On Instagram last month, reality television personality Tarek El Moussa posted a video of himself strolling a street in North Hollywood to tell his 1.3 million followers about his new big plans.
El Moussa co-hosts a real estate show on HGTV called “The Flipping El Moussas” with his wife, Heather, who is also a cast member on Netflix’s “Selling Sunset.” El Moussa shared that he had just finished walking the nearby property where the couple is developing a “super cool, super modern” 138-unit apartment complex with a rooftop pool.
“We got so lucky to find this land,” El Moussa said. “Because finding land like this in North Hollywood, it’s literally impossible.”
El Moussa left out of the video why a lot like this was available in the first place. Just a week before, the current property owner was convicted in federal court of hiring someone to set fire to vacant units on the site, an arson that tenants say was part of a years-long illegal harassment campaign to force them to leave.
Now the El Moussas are evicting the five remaining tenants, who all are in rent-controlled units. The residents worry about their future in L.A.’s sky-high rental market and believe they should be compensated for the turmoil they’ve gone through.
“It’s been my home for 40 years,” said Cathy Livas, 77, who pays $824 a month to live in a dingbat unit with her 56-year-old son with special needs. “Why would I want to live anywhere else? Do you know the price of rents?”
Livas and other tenants said they’d be willing to negotiate a buyout but believe it should be far in excess of the up to $25,000 required under the law given that their outgoing landlord, Arthur Aslanian, tried to burn them out of their homes and otherwise illegally force them to go.
In a presentation to investors, the El Moussas project that after five years they’ll be able to sell the apartment complex for $26 million more than what it costs to acquire the property and build the development.
“Pay us to leave,” said Clare Letmon, 32, who lives in a bungalow with her husband, Jonpaul Rodriguez, 35. “But pay us an amount of money that’s dignified and recognizes the profit they’re set to make off of everything that was done to us.”
Neither Tarek nor Heather El Moussa could be reached for comment. In an emailed statement, Eda Kalkay, the El Moussas’ public relations representative, said that the El Moussas recognize the property owner is involved in “several serious legal matters” but that the couple and other development partners will have no affiliation with them once the sale of the property is finished.
“The goal is to work closely and respectfully with the current tenants by providing proper move-out compensation and constructing a safe and pristine new apartment complex that will also include 14 low-income units,” the statement said.
The property, made up of multiple lots, currently houses 10 bungalows, five dingbat apartments, a single-family home and 6-foot-tall weeds growing next to the burned-out structures.
The horrors of living there began years ago when tenants said Aslanian started ripping out the walls of their units, exposing them to asbestos, mold and vermin and retaliated against them when they complained or pushed for repairs.
In February 2022, Aslanian promised to pay someone $2,000 to set fire to the property, federal prosecutors said. Using a borrowed gas canister and a hotplate, only the outside of a building was scorched. The next month, a second fire, prosecutors said, was started by another co-conspirator, burning two of the vacant bungalow units.
Prosecutors said Aslanian’s arson campaign was designed to force the tenants out, and most of the residents have left the property. Aslanian secured approval for the new 138-unit project within months of the fires.
“Those permits exist because of everything Arthur did,” Letmon said. “The building was almost vacant because of everything Arthur did.”
Aslanian was convicted of three charges related to the fires last month in addition to multiple charges for conspiring with his employee to hire a hitman to kill two men — one who opposed him in litigation and the other who represented one of his companies in bankruptcy.
Letmon and Rodriguez’s rent is $1,650 a month, but they’ve stopped paying, saying they refuse to give money to a landlord who set their home on fire.
Some previous tenants sued Aslanian over conditions at the property and have received a settlement for an undisclosed amount. The current tenants have a pending lawsuit against him.
But conditions at the property remain dire. The burnt-out bungalows are boarded up, and tenants say they’re still unsafe. Vacant units in the dingbat have broken windows. A tree next to Livas’ unit is overgrown.
A new development group called NoHo 138, which includes the El Moussas, took over the project earlier this year. Representatives of the developers, though not the El Moussas, met with tenants in the winter. The El Moussas began to advertise the apartment plan to investors.
In a video posted to YouTube in May, Tarek El Moussa, whose first real estate reality show was called “Flip or Flop,” stood outside the property touting it as “my biggest flip ever.”
“I am more excited about this thing than anything I’ve ever done in my life,” El Moussa said.
The tenants received their eviction notices in late June. They have become even more alarmed as the El Moussas ramped up their investment campaign.
On Instagram, the El Moussas promoted the development opportunity using a fire emoji, something Letmon and Rodriguez said was insensitive given the arson. Tarek El Moussa said that they planned to break ground “in a few months.” Under the law, tenants 62 or older can remain in their apartments for a year before getting evicted.
“My year isn’t up until June next year, so I don’t know how they’re going to build with me here,” Livas said.
Kalkay, the El Moussas’ spokesperson, said Tarek filmed the video that promised an early groundbreaking before he knew the full context of the tenants’ situation with Aslanian, and the developers will follow all provisions of eviction law. She added that El Moussa meant no offense with the fire emoji.
“Anyone that follows Tarek would know that he is a fan of using emojis on social media,” Kalkay said in response to emailed questions from The Times. “By no means was he making any insinuation or mockery of the tenants’ past experience with the seller.”
Letmon and Rodriguez have tried to track the El Moussas’ promotion for the development. They said it’s been difficult to watch the couple talk about their expensive vacations and advertise that their investors will get invitations to exclusive yacht parties with them.
“It’s an insult when I know he’s spending his summer in the Hamptons and in Cabo and he can’t make time for tenants whose displacement is enabling ‘the biggest flip of his life,’” Letmon said.
Letmon and Rodriguez also have begun posting about their plight on social media, tagging El Moussa on Instagram and asking to meet with him in person.
“Real smart…Keep offending someone that is trying to help you,” El Moussa responded in a July 12 direct message Rodriguez shared with The Times.
Kalkay said that El Moussa is the one being harassed.
“Regardless of the alarming personal attacks sent to Tarek El Moussa and his family via social media DM, he continues to remain sensitive to the situation of the tenants,” she said.
Kalkay added that other development partners plan to continue contacting the tenants and have already reached out to the tenants’ attorney in the hopes of continuing negotiations over their departure.
“As just one of the partners that make up NoHo 138, Tarek’s role is to work on other areas of this deal, but the appropriate people managing this area intend to meet with all tenants,” Kalkay said.
Times staff writers Noah Goldberg and Salvador Hernandez contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared on LA Times