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‘Where should I go?’: Developer evicting Koreatown tenants to build new apartments

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The developer is using the federal government’s Opportunity Zone program

The strip mall at 698 Irolo Street in Koreatown.
Via Google Maps

Nicole Donanian has spent much of her life in the plaza at the corner of Seventh and Irolo streets in Koreatown. In 1995, her parents opened Falafel Corner, a Middle Eastern hole-in-the-wall known for its affordable and plentiful portions of falafel, kabob, and rice. Three years later, the family moved into one of the apartments on the complex’s second floor, making it easier for them to manage the restaurant.

These days, 31-year-old Donanian still resides in the beige stucco strip mall at 698 Irolo. She now rents her own apartment above the complex’s Korean noodle house and dry cleaner. The apartment has a room for her 12-year-old son, and it’s easy for her to help at the restaurant, which she’s been doing more often since her father fell ill two years ago.

But last year, Donanian’s future in Koreatown and the fate of her family’s business became uncertain, when a developer announced plans to replace the handful of mom-and-pop restaurants and apartments that occupy the strip mall with a 17,290-square foot mixed-use building.

Named SIX98 Irolo after its address, the new complex would include 139 market-rate and 18 affordable units, along with 3,200 square feet of ground floor retail space. The development would increase the stock of affordable housing in an area where it’s sorely needed.

But it will very likely displace residents in the plaza’s six existing units. They were served 60-day eviction notices earlier this month, and they say they have not received offers to live in the new building. Donanian, who pays $1,100 a month for a two-bedroom in an area where similar apartments have a median rent of $2,900, expects she will have to leave the neighborhood.

“I’ve started looking to see if I can find an apartment close to [the area] I know, where my son goes to school, and the family restaurant. But I can’t afford anything here,” says Donanian. “I’m pretty devastated. I’ve been here my whole life.”

SIX98 Irolo is being developed by Vukota Capital Management, an “alternative investment firm” based in Colorado and the Bahamas. According to the company’s website, the development aims to take advantage of the federal government’s Opportunity Zone program, which grants developers tax breaks for investing money in lower income areas. A $12.3 million opportunity zone fund called VCM Irolo Opportunity Zone Fund, LP has also been created, Security and Exchange Commission records show.

Messages to Vukota Capital Management were not returned.

Launched in 2017, the Opportunity Zone program is under investigation by the Treasury Department, and has been criticized by Democratic lawmakers for spurring gentrification while lining the pockets of wealthy investors. Earlier this month, the first city of Los Angeles-approved project to take advantage of the program broke ground in Hollywood, and more are expected to crop up in LA and beyond now that clear regulations have been set.

The Koreatown development also falls under the city of LA’s “Transit Oriented Communities” plan, a measure passed in 2016 to give developers incentives to build multi-family housing near bus and train stations.

A spokesperson for Los Angeles City Councilmember Herb Wesson, whose district includes Koreatown, said staffers have been in contact with the tenants at 698 Irolo. They plan to send a letter to the building owner “expressing our disapproval of the evictions and trying to come up with a solution to protect the current tenants,” the spokesperson said.

“We have been and always will be against the displacement and eviction of tenants in our district,” Wesson wrote in an email to Curbed. “With tens of thousands of Angelenos living on our streets, our collective focus should be on keeping people in their homes, not kicking them out.”

Desperate to find a way to stay, Donanian has formed a tenants’ union with her neighbors, who are also feeling the stress of relocating. Resident Basel Sultan says his multi-generational family has lived in two units in the building since they immigrated from Syria in 2013. He fears they will now be separated.

“I’m thinking about my mom, she’s an old woman. I have to care for her, she’s in a wheelchair,” he says. “My kids are also having bad feelings right now because they are going to miss their grandma, aunt, uncle, cousin, and also our community.”

The group is also urging the Los Angeles City Council to pass a motion that would implement rules set in place by Senate Bill 330, a state housing package passed last year to help tenants who lose their homes to new residential developments.

Under the new law, residents have the right to remain in their units until six months before the start of construction. The motion, introduced by Councilmember Mike Bonin in January, stresses the need for the city to implement these measures quickly.

“Unless the city has clear protocols and strict enforcement, it is easy to imagine that developers may secure their project permits and fail to follow through with the requirements that protect and benefit tenants,” Bonin wrote in the motion.

In the meantime, Donanian and her neighbors are scrambling to decide what to do next. She says she’s nervous about the idea of taking the battle to court, but she also doesn’t want to have an eviction on her record, which could make it even harder for her to rent a place in the future.

“I literally dream about it every night—what should I do? Where should I go?” Donanian says. “I have no idea, and I’m really trying to figure out what our next step is going to be.”