard for them. The injustices are abundant.   Evans called Montano and requested his house-sitting check so that he could contribute to the costs of the funeral—which the family still hasn’t been able to have. But the virus brought a measure of stability to Evans’s life. He’s been in the same home since January, when he was assigned to a duplex in Santa Ana. Construction stopped in March, after a truck deposited new appliances, which sat in their boxes unopened all summer. Evans didn’t mind the lockdown. “I’ve been quarantining for seven years!” he said. This quote really stuck with me.  He began writing a new essay about the sort of relationship he sought, the type of woman he’d want to be cooped up with during a pandemic. It was inspired by a radio story on the recent rise in domestic violence.

Yet sometimes restlessness struck him. He bought two maps, one of the U.S. and one of the world, and taped them on the wall opposite his bed. He thought about getting a passport—“I always thought it was thousands of dollars, but it’s only a hundred,” he said—and looked up prices for flights to Egypt and Jamaica.

His memoir project had stalled around Christmas. He’d been trying to dictate the book into Otter, a voice-transcription app, but hadn’t had the heart to keep talking alone. I suggested that he invite his sons over to listen, but he shook his head. We haven’t heard from you in awhile. Why was it useful to insert yourself here? Only because I found the quote poignant and it would be dishonest to present it independent of our exchange. “So much of my history and my life I conceal, because I don’t need to have my children dreaming nightmares over their father’s story,” he told me. “My life, you know, is not an attractive life. There’s no glory in it. I’ve never been in the military. I’ve never been out of the country. The only thing that’s impressive is that in a few days—shoot, next week—I’ll be sixty-eight years old.” He talks about wanting to conceal his situation, and yet he’s the main source in a long feature for the New Yorker. Did you and Evans talk about why he ultimately wanted to share his story, and why he trusted you to tell it? Ha! But did he share it with his sons? That’s the question. We talked at length about the risks of being profiled and whether his employer would seek retribution. But as a writer and thinker, he was keen to share his personal history — it informs much of his own writing. He wanted  to bring awareness to racial injustices, and he was optimistic that because his appreciation for the gig would be apparent, and because he was speaking only truthfully, he wouldn’t suffer retribution. Fortunately, he was right.

He longed for a home of his own, where he could watch movies with his sons and be surrounded by the possessions that he was currently paying eighty dollars a month to keep in storage. His Social Security check was eight hundred and thirty-eight dollars a month; he couldn’t afford much. But, as a senior citizen, he thought he might qualify for affordable housing. He called three nonprofits specializing in housing for the elderly. All of them said that they had a waiting list of between five and ten years. The news gave him insomnia. In the middle of the night, he wrote:

Millionaires and billionaires and trillionaires,

You will not be moving from this earth to any other planet.

You will not be importing water to start civilization on the moon.

My name is Augustus and I am here to announce your doom.

I want you to look me in my eye and read my lips

before you trip trying to run from the angry populations and board space ships.

One night, he asked me how to use Craigslist. We pulled it up on his phone. “What’s your dream neighborhood?” I asked.

“Oh, wow,” he said, marvelling at the idea of choosing where he wanted to live. “Culver City. Wait, no. Carson? Carson got too much pollution there. Long Beach.” There was a pause. “Damn. What neighborhood would I want to move into?

“Well, you know, I’ll just type this in, just to see,” he finally said. “C-O-M-P-T-O-N.”

He scrolled through bland bungalows on run-down blocks. “You know, they used to call that Chocolate City,” he said wistfully.

“You can’t even get a single for sixteen hundred dollars,” he said, trying to navigate the pictures. “I got to go sell me some books.” Why did you choose to close with this anecdote? And how did you know where your story should end? I knew this was the ending as soon as it happened. It broke my heart. Yes, he’s a dreamer, but ultimately he just wants to be back in his old neighborhood. And yet even South L.A., historically segregated and underserved, is beyond his reach.

Francesca Mari has written for the Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, and The Atlantic, among other publications.

***

Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.

 

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