Q&As and takeaways: Reporting on corporate landlords
Highlights from recent discussions on our community call
Tyler recently joined the Source community call to share about reporting on corporate landlords in North Carolina and lessons for journalists in other regions. Here are some highlights from our discussion (lightly edited for clarity):
In the past five months, we took a deep dive into the rise of the single-family rental industry. We set out to get our arms around just how many single-family homes a very small group of companies (American Homes for Rent, Main Street Renewal, others) have been purchasing across North Carolina. That’s a challenge because these companies use hundreds of subsidiaries to conduct their business and purchases, not always for nefarious reasons. But we have over 100 counties and they all manage their records separately, so it can be a tall order just to get basic counts. We devised a method that includes manual work and machine learning, and we put together a list of 200+ subsidiaries that trace back to around 20 companies.
Those 20 companies own at least 40,000 single-family homes, largely concentrated around Charlotte, the Triangle, and the Triad. In Charlotte, these companies own one-quarter of all rental homes, and in some neighborhoods, something in the realm of 1 out of every 5 houses.
The data reporting process
This was a collaborative process with a statewide investigative team. In dealing with dirty data from so many sources, there were some unexpected ways to find ownership details. I found a strange quirk in the state utilities data, so I built a scraper to pull all those records in, and added those to the data. In addition to cleaning up names, the mailing address and ZIP code was the strongest signal to search for, even manually.
We also saw how data work is often on-the-ground work, too. We talked to real estate agents. We knocked on dozens of doors—after a while you can walk into a neighborhood and understand that this is probably a neighborhood these companies are targeting. If your organization has a real estate reporter, go circle up with those realtors and talk to them about whether their clients are battling against some of these companies, or if they’re selling to them. You can often try to figure out the neighborhoods where they’re really concentrated. The key thing to remember: Even if these companies do indeed own a small percentage of homes nationally, they are often concentrated in specific neighborhoods, and chances are if there’s one in the neighborhood, there are several.
Taking it to your newsroom
One of the reasons we felt strongly that we needed to release this data is because we want to put this into the hands of policymakers and researchers, in addition to the public. There are many other complex questions we’d like to get to that we haven’t been able to answer yet, because the first thing you have to figure out is where they are and how many.
This work is being documented because I want to make sure the next person fails a little bit less than I did. And then we can start to succeed a little more.
Interested in support for your own reporting? Tyler says: Call me! Email me. I do really believe in collaboration and supporting local journalism that is seeking to answer tough, complex questions.
This reporting was also financially supported by a data journalism grant from the Pulitzer Center.
You can find resources from Tyler’s project on Github, and catch up on the entire conversation in our community call transcript or listen to a recording of the discussion. A full playbook from Tyler is coming soon too. The Source community call is a regular, open conversation for people to share their work, and we publish summaries here so more people can learn about new projects and tools.
Tyler is an investigative reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., specializing in data and public records. He also teaches courses on data journalism at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. In 2017, he completed a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. Prior to joining the N&O, Tyler worked as an investigative reporter at WRAL and was the managing editor for the Duke University Reporters’ Lab, a research project aimed at reducing the costs of investigative reporting.