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Koreatown Is An LA Dining Destination. But Most Of Its Restaurant Workers Can’t Afford Adequate Housing

Three young women in their 20s laugh as they dine at a crowded restaurant with a Korean BBQ grill at their table, surrounded by half-eaten plates.
A worker picks up an order from the kitchen in a Koreatown restaurant.
Jorge Gonzalez/Flickr
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Within about 2 square miles in Koreatown, L.A. diners can find more than 700 restaurants offering everything from Oaxacan cuisine to French fine dining, from the kind of sundubu-jjigae tofu stew championed by Anthony Bourdain to an array of Korean barbecue joints.

L.A.’s culinary scene is already diverse, and this neighborhood provides a huge variety of densely-packed dining options. But when it comes to housing, Koreatown restaurant workers are provided with few choices.

That’s according to a new study published Tuesday by researchers with the UCLA Labor Center and the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA).

“Koreatown is fueled by an immigrant workforce who are largely low-wage,” said study co-author Saba Waheed, research director at the UCLA Labor Center.

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Too much rent — or too many roommates

Relying on U.S. Census Bureau statistics, restaurant industry data and previous academic studies — as well as worker surveys and interviews — the researchers found:

  • 72% of Koreatown restaurant workers earn low wages (about $17 per hour or less), defined as less than two-thirds of the area’s median wage.
  • 74% were born outside the U.S., primarily in Mexico, Central America or South Korea
  • 98% are renters, and only 2% are homeowners
  • 59% live in overcrowded or severely overcrowded housing based on federal standards
  • 46% spend more than 30% of their income on rent, a level considered “rent burdened” under federal guidelines.

Housing costs have been a main concern in recent strikes by L.A. hotel workers and Hollywood actors and writers. High rents have also been painful for the restaurant workers surveyed in the study.

Waheed said workers included in the study feel like low-wages and expensive housing are forcing them to pick one of two bad options: pay more than they can really afford for an apartment with enough space, or cram into crowded apartments to split costs with others.

“The wages issue is crucial there if folks still feel like they have to live in overcrowded housing,” she said.

Public health experts have blamed cramped housing conditions for fueling the rapid spread of COVID-19 in certain parts of L.A. during earlier phases of the pandemic.

Workers say wage and tip theft is common

The study follows recent reports of wage theft in Koreatown.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a nearly $67,000 fine against Oo-Kook, a Korean barbecue restaurant, for allowing a manager to keep more than $28,000 in workers’ tips. Similar investigations have found wage theft happening in other Koreatown restaurants.

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In interviews for the study, workers told the researchers that their managers frequently withhold tips. One employee said new staffers in their workplace are put “on probation” and do not receive tips during this period. Others described a “half tip” policy designed to punish workers for perceived infractions by withholding 50% of their weekly tips.

Why this matters
  • The researchers behind this study view Koreatown as a unique microcosm of a much larger problem. The neighborhood is home to nearly 10,000 restaurant workers, many of them immigrants earning low wages and struggling to afford adequate housing. Across L.A. County, there are more than 300,000 people working in restaurants. Low wages and high housing costs have been a concern for many workers in L.A., including in recent strikes by hotel employees and Hollywood actors and writers.

Brady Collins, KIWA’s director of research and policy, thinks practices like this require solutions that go beyond simply hiking the minimum wage. He suggested policies such as setting up industry councils where workers and business owners create and enforce workplace standards.

“We've got to think about how we are crafting something that is actually going to improve working conditions and empower workers,” Collins said.

Restaurant industry representatives have said existing law already governs wage and tip theft. LAist reached out to the California Restaurant Association, which declined to comment on the study.

Previous research on L.A. restaurants has found other workers also struggling to keep a roof over their head. The L.A. nonprofit research organization Economic Roundtable recently estimated that L.A. County is home to nearly 3,600 unhoused fast food workers.

Many Koreatown restaurant employees work in full-service establishments, but they say they’re facing the same housing struggles.

Balancing workers’ needs with small business survival

Sunny Choi has worked as a server in a Koreatown Asian fusion noodle restaurant for about five years. She earns the city of L.A.’s minimum wage of $16.78 per hour plus tips. She said customers shifted to take-out during the pandemic, and with fewer people dining in, her tips have dropped to about $10 per hour.

Choi says unlike other restaurant employees working multiple jobs to pay rent, she and her husband can afford the $1,500 monthly mortgage on a Harbor City condo they bought 20 years ago. But she said her commute is draining, and living in Koreatown isn’t a financial option.

“It’s good to work [in Koreatown],” Choi said in Korean, speaking through an interpreter. But a similarly sized apartment closer to her job would be “expensive, very expensive.”

While workers struggle with housing costs, small business owners also face pressure to keep prices low. At a time when inflation is eating into expendable income — and some businesses are coming under fire for adding confusing surcharges to customers’ bills — diners crave deals.

UCLA’s Saba Waheed said policy makers seeking to help workers should think creatively about responding to concerns from small, immigrant entrepreneurs.

“We want to conserve the mom and pops in the neighborhood while we're getting these bigger businesses coming in,” Waheed said. “How can we make sure that the workers are feeling sustained, that they're protected, and that they can continue to live there?”

The study points to Koreatown as a microcosm of a much larger problem. The neighborhood is home to nearly 10,000 restaurant workers. But across L.A. County, there are more than 300,000 people working in restaurants.

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