Preying on Texas homeowners

he cover story of the July issue of the Texas Observer is a report written by Caelainn Barr and Charlotte Keith, Stabile ’14, on predatory property tax lending in Texas.
The story, a deep dive into Propel Financial Services, a company that lends money to poor Texans struggling with real-estate tax payments, shows how homeowners are being lured to take on loans that have high interest rates, fees and penalties. Some of the borrowers, like the Acosta family that the authors featured, have lost their homes as a result.

This project started last fall, when the Stabile class was challenged to find stories on businesses that profit from the poor. Barr and Keith opted to focus on the property tax lending industry and discovered that in Texas and Nevada, private companies are allowed by law to pay for the delinquent property taxes of homeowners and to garnish their homes if they are unable to pay for the loans.

The two students researched the story for six months and traveled twice to Texas, driving thousands of miles across the state to talk to legal experts, county officials, former employees of lending companies and Propel customers. They also reviewed thousands of pages of legal and financial documents, using tax and property records from multiple public databases to piece together the first comprehensive overview of how the multibillion tax lending industry operates in Texas.

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Unregulated surgeries on intersex children

Should we “fix” intersex children?

Charlotte Greenfield (Stabile ’14) investigated this question for her master’s project. Her findings, published today in The Atlantic, exposes how intersex children – those born with both male and female genitals – have been subjected to unregulated surgeries that aim to make their reproductive organs more “normal.”

These surgeries, Greenfield found, can have unintended consequences, including, as she wrote, “a long and gut-wrenching list of damaging side effects—painful scarring, reduced sexual sensitivity, torn genital tissue, removal of natural hormones and possible sterilization—combined with the chance of assigning children a gender they don’t feel comfortable with.”

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Muckraking in Germany

Daniel Drepper, a graduate of the Stabile Class of 2014, is a founding staff member of Correctiv, the first investigative reporting newsroom in the German-speaking world. Launched on June 30, the nonprofit will be based in Berlin. It has been given funding of €1 million a year for three years by the Brost Foundation, which was set up by a family that runs one of the most prestigious publishing houses in Germany.

corrDrepper is one of the driving forces behind Correctiv. Before coming to the Journalism School he worked in the research department of Funke-Mediengruppe. He was given the “Wächterpreis” award for his work there and was named journalist of the year in the Newcomer category. Daniel also launched the research platform fussballdoping.de for the WAZ-Group, which brought him a nomination for the Grimme-Online-Award.

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Payday Nation

Three students from the Stabile Class of 2014 published this week a series of stories on payday lending operations run by Native American tribes. The series, Payday Nation, was done in collaboration with Al Jazeera America.

Julia Harte, Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein and Nicholas Nehamas began researching this story in the fall of 2013, while enrolled in the Stabile program. The Stabile Class of 2014 was given the theme of businesses profiting from the poor and students were assigned to find stories within that broad rubric.

In the spring, the three students traveled to Indian reservations in South Dakota and California to check out lending operations. They found that little, if any, of the actual payday lending was done from the reservations. Instead, the tribes partnered with businessmen, who used tribal sovereignty to claim immunity from state usury laws. The tribes, in effect, provided g them convenient shelters for lenders who want to evade regulators.

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Livingston Award goes to Gabler

Ellen Gabler, a student in the Stabile inaugural class of 2007, was the recipient of the 2013 Livingston Award for Young Journalists. The award honors “outstanding achievement” by journalists under age 35 in three categories: local, national and international reporting.
Gabler, assistant editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s watchdog team, won the award for national reporting, for a series of stories that found systematic delays in testing blood samples of newborn babies for deadly disorders. The delays, she found, led to preventable deaths and disabilities.
The Livingston Awards were given at a luncheon in New York City this week and come with a $10,000-prize. They are intended to support the work of young journalists and create role models for excellence in journalism.

In giving Gabler and her co-reporter, Allan James Vestal, the award, the judges noted the meticulous and rigorous work that went in to the investigation.

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