Koreatown is not for sale!

Campaign for Fair Housing and Redevelopment

In the 15 years since the Los Angeles Civil Unrest in 1992, Koreatown has seen marked changes. The small business community, characterized by the Korean American ethnic enclave, has grown and in many cases expanded into mid-sized to large corporations. Koreatown has also attracted increasing foreign investment from South Korea. Along with these changes there are reports of a recent influx of wealthy South Koreans as well as professional Korean Americans coming back from the Southern California suburbs. All this has resulted in something of a community facelift—small mom-and-pop grocery stores have been converted into multi-level shopping malls, dilapidated apartment buildings have been renovated and transformed into condominiums and luxury complexes, and numerous large-scale commercial redevelopment projects have come up or are in the works.

Koreatown’s proximity to downtown, the Miracle Mile, and Hollywood are additional factors that have put it at the forefront of gentrification in Los Angeles. Just recently, it was announced that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa brokered a $300 million deal to channel foreign investment into Koreatown, much of it to take the form of redevelopment projects collectively called the “Superblock” on the Wilshire corridor.

The development trend in Koreatown is in serious need of an organized community response. Through our campaign against California Market, we crafted a creative victory by leveraging support from the city council and Community Redevelopment Agency to attach a living wage agreement to land use approvals in a completely private redevelopment project. We believe that we are now ideally positioned to build on this success by tackling issues of fair housing and equitable development in Koreatown in our next campaign.

Our members and Koreatown constituents have also identified housing and redevelopment as an urgent issue. While conducting a community needs assessment to take an in-depth look at Koreatown community conditions, KIWA found that housing conditions in the community are strikingly poor, while at the same time high rents are making even substandard housing unaffordable for many. Over half of respondents in our study reported serious housing violations, including pest infestation, faulty plumbing, structural damage, mold, lead paint, faulty electrical wiring, and raw sewage leaks. Despite these acute problems, almost 50% of study participants also reported paying above fair market rent. We also found that rental rates in the area are climbing drastically, in some buildings as much as 200% in just three years. Noting Koreatown’s rapid growth, building owners and developers are systematically evicting low-income tenants and replacing them with middle class professionals. According to the Los Angeles Times, “many low-income families in Koreatown are being pushed out of a neighborhood that in recent years has offered immigrants a toehold in a new land.”[1]

Traditionally, Koreatown has been a first stop for new Mexican, Central American, and Korean immigrants. Of Koreatown’s current population of 200,000, the majority are immigrants and 70% are part of the working poor. Most residents have limited job skills and English proficiency, work in low-income jobs, and have difficulty accessing public services and local decision making processes. Almost all of Koreatown’s population is part of the working poor—more than 40% fall below the federal poverty line. Koreatown’s median household income is only $23,000 compared to $42,000 countywide. Given current development trends, however, we believe that Koreatown’s demographics are going to shift rapidly and drastically as rental prices rise and low-income people are pushed out of the community.

As a result of these trends, KIWA staff and members are becoming increasingly alarmed about the housing and redevelopment issues facing our membership base and constituents. Rents are high and increasing rapidly. Despite these exorbitant prices, housing conditions are substandard. Most seriously, rapid redevelopment and gentrification are threatening to eliminate Koreatown’s low-income immigrant population. We are concerned that if Koreatown’s low-income residents do not respond in an organized way to redevelopment and gentrification, working families will be permanently excluded from Koreatown. Although KIWA’s organizing campaigns have traditionally focused around workplace issues in the past, both staff and members are prioritizing housing and redevelopment as a vital issue if Koreatown is to maintain is ethnic and class diversity.

The unfolding phases of our multi-year campaign are:

  • Direct services – Get our feet wet in the housing rights field by providing direct services to Koreatown tenants, including a legal clinic and tenants’ rights trainings.
  • Grassroots organizing – Organize tenants to improve slum housing conditions and to preserve affordable housing in the community
  • Policy and coalition work – Work to preserve affordable housing by preserving rent control buildings and by attaching affordable housing units to other development projects through local community benefit agreements and by working in city-wide coalitions to win inclusionary zoning and other policies.

One Response to “Fair Housing & Development”

  1. […] report by the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance shows that of Koreatown’s current population of 200,000, the majority are immigrants and 70% are part […]

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