Digging into housing scandals

Brian Eason
The Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Miss.

Public housing has always struck me as a goldmine for good stories.

You’ve got every element. It’s not hard to find great, heartbreaking personal stories. And there’s often poor oversight of large wads of government cash.

The IRE panel on housing scandals looked at the work of two reporters that took very different approaches to getting their stories and telling them.

The first was Anne Sheehan of the Advertiser Democrat in Norway, Maine, who won a George Polk Award for her series on slumlords who were making a tidy profit off Section 8 vouchers at the expense of their low-income residents.

She had heard reports of rental units with fire code violations, and she used old school journalism techniques to track down what was happening. By going door to door at these places she found people living in appalling conditions, and by getting inspection reports and reviewing HUD’s own regulations, Sheehan was able to show that the subcontractors used by HUD were covering up the problems and giving positive inspection reports when the conditions were unlivable.

Her work sparked an internal investigation by HUD, and led to the residents being relocated and their landlords being decertified as Section 8 program participants.

By contrast, Angela Caputo, an investigative journalist at The Chicago Reporter, relied heavily on data to tell her story on the Chicago Housing Authority’s application of the One Strike policy. The crux is this: if you’re a resident of public housing and someone gets arrested at your apartment, you’re out. You don’t have to be convicted of a crime, and it doesn’t even have to be you that’s arrested.

Caputo said she was tipped off to this while spending time with a teen who was in jail for drug possession. She got to know his family, and through them learned that his grandparents were being evicted because he was arrested at their federally subsidized apartment.

So Caputo requested all notices of termination issued under the one strike policy for a designated time period. After haggling with the CHA for several months over the data, she eventually appealed to the attorney general’s office, who issued an opinion in her favor. Instead of the paper notices — which Caputo had planned to use to create her own database — the CHA gave her their database, which included the names of the residents, where the arrest occurred and whether the person arrested was the same person whose name was on the lease.

In many cases, it wasn’t. Here’s a quick summary of her findings, but it’d be worth your time to read the full story at http://www.chicagoreporter.com/content-tags/one-strike

  • Only 20 percent of those evicted were the ones who actually were arrested. Many more were evicted when a relative or friend was arrested.
  • By cross-referencing the one strike arrests with police reports, Caputo determined that, of those evicted, nearly half were found not guilty of the crime or their case was tossed … but 40% still just moved out without a fight.
  • With her extensive data, Caputo also was able to show trends: For instance, black males were arrested under this policy at a much higher rate than any other demographic. Also, early on, most arrests were for felonies. Over time, the number of evictions for misdemeanors spiked, and a significant majority were minor drug possession charges.
  • By manually inputting zip codes, she also was able to map out where these evictions were concentrated, and found noticeable patterns.

Armed with her data, Caputo tracked down a number of residents who had been affected by this. One was a mother of six, whose boyfriend was arrested for marijuana possession. She was kicked out, and began commuting an hour and a half to keep her kids in the same school.

Said Caputo, “It doesn’t matter the severity of the crime, it doesn’t matter who’s charged with the crime — you’re out, and the whole family is out.”