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How I used unconventional means to find New Yorkers hurt by gentrification

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How I used unconventional means to find New Yorkers hurt by gentrification

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Photo by Damon Dahlen/Huffpost
Dara Soukamneuth and Clentine Fenner stand in the lobby of their apartment building at 1030 Carroll in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Stories of the residents who lived in the building anchored a larger look at the impact of gentrification on health. (Photo by Damon Dahlen/Huffpost)

You can’t live in New York City for long, much less report there, without seeing the signs of gentrification everywhere.

For me, that meant mentally cataloguing a visible shift in businesses and demographics in my Brooklyn neighborhood over the course of just five years. It also meant conversations with housing-organizer friends and acquaintances, who detailed the pressure landlords put on rent-stabilized residents to move out, so that they could renovate their buildings and rent them to higher paying tenants. 

The organizers made human rights arguments for affordable housing, but it took talking with a Brooklyn resident in his 70s, who was being evicted while undergoing cancer treatment, before I started thinking about how the man’s changing neighborhood might be affecting him physically and mentally.   

There are decades of academic investigation into how gentrification affects housing prices, the economy and crime. But researchers are just beginning to consider how gentrification could damage longtime residents’ most fundamental asset: their health.

My 2017 National Fellowship project, “Diagnosing Gentrification,” hinged on humanizing the connection between gentrification and health in a way that readers and policymakers could understand. It was important to me that the story include the voices of people on the front lines of gentrification in New York City and Chicago, two cities that are dealing with gentrification in very different ways. 

But health is a squishy and subjective measure compared to housing prices or crime, and unlike apartments, people physically move. Those factors, coupled with HIPAA constraints, mean researchers are less apt to study the human side of gentrification.

I’m a public health reporter, and my previous work relied heavily on studies and researchers as sources. But neither studies nor data could encapsulate the plight of John Smith, the 72-year-old whose story prompted my project.

Smith, who fought his eviction battle without representation, said the years he spent in court trying to keep his apartment took a toll. He’d ignore my phone calls when he felt especially anxious. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind to talk, he said.

“I get a little stressed,” Smith told me before he was evicted. “I’m not suicidal or nothing like that, but stupid things be pushing in.”

I wanted this project to be about people like Smith, not just numbers. But to tell the stories of people on the move accurately and fully, I had to find those individuals, gain their trust and stay in touch with them through life-altering events. Most importantly, I needed to spend enough time with them to understand their constantly evolving circumstances. 

Here are a few of the things I learned over the course of my reporting. 

If at first you don’t succeed, make fliers

My conversations with advocates over drinks had led me to mistakenly believe that local tenant organizations would easily be able to connect me with residents who could talk about their experiences living in, and ultimately being pushed out, of gentrifying neighborhoods.

In practice, finding those individuals turned out to be my biggest reporting challenge. 

After sitting in on hour-long tenant meetings in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and leaving countless voicemails on the answering machines of nonprofits across the city, I tried a more unconventional tactic. 

Following a brainstorming session with my fellowship mentor, I opened a stand at a Brooklyn hospital health fair. I chatted up anyone who came to my stand and gave them a printout, explaining my story and how to contact me.

I chose my wording carefully. Gentrification is loaded word in Brooklyn. Instead of putting “Is gentrification affecting your health?” on my fliers, I opted for the more neutral, “How is your rent?”

I took those same paper handouts to a building in a gentrifying neighborhood that I knew was undergoing major renovations, and with the help of a tenant, went door to door, talking with tenants and handing out fliers. 

Having that tenant by my side made all the difference. Not only were residents more likely to open the door for a neighbor, but they were also more willing to share their grievances about the building and the landlord with me. That trust propelled the project forward. I was able to return to the building countless times over the following months to spend time with different residents, sit in on building meetings and witness an action the tenants organized to protest the lack of heat and hot water in their building that winter. 

In the end, unconventional reporting paid off: The building at 1030 Carroll, and more importantly, the residents who lived there and who shared their stories with me, anchored the project. 

It’s OK if your reporting challenges your previously held assumptions

I’m a national reporter, so it was crucial that my project include context beyond New York City. I went into reporting with the assumption that New York City’s rising rents and gentrification-related political battles ― which are covered extensively by the local press ― were among the worst in the country. 

Now all I had to do was find another gentrifying city with progressive policies that New York could adopt or learn from. 

But when I called health and housing experts in cities I regarded as progressive and health-forward, like Boston and San Francisco, those researchers upended my impressions about New York altogether. 

While New York is far from perfect ― as my project details ― most other big cities have far weaker housing protections than New York, where policies such as just cause eviction and rent regulation ordinances help low-income people stay housed. 

My project still needed a national framework, so I went back to the drawing board to see if I could flip the story, and compare New York to a city with weaker housing protections, rather than stronger ones. 

After more reporting, I found my mark. “Chicago is the bad boy of affordable housing,” an urban planning professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago told me. 

In addition to lacking a just cause eviction ordinance like New York’s, which prevents landlords from arbitrarily evicting tenants, the state of Illinois made rent regulation illegal in the 1990s. The city also has a track record of demolishing public housing and leaving Chicagoans with even fewer affordable places to live. I was hooked. I booked a trip to Chicago to find out how those policies were affecting people on the ground.

Being willing to reframe my initial hypothesis based on what I learned through reporting proved essential to my project. The national context section of my story morphed from a how-to guide to a cautionary tale, and was stronger for it. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, repeatedly

For me, signing the fellowship contract was a bit of a gift.

I work for a fast-paced online news organization, and as in many newsrooms across the country, there isn’t extra time to pursue stories that aren’t panning out. 

Without the fellowship, it’s likely that I would have killed this story in favor of something easier to execute, especially when faced with a combination of insufficient data and repeated dead ends in tracking down sources. 

Instead, I doubled down and leaned on my fellowship mentor. After warning him that I would likely be his most needy fellow, we scheduled a weekly call during his daughter’s 7:30 a.m. swim practice. 

During those calls, I didn’t downplay my reporting struggles. I told him that nonprofits were ignoring my follow-ups, that the tenant meetings I’d sat in on were sparsely attended and that organizers on the ground had agendas. From there, we workshopped my shoe-leather reporting techniques, talked through the minutia of my struggles, and ultimately drafted the fliers that helped drive the project. 

By asking for help early and often, I gave myself space to make mistakes, rethink my previously held assumptions, work through snags, hit dead ends and start over, more than once. My project is stronger for having been workshopped at every stage in my reporting, a process that wouldn't have been possible if I’d been shy about asking for support from the start.

Read Erin Shumaker's National Fellowship story here.

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