Survey finds lingering poverty in Koreatown

Times Staff Writer

Fifteen years after the Los Angeles riots devastated parts of Koreatown, residents are still struggling with low wages, limited healthcare and substandard housing, according to a survey released Thursday.

Some areas have undergone a face lift with fashionable new malls and luxury condos, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s trip to South Korea last year helped secure $300 million worth of projects.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 12, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 12, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Koreatown: An article in the April 27 California section about low-income workers in Koreatown said the area was bounded by Pico and Beverly boulevards, Hoover Street and Wilton Place. Those boundaries were identified by the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance. The city does not delineate boundaries.

But behind the boomtown facade, the report by the Korean Immigrant Workers Alliance said, squalid living conditions plague many of the area’s 250,000 residents -- most of them immigrants from Mexico, Central America and South Korea.

The survey found that nearly half of Koreatown residents are illegal immigrants and that three-fourths earn less than $35,000 a year, mostly from restaurant, grocery and other service jobs. Nearly four in five do not have health insurance.


And many cope with overcrowded, overpriced housing with cockroaches, rats, lead paint, faulty plumbing, and other safety and health hazards.

“As Koreatown and much of Los Angeles continue to gentrify, we need to examine why our community’s working families seem to be left behind and, increasingly, even pushed out and priced out of the new wave of prosperity,” the report said.

The survey was conducted through random interviews with 110 residents in the 2.5-square-mile Koreatown area, bounded by Pico and Beverly boulevards, Hoover Street and Wilton Place. But broader studies using U.S. census data have documented similar problems.

One 2005 study by the workers alliance and Edward Park, an Asian Pacific American studies professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, found that 70% of Koreatown residents were working poor.


“The survey’s depiction of the horrible conditions these immigrants live in should serve as a clarion call for our community and political leaders to build a more just city,” Park said.

Among Koreatown’s residents are Luis Mendoza and Gerardo Guarneros, both 28-year-old illegal immigrants from Mexico. Mendoza works at a bakery for $9 an hour. Guarneros, who arrived two months ago, earns $5 an hour washing cars. He knows his pay is below the minimum wage, but said, “I’ve been here a really short time and I need to work.”

To save money, the two men rent a room in Koreatown with a third roommate, squeezing into a 225-square-foot space marked by peeling paint and exposed pipes. There is no kitchen, one bathroom and two twin mattresses; two of the men sleep together on one of them.

The men said they eat only once a day, sometimes managing nothing more than a $1 hamburger. They cook on a two-burner portable stove. Their refrigerator is nearly empty, with only a few eggs, garlic and bags of mole.


“Nada, nada” (nothing), Mendoza said, gesturing inside.

Their employers do not offer healthcare. Once, Mendoza said, he came down with a stomach infection and had to spend $100 at a clinic for treatment -- one-fifth of his monthly pay at the time. That was too costly to return for a follow-up visit, even though he had not recovered.

Such difficult lives are shared by many Korean residents. Jonathan Park, 21, is an Argentina native of Korean descent who was smuggled over the U.S.-Mexico border by his mother 18 years ago. While growing up in Koreatown, he said, he experienced traumas that mark many local youths, including parents struggling with low-wage jobs, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and divorce.

His mother still works in a minimum-wage sales job at the Koreatown Galleria shopping mall.


As gentrification of the area pushes rents upward -- Park said one-bedroom apartments that used to rent for $700 a month now command $1,000 -- housing has become a critical problem. His mother managed to find a studio apartment in a low-income housing complex, but he is squeezed into a one-bedroom unit with three others.

“You see all the developments and flashy buildings around here, but if you look closer you’ll see a lot of ... rundown apartments, messed-up roads and a lot of homeless,” said Park, a hip-hop artist and waiter who has legalized his immigration status.

Danny Park, executive director of the Koreatown workers alliance, said the survey would be used to plan campaigns for better jobs and fair wages, more low-cost housing and broader access to healthcare. The alliance will present its survey to labor, political, housing and business leaders tonight at a town hall meeting at Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard.

“We want to make sure that all of the new prosperity in Koreatown doesn’t end up polarizing the community between rich and poor,” he said.