“A new subscriber called to tell us that she subscribed because of this story,” Joellen Easton, audience director for the Bangor Daily News, told us when she submitted this story to the News Impact Project. That’s the kind of reaction from readers we all hope our journalism will produce, which is what makes this story, “Mass eviction in Portland to uproot low income families,” such a perfect fit for the News Impact Project.
Within 12 hours of the story publishing, the situation had been resolved, and at least 16 families were able to stay in their homes because of reporter Callie Ferguson’s work. But journalism that makes an impact isn’t easy, and though the immediate impact is something Ferguson and Easton are proud of, they know how much work goes into every story that makes a difference.
This story started with a tip to Ferguson, thanks to the tipster knowing Ferguson was a member of the community who happened to report on housing issues. Ferguson was alerted to the fact that Section 8 residents of a local apartment building had been issued eviction notices a couple weeks earlier. The notices ordered the mostly low-income residents out of their homes by December 31, 2019, and Ferguson said that, “It seemed like the holiday deadline just amplified their existing uncertainty.” It floored her, and residents, that the building owner would uproot so many families so suddenly, and over the holidays. So, Ferguson got to digging.
Ferguson’s first stop was the building, to talk to the residents and get a sense of what was happening. But residents were hesitant to talk at first. “Nobody really wants to talk about what they’re going through when they’re in that position,” she said, but one resident Serena McIntyre, was willing to open up. “I think that she felt compelled to let people in on details of her life that she was self-conscious about because she felt like this was one of the only mechanisms [available to her] for effecting any change,” Ferguson added.
By the time Ferguson was on the story, residents had already talked to their property managers and tried to go through the normal system for filing complaints. They had talked to the housing authority, and they had gone to legal aid. But so far, nothing was getting results. So, they wanted Ferguson on their side. “As a journalist, I can just call the owners of the LLC and [prompt] more direct accountability,” Ferguson said.
And that’s exactly what residents received once Ferguson got a hold of the building’s owners. The eviction notices, it turned out, had been sent in error, and the owners had never been alerted until Ferguson called.
The day after her initial story, Ferguson wrote a follow-up sharing the good news with the community.
“The explanation came about 10 hours after the Bangor Daily News reported on the sweeping eviction. At least 16 tenants on rental assistance were told the new owner intended to renovate the property and had decided to no longer accept the vouchers they used to pay their rent, according to several Oct. 18 letters and confirmed by the Portland Housing Authority, which administers the vouchers,” she wrote. “The letters were a mistake and should never have been sent, according to [Bill] Steinberg [director of asset management for Chestnut Realty Management, which manages the property for the owners], who learned about them through the BDN’s reporting.”
When Ferguson went back to the residents, she said they felt “vindicated.”
Residents weren’t the only ones left feeling good after seeing the impact Ferguson’s story had. “When we publish these compelling stories about issues [affecting] our community, we always see a jump in subscriptions,” Easton shared.
“I think that a lot of people gravitate to reading about housing because everyone feels it,” Ferguson said of why this story made readers want to subscribe. “It’s important to show that people who are living really close to [a dire situation] are there for a reason and to show their lives and how they [ended up there]. Even I learned a lot about how many people are scraping by.”
Ferguson knows that not every story will create such immediate, concrete change, but she keeps reporting because “it makes you feel more engaged in the community.” “It holds you accountable when you’re so close to the people you write about,” she added. “If there weren’t reporters who reported on the local communities, who would tell these stories?”