Is LA Times Reporter Liam Dillon a Shill for Big Real Estate?

L.A. Times housing reporter Liam Dillon (in gray suit) with his panelists at a 2019 ULI conference

A weeks-long Housing Is A Human Right investigation has found that Los Angeles Times housing reporter Liam Dillon participated in at least 20 real estate industry events since 2016, committing numerous conflict-of-interest breaches and possibly other ethical violations. Dillon’s disturbing, six-year pattern includes participating in real estate industry lobbying events. The integrity and impartiality of Dillon and the L.A. Times have been seriously compromised — and a full, transparent investigation must be carried out.

This is not the first time the L.A. Times has faced a major scandal. In September 2020, the L.A. Times reported about the departure of one of its sports writers who had a “penchant for lifting prose from press releases” and was known to have “cozy relations with publicists.” The article also noted, “Since early last year, six prominent [L.A. Times] editors have been either pushed out, demoted, or had responsibilities reduced because of ethical lapses, bullying behavior, or other failures of management.”

As for Liam Dillon’s ethical lapses, Housing Is A Human Right has compiled a 61-page findings report. Key points include:

In late January, Housing Is A Human Right started the investigation into Dillon after he posted a number of misleading tweets in response to an “open letter” advertisement that AIDS Healthcare Foundation, HHR’s parent organization, placed in the L.A. Times. AHF took the step of writing the open letter after Dillon and two other L.A. Times reporters had written an article about AHF that ignored certain facts, resulting in unfair coverage.

Before that article, Dillon’s housing coverage often appeared to favor the real estate industry and push forward the real estate industry’s political agenda, which can result in major financial gains for real estate companies and other real estate entities and individuals. That agenda promotes the mass construction of luxury apartments to address the housing affordability crisis in California, which generates more profits for real estate companies.

Housing justice activists, though, say it doesn’t help the poor and middle- and working-class residents who are getting hit hardest by the housing affordability crisis. Activists describe the real estate industry’s self-serving agenda as a “build, build, build” or “trickle-down housing” solution that fuels gentrification, skyrocketing rents, more evictions, and more homelessness.

In his housing coverage for the L.A. Times, Dillon also subscribes to the real estate industry’s “build, build, build” or “trickle-down housing” agenda. Critics may say the reporter even champions it.

Dillon began working as a housing reporter for the L.A. Times in February 2016. Several weeks later, on April 14, 2016, Dillon sent a clear message to the real estate industry with his L.A. Times article titled “California doesn’t have enough housing, and lawmakers aren’t doing much about it.” Dillon starts the piece with this sentence: “The reason why California faces a housing affordability crisis is simple, many experts say: Lots of people want to live in the state and there aren’t enough houses for them.”

The L.A. Times reporter later adds, “The lack of housing supply fuels headlines that reveal the state’s housing problems at their starkest.” He then writes, “This year, however, state lawmakers aren’t doing much to make it easier to build houses.”

In addition, on March 18, 2021, Dillon was a guest speaker at the South Bay Cities Council of Governments’ COG Talks. At this event, Dillon quickly sums up his stance on the reason for the housing affordability crisis. He tells government officials that rents are high because “at base, our issue is that we don’t build enough housing.”

Dillon and the real estate industry maintain that a lack of housing supply fuels the housing affordability crisis. The real estate industry relies on that narrative to push its “build, build, build” or “trickle-down housing” agenda — real estate insiders say that if you build enough homes, eventually rents will drop for the poor and middle- and working-class residents.

Housing justice activists say there’s no guarantee that trickle-down housing will help lower-income and middle-income renters. Also, activists say that the real estate industry builds almost exclusively luxury housing, and that lower-income and middle-income tenants need help now through stronger tenant protections to protect against predatory landlords; the preservation of existing affordable housing, not demolish it to make way for luxury housing; and the production of new affordable housing.

The real estate industry’s “build, build, build” or “trickle-down housing” agenda also serves another purpose. Whenever the housing justice movement pushes for stronger tenant protections, the real estate industry says that those protections will harm housing production, and will therefore worsen the housing affordability crisis. It’s a convenient argument that protects the real estate industry’s massive profits made through excessive rent increases and other predatory business practices. It also helps to generate more profits for the real estate industry.

So when real estate industry leaders saw that Dillon was writing about the need to build more homes, they soon reached out to the L.A. Times reporter with invitations to participate in real estate industry events.

(Read the Liam Dillon Findings Report.)

Possibly the first event that Dillon participated in was the California Apartment Association’s Housing Forum, which took place on September 29, 2016. (See Event 1 in the Findings Report) The California Apartment Association is the most powerful landlord lobbying group in the state, opposing or supporting housing and land-use legislation and aggressively opposing tenant protections. The CAA’s political committees receive major funding from such corporate landlords as Essex Property Trust, Equity Residential, Camden Property Trust, and AvalonBay Communities. The CAA and these corporate landlords are key players in any reporter’s housing beat, including Dillon’s.

Yet Dillon decided to participate in the CAA’s Housing Forum as a panelist. His panel was titled: “Barriers to new housing in California. What makes California a unique place to build? What are the challenges to new construction in California cities and how might we learn from other states?” The moderator for Dillon’s panel was the president of Domus Development. One of the reporter’s fellow panelists was a vice president for Equity Residential. Dillon, in other words, was participating with real estate insiders at the same real estate industry event, bringing up conflict-of-interest issues. He was the only active journalist participating in the forum — former ABC News business correspondent Betsy Stark was a moderator for two panels.

There is a good reason why other reporters may have chosen to not participate in the CAA’s housing forum. Real estate industry conferences, summits, forums, and other similar functions are not merely informational. They are also, without question, political and economic tools that protect or create financial gains for the real estate industry.

Forums, conferences, and summits provide a public platform for the real estate industry and like-minded academic institutions and think tanks, which often receive funding from the real estate industry, to advocate for and push forward their political and legislative agendas. When those agendas are successful, one way or another, it results in financial gains for companies, experts, organizations, institutions, and other entities in the real estate industry.

The 2016 CAA housing forum is no different than other real estate industry conferences that are political and economic tools.

Soon after the CAA’s forum, the landlord lobbying organization released a “key findings” report, which was another political and economic tool to protect and create financial gains for CAA members and to stop tenant protections. Dillon and his L.A. Times affiliation were mentioned in the report and his picture appeared on page 18, all of which lent credibility to the CAA’s findings.

Dillon, as a result, was participating in the CAA’s political and financial agendas by participating in the CAA’s housing forum as a panelist. As one can see, Dillon created a host of ethical issues just by participating in the CAA event and other real estate industry events, committing numerous conflict-of-interest breaches and possibly other ethical breaches.

Liam Dillon, third from left, participates in a 2016 California Apartment Association forum — photo from CAA FACEBOOK PAGE.

Since Dillon participated in at least 20 real estate industry or real estate industry-related events, the integrity or impartiality of his journalism work and the integrity or impartiality of the L.A. Times have been compromised or appear to be compromised. Either is unacceptable, according to ethical guidelines created by journalism associations and news outlets. (That’s an important point: even the appearance of compromised integrity or impartiality is an ethical breach in journalism.) As a result, the credibility of Dillon and the L.A. Times has been damaged, which undermines the public’s trust in the reporter and his newspaper.

To prevent such significant, possibly irreparable damage from happening in the first place, it’s why the Associated Press’ “Statement of New Values and Principles” notes: “We avoid addressing, or accepting fees or expenses from, governmental bodies; trade, lobbying or special interest groups; businesses or labor groups; or any group that would pose a conflict of interest.”

It’s why the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ “Statement of Principles” notes: “Journalists must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety as well as any conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict. They should neither accept anything nor pursue any activity that might compromise or seem to compromise their integrity.”

It’s why the Society of Professional Journalists’ “Code of Ethics” states: Journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived… avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.”

It’s why The New York Times“Ethical Journalism” handbook for its news and editorial departments notes: “No staff member may appear before an outside group if the appearance could reasonably create an actual or apparent conflict of interest or undermine public trust in the paper’s impartiality.”

The Times further states, “Staff members may not accept invitations to speak before a single company (for example, the Citigroup executive retreat) or an industry assembly (for example, organized baseball’s winter meeting) unless The Times decides the appearance is useful and will not damage the newspaper’s reputation for impartiality.”

The Times also notes: “Staff members should not accept invitations to speak where their function is to attract customers to an event primarily intended as profit-making.”

And it’s why the L.A. Times “Ethics Guidelines” state: “The goal of the Los Angeles Times is to publish news and information of the highest quality. This requires The Times, across its entire portfolio of editorial products, to be, above all else, a principled news organization. Making it so is the responsibility of every staff member.

“In deed and in appearance, journalists at The Times must keep themselves — and the organization — above reproach.”

The L.A. Times adds in the “Conflicts of Interest” section: “Guidelines cannot cover every conceivable conflict of interest. If doubt exists, staff members should consult a supervisor. Nevertheless, some principles are clear. Any activity, relationship, investment, or affiliation that reasonably could be perceived as affecting your judgment or indicating a bias may create a conflict of interest and should be disclosed immediately to your supervisors.”

The L.A. Times further states: “Journalists at The Times may not use their positions to promote personal agendas or causes. Nor should they allow their outside activities to undermine the impartiality of Times coverage, in fact or appearance.”

And the L.A. Times notes: “Times journalists are occasionally invited to speak to organizations or to appear on discussion panels. Before accepting, they should consider the purpose of the event and how it might be perceived. Staff members should avoid situations in which their participation could be construed as endorsement of the sponsoring organization’s interests.”

Yet in the years to come, after the California Apartment Association’s 2016 event, Dillon continued to participate in real estate industry events — over and over. As a result, a disturbing, years-long pattern of ethical breaches by Dillon and the L.A. Times emerges. L.A. Times editors, after all, may have also been involved in Dillon’s participation in real estate industry conferences and summits.

Did Dillon, for example, talk to his editors about attending the CAA housing forum and other real estate events? If so, why didn’t they tell him it would be a conflict of interest? If Dillon didn’t inform them, that’s even more telling.

(Read the Liam Dillon Findings Report.)

Over the course of Housing Is A Human Right’s investigation, we also found that other journalists participated in real estate industry events. Wall Street Journal reporter Laura Kusisto participated in at least three real estate industry events with Dillon. New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty participated with Dillon at a conference hosted by the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation, an academic institution closely connected to the real estate industry.

Dougherty appears to have committed other ethical breaches, including accepting the “Best Housing Reporting” award at the YIMBY 2020 Awards, which was hosted and livestreamed by YIMBY Action and sponsored by real estate companies. YIMBY Action is a prominent land-use and housing advocacy organization in California. It’s a key player in any reporter’s housing beat, including Dougherty’s — and Liam Dillon’s for that matter. In other words, Dougherty should not accept an award from an organization that he must cover, especially since the awards show was sponsored by real estate companies.

Disturbingly, Dougherty received the award for a book excerpt that was published in the New York Times — Dougherty had published a book titled Golden Gates that largely covered the YIMBY movement in California. The work of YIMBY Action was prominently covered in Dougherty’s book, including the work of YIMBY Action Executive Director Laura Foote and YIMBY leader Sonja Trauss. His book was published in February 2020. Several months later, in October 2020, Dougherty accepted his award from YIMBY Action. Interestingly, Trauss was a member of the awards committee for the YIMBY 2020 Awards. (See the bottom section of Event 3 in the Findings Report).

Also at the YIMBY 2020 Awards, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo accepted the award for “Best Opinion Piece by a Professional” — Manjoo also gave a speech at the livestreamed show in which he offered political advice to the YIMBY movement. As a result, both Dougherty and Manjoo may have violated the New York Times’ policy for “protecting the paper’s neutrality.”

In addition, the YIMBY 2020 Awards was used as a fundraising event by YIMBY Action, collecting at least $42,326 from people viewing the awards show. That amount was then doubled with a matching gift by a YIMBY Action board member. So Dougherty and Manjoo were participating in YIMBY Action’s fundraising effort.

It’s clear that Dougherty and Manjoo’s participation in the YIMBY 2020 Awards obliterates their impartiality and integrity as journalists, which undermines the public’s trust in their reporting and in the New York Times. Dougherty also participated in YIMBYtown 2022 in Portland, Oregon, further compromising his integrity or impartiality as a New York Times reporter.

None of these conflict-of-interest issues and other ethical breaches would have happened if Dillon and the other reporters had simply declined to participate in real estate industry events. Dillon and the others essentially invited Housing Is A Human Right to investigate their activities, and we’re reporting our findings. If they hadn’t done anything wrong, we would have had nothing to report.

It will be interesting to hear what Dillon and his editors at the L.A. Times will say for themselves. For example, will Dillon say he didn’t know about certain things, such as the real estate industry’s connection to UC Berkeley Terner Center? If so, he’s showing his naivete as a reporter or his lack of knowledge about the organizations he covers and the deeper issues within his housing beat. Neither are good.

In fact, Dillon’s repeated conflict-of-interest breaches show a reporter with alarmingly poor judgment. So much so it makes one wonder if his judgment while working on a story is also deficient.

It will also be interesting to see how the L.A. Times will handle Dillon’s ethical breaches — and to hear why L.A. Times editors allowed Dillon to participate in at least 20 real estate industry or real estate industry-related events over a span of more than six years, if he told them about the events beforehand. If Dillon didn’t inform his supervisors, that’s again telling. The same goes for Dougherty and Manjoo and their editors at the New York Times and any other journalist mentioned in our findings report.

In addition, the public should know if Dillon and any of the other reporters received speaker fees, plane tickets, and other compensation for attending the real estate industry events mentioned in our findings report. That means the reporters’ editors must tell us, and they should be transparent about the exact amount the reporters received.

The findings report is 61 pages long. It provides important details about the real estate industry or real estate industry-related events that Dillon participated in, including background information about the real estate companies and groups that hosted and sponsored the events. It also explains Dillon’s ethical breaches, which are repeated over and over.

This is a very serious matter that should not be swept under the rug. The integrity of the L.A. Times is seriously at stake. That also goes for the New York Times. What will they do to restore the public’s trust?

(Read the Liam Dillon Findings Report.)

(Feature photo above — ULI’s Facebook page.)



Housing Is A Human Right is the housing advocacy division of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. We fight for what’s right.

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Housing Is A Human Right

Housing Is A Human Right is the housing advocacy division of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. We fight for what’s right.