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Jason Grotto: Chicago housing investigation

This story is part of our ongoing coverage of Chicago's massive plan to demolish old public housing projects and replace them with new neighborhoods that were supposed integrate public housing residents with wealthier families.

Under the plan, more than 13,000 apartments were demolished amid a severe affordable housing shortage in the city. The plan's backers said that demolishing the projects, which had been neglected for decades, was necessary to end the social and economic isolation of the poor, mostly black residents. In this installment we took a hard look at one development that the city's housing authority decided to rehab instead of demolish. Unlike the developments that were torn down (all were located on prime real estate close to downtown), the Altgeld-Murray Homes sit more than 100 blocks from downtown, tucked amid landfills, industrial parks and sewage treatment plant. Despite vows to end the failed housing policies of the past, policies that segregated poor families in isolated communities, the city plans to spend $451 million rehabbing this development.

How did you get started? (tip, editor assignment, etc.)

This story is part of a series of stories we have worked on that deal with Chicago $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation, which started nearly 10 years ago.

What were the key sources? (people, documents, etc.)

This story was interesting because, in order to understand the community, we needed help from resident leaders who guided us through the neighborhood and introduced us to people. These people were almost like fixers used by foreign correspondents. That's how isoloated this area is. It is a fairly dangerous place, where many people are wary of outsiders.

What was the biggest roadblock you had to overcome?

The agency we were writting about has become incredibly defensive about its work. Because we already had written stories about it plan to transform pulblic housing, officials knew our story wouldn't be flattering and, as a result, that made it very difficult to get information. The agency would ask for an extension on every public records request we filed (even the most basic information requried official FOIAs). That made it very important to keep a log of the requests we had filed. I also kept chronologies of each request because we were forced a few times to get our lawyers involved when the agency thumbed its nose at the FOIA laws, and the chronologies were key in those confrontations.

Do you have any advice for journalists working on a similar story?

Find the community leaders inside these areas to help you make in-roads in order to get a real feel for how people are living. Don't let up on your push for public records, keep timelines and stay organized. Help sell the story by putting a strong focus on taxpayer money, not just poor residents in need of housing.

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