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GVSU faculty member, students play key role in USA Today investigation

  • Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, assistant professor of multimedia journalism

Posted on June 14, 2019

A Grand Valley faculty member is at the center of a national story about failed reverse mortgages and the toll they have taken on senior citizens, particularly African American borrowers in large cities.

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, assistant professor of multimedia journalism, is the co-author of a June 12 USA Today story detailing a reverse mortgage foreclosure crisis that has hit predominantly African-American neighborhoods at a rate that is six times higher than neighborhoods that are primarily white. In addition, three Grand Valley students contributed to the report.

The deep analysis is coupled with stories from homeowners who told their painful experiences of facing the loss of their homes. 

"For many African American families, the home is not only the familial centerpiece, it is also a key part of the financial legacy that families can pass on, so when they lose that, it is devastating," Kelly Lowenstein said.

Kelly Lowenstein helped spur the USA Today investigation after reporting in 2015 on the problems African American residents in some areas of Chicago were experiencing because of reverse mortgages. In 2017, he pulled data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development website that prompted him to reach out to the other co-author of the USA Today piece, suggesting they analyze the data at a national level. 

USA Today signed on to the investigation in March 2018. In addition, members of the investigative team applied for and received a McGraw Center for Business Journalism fellowship, which helped provide the financial resources necessary to carry out a nationwide investigation.

As Kelly Lowenstein worked on the investigation, he involved his students.

First, he offered the students a chance to work on it with him, under the tutelage of a highly regarded national project editor at USA Today. Students Allison Donahue, Jamie Fleury and Shirley Keys joined the effort, working on research, backgrounding, public records searches, interviews of people affected by the problem, and more.

And the students in his classroom also experienced the real-time stages of such an investigation — and the occasional challenges. They heard about the protracted public records battle the co-author had with the federal agency and the tenacity required to see it through. Kelly Lowenstein also would discuss data analysis and talk about the findings and their limitations, the need to recheck the analysis to verify its accuracy and why talking to the people at the heart of the data was crucial.

One of the students who joined the project, Keys, said the work was an opportunity to see if journalism was the right career path for her. "It confirmed for me that this was exactly what I want to do," said Keys. "Not only do I want to be a journalist, I want to be an investigative journalist."

Keys, who graduated in April 2019 with a degree in multimedia journalism, said she relishes uncovering information and became adept at backgrounding work. She also came to understand the emotional impact this kind of journalism could have on her.

She interviewed people facing evictions in her hometown of Detroit, one of the cities hit hardest by the crisis, and was struck by the inequality the residents faced. She also learned during the course of her reporting that her grandmother faced losing her home because of a reverse mortgage problem, though she ultimately was able to stay.

Keys found that seeing firsthand the effects of this crisis on people and their communities helped strengthen her resolve to more deeply investigate. She said she plans to continue her media studies and also dreams of working as a commentator for the NBA.

Taking Kelly Lowenstein's classes at Grand Valley prepared her for this path, she said, as did his mentorship.

"He kind of took me under his wing, and motivated me to follow my dreams," Keys said.

In the meantime, Kelly Lowenstein suspects there will be more stories to write about the results of the USA Today investigation. Reaction was swift and reporters were fielding more tips.

One of the bigger-picture takeaways of the investigation, Kelly Lowenstein said, is how the problems associated with reverse mortgages affect everyone. Foreclosures incrementally decrease all property values in a neighborhood. And the reverse mortgages are backed by the federal government, which has faced skyrocketing claims.

"There are reasons for everyone to care," Kelly Lowenstein said.