July 11, 2023 - From the July, 2023 issue

Insider Planning: NoHo Nightmare Reveals Pitfalls of LA's Housing Policies & Obsession with Density at Any Cost

You may have seen in the news several exposés about North Hollywood developer Arthur Raffy Aslanian, who was found guilty last week by a federal jury of orchestrating a double murder-for-hire plot of his bankruptcy attorney and a mortgage banker. Less attention has been given to his scheme for fast-tracking a proposed project site by commissioning arson intended to vacate and demolish an occupied 10-unit 1925 bungalow court while tenants (including departing TPR editor, Clare Letmon)  slept inside. With Aslanian’s trial now finished–and amidst ongoing City Hall development corruption scandals and calls for additional streamlining of the City of LA’s planning and permitting processes, The Planning Report is interested in—and shares this first-hand account—uncovering the failures in policy and governance that enabled and incentivized such crimes in its pursuit of housing density at any cost.

Arthur Raffy Aslanian

"For all the bureaucracy supposedly getting in the way of essential housing production, where was the due diligence and oversight that should have flagged a clearly escalating pattern of dangerous behavior? Our experience was an inconvenient truth that the City of LA chose to ignore rather than mitigate as a predictable consequence of the profit motive they had created” —Clare Letmon

“Arthur was arrested for murder for hire a few days ago”

My stomach dropped when I read the text. I knew the Landlord owed too many people too much money for me and my partner to rank too highly on his hit list, but we had been organizing with our neighbors to expose Arthur R. Aslanian’s unscrupulous business practices on social media and knew we had become quite a thorn in his side.

Relief and horror washed over me as I combed the press release.  Nobody was physically hurt, thank God, but the details were shocking.  As a tenant living in a building that Aslanian had been trying to demolish without permits since June 2020 who had been recently emboldened by the City of LA’s relinquishment of its enforcement duties in favor of his new development, I wasn’t surprised. I’d come to expect the worst. 

Both men named in the complaint had been on the property just days earlier to again bully my senior neighbor into vacating her home of 40 years.

Intimidating or coercing tenants to move out is a violation of the City’s Tenant Anti-Harassment Ordinance (TAHO). As written, the law gives tenants cause of action to sue their landlord if they can prove harassment. However, the law requires tenants find a lawyer who will take their case without provision for attorney’s fees. And with exactly zero instances referred to the City Attorney for further enforcement, the Housing Department considers most cases of tenant harassment to be merely “misunderstandings.” 

This is one of many lessons my neighbors and I learned as we navigated the city’s feeble code enforcement bureaucracy and as we grew to understand what happens when your landlord thinks he’s above the law and the city, with a “build, baby, build” focus, lacks leadership and political will to enforce the law. 


In the early morning of March 18, 2022, my neighbors and I awoke to LAFD on the roof fighting flames 20-feet high that were spreading rapidly through the shared attic crawlspace toward our units. Later we learned from the LAFD captain on the scene that the fire would have easily consumed the building if not for their rapid intervention and suppression.

[Photo of March 18, 2022, arson commissioned by landlord and developer Arthur Aslanian to vacate occupied RSO housing]

We also learned that was precisely Aslanian’s plan when he commissioned the arson as a means of vacating the 10-unit 1925 bungalow court on Hartsook Street in North Hollywood we call home. The co-conspirator ‘handyman’ who was frequently on the property would later confess. Aslanian’s intentions were further confirmed during a call with a Statefarm insurance investigator played at trial during which Aslanian shared his frustration that the fire had failed to displace tenants as he had been under contract to sell the properties, a provision of which required the buildings be vacant.

After the March 18 arson, tenants turned to the City of LA again—filing complaints with the Housing Department for the new fire damage, as well as calls and emails to the council office, the Fire Department, and the City Attorney’s office. After two arsons in as many months, surely the city would hold Aslanian accountable for at least creating the conditions that enabled the fires.

Blinded by a singular policy obsession to incentivize new housing development and indifferent to the harm it was causing, what was the city’s response? In the month after the arson, the only action taken by the City of LA was to expedite and approve Aslanian’s permits for his proposed project through the Planning Department.

Despite years of documented noncompliance, including charges by the City Attorney in 1998 for defrauding the Housing Department, City Planning failed to crosscheck the range of existing and still-occupied residences against Survey LA (pg 157), the city’s accounting of historically significant resources, where they identified Lourine Court—as the bungalows are known—as an “excellent and rare example” of a 1920s bungalow court in the San Fernando Valley.

With full TOC entitlements pending, Aslanian was under contract in February 2022 to sell the purported ‘shovel-ready’ project for $13 million–more than doubling the ~$6 million he overpaid for the properties in 2018 (including the empty lot next door conveniently made vacant by arson in 2017).

Well, I shouldn’t say it was the only thing the city did.  In January 2022, in hearings to determine whether the bungalows would be removed from the Rent Escrow Account Program (the city’s program to compel compliance with housing code and address persistent habitability and safety issues at multifamily rental properties), tenants submitted evidence of ongoing issues and unresolved complaints, including about an open and exposed window that investigators later confirmed served as the origination point for the March 18 arson that destroyed a fifth of the building.

[Photo of an open and exposed window, which served as the origination point for the March 18 arson, included as evidence of ongoing noncompliance at 1/28/22 LAHD General Manager’s hearing to remove the building from REAP.]

Ignoring the evidence and tenants’ due process, on January 31, 2022, three days after the hearing that appeared to determine the building would stay in REAP and be rescheduled due to remaining issues, LAHD General Manager Ann Sewill certified compliance and requested the case be calendared by City Council for removal from REAP—again clearing the way for Aslanian’s plans.

She would tell me a few months later, “we don’t care about [those] units.”

On February 6, tenants awoke to discover evidence of an attempted arson—including scorch marks along the building’s foundation, a can of gasoline, a strangely rigged hot plate, and security camera footage of two unknown individuals entering and exiting the property. 

[Photo of scorch marks from February 6, 2022, attempted arson submitted to LAPD, LAFD, LAHD, and CD 2 office]

With no active flames at the time of the call, LAFD did not respond, nor did the Arson division when notified. That morning, LAPD brushed off tenant concerns with the smell of gasoline still wafting through the air, instead parroting the convenient hypothesis that this was evidence of an unhoused neighbor attempting to heat food. LAHD and Councilman Krekorian’s office did not respond to calls or emails about the attempted arson and tenant concerns for their safety.

[Photo of rigged hot plate and can of gasoline from February 6, 2022, attempted arson submitted to LAPD, LAFD, LAHD, and CD 2 office]

Two days later, without notifying tenants who were still awaiting notice of the to-be-rescheduled General Manager’s REAP hearing, on February 8, LA City Council voted to remove the building from REAP and return control to Aslanian. Tenants received notice shortly after that the REAP account would be closed and to resume paying full rent to the landlord—who will later be heard on tape telling his murder-for-hire co-conspirator about tenant rent money he could use to pay for the hitman.

[Photo of the reported open and exposed window charred by flames and identified as the origination point for the March 18, 2022, arson.]

For all the bureaucracy supposedly getting in the way of essential housing production, where was the due diligence and oversight that should have flagged a clearly escalating pattern of dangerous behavior? Our experience was an inconvenient truth that the City of LA chose to ignore rather than mitigate as a predictable consequence of the profit motive they had created.

CD2 field deputy would later tell me, "the Councilman welcomes everyone in the district, including the landlord."

I’ll admit, as editor of The Planning Report, I should have known I needed to subscribe to a particular Planning Department list to get notification of pending permits for a project that would result in my displacement. We missed the appeal period, which occurred in the month after the March 18 arson–when we were begging then-Councilmember Krekorian for assistance of any kind.

I should have known to get Lourine Court designated historic before Aslanian began illegally demolishing the bungalows in June 2020. They ripped open the exterior siding of almost the entire east face of the building, calling it "seismic retrofitting" of a single-story wood-frame structure, leaving the studs and connected attic crawlspace exposed through winter. It's now June 2023, and the building is still not weatherproofed.

And I should have known that because of SB 330, once a proposed project’s application is “deemed complete,” the building, no matter how historic, cannot be designated so.

My situation was caused directly by upzoning and a policy obsession more convenient than the reality of the danger a greedy developer can pose to a community. Contrary to claims that it incentivizes affordability, the city said “yes, please” time and time again to a landlord who was willing to kill before selling the properties for less than the imaginary number the Planning Department made them worth with the flick of a pen.

And to those who say TOC incentives have resulted in thousands of new affordable units, this approved project includes fewer affordable units than currently exist here today, and none of them would be RSO. We don't even know how many affordable units the city has lost in recent years. We have an idea , but the Housing Department denies the validity of that number. 


Alas, many regrets, but having landed in Lourine Court when we moved to Los Angeles in 2019 is not one of them. Despite my landlord’s worst efforts, I live in an idyllic 1925 bungalow court in the heart of the NoHo Arts District. Fully occupied when we moved in, most of the bungalows are vacant now. My senior neighbor in the dingbat next door has lived here since 1982. The old-growth pine trees in the central courtyard have been here many, many decades longer.

On June 28, as tenants listened to Day 1 of testimony in Aslanian’s federal trial in US District Court, Dennis P Block & Associates posted Ellis Act eviction notices on our doors. The Ellis Act, a state law purportedly devised to give “mom & pop landlords” the opportunity to go out of business, is a loophole through which developers remove rent-stabilized housing from the market and displace low-income occupants.

When new investors in the Aslanian project, which now include HGTV house-flipping star Tarek El Moussa and his investment firm TEM Capital, were asked about their intentions to evict senior and disabled tenants, Shahar Kelev of Pyramid Development, said, “Sometimes you have to relocate tenants who are seniors. It’s not fun — otherwise the city would not agree to something that they really want, which is to develop [the property].”

For everything we know about the health, climate, and community benefits of urban tree canopy and greenspace, the violence of speculative real estate and gentrification, the dire need to preserve and expand the city's existing supply of affordable housing, and on top of everything Aslanian has done here, the city still wants his project. The housing department refuses to do anything about the fire damage. The Council President's office says they're following the case closely, “but it's a federal matter having nothing to do with the city.”

This kind of gaslighting is nothing new to the working-class tenants of Los Angeles on the frontline struggle for dignified housing. Whether it's the Hartsook Tenants in North Hollywood, Chesapeake Apartment tenants in South LA, K3 Tenants in KTown , Vu/Fink Tenants in Chinatown or countless other groups of organized neighbors within the Los Angeles Tenants Union, it's time leaders listened to those facing imminent displacement rather than criminalizing being unhoused or incentivizing and enabling destruction of existing, thriving communities.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.