WNIJ and the Northern Star are collaborating to take a closer look at Suburban Apartments in DeKalb. It’s a large complex near Annie Glidden Road which houses many students. It’s also the site of a proposed solar garden. WNIJ News Director Jenna Dooley recently sat down with the reporters working on this series to learn more about the project.
Noah Thornburgh is news editor of the Northern Star. He says the reporting began in early September when he asked a pair of reporters in his newsroom to learn more about a solar project at the complex.
“And around that same time, I had received some complaints from tenants living in Suburban Apartments," Thornburgh said. "And so I went and interviewed one of those tenants. And it was about the same day I came back in the office after the interview that Noah Johnson and Brandon Giesey were in the office talking about the solar farm interview they just did. And it was around that time we realized those two things were connected. So we decided to just dive in.”
WNIJ reporter Sarah Jesmer had also been hearing tenant complaints in recent weeks. Jesmer has previously reported on housing at Hunter-owned properties in DeKalb.
“It was really sparked by the creation of DeKalb County's first tenants association earlier this year,” Jesmer said. “With the creation of that group, they wanted to draw attention to living conditions for some renters. What I wanted to do in my reporting is give voice to some of those concerns.”
After receiving audio copies of voicemails left by tenants to county officials, Jesmer reached out to management with Suburban Apartments.
“They've listened to the same concerns that we have heard through our channels,” Jesmer said. “They point to changes within their office structure and changes within their equipment.”
She says management says that meant installing new boiler and water systems. They also say they are responsive to maintenance concerns, and they hope the solar garden will make it greener to live there.
But there is a lot of red tape in order to “go green.” Northern Star News Editor Noah Thornburgh says the news gathering process has involved a great deal of accessing county and state documentation to learn more about Suburban's efforts to secure funding for the solar project.
“[Suburban] had to jump through a lot of hoops in order to get the solar farm built,” Thornburgh said. “And a lot of it has to do with federal and state level funding. Most of the documents and the way we're telling the story is by going through a timeline of these documents, starting with very early beginnings and then moving on to the Illinois Power Agency's adjustable block programs until we get to the end, which is where we're at now -- the solar farm is waiting to be activated.”
Thornburgh says the Solar For All program is a program intended specifically for low-income communities.
“And the area that Suburban Apartments is in does verify for that because they're in a low-income census track,” Thornburgh said. “The intent is to bring solar in a way that's accessible to people and what the farm is supposed to do is lower the rent by feeding that electricity directly into the energy bill.”
Sarah Jesmer says the two stories fit together -- housing conditions and the quest by Suburban to acquire solar energy.
“[Solar] is a community gift almost, it's going to help to DeKalb become a better place,” Jesmer said. “But if you actually speak to the people who live there, they're not really that concerned with bringing solar energy into their homes, they just want heat and they want water that isn't yellow and they want they want to make sure that their concerns are heard when they bring them to maintenance.”
Right now, there is a hotline available for tenant concerns. Management says it's also important for tenants to do their part by staying current on rent payments and reaching out to staff as needed, especially during severe weather which can put added strain on equipment. Still, some residents feel the need to look to outside help to address their concerns as evidenced by voicemails left with county officials. Jesmer says that’s part of what the reporting has brought to light.
“There's so many companies that [Suburban] contracts with,” Jesmer said. “There's so many county departments that have a hand in ensuring operations go smoothly there. There's so many people that are responsible that no one person is.”
She says that can lead to frustration at times. WNIJ intern and Northern Star reporter Noah Johnson says the reporting looks at the responsibility of tenants and landlords.
“I feel by compiling all this information for them, they'll see what their officials are really doing," Johnson said. "And then they'll hopefully start the conversation of how to hold people more accountable.”
Thornburgh says this type of reporting is likely the first of many.
“I think solar power is only going to get more embedded in the public consciousness,” Thornburgh said. “What we're seeing is programs dedicated to bringing that solar power to people who wouldn't have access to it otherwise. So I would not be surprised if more stories like this popped up elsewhere.”
Northern Star reporter Brandon Giesey says all residents deserve to know more about their neighbors.
“When you drive down Annie Glidden Road and you look out your window to your right, you're seeing solar panels,” Giesey said. “That is something that is going to continue to grow across the state and across the country. For people to understand how that is developed is important, even if they don't live in Suburban Apartments. It's important that people understand the processes that go into having solar energy at these apartment complexes or in general across the state.”
And WNIJ’s Sarah Jesmer says it’s important to bring in multiple perspectives for the story.
“I think DeKalb is going through a time of reckoning between the landlords and tenants,” Jesmer said “Not only can journalism validate their experiences, but also I think that people in the community have a right to know what's going on with their neighbors and their community members.”
You can find the Northern Star’s story on Suburban Apartment’s solar aspirations at northernstar.info. You can hear Sarah Jesmer’s report Tuesday morning during Morning Edition on WNIJ.