Watchdog Q&A

Published — February 21, 2020

Q&A: Ann Choi on going undercover to expose racist real estate practices

Some New York City homeowners have alleged in lawsuits that they were duped into turning over their property deeds to a local real estate firm that had promised to reduce their mortgage payments through a government program called loan modification. Many alleged victims are elderly people and minorities living in Brooklyn, court records show. AP/Mark Lennihan

Introduction

We’re continuing our series featuring reporters who have reported powerful stories. This week, we’re highlighting Ann Choi, who investigated how real estate agents shuttle minority homebuyers into segregated suburbs and help solidify racial separations. The Newsday team went undercover (like James Bond) and secretly recorded meetings where white and minority buyers posed the same requests to real estate agents. The result? The three-year investigation exposed some very intense evidence of unequal treatment by Long Island real estate agents. Almost half the time, agents discriminated against black buyers. 

How did you get the story? What led you to pursue it?

We found evidence of widespread discrimination against minority buyers in the housing market by going undercover. We conducted paired-testing where undercover white and minority buyers met with real estate agents and made the same requests for housing while covertly recording the meetings on video. After videos were transcribed, we evaluated how agents treat white and minority testers.  

What were the challenges of reporting and how did you navigate them? Where do you look for inspiration? Or your favorite investigative story?

Our project entailed keeping tabs on many moving parts for an extended period of time. We developed an organizational system where we could update and track any analysis or progress we made. It also proved to be a pivotal tool in keeping ourselves accountable. For every question our editors asked, we had a spreadsheet with an answer.  

The investigations took three years to be published. It was the longest I worked on a single project and at times I felt isolated. I also read Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters. The book shows the breathtaking extent of what black Americans have done to ensure equal access to civil rights for all Americans. It motivated me to aim high for our project — that it would expand the conversation, both socially and legislatively, on equal access to housing rights. I hope it did. 

The takeaway: Investigations can take years to complete so keeping yourself accountable is the key to getting to the finish line. 

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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