2020 Excellence in Audio Digital Storytelling, Use of Audio Storytelling winner




About the Project

This hourlong audio narrative takes a deep look into the bottom run of the Southern California housing market. The story is, at its heart, a data-driven story that has been reported and crafted into a compelling digital story and an hour long audio narrative. Investigative reporter Aaron Mendelson uncovers a shocking record of shoddy living conditions which targeted the poorest tenants, conditions so dangerous that they resulted in the death of an infant.

An entire team of KPCC reporters and editors worked to transform hours of interviews and piles of reporting into a compelling audio product.

Aaron discovered mega-landlord Mike Nijjar by analyzing eviction data. In doing so, he noticed the same property owners’ names popping up again and again. He then used California Secretary of State data on business entities to identify a web of more than 170 companies connected to Nijjar. Armed with that information, Mendelson was able to query several counties’ assessor data and identify a business with 16,000 units, 4,400 properties and $1.3 billion in real estate.

This extensive data reporting helped orient shoe-leather reporting. After identifying Nijjar’s businesses in databases, we reviewed thousands of pages of court filings to build a picture of how his businesses operated. This led us to a number of depositions in which Nijjar and his associates described their business philosophy. They showed a massive enterprise fed by unreturned security deposits, strictly enforced late fees and a system designed to efficiently evict tenants.

Aaron’s reporting let him to tenants of these buildings — he did dozens of interviews with the people who live in these modern day “slums.” Tenants detailed their struggles with paying rent, getting maintenance done and staying safe. One tenant, interviewed twice during the reporting phase, was tragically shot and killed in the complex’s parking lot.

Aaron also interviewed the family of Jenica Lozano, a five-month-old girl that died in a fire at a trailer park. A Nijjar-linked company rented her family a trailer that it had not secured a permit for. The unit had no smoke or carbon monoxide detectors, and problems with electrical wiring had been documented at the park. Prosecutors and real estate regulators took action, but Mike Nijjar remains in business.

Mike Nijjar and his business were essentially unheard of prior to the publication of this story. He was sometimes complained about on Yelp, but he was almost never covered by the media. Through exhaustive reporting, KPCC + LAist were able to shed light on the sinister side of California’s housing crisis.

For the audio version of this story, Aaron carefully crafted a compelling, narrative driven hour long show that aired on KPCC and is part of the digital project.

Acceptance Speech