Richmond's Housing Problems are No Worse than Berkeley's, Rebuttal to Expose Shows

By Becky O'Malley
Friday February 28, 2014 - 03:49:00 PM

In the olden days (before 1970 perhaps?) the terms “investigative reporting” or “investigative journalism” were not widely used. Newspapers employed “reporters”, who attempted on a daily basis to turn events into stories. “Journalism” as distinguished from “reporting” (despite its derivation from the French word for “daily”) was a term used primarily in academe, as the title for departments and schools in universities, disdained by hard-bitten news reporters.

Beginning reporters for dailies used to be told that their first paragraph should answer the questions Who, What, When, Where and Why. But increasingly the Why is getting lost in “investigative” stories produced for multiple media outlets by teams at non-profit centers. Investigative journalism can be a powerful tool, so it's important that it tell the complete story. That's why we're publishing in this issue a lengthy criticism of a recent investigative report.

These days in dailies you’re more likely to see puffish journalistic feature stories with lengthy descriptive lead paragraphs in prominent positions on the front page (“Venture Capital: Y Combinator Evolving with New Leadership”). The space devoted to straightforward reporting of local news by in-house staff—planning commission meetings, burglaries and the like—has shrunk dramatically, relegated to second sections and back pages.

For the small number of long factual stories still being published, the focus, in newspapers, magazines, broadcast and online media, has shifted to the investigative model. Increasingly, this kind of journalism is practiced at non-profit independent centers funded by big money interests which exist outside the multiple kinds of news outlets which disseminate their products.

Here’s the Wikipedia definition: “Investigative journalism is a form of journalism in which reporters deeply investigate a single topic of interest, often involving crime, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing.”

Many investigative organizations now rely heavily on some version of data mining: deep reading and interpretation of publicly available information. The technique was perfected by I.F. Stone, who was able to penetrate the secrets of the federal government by his exhaustive study of the documents it produced. (The other kind of reporting which was the product of carefully cultivated relationships between beat reporters and insider sources,à la the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate story, has become less common.)

The greatly expanded availability of online data makes the information-dense strategy even more effective than it used to be. But Izzy Stone’s great strength was adding the Why to his carefully researched facts, and it’s a skill which is often neglected in contemporary investigative reporting.

For many years I’ve been threatening to write a journalism textbook which consists of templates for reliably generic horror stories, which could be used in a fill-in-the-blanks manner by investigative journalists for the kinds of bad situations which never seem to go away: “Nursing Homes Filthy, Unsafe, Neglect Patients,” “Pesticides Traces Found in Applesauce” etc. etc. Stories like this are easy to do: just plug in local names and numbers and you’re home free.

But relying solely on government documents has its perils. In this issue we’re reprinting a lengthy critique of a purported expose of problems with public housing in Richmond which was produced by Berkeley’s Center for Investigative Reporting and featured by the San Francisco Chronicle and KQED. The man-bites-dog critic is Tom Butt, a prize-winning architect and long-time progressive councilmember in Richmond. He’s an indefatigable communicator, writing frequent lengthy reports to his constituents and publishing them online as the Tom Butt E-Forum.

The long-and-short of his complaint is that the CIR team ignored facts on the ground in their zeal for mining sensational but dated HUD complaints from online facts in obsolete public records. Here’s the short version of his beef about the housing story, from his site: 

“When the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) listed numerous HUD criticisms of the Richmond Housing Authority, they neglected to mention that all of them had been distilled into a Recovery Plan prepared by HUD and adopted by the Public Housing Commission (City Council plus two tenant commissioners) over a year ago. 

"Neither did the CIR reports mention that the vast majority of the Recovery Plan requirements had already been completed to HUD’s satisfaction and had been closed.” 

What we’ve re-published today is the long version, complete with pictures and graphs. Butt's key complaint: 

“To me, it appears that they first chose a hypothesis and then and set out to hang whatever sensational narrative they could find to support it.” 

Butt’s analysis is much longer than most people are accustomed to reading on the internet, but he’s a lively writer, and for anyone who’s interested in the future of journalism it’s worth slogging through. 

What many exposes of this type sorely lack is context. Missing from the CIR story as disseminated is context: how does this particular housing authority’s problems compare to others in other cities? And what caused it to get so bad? WHY did it happen? 

Answer: it's the predictable result of this country's schizophrenic approach to affordable housing, it's been happening everywhere for at least 50 years, and HUD's never been much help. Things are no worse in Richmond than they are in comparable towns and cities around the country. 

For examples of housing authority problems close to home, you can just search the Berkeley Daily Planet’s archives. There you will find a long list of stories about Berkeley’s housing problems over the years which closely parallel Richmond’s. And online research on scandals in the federal Housing and Urban Development agency (just google “HUD scandals”) produces a treasure trove of stories about how HUD mismanagement and corruption over the years has been responsible for the sorry state of public housing in this country: Berkeley, Richmond, Chicago…everywhere. For that matter, there’s a rich body of British writing about how privatization of what’s called there “council housing” has made a royal mess of affordable housing options in that country

My generic textbook story about the horrors of public housing would always include a leaky roof, because you can be sure that in underfunded buildings the roof will eventually start to leak. Here’s Tom Butt on how it happened in Richmond: 

”What [CIR reporter Amy Julia] Harris did not say is that… the roof dates from 1966, the original date of construction of Hacienda. It is approaching 50 years old, about 30 years past the normal service life of a built-up roof. The Richmond Housing Authority had tried unsuccessfully to patch it for years because it has not had sufficient funding from HUD to replace it.” 

Another example of a Why-less expose: the recent piece on the front page of the Chronicle about how the University of California’s investments haven’t been making money: UC endowment investment payoff worst of 10 richest colleges, by Jennifer Gollan, Erica Perez and Lance Williams, also from the Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s close to true as far as it goes on the Who What When Where dimensions, though it’s far from being new news, but it misses the important Why by a mile. 

This story was thoroughly reported by Peter Byrne in 2009 in a series which ran in several independent publications, ­­­­including the Planet: The Investors’ Club: How the University of California Regents Spin Public Money into Private Profit. 

As UC’s investments were losing money, financial interests connected to UC regents were making money, as Peter Byrne documented way back in 2009, and it’s still happening. 

Key detail from Byrne, left out of the Chron story: “…some members of the regents’ investment committee, who are also Wall Street heavy-hitters, have modified long-standing investment policies in a way that benefited their own financial holdings. The fallout: multiple conflicts of interest.” 

It’s an old story, one I first read about in my high school Latin class as articulated by the orator Cicero: cui bono? Who gets the benefit? And the answer is a Watergate era cliché: Follow the Money. Good reporting should go further than OMG. 

Not, of course, that Richmond public housing is paradise. But I’d wager that there are similar complaints that can be made about every public housing site in the Bay Area, in the state or in the nation. 

One intriguing small detail in the CIR story, as reported today by Harris on cironline.org: “ Executive Director Tim Jones at a City Council hearing last week conceded that the building should be torn down. He said he’ll meet with federal officials soon to ask permission to demolish or shut down the building.” 

Follow the money: the big money in housing has always gone to the builders. You can be sure that somewhere out there, a developer is already salivating.