Local Communities at the Center: The Making of “Hitting Home”

How Retro Report’s Two-Year Project Gave an Inside Look at Evictions During the Pandemic
By Emily Orr
An image from RetroReport

When Covid-19 left millions of Americans unemployed and at risk of falling behind on rent, governors announced stay-at-home orders to preserve public health. Suddenly having a place to live became a matter of life or death, and the phrase “eviction moratorium” entered the nation’s vocabulary. It was in those early stages of the pandemic that Retro Report embarked on a new reporting project, “Hitting Home.”

The goal was to show how communities across the country were affected by an unprecedented pandemic-driven housing crisis. We wanted to provide historical context to the challenges the nation was facing and explore what the future of affordable housing might be. Over two years, we produced a five-part series comprising four short films and the feature film “Facing Eviction.” Made in collaboration with PBS Frontline, “Facing Eviction” aired July 26 on PBS stations nationwide and has accrued over 1 million views on YouTube.

We followed tenants, landlords, lawyers, judges, sheriffs and social workers across the U.S. who were affected by the pandemic. Thanks to a talented team of field producers, we were able to tell the moving stories of three single mothers as they fought to remain in their homes and provide for their families.

This inside look at the experience of people living on the brink of eviction was made possible through an outreach and engagement strategy that centered local communities from the get-go. Here is how we did it:

Multiple Outreach Strategy

  • To understand the overall eviction system and the federal and local measures needed to keep a predicted eviction tsunami at bay, we reached out to dozens of tenant unions, legal aid offices, landlord associations, constables and housing experts, like Emily Benfer, from the Eviction Lab at Princeton and Chris Herbert at the American Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard.
  • We published a call-out survey on Medium to gather stories of tenants and struggling small landlords. The call-out was translated to Spanish and distributed through our reporting contacts and on social media channels.
  • We engaged in city-specific Facebook groups related to housing and pandemic relief to listen to and reach local communities.

Starting Local

  • The conversations we had with housing organizations, lawyers and tenant organizers informed our reporting, and we developed the idea to do a five-part series with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the Pulitzer Center.
  • The first episode examined how Minneapolis tenants looked to a 1970s solution to buy back their buildings when faced with eviction. Our second story focused on the long history of tenant organizing in the Bronx.
An image from RetroReport
Kirk Cohall and Laura Bustillos Jáquez of Retro Report filmed an anti-eviction march for the New York story.
  • We hired local reporters in two American cities with high eviction rates who could connect with tenants facing eviction for an extended amount of time. Dan Casarez, a bilingual reporter, produced the third story out of Fresno, Calif., and Brian Palmer produced our fourth short film in Richmond, Va.. Both of these episodes highlighted how decades-long redlining practices put Black people and minority groups at higher risk of eviction and homelessness.
  • We co-published our series with news organizations that were actively reporting on housing issues at a local level, including The City NY, The Fresno Bee, PBS NewsHour and The New York Times. The Fresno story inspired a larger Zoom panel discussion in December 2020 on the impact of discriminatory housing policies and ways to create positive changes in the housing industry.
  • During the production of the series we published articles on Medium that added context to the history of eviction enforcement, and an explainer about the C.D.C.’s power to halt evictions.
  • After these stories wrapped, we had the foundation for a feature film and were ready to report on a national scale. Using the call-out responses and story referrals from our contacts, many of which were other nonprofit organizations like CalMatters, we interviewed dozens of tenants and landlords across the country and zeroed in on New Jersey, California and Texas.
An image from RetroReport
Texas tenant Alexys Hatcher and her daughter stayed in a hotel while trying to find a new place to live.

Developing Trust in Times of Uncertainty

  • We built strong relationships with tenants and landlords who were willing to let us into their homes and share the hard moments and emotions that can accompany an impending eviction. Our New York based producers, unable to travel because of Covid, maintained contact with our subjects by Zoom and phone throughout the production process, which lasted two years.
  • Finding videographers who could double as field producers in the communities we were reporting on was vital for the success of this project. Spread across the country, they were in constant communication with our subjects, and on multiple occasions filmed tenants and landlords as the story unfolded.
  • We established a trusting relationship with constable offices and judges, which allowed us to film housing court proceedings and follow along as constables enforced evictions that could sometimes get contentious.
  • In the edit room, our first efforts were an emotional vérité style film that became the basis for the Frontline documentary. Each tenant’s housing circumstances were different depending on where they lived, but the challenges they faced in accessing help and navigating the eviction process were a common thread.

We are grateful to the tenants, landlords and other individuals who generously let us into their homes during the height of the pandemic.

You can watch “Facing Eviction” here.

EMILY ORR is an associate producer at Retro Report. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s Medium page. Subscribe to our newsletter and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.