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Good afternoon, and welcome to the Fresnoland Lab newsletter. Today is Wednesday, March 31.
This week in Fresnoland, Monica and Cassie wrote a multi-layered story about the Manchester Arms apartment complex in Fresno. It is a story about a landlord who fails to respond to repair calls from tenants and the city of Fresno’s code enforcement unit who stands by while the landlord retaliates against tenants. Monica also wrote a follow up story about a meeting between the Manchester Arms residents and Nelson Esparza, their representative on the Fresno City Council. Monica and Cassie then chased down a breaking news story when the city swarmed the apartment complex to conduct code inspections.
It’s Monica Vaughan for Fresnoland, here.
When I first walked into Manchester Arms apartment complex on Effie Street to meet with tenant Laura Denies, I thought the place looked alright. Nothing too outrageous. Maybe some weird wiring on the outside, and the blinds were broken in several windows, but nothing abnormal.
Weeks later, I thought otherwise. That’s because we listened, carefully, to people who live there. My colleague Cassie and I knocked on apartment doors to introduce ourselves and tell tenants we were investigating the complex and its landlord. “Oh, thank God” or “It’s about time” and “That (expletive)” were among the responses. They showed us the health and safety risks they’ve lived with.
Now, other Fresno residents and city officials are getting the picture too and taking action to address the myriad of issues.
Today I’d like to share with you the approach we took in reporting this story because it’s a good example of how our team works to combine engagement and investigative reporting to creating meaningful journalism that drives change.
I first learned about Manchester Arms in a text I received at 5:52 a.m. on Feb. 4. Laura said the owner is a slumlord who was raising their rents and they had been without water five times in the past year. (A few weeks later when I went to visit, there was no water at all in every apartment I visited.)
The day before she texted me, I had posted this call out on Twitter, “Fresno: Did your rent go up since March? It might not have been legal. I’m working on a story and your experience matters. Shoot me a text and let’s talk: (559) 441-6043.”
That was shared on Facebook by a reader, and that’s how Laura saw my number. I also responded to about a dozen other residents and connected them with legal aid services.
Let me tell you why I think this matters. Our reporting is driven by the needs of the community we serve. We strive to produce journalism that is “for the community” instead of “about the community.”
So often, policy journalism is driven by reporter observation or curiosity, or advocate or politician pitches. It’s often reactive. It can read as a battle between insiders, especially if the impacts to real people are not placed at the center of the story.
We strive to make sure our reporting is driven by listening to the community most impacted by an issue, documenting their claims and experiences, illuminating their reality, and then investigating how people in power and relevant policies are working. We don’t always get there, but that’s the goal.
This approach is at the core of engagement journalism. Engagement journalism is working hard to listen to the community you’re writing about, especially the “hard to reach” communities, and letting their narrative and experiences and questions drive the reporting process. It’s also about building reciprocal relationships.
That means we’re not interested in simply extracting a story or some quotes from someone. Instead, we strive to support the residents we hear from. If we’re doing an investigative story, we’re also making sure that residents are connected with the resources they need to get some immediate relief, even as we point towards more systemic challenges.
Cassie and I knocked on (almost) every single door at the apartment complex. We listened to everyone who would talk. We recommended resources for them and told them what their options were. And, we handed out resource sheets to each unit so people knew who their representative on the city council was, who to call if they need help with rent and if they have a maintenance issue.
We realized early on in the reporting that tenants were putting themselves at risk by talking to us. That’s why we called housing attorneys early and let them know. Still, we’re trying to find a private attorney for Inez Hernandez, who has been evicted from Manchester Arms.
Our conversations and relationships with tenants of Manchester Arms will continue; publishing this story is not the end of the process.
On Monday, we asked tenants for their responses to the story and we invited tenants to speak their minds to their city councilmember by hosting a virtual meeting, giving residents access to their representative that they might not have had otherwise. On Tuesday, we stood by tenants as city officials swarmed their complex. We facilitated conversations between residents and officials and we echoed residents’ concerns and worries to people in charge.
Engagement journalism takes time. I haven’t written another story in weeks. Before publishing, we went to the complex five times and spent at least one to four hours there each visit. We combed through a 250-page document of code enforcement reports that we received after filing a public records request. We interviewed a lot of people. We wrote a lot of versions of the story.
Most local reporters don’t have that privilege. At Fresnoland, our priority is impact, service and policy change. That drives our decisions. We don’t always have the time to take this approach, but we are trying to find ways to build engagement, investigation or deeper context into all our stories every chance we get.
We are going to keep reporting on the issues raised by tenants at Manchester Arms — on how politicians respond, on potential solutions, on whether proposed policies actually work for the most impacted community members, and on where and how the most slummy-est of landlords operate. And, we’re going to keep listening.
(Do you want to see more investigative, engaging, and explanatory reporting in the central San Joaquin Valley? Please donate here to sustain our work.)
And now, the week’s top reads:
Housing, Transportation and Land Use
The catastrophic Creek Fire that burned nearly a third of Sierra National Forest will not lead to any changes in the new forest management plans which were largely written before the fires. Fresno Bee
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is extending an order aimed at preventing evictions through June. The protection would have expired on March 31. NPR.org
An obscure state financing agency led by top elected officials had the opportunity to help private developers build lots of affordable housing over the last decade. Instead, the agency did nothing while homelessness and home prices urged. Cal Matters
Despite eviction ban complaints, landlords show record profits. CBS News
Federal funding charts the path for local right-to-counsel programs. The Appeal
Economy and Neighborhood Inequality
San Joaquin Valley Asian-American women speak out about racism and discrimination. Valley Public Radio
Nearly a half million California farmworkers could gain legal status under new bill. KQED
Home and health aide workers are among the lowest-paid workers in America. The aides often make less than they need to survive and hold more than one full-time job at a time. NPR.org
Central Valley counties experienced double-digit, year-over-year median price growth and total sales in housing sales in 2020, according to data from the California Association of Realtors. Statewide, the housing market ended the year with double-digit gains, despite a short lapse in spring following lockdowns. Fresno Business Journal
Unemployment rates were down slightly in the Central Valley in February with Fresno County reporting a rate of 9.9% in February, down from 10.1% in January. Fresno Business Journal
While the economy is supposed to grow at a fast pace because of all the stimulus money and proposed infrastructure projects, many economists are cautioning that the economy is still in bad shape for millions of Americans who lost their livelihood during the pandemic. Washington Post
Millions of people are at risk of losing electricity in the coming weeks because of unpaid power bills, even as Congress has authorized billions of dollars in supplemental relief. NPR.org
Water and Air Quality
California weighs changes to water rights permitting process due to impacts of climate change. Water Education Foundation
Are California oil companies following the law? Even regulators don’t know. ProPublica
California’s drought is back, but nobody wants to hear it from Gov. Newsom. Politico
The White House announced a plan to expand wind farms along the East Coast and jump-start the country’s nascent offshore wind industry. Washington Post.
California’s efforts to clean up diesel exhaust from trucks, buses, ships and heavy equipment have paid off and led to substantial improvements even as diesel fuel use has increased and California’s economy and population has grown. Cal Matters
Companies are asking their customers to help them reduce carbon emissions linked to the use of their products by taking shorter showers, doing laundry at cooler temperatures and turning off the tap while brushing their teeth. Wall Street Journal
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