Homeownership is a way for citizens to move up in American society, but homeownership has become elusive for Black and Brown communities in Metro Atlanta, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) reported in its series “American Dream for Rent,” which won the Bronze Award in the 2023 Barlett & Steele Awards’ regional and local category.
The newspaper found that private equity firms are quick to purchase homes once they are listed and turn them into rentals. In turn, many individuals have no choice but to become renters. Those renters soon become exploited by the impossible to navigate system – landlords don’t reply, things are done online with nobody to call to get an answer, tenants deal with an endless run-around, and a million other things that are impractical for tenants to negotiate.
The idea for the article came to AJC reporter Brian Eason after attending a forum discussing the issue of institutional investors purchasing single-family homes and converting them to rentals. “Hearing the experts talk about it and seeing some of the mapping that they had done, it was really eye-opening to me,” he said.
It was here that a pattern became noticeable to Eason. In a heat map, there was a clear overlay where minority populations lived and where firms were buying. From there, the idea for the series was born. Eason and his team were composed of fellow reporters John Perry, Zach Hansen and Michael Kanell, and from there, they got to work.
In order to conduct this investigation, Eason broke it down into two components: data and storytelling.
With data, it was a challenge to figure out who and what groups owned what. “That was the first big piece, just figuring out who owned what and then trying to map it out and see how many each group owned, and figure out who the biggest owners were,” Eason said.
With storytelling, Eason chose to focus on how this would affect home ownership and home buyers. “Single-family homes forever have been a big source of middle-class wealth,” Eason said. “That’s how you build wealth for your family. That’s how it gets passed on from generation to generation.”
To find sources, Eason found Facebook groups with renters who were targeted by private equity firms or negligent landlords and posted a brief message about his investigation on the site. Soon after, he received countless messages, so many he could not reply to all of them.
“The sheer scale of what was happening actually made it really easy to find renters who were running into issues with their landlords,” Eason said.
A common issue is often that lower-income renters fear retaliation for speaking out against their landlords, a problem that did occur during this investigation. He faced other obstacles as well: “A lot of the tenants that I had been talking to got settlements, which is good, but as a part of those settlements, they signed non-disclosure agreements (NDA). And so they had to stop talking to me,” Eason said.
In order to stay true to his piece without overstepping the NDA’s, Eason found himself doing additional work and checking documentation whereas in the past he was able to call up a source and quickly get a response. Though, Eason doesn’t mind the additional work, “I like documents. I like data, I like all of those things,” Eason said.
When there were things he could not verify due to the NDA, he had to omit them from the article to ensure accuracy in his reporting, “The mere fact that they had a settlement kind of proved my point that there was wrongdoing here,” Eason said.
Eason’s advice for other journalists is to remember the importance of human voices. “It’s the value of going out and talking to people. You find out so many more elements to the problem that policymakers don’t know about.”
Above all, Eason is passionate about using journalism as a tool to better the lives of others, specifically with housing. “Housing is just such an important issue everywhere,” Eason said. “All the research shows that it affects everything about people’s lives, determines if your kids are going to succeed.”