United States Project

Housing officials, newsrooms square off over ‘privatization’

June 17, 2019
Ladan Yusuf, a public housing organizer, at a May 22 protest outside the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. Photo by Adrian Glass-Moore.

On April 5, University of Minnesota senior Aleezeh Hasan sat in on a meeting for residents at the Elliot Twins public housing complex in Minneapolis. The meeting, organized by a local advocacy group, was called to address the city’s plans to transfer 99.99 percent of Elliot Twins’s ownership to a private investor, in a strategy called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). Overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, RAD is designed to inject money into public housing to compensate for inadequate federal funding. Under RAD, a private investor—a large bank, for instance—would pay for renovations to Elliot Twins, and would also receive tax credits.

Hasan, an opinion writer for the student-run Minnesota Daily, took notes. Ladan Yusuf, a public housing organizer, warned against the privatization of public housing and predicted RAD would result in evictions; a resident of Elliot Twins complained that her representative on the city council had failed to come to the meeting. On April 11, Minnesota Daily published Hasan’s column: “Housing is a human right, but we don’t treat it that way in Minneapolis.”

The initial response to the story was great, Hasan tells CJR. “I got so much positive feedback,” she says. “I got tons of emails, more than I’ve ever gotten before.”

But the story also attracted at least one unhappy reader. Jeff Horwich, director of policy and external affairs at the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA), wrote to then–Daily editor in chief Kelly Busche and opinions editor Ellen Schneider on April 11 to call Hasan’s column “fundamentally flawed and inaccurate.”

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Horwich called Yusuf’s eviction concern legally “not possible,” and denied Hasan’s view that residents, many of whom are immigrants, were not properly consulted due to language barriers. “We sent multiple notices, in multiple languages, including hand-delivering personally to each and every apartment,” Horwich wrote. Hasan had used part of her column to criticize four elected officials who were invited, but didn’t attend, the April 5 meeting at Elliot Twins. “The statements about elected officials being invited and failing to show up at meetings are false,” Horwich told the news outlet. And he objected to Hasan’s use of the word “privatization.”

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Within four hours, the Daily had replaced the phrase “the threat of privatization” with “restructuring” and removed roughly half of Hasan’s article, including a sentence in which she implored those elected officials who represent Elliot Twins residents to “do more to be there for them.” An editor’s note said in part that “a section was removed detailing what local officials didn’t attend the meeting as the information couldn’t be corroborated.” Yusuf and another activist provided CJR with invitations they sent via email, text message, and Facebook to the four officials who didn’t show up. None of the officials responded to a request for comment from CJR.

Adar Noor, an Elliot Twins resident, told Hasan she’d made repeated attempts to contact one of the four officials, to invite him to speak with residents, “but it never happened,” Hasan recounted. That section was also cut. “I think that was the most frustrating part,” Hasan says.

The Daily’s editorial decision highlighted MPHA’s aggressive public relations strategy, which has secured more favorable coverage of the housing agency in the Twin Cities. The MPHA has intervened with a number of news outlets, spurring multiple corrections, revisions, and, in one case, a story being abandoned. In September, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the MPHA had “applied to a federal program that would privatize some of its oldest housing units,” referring to Elliot Twins. MPHA CEO Greg Russ responded with an op-ed accusing the paper of doing “a disservice to readers.” Russ contested the use of the word “privatize,” which he called a “highly charged trigger word that is frequently weaponized in debates about affordable housing.”

In an interview with CJR, Horwich argued the word “privatization” doesn’t apply because residents won’t be evicted, rents won’t increase, and the MPHA will continue to control the buildings. He says he expressed this in a phone call with two Star Tribune editorial employees.

“I felt they were very respectful of our point of view on that and said they had not thought through the implications of that term ahead of time and would think more carefully about it going forward,” Horwich says. In a recent article, the Star Tribune did not use the word “privatization,” except to paraphrase critics. Asked about Horwich’s assessment that the paper has “evolved” in its coverage of the MPHA, Star Tribune Chief Marketing Officer Steve Yaeger declined to comment.

The word was used ‘based on the reporting done for the piece, and feeling it was a fair description of what was happening, though we noted that MPHA objects to the term, and why, which I think was appropriate.’

The nonprofit news site MinnPost used the word in an April 12 article, reporting that the housing agency “plans to change the ownership structure of its housing and privatize some of its oldest units.” Horwich complained to MinnPost about the story, and the news outlet added this correction: “This article has been updated to correct information about the Rental Assistance Demonstration program—and to provide additional context about MPHA’s objection to the use of the term ‘privatize.’”

A comparison of the original article and the corrected version shows the MinnPost story was subtly reshaped in ways that favor the MPHA’s preference. The word “privatize” was removed in one place; in another passage, “MPHA eventually backed down” was changed to “MPHA eventually backed away.” A line that previously characterized the transfer of 99.99 percent of ownership to private hands as a “disproportion” replaced that word with “split.” The original story referred to residents’ fears of “permanent displacement,” while the corrected version did away with the word “permanent.” MinnPost Editor Andrew Putz says the news site listened to MPHA and “took another look to see if we felt any of their concerns were valid. Most weren’t, but a few were.”

Still, despite MPHA’s lobbying, MinnPost did not remove every use of the word “privatize” in the story. Putz says the word was used “based on the reporting done for the piece, and feeling it was a fair description of what was happening, though we noted that MPHA objects to the term, and why, which I think was appropriate.”

Horwich tells CJR that MPHA’s goal “is not to shut down coverage. We want to be open and available, and of course do what we can to make sure readers have accurate information.” However, at least one news outlet has backed away from coverage plans following an interaction with MPHA. In October, a BBC Focus on Africa TV producer contacted Yusuf to do a story about housing challenges facing Somali residents in Minneapolis. After hearing from MPHA that area housing activists do not pass “journalistic muster,” the producer told Yusuf she was not pursuing the housing story further, “based on this, and the lack of time to go through our lawyers.”  

In a meeting with Daily editors after the deletions, Yusuf, the activist who spoke with Hasan, told CJR she expressed her frustration over the removal of her statements. “You cannot delete our quotes,” she recalls saying. “You’re violating the First Amendment, you can’t delete this, it’s a violation of your ethics. This is wrong.”

Busche and Schneider, who are no longer at the Daily, declined to be interviewed, but they released two statements to CJR. In the first, they said that they removed “incorrect information.” In a later statement, they said, “We did what we thought was good at the time. Looking back, there were some things we would have changed. We were editors of a college paper, which is a place dedicated to learning and growing as journalists. We apologize for any stress the situation placed on the publication.”

The Daily’s new editor in chief, Cleo Krejci, tells CJR, “We really do regret how this situation was handled.” Krejci says more time should have been spent evaluating MPHA’s retraction request, and comments made by Noor, the Elliot Twins resident, should not have been deleted.

When editors suggested that she write a replacement column, Hasan initially agreed, but then decided against it. As she put it to CJR, “I’m not going to redo this just to appease you and your milquetoast version of journalism.”

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Adrian Glass-Moore is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis.