Reporting on Real Estate: You Build Up Your Sources and Get to Know These Communities and What’s Happening

From a Times Insider column by Emmett Lindner headlined “Real Estate Reporter on the ‘Whisper'”:

Last week, The New York Times published a front-page article by Stefanos Chen, Ted Clifford and Camellia Burris that examined a history of questionable dealings behind a New York real estate empire. Sanford Solny, who owns small residential buildings across the city, is accused by prosecutors of deed theft, a practice used to swindle homeowners out of their properties while leaving them stuck with the mortgage.

For months, Mr. Chen, a reporter on the Real Estate desk, and his colleagues pored over housing documents and talked with New Yorkers who say Mr. Solny tricked them when they were vulnerable. It is the latest big project from a journalist whose five years on the beat at The Times has produced reports on Chinatown’s civic groups and leaky luxury towers.

“There’s not much else that’s more intimate than the inside of your home,” Mr. Chen said in an interview. Below, he discusses the challenges and the mission of his beat.

How would you differentiate investigative real estate reporting from market real estate coverage?
Sometimes people create a boundary in their mind between real estate and housing reporting, and how real estate reporting necessarily has to mean more market-driven coverage. What we try to do on the desk is tear down that distinction. Understanding the macro market influences helps us better understand why people are paying absurd rents, or why folks, in this latest story, are being victimized.

How do you connect those larger ideas to the reader?
We always try to match bigger economic stories with what it looks like inside people’s living rooms. In this latest story, where people are accusing bad operators in the city of defrauding them out of their properties, we put a face to it. We want you to know these are 70- and 80-year-olds, in some cases, who claimed that they got hoodwinked. It’s taking that thousand-foot-in-the-air view and then pairing that with a very intimate look.

How do you find your sources and subjects, and what does reporting about them entail?
I really lean into my experience as a beat reporter. You build up your sources and you get to know these communities and what’s happening in them. Then you get the whisper of something happening, and connect those dots to something larger. This recent article started with looking at how quickly small houses come under the ownership of corporate entities. We’ve seen that trend increase over the last several years, of these shell companies owning one- to four-unit houses in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

It starts with coffee talk with sources — things that they’ve heard, names that have come up for them. The data was a big part of the recent story. We made our own database, which was a painstaking process.

Is that the most challenging aspect of the beat?
Yes, and also being obstructed by a lack of transparency and city records. Making Freedom of Information Law requests to different city agencies takes a very long time, and not all of them were returned to us. For this article, we ended up making many trips to housing court, both in Brooklyn and Queens, where these records exist in manila folders, in an archive — you cannot find them online. Ted and Camellia, two recent graduates of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Stabile program, were instrumental in building that database and the reporting.

What is the mission of your coverage?
It’s to help people understand this giant machine that is the real estate industry in New York City, which touches every part of our lives. It can be really byzantine and difficult to grasp. From signing for a home all the way up to looking at this on the macro level and saying there are patterns of potential abuse here that are not being properly addressed by the city and the state.

The satisfying part is when you speak to these folks. It really goes back to meeting them face to face and then getting a peek into their lives.

Emmett Lindner has covered international protests, worked on live briefings and asked the tough questions about frozen reindeer meat for The Times.

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