I wanted journalism about housing to better serve New Yorkers who make the city home. Then COVID-19 raised the stakes.

What I learned from creating journalism to serve people who are working to keep and protect their homes during a pandemic, and how community engagement can reframe housing coverage as a basic human need that is part of a community — and not just a commodity.

About a year and a half ago, I crash landed in New York to join the Social Journalism program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. It was a last second opportunity, and I moved pretty abruptly. I came bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with big ideas about what journalism could and should be. After working in both local news and in various education and grassroots community organizations in Milwaukee and Oakland, CA, I was frustrated about the disconnect I had felt between traditional journalism and the communities most impacted by the issues journalists wrote about. I was ready to do things differently.

I came to school in search of people who were also frustrated, excited and asking similar questions to me. Mainly…

But before I could get into the work I was so excited about, I first had to find a place to live. For the first two months of grad school, I was crashing on a friend’s couch and got the tiniest taste of how all-consuming it is to not have a stable place to call home. I spent my weekends touring Facebook strangers’ apartments and coming face to face with the beast that is New York real estate and gentrifying Brooklyn.

The inequity, history and displacement was all around me. Housing felt like a scarce commodity that only some people could have access to, some people could afford, and some people could keep. Little did I know how much worse that would get for so many people in the coming year.

The Open Newsroom

While trying to find my footing and figure out which way was up, I found the Open Newsroom and developed an affinity for library basements.

The Open Newsroom is a project the nonprofit newsroom THE CITY launched last year with Brooklyn Public Libraries to make local news collaborative. The goal is to learn how information travels in different neighborhoods, what issues are most important to residents and how we can work together to create news and information that better meets people’s needs.

I got to learn from and build with the team that started the Open Newsroom: Mekdela, Terry, Danny, Allie, and now Lauren, Erica and Michaela — and from the residents who participated in the meetings we held at libraries and on Zoom.

This work inspired and informed how I got to work with homeowners in a neighborhood called East New York, Brooklyn, and then with the broader virtual Open Newsroom community — to report on housing as a human need that is a piece of community, not just a commodity.

It all started in the basement of the New Lots library in East New York at an Open Newsroom meeting. The group that gathered talked about housing. We wrote on a bunch of post-it notes. People brought up concerns around homeownership and property loss, and some people asked about their rights as tenants.

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year and a half attending community events and meeting with people one-on-one and in small groups (when it used to be safe to do so) to learn why people were concerned about losing their homes in East New York.

I met people with deep roots in East New York who helped me learn about the neighborhood’s history and what issues were most important.

Based on those months of listening and research, if you’re not familiar with East New York, this is what you have to know:

I also learned that groups of residents are organizing and taking action to preserve affordable housing, and I learned that a lot of people in the neighborhood got their information offline, at events and through people they trusted.

I wanted to be creative in how we shared some of these stories of homeownership, connecting the past to the present. I had talked with a local theater company and a group of homeowners about making a series of pop-up plays around the neighborhood about the history of these homes and the current challenges.

Then, COVID-19 shut down the city.

Rent Updates

The pandemic shifted the way we worked. As journalists, it pushed us to be attentive to the urgent needs that were coming up in our community to help people get through this wild time.

At THE CITY, we made a callout, and I started answering hundreds of readers’ questions about coronavirus. We also started hosting Virtual Open Newsrooms.

One of the topics that came up over and over again was rent.

Tenants had questions about their rights, what to do if they couldn’t pay, what to do if their landlord wanted to evict them and where to turn if they needed help.

The Open Newsroom team held an online event where experts answered people’s questions, but we soon realized that holding events and compiling resource guides wasn’t the most effective way to get people the information they needed because so much was changing week to week.

Executive orders were expiring, new ones were being issued, the rules in housing court were always in flux. We wanted to offer timely information in an easy to understand format to help tenants navigate the pandemic in NYC.

So, I created the Open Newsroom Rent Updates.

Every week or so, I have checked in with an expanding network of organizers and lawyers I’ve been talking to who work directly with tenants to see what the biggest questions are that people have or the biggest changes that tenants should know about.

I break it down in a newsletter that goes out via both email and text message to those who have attended any Open Newsroom meetings in the past, and anyone new who has signed up. They’re also published on THE CITY’s site.

I’ve explained how Gov. Cuomo’s eviction moratorium isn’t really a moratorium, revealed that the state’s rent assistance program helped way less people than it was supposed to and answered reader questions like what to do if your landlord cuts your heat to try to get you to move out.

More than 1,500 people are getting email updates, nearly 800 people are getting text message updates, and the newsletter’s open rate is about 43%.

I’ve been working on getting the updates to as many tenants who need the information as possible. I sent an email to a list of 25 tenant organizers and lawyers I have gotten to know, and people in that network forwarded it to more than 100 additional organizations that work with tenants and more than 300 individuals.

To get the updates to tenants who speak Spanish, we started partnering with Documented and are distributing the translated updates via their Whatsapp newsletter.

I’ve gotten dozens of emails and texts from people responding to the updates. Most are some version of, I’m scared of being evicted — what should I do?

But these were my favorites:

Hi, just read your article on “first Tenant Evicted…” and just opened my mail and saw one of those letters. I think I have received one before or something that said to e-file , but paid no mind. After reading this article, I am going to be responding tomorrow! What else do you suggest to do?

and

“I just want to thank you and your team for writing about these things because if nothing else, knowing that I’m not alone in this offers some kind of connection to other people who are going through this to know that we’re all just trying to make it.”

Cease and Desist

Alongside the rent updates, I’ve continued to work with homeowners in East New York, reporting on some of the issues homeowners had told me were making it difficult to preserve homes and affordability.

In the spring I met Mercedes Sandoz. She’s a homeowner, mother of five and one of the residents who was fed up with having real estate investors calling, sending letters and knocking on her door trying to buy her home for cash.

She was part of a group that worked to make East New York a cease and desist zone, which is a legal protection that bans investors from soliciting people’s homes.

I wrote a story for THE CITY about the effort to create this zone and the impact of house flipping in the neighborhood.

Then, in November, the Department of State granted the zone, meaning people can now register their homes to be part of a list that investors are prohibited from soliciting.

I reached out to a couple neighborhood groups I had been working with and homeowners I knew to see what questions they had about the zone becoming official, and I wrote an explainer breaking down what the zone is and how to register.

Those neighborhood groups sent the explainer out to their email lists, totaling over 900 people reached.

I made a flyer version of the FAQ with a QR code for the link to register your home that I handed out with a couple homeowners at an outdoor event, and I also helped moderate a Zoom event one neighborhood group held about the zone that 60 people attended.

The goal for all of these efforts was to not just report about something and send it into the world hoping the people who need it see it, but to figure out how and where I could meet this community of homeowners where they were.

Since I know so many people in East New York get their information offline, I am trying one more strategy.

I worked with a local student artist named Matthew Beeston in East New York to design a poster with information about the cease and desist zone with a number to text in to get more information. We’re putting them on telephone poles all over the neighborhood where investors have typically hung the “We buy houses for cash” signs.

Tax Lien Sale

Another issue that homeowners had talked to me about last spring that I followed up on this fall is the city’s tax lien sale.

Al Scott, a longtime East New York homeowner, leader and activist, told me about how a lot of elderly homeowners in East New York end up on the lien sale list and have their debt sold to private investors without knowing it, which can lead to foreclosure or compounding debt that can pressure someone to sell.

I wanted to make sure that homeowners in East New York knew about the resources that were available, and how to get off the sale list if they could.

Al and other members of the East New York Community Land Trust Initiative steering committee helped me think through what questions people would have, and then I designed a mailer that I sent out to the nearly 300 homes on the lien sale list in East New York with a texting number for people to connect with me.

The lien sale was put on hold this year for the pandemic, but City Council is voting soon on whether or not to end the practice altogether.

I wanted to make sure homeowners in the neighborhood hardest hit by the sale knew what was being debated. So, I passed out printed versions of the mailers, as well as a printed, condensed version of a story that I co-wrote for THE CITY at the East New York farmers market.

Now, I’m co-reporting a bigger investigative piece about the impacts of the lien sale.

Traits I’m taking with me

From all of these projects working within a specific community to report on housing as a human need and not just a commodity, as well as from the work I did helping launch a texting news service and reporting on evictions in Milwaukee over the summer, I’ve formed a little checklist of traits that I think are key to journalism getting in right relationship with a community.

Journalism needs to be…

Collaborative

  • Those most impacted by or directly experiencing the issue at hand should be shaping our work, and the information we create should compliment work and information systems that already exist within a community.

Consistent

  • We build and damage trust by how consistent we are, how and when we show up, and the expectations we create around that.

Creative

  • Journalism doesn’t always have to be a story. It can be art or an event.

Responsive

  • Journalism needs to be able to adapt to community needs. The crises of 2020 aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and we need to be flexible.

Reciprocal

  • We need to be able to give as much back to our community as we take from it. We need to bring information and services to people where they are, in a format that is useful.

I have learned invaluable lessons from this program about the importance of listening and adapting, and what it looks like to keep showing up and re-committing to the work even when circumstances are challenging. I am taking these lessons and values forward into all the future work I do, and now I am contemplating how to take them to the next level.

A question I am leaving the social journalism program with is:

How do we continue to build on these kinds of relationships and keep building with communities to both meet the urgent information needs and also to investigate and create accountability around the systemic issues that cause these urgent needs to exist in the first place?

I’d love to collaborate if you’re asking similar questions. I can be reached at al.dikanovic@gmail.com or 262–497–5927.

becoming a better listener & making journalism more of a service at @newmarkjschool. new york via milwaukee.