29 Jul Episode 116: The Pro-Gentrification Aspirationalism of HGTV’s House-Flipping Shows
Citations Needed | July 29, 2020 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: In pop culture entertainment, few names are more commonly associated with real estate than Home and Garden Television, more popularly known as HGTV. The home of dozens of wildly lucrative house-selling and home-improvement shows like House Hunters; Tiny House, Big Living; Love It or List It; Property Brothers; and Fixer Upper; HGTV functions as a veritable love letter to the capitalist housing market.
Adam: This popularity of house-flipping and renovation television can’t be overstated. In the second week of July, HGTV was the fourth-highest rated cable network, behind only Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, making it the highest rated entertainment network in the United States. It’s most prominent programming: the reliable, risk free formula of home flipping shows. All of these shows — Flip or Flop and its many regional spinoffs, Good Bones, Flipping 101, to name just a few — share a basic formula: House flippers, usually a family business in the form of a husband and wife team or parent and child with a folksy rapport, buy a neglected house on the cheap — cue zoom-ins on mold, water damage, decaying wood, dust, and dead bugs — that’s often in a relatively poor or gentrifying neighborhood.
Nima: They then turn it into something they describe as beautiful, to be sold at a much higher price to, most likely, young white people looking for a “funky” home in an “up-and-coming” neighborhood. But at what cost do these glossy, get-rich-quick reality shows entertain us? What ideologies do they promote and how do they erase the working class, often black and brown families whose housing was condemned, and communities systemically neglected, all before the cameras began rolling?
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll take a look at these shows to understand how and why HGTV became a glorified commercial for house-flipping and gentrification, examining the indifference to housing instability and its dead-eyed cheerleading of “middle-class” bourgeois aspirationalism, no matter the social cost.
Nima: We’ll be joined today by two guests. The first is Ann-Derrick Gaillot, culture writer and reporter based in Missoula, Montana. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Rolling Stone, The Nation, The Fader, Pitchfork, The Outline, and other publications.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: People’s biggest complaints about gentrifiers in their neighborhoods is they don’t interact with anyone, they don’t say hi to anybody and I think it really strengthens this idea in people’s minds that your house is your dream house and in it, it just exists on an island and you don’t have to know your neighbors, you don’t need to talk to them and if anything, you should be afraid of them.
Nima: We’ll also speak with Kamau Franklin, community organizer, attorney and founder and Board President of Community Movement Builders, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia.
Kamau Franklin: You know, I think it’s interesting that HGTV started approximately 25 years ago right in that time period of when the housing bubble really took off and I think it worked hand in hand, you know, as well as sort of relaxation of government regulations to move flipping houses and treating houses strictly as commodities, not thinking about people’s right to live in their spaces and to enjoy their communities and even to have power within their communities to decide what should happen to them, not only the housing stock but the commercial stock.
Adam: So this episode is a spiritual sequel to Episode 15, we made all the way back in the days of 2017, 100 episodes ago, that episode was called “The Real Estate Page As Colonial Dispatch,” where we discuss the way real estate sections promote gentrification and the commodification of housing, something we, in case you don’t know by now, don’t believe ought to be commoditized, and this is sort of a spiritual sequel, and that more of the pop-culture realm that promotes many of the same tropes, same language. Now, again, you may be saying, ‘I cannot believe they’re going after these sort of frivolous reality shows.’ What we hope to lay out for you, what we hope to convince you by the end of this episode is that even frivolous entertainment, light entertainment like this can also promote a certain ideology that’s very damaging, and has actually had a real world effect on how anti-gentrification and housing security activists combat the forces of capital and the forces of gentrification against their communities and that these things don’t exist in a vacuum and as much as we may enjoy them, I actually don’t enjoy them, I would admit if I did, I don’t.
Nima: I will wholeheartedly admit that I enjoy these shows.
Adam: Nima does, I do like the This Old House show on PBS because I like all the wholesome, gray-haired people fixing faucets, I for some reason I find that very calming on Saturday, Sunday morning.
Nima: That’s kind of like watching old Bob Ross shows.
Adam: Yeah, there’s something very pleasant to watch.
Nima: There’s something very pleasant. These are very different. They’re all kind of made the same way and yet, they are incredibly watchable, incredibly bingeable and to be clear, I very much enjoy watching these shows and they are so problematic.
Adam: I do think there is something sort of universally romantic about the sort of domestic space, right? This is your space, you have a family, you’re going to build this space, there’s something very sort of, of course it does appeal to a kind of libertarian solipsism or a sense of your own personal domain, but it is somewhat universal. It’s not totally manufactured. There is a sort of innate part of us that likes to nest.
Nima: Of course, and that also fits very neatly with what we are told about the American dream, that home ownership is one of the major steps to building a life for yourself, for security for, you know, building a future for your family and so these shows all work toward that end, how do you accumulate wealth, it is very hard to do that if you do not own something and make money on that thing. And so yeah, the endeavor of home ownership and then fixing that home up, so either taking it down to the studs and building up this space for you to have a family or grow old in with someone or just by yourself and, you know, have this wonderful space that you can call your own is fundamentally part of the American mythmaking entertainment that we so often talk about on Citations Needed. It’s also, I do want to note, it’s not solely American. Home ownership and having a space for your own is this fundamental desire that I think crosses many, many cultures, many boundaries, many borders and geographies, but the way that it is exploited in the systems in which it operates here in the United States, and especially through our pop culture, can be very sinister. Now there are channels like DIY Network that are similar to HGTV but today’s episode is going to focus on HGTV, it is kind of the daddy of them all, it has so many of these shows.
Adam: It has 60 percent of the home renovation, home flipping market. So it’s the mother lode, it’s the one that sets the trends for all the others.
Nima: HGTV was conceived by media executive Kenneth Lowe in 1992 and it launched two years later in ’94. The channel’s creation dovetailed with the rise of suburban boomer home ownership and what Lowe perceived as a growing interest in landscaping and other forms of house maintenance. Now at the time, the only other real home improvement programming was the aforementioned PBS show This Old House with Bob Vila.
Adam: That’s my shit.
Nima: And Lowe sought explicitly to take advantage of this lack of competition in the entertainment marketplace. So as Lowe told Architectural Digest last year, in 2019, quote, “The boomer generation was coming of age in the late ’80s, early ’90s relative to focusing on home, and that began this incredible boom.” End quote.
Adam: HGTV originally featured a relatively modest slate of shows about home repair, decorating, and craft making, including Room by Room, Dream Builders, Decorating Cents, and Gardening by the Yard. In 1999, one of its first hits, House Hunters — a show in which young couples sought to buy their first house — premiered. This marked the channel’s transition from home improvement shows to basically a real estate ad. House Hunters is still on the air today by the way, with over a dozen spinoffs.
Nima: Now, while HGTV had been airing home renovation programming for years, shows like the Property Brothers which premiered in 2011 and Renovation Raiders which premiered in 2013, and even some flipping-related programming, like Flea Market Flip which started airing in 2012, the first real flipping megahit was Flip or Flop, which premiered in 2013 — notably, just a couple of years after the housing market totally bottomed out after the 2008 crash.
Now, the premise of the show, Flip or Flop, like so many others that then followed, was that the couple would buy a distressed, short-sold, or foreclosed house and flip it — that is, fully renovate it often to be sold then for a handsome profit, meaning these houses are purchased by not people who are then going to live in them, their purchased as an investment. They put all this money into it, they gut it, they turn it into this new construction, and then they sell it for a lot more money than they bought it for. The show’s hosts, Tarek and Christina El Moussa — who have since divorced — were real-estate agents in the wealthy, conservative Southern California enclave of Orange County, before the housing crash. They began flipping houses, however, after the crash.
This context ultimately proved fortuitous for the El Moussas. As writer Caitlin Flanagan observed for Vulture, quote:
After the housing bust, Orange County had one of the highest numbers of foreclosures in the country, which made life as a broker there especially grim. But a few years passed, and that huge inventory of abandoned, slightly outdated houses began to present a business opportunity.
End quote. Therefore, Flip or Flop introduced what would become HGTV stock characters: the sympathetic, downtrodden couple looking to get back on their feet — and how? — by turning a quick profit of flipping houses.
The show, Flip or Flop, was a ratings juggernaut; in a press release, the network, HGTV, claimed that the show was in the top 10 highest-rated cable programs on the nights it aired. Flip or Flop would soon spur a flurry of spinoffs and a predatory aspirationalist narrative that would come to actually define almost all of the programming on HGTV itself.
Adam: With Flip or Flop’s success, the house-flipping genre exploded. HGTV introduced dozens of flipping shows, including Masters of Flip, Good Bones, five Flip or Flop spinoffs in different cities, and this year introduced Flipping 101 with Tarek El Moussa. These shows, which again all follow essentially the same formula, contain a number of motifs championing the process of gentrification as forward-thinking investment, while casting flippers and gentrifiers as saviors of what they view as dying or crumbling neighborhoods. And this, of course, relies on very casual colonialist framing, some of which we discussed in Episode 15, which if you haven’t listened to, you may want to go back and listen to.
Nima: Yeah, so there’s this whole idea of being pioneers on the frontier of new up and coming neighborhoods. And maybe one of the shows that exemplifies this the most is called Good Bones. It’s hosted by a mother-daughter duo named Karen Laine and Mina Starsiak who own a house-flipping business in Indianapolis, Indiana. The show is effectively a gentrification instruction manual. It documents the process of buying and renovating a house, often in neighborhoods that are described as “not fully there yet” and “will be something a few years from now” and then taking this house, gut-renovating it, selling it, usually to young white couples, at a five- or six-digit profit, thus driving up prices throughout the neighborhood.
Now, Karen and Mina go to great lengths to say that they are not in this to make money, they’re in it to build beautiful houses for their neighbors. They say this on almost every episode. How do I know this?
Adam: Because you’ve seen every episode.
Nima: It’s true.
Adam: You should be ashamed of yourself, Nima.
Nima: (Chuckles.) I’ve really watched a lot of these. So, in a promo for the newest season, Mina, the daughter, says this, quote,“Our mission is the same: Saving our community, one house at a time.” End quote. Now, euphemistic, savior-complex phrasing like this permeates the show and many others like it, as hosts eagerly sell the idea of “improving” a neighborhood by making it whiter and more expensive. Here are a number of other examples.
Mina: And it’s just east of State, which is an area that’s a little —
Karen: It’s transitional still.
Karen: It needs some love. I feel like if Fountain Square is the frontier, East of State is the territory beyond the frontier.
Mina: East of State is changing. This neighborhood is a little bit on the edge.
Woman: Bringing in somebody who wants to make the neighborhood better into this neighborhood, an investment for us, that’s what’s going to change the neighborhoods.
Nima: From the very beginning, Good Bones was a gentrifier’s dream. In the first episode ever, Season One, Episode One, Mina and Karen have bought a house that they haven’t been to yet in the neighborhood in which they live called Fountain Squares in Indianapolis, and when they first go in, they don’t have a key to the front door so they have to climb through a window, it soon becomes clear that some people have been staying in the house.
Karen: Well, there’s stuff in here. I mean, somebody has been living here.
Mina: Okay, I can deal with it as long as he’s not here. This is the end of the road.
Karen: Oh. My heart’s just pounding.
Mina: But someone’s clearly squatting here. We have a houseguest possibly two. Our house guest might have a pet cat. We only met the cat so far.
Karen: So far, just the cat.
Mina: God the cat scared me.
Karen: You know what makes me a little bit nervous is the dishes in the sink and the cup in the corner.
Mina: Well, they’re dirty.
Karen: They’re dirty, and they’re wet, which makes me think recent, right?
Mina: It’s not fun kicking squatters out of our home. The first step with dealing with a squatter is ask nicely. The second step is ask not nice. And the third step is just take their stuff out and start doing demo.
Karen: Start doing what you’re going to do, right. It’s our house.
Adam: So it’s sort of played for yuks. It’s kind of an adventure. It creates drama. Of course, there’s zero introspection as to maybe the fact that it’s someone from the neighborhood or maybe even a former tenant or maybe even someone who’s obviously by definition housing insecure, otherwise, they wouldn’t be squatting.
Adam: These questions of course are breezed over you and it’s kind of played for a laugh and we move on. And yeah, I think that really kind of sums up the show because again, you have to ask yourself at what cost are we flipping this profit you make in a couple months, if not weeks?
Nima: What’s also amazing, I think, is that in this one episode, when they walk through the house, in the living room, there are huge spray painted words on the wall that say, “Get Out,” and again, they play it for laughs like, ‘Oh, that’s welcoming in our home,’ but again, they don’t live there and they’re not planning on living there. They are literally gut-renovating this down to the foundation of the house, rebuilding it, and then selling it for profit.
Adam: And of course, the way she says ‘my house, this is our house,’ it’s all very sort of, I mean, one of them’s literally named Karen. It’s all sort of very entitled and sort of uncritical about what exactly they’re doing, you know, they’re in the business of kicking someone out of a home. That’s a big deal and they hand-wring about it for all 10 seconds, laugh about it, then move on.
Nima: In another episode, Episode Four of Season One, they talk about the houses that they have bought lately in another neighborhood in Indianapolis called Bates-Hendricks and they say this:
[Begin Good Bones Clip]
Mina: To buy a lot of the houses in Bates-Hendricks that we bought from the city we had to get a letter of support from the Bates-Hendricks Neighborhood Association.
Karen: So we’re going to show this house to Lance and Laura from the Bates-Hendricks Neighborhood Association, who looked at it as part of their Abandoned Housing Project.
Lance: Two years ago when I first walked into this house, it looked like a house right out of a horror movie.
Karen: So they’ve seen it before and they know how awful it was and we want to show them that they can be happy where in their neighborhood
Lance: Mina and Karen have really brought a lot to our neighborhood and they’ve invested a lot in our neighborhood and we’re very excited to have them here.
Karen: Bates-Hendricks is one of the hidden gems in Indianapolis and we’re just excited that we get to be part of making it all it can be. So you guys know people who want to live in the neighborhood.
Lance: We do.
Karen: So we’re going to rely on you to get the right people in your neighborhood, right?
Mina: We bought this house for right around $4,000, we spent about $210,000 on renovations. That puts us all in at $214,000. A few weeks after the showing we sold the house for $239,000, giving us a profit of $25,000.
Lance: I feel like you’re just really bringing this neighborhood up and I am so excited to have you both here.
Mina: Oh this just feels so good!
[End Good Bones Clip]
Adam: It’s the distillation of atomized neoliberalism where you see a house that’s destitute and gross and abandoned by its owners who were just there, it’s overrun, and your question isn’t what was the affliction that caused this negligence? What resulted in this poverty that made people abandon their homes? Are they neglected by the state? Do they have a mental health problem? ‘Oh, it’s just this fucking disgusting thing, this blight that needs to go,’ and it’s just it’s that Simpsons gag where they renovate downtown Springfield and the blight building turns to a coffee shop and then they cut to a homeless guy and he turns into a mailbox.
Nima: It’s like that as a TV station.
Adam: Yeah, I know, and it’s like, I mean, again, it’s people may say, ‘Look, it’s just a dumb reality show, you can’t ask too much of it,’ but the fact that it’s a dumb reality show doesn’t change the fact that it influences people, it’s an absolute concept that doesn’t, what your motives are, what your intentions are, or these totally arbitrary genre carve outs of “Oh, we can be frivolous and glib and agnostic to moral or political considerations because that’s the genre.’ Well, okay, but that’s just a thing you made up, that’s not a law of nature. That’s just something we all agreed was a thing. So they quite literally monetize rot and there’s never any sense of what that is or what the moral stakes are of that and of course, that’s I know that’s the genre, but should it be?
Nima: (Laughs.) So the Bates-Hendricks neighborhood actually plays a large role in many Good Bones episodes. Here’s another one from Season Two, Episode Three, where Mina is talking about a house that — what else? — they plan to flip.
Mina: And Bates-Hendricks is that the discomfort zone still. So South Bates-Hendricks definitely makes it a little more iffy.
Nima: Obviously a dicey neighborhood for these house flippers that, you know, super sketch. Bates-Hendricks in Indianapolis has in recent years become the target of a lot of widespread gentrification efforts, you know, in no small part to shows like Good Bones and HGTV. An article in the Indy Star from June of 2017 noted that the most expensive house in the neighborhood, priced at $339,000, was one flipped by — who else? — Karen and Mina of Good Bones. The article also says this, quote, “Houses that have sat empty for 25 years are finally occupied again, said Lydia Brasher, who has lived in her family home for decades and remembers when the neighborhood was full of working-class families and bustling businesses.” End quote.
Adam: Yes, back when there were working-class people here who have now magically all disappeared.
Man: It’s just going to take one cute little cafe to pop in and then everybody’s perceptions change.
Mina: Because all the houses downtown are so close to each other, there’s no view necessarily out that window. There’s nasty aluminum siding next door. So we frosted them, so you still get tons of light but you get privacy and you don’t have a bad view.
Man: Whoever buys this house today is going to be in a really sweet spot in two more years. This is the first house on the block, that’s part of the reason why it’s only worth $200k. You put this house around four or five more houses like it, you inject another million dollars in the immediate area that brings the tide up.
Mina: And how stupid we were for spending so much money.
Man: Stupid is not the word. It’s bold, it’s courageous.
Mina: Ahead of the curve.
Karen: I like all those words. Keep talking.
Mina: It sounds better than stupid, I’ll take it.
Adam: Yeah, they paint themselves as being, I mean, basically what they’re doing is arbitrage, right? They’re not making anything really, they’re seeing a gap in some sort of an artificial housing market and exploiting that gap by going in and reconstructing these homes before other people do and there’s never a sense of okay, again, if you care about a neighborhood, again, I’m totally aware this not in the genre, but what about the affordability housing crisis that we’re seeing? What about — ?
Nima: Hey man, they’re visionaries who need to get the right people into these new neighborhoods that have never been lived in before.
Adam: Yeah, again there’s the thin moral narrative that I find hilarious which to them they’re sort of saving these neighborhoods by creating expensive houses for rich people or relatively rich people, not quite sure how that, you know, when they say things like ‘we’re saving the neighborhood’ or ‘rebuilding the neighborhood’ it’s never, the logical question is for who? And of course that leads you to a pretty messy place. So now we’re going to move on to my personal favorite because the hosts of this show have absolutely zero charisma. Say what you will about Good Bones but little chemistry there, again, definitely a sort of dead-eyedness to it, but at least they seem like they’re having fun. The hosts of Flip or Flop Atlanta, Ken and Anita Corsini are total mercenaries, look like they’re having zero fun, speak totally in P and L terms, which is probably why the show got canceled eventually. But Atlanta, as a lot of people may know, Atlanta has a very large African American population. It’s considered sort of the beating heart of the black middle class in this country and has a large history of an African American sort of run city government, it’s an important part of the culture and these motherfuckers just rip through every black part of Atlanta like it’s their job because well it is and they do it with total callous and reckless abandon. It’s the perfect distillation of the house-flipping ethos because it doesn’t even have any, I don’t even think they try to attach moral pretenses to it, and there’s zero charisma. It’s just pure profiteering.
Adam: And they use all the pro-gentrification colonial tropes you could possibly imagine.
Nima: It’s literally like a gentrifier’s jargon, talking-point guidebook. Listen to this:
[Begin Clip Montage]
Ken: Really up and coming, next big neighborhood to turn.
Anita: The younger demographic in this area… We’re appealing to a very artsy crowd.
Ken: Lots of artsy people want to live there, lots of gentrification, home values are skyrocketing right now… This is a nice area, it’s gentrifying.
[End Clip Montage]
Adam: Yeah, they even just call it gentrification, which you don’t normally do.
Nima: Right. Like you’re not actually supposed to say that on the show. (Laughs.)
Adam: They use it as a good thing. So it’s interesting they don’t even care. In some senses maybe I respect that.
Nima: Yeah, as part of its existence as just a pion to private real estate mercenary markets, HGTV not only portrays house flippers as clever and courageous mavericks and pioneers but also actively encourages people to become house flippers themselves. So naturally as a result of the popularity of shows like Flip or Flop, Tarek El Moussa got his own spinoff which is now on the air called Flipping 101.
Tarek: I’m Tarek El Moussa and I’ve successfully flipped over 500 houses. I was so broke when I got started I actually lived in my mom’s garage.
Man: Yeah, that’s a problem.
Nima: Incidentally, he was only 22 at the time, so good for him.
Tarek: But today, I’ve sold close to a half billion dollars in real estate and counting. This place is nasty, I love it. Now I’m sharing every lesson I’ve learned to help novice flippers survive their projects unscathed. I’m going to show them how to take the worst of the worst — well, you have foundation issues — and make a mountain of money turning them into the best on the block.
Nima: The show maintains the narrative that flippers are just looking for extra income, this is their way out, without of course, considering at whose expense that income is arriving.
Adam: On the show Flip or Flop Fort Worth, Andy and Ashley Williams, who are the hosts, are both Iraq War veterans, advertise their realty company and talk about their quote-unquote “mission,” which is to encourage veterans to get into house flipping and encourage veterans to become landlords. So when there’s a deluge, a torrent of oversaturated house-flipping shows, increasingly you see producers look for these sort of saccharine —
Nima: Yeah, they need a new hook, right?
Adam: To sort of give it again, some sort of thin moral context and where to go, you know, where does Budweiser go? Where does FedEx go? Where does every hacky ad agency on Madison Avenue go when they need to distinguish their product with cheap sentimentality? They go to veterans. So this show is about veterans and encouraging veterans to get in the house-flipping business and to become landlords. A 2018 Fort Worth Business Press article said, quote:
Helping veterans has always been important to the couple, as they met while serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army. During their HGTV work, the couple was committed to hiring veterans to help on their projects. Beyond the TV series, helping veterans and continuing their mission remains paramount for [their company] Recon Realty. ‘The primary reason why we did season one is to expose the mission of Recon Realty, which is really about changing the narrative for veterans’ reintegration,’ Andy said. Now that the couple is off the set and can get back to running their realty business, Andy says, they are making a commitment to buy hundreds of houses in Fort Worth to ‘renovate to rent’ and build awareness around veterans becoming landlords. They plan to have veterans involved in every step of the process.
So a couple things about this — this is like one of those sentences that’s made in the lab to piss me off.
Adam: So we have shallow moralism about veterans, whatever that means. Changing the narrative about veterans’ reintegration, I guess it’s like Rambo circa 1976? I didn’t know this was a thing people were getting spit on, was it like the scene in Con Air where the guy’s like, ‘We don’t need you, marine.’ I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about or what any of this means, it’s just obviously a bunch of PR pablum, but helping veterans reintegrate by making them landlords.
Nima: Landlords. Yeah.
Adam: There’s something else because there presumably are maybe more productive, healthier ways to reintegrate veterans into society that maybe include, I don’t know contributing, something to society, rather than being a parasitic landowner. Nonetheless, this is their angle. These shows increasingly — spinoffs of spinoffs of spinoffs — increasingly they need an angle to distinguish themselves from the crowd. So this sort of shows how craven they’ve become, they’ve sort of run out of gimmicks. They’re still fucking landlords. This is not that interesting.
Nima: Yeah. HGTV is actually obsessed with making people into house flippers. So they have a whole section that has “advice for novice flippers,” which features listicles like “16 First Time Flipper Mistakes” and “HGTV’s Renovation Guide.” It also has a blog post about, quote, “getting a bargain” when buying a quote, “stigmatized property.” And so they say this:
In gentrified urban areas, stigmas can take on other forms. ‘In cities going through redevelopment you might have a block of beautifully redone homes and a local gang decides to tag the area as its territory,’ says Harrison. ‘Until law enforcement gets involved and the graffiti stops for good, values in the entire neighborhood suffer.’
Another issue occurs when a home with a recent past as the area’s ‘crack joint’ or meth factory is remodeled and put on the market. ‘It’s usually the last one on the street to sell,’ says Harrison. ‘It may be beautiful now, but people worry about the drugs and chemicals used there and they also wonder, what if an old customer shows up at their door one night looking for merchandise?’
Adam: And they’re going to rob and break in.
Nima: It’s Death Wish, it’s also Chief Wiggum. (Laughs.) ‘She’s in the mood for a California cheeseburger,’ it’s this, you know, through the looking glass into the seedy world of urban culture. It’s so gross.
Adam: And one of the primary ways they do this, of course, is that they frame the sympathy with the house flippers, not the neighborhood residents or god forbid even the people who lived there before the flip. One of the thematic underpinnings of HGTV’s house-flipping shows is that the show’s protagonists are the house flippers themselves. Nearly every development, if not every development of the episode is told from their perspective. HGTV house-flipping shows such as Flip or Flop are hosted by people who quote-unquote have “recovered” from the housing crash by starting their own house-flipping business. This again gives a false sense of an underdog. This immediately characterizes them as sympathetic, meaning you should root for them to sort of stay afloat during trying times. Of course, many of these people are real estate agents or real estate investors who have millions of dollars in assets — that’s again, how you can buy a home — viewers are thus expected to feel sorry for flippers losing money because they’re just sort of average Joe’s. It’s noteworthy that Flip or Flop’s host were former real estate agents in Orange County, one of the most expensive regions in the country. Tarek El Moussa was an agent in Orange County leading up to the 2007 crash, where the median home prices were $645,000, not accounting for inflation, so it’s roughly probably $800,000 today, they chose to start flipping houses when they sensed it could be profitable. This is presented as a sort of scrappy entrepreneurship.
Nima: What a number of these shows don’t do, the things that happen off camera often are the evictions, right? Are kicking out squatters, are getting police involved, or the city involved on foreclosed homes in order to give the flippers these very cheap properties, but sometimes this kind of shit actually happens on camera. So you have one example from Flip or Flop Season six, Episode 14, which is located in El Monte, California, where the hosts, the El Moussas, are tasked with renovating a place that they called “tenant occupied,” — meaning what? — that the tenants are going to be kicked out of their home once the new buyers take over.
Tarek: We’re not going to be able to get inside though, because it is tenant occupied.
Christina: Or we’re just driving by?
Tarek: Yeah, we’re just driving by to check out the neighborhood.
Adam: Yeah, many of the shows sort of casually talk about displacement, they don’t talk about the racial or class context, but it’s something that’s featured very heavily on them. So Fort Worth, Texas is a rapidly gentrifying area, and it’s the host of at least two HGTV flipping shows Flip or Flop Fort Worth and Texas Move N’ Flip — they’re very creative names. The apartment listing website RENTcafe found that downtown Fort Worth was the sixth fastest gentrifying area in the nation as of April 2018. Flip or Flop Fort Worth hosts Andy and Ashley Williams, whose mission is to make veterans flippers and landlords, made a plan to, quote, “empower the veteran community” via predatory property ownership. The plan, according to Fort Worth Business Press would involve renovating houses to rent in, quote, “historically low-income Fort Worth neighborhoods including Stop Six, on the city’s east side, and Como in West Fort Worth before expanding to different areas of the city and beyond.”
In Houston, Texas, which is also one of the fastest gentrifying areas in the United States, within the city core, the median income surged by nearly 70 percent from 2000 to 2015. Within that same time frame, again in the city core, the Black and Latino populations in the city declined by about 20 percent, while the low-income population (those making less than $30,000 per year) declined by nearly 30 percent
Nima: Houston’s Oak Forest neighborhood is one of the fastest-gentrifying parts of the city. It’s fitting, then, that the first HGTV show set in Houston, a show called, Going for Sold, which premiered in 2019, featured houses in that neighborhood, Oak Forest. In an interview with the LA Times, one of the show’s hosts stated this, quote:
Oak Forest is one of the hotter markets because of its proximity to downtown, the uptown area and the midtown area. It has a neighborhood feel to it — very walkable. It has lots of great schools. There are decent-sized homes built in the 1950s. You can still get houses that have really good-sized yards. We’ve done houses in the Third Ward as well, an up-and-coming gentrified area even closer to downtown Houston (and location of Beyoncé’s childhood home).
Adam: Yeah, and if you know anything about Houston, the city where I was born, Third Ward is interchangeable with black, it’s a historically black neighborhood. So, when they talk about gentrifying the Third Ward in such explicit terms is obviously racialized and a sort of cutesy reference to Beyoncé’s childhood home makes it sort of even more on the nose. It’s important to talk about, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention this, which is that there are stakes to gentrification that go beyond just displacing people and displacing poor people and not providing affordable housing for them, and acting as if removing poverty from location X to location Y is somehow solving the problem of location X rather than creating spaces for whiteness and wealth, which is that there’s a heavy correlation between gentrification and over policing. Neighborhoods that are subject or about to be subject to quote-unquote “real estate development” or gentrification, studies show — we will link to them in the show notes — they are preceded by over policing. This is as predictable as the tides. So as you know the case of Breonna Taylor, who was shot on March 13th by the Louisville Police Department led to the uprisings in Louisville, a court filing in July by the victims families, their attorneys found that the police squad created to address quote “systemically violent locations,” — that is to gentrify — told detectives to target Taylor’s home as part of a drug bust due to a tenuous connection to her ex-boyfriend’s alleged drug charges.
The attorneys traced the warrant to a multi-million-dollar real-estate development plan, stating, “When the layers are peeled back, the origin of Breonna’s home being raided by police starts with a political need to clear out a street for a large real estate development project and finishes with a newly formed, rogue police unit violating all levels of policy, protocol and policing standards.” Something we’ve talked a lot about on the show is the connection between over policing and real estate interest and over policing and gentrification interest. And again, these sort of glossy, bright, colorful shows, do advance an ideology that promotes gentrification as a sort of cost-free way of just making a quick buck and I think it is important to note — and no, we’re not blaming HGTV for the murder of Breonna Taylor — but it’s important to note that this ideology does not exist in a vacuum, the ideology of unchecked, unquestioned gentrification does correlate heavy with overpolicing and overpolicing to create this idea of a quote unquote “up-and-coming neighborhood.” To create the space for the Starbucks and the cute little shopping, and the artisanal dog food place, to create that environment does come at a human cost. That all those artisanal coffee shops and all the artisanal dog food stores and all the things these real-estate interests like to promote, that those do come at a cost, but it just may not be a cost you see and it’s certainly not a cost one sees before the cameras roll on reality television shows.
So recently Igor Derysh, who’s a politics writer at Salon.com, he published a piece, “Was Briana Taylor killing driven by gentrification? Studies suggests it’s possible.” This was featured in Salon on July 23, 2020. We’ll have this in the show notes on Patreon. Definitely check it out. It’s a good examination of the sort of growing body of research connecting overpolicing to gentrification. And I want to read you a couple excerpts from that because he interviews one of the lead researcher,s and it’s a again, it’s a great piece, definitely go check it out. He interviews Brenden Beck, who’s a professor at the University of Colorado Denver, who studies the link between gentrification and policing. He says, quote: “Cities often use police to pursue redevelopment ends and gentrification often coincide with increased policing. So if this was the case in Louisville, it would hardly be unique.” Derysh would go on to write:
The 2014 killing of Eric Garner by a New York police officer was a “classic example” of a Black person targeted by police in a gentrifying neighborhood, in this case on Staten Island — the most suburban and least diverse borough of New York City — said Paul Butler, a former Justice Department prosecutor. Garner was known in the community as a “peacemaker” but police targeted him for selling loose cigarettes, Butler said.
Beck published a study earlier this year showing that police in New York made low-level arrests in neighborhoods experiencing real estate investment, suggesting what he called quote “development-directed policing.”
“Development-directed policing is the use of police to pursue redevelopment, urban renewal plans,” he told Salon, citing the famous example of how police cleared out New York’s Times Square, once filled with porn theaters, sex workers and drug dealers, because the city wanted the area to be “more economically profitable.”
Derysh would go on to say:
But the practice is not limited to high-profile areas. Beck’s study found that residential neighborhoods that “saw an increase in real estate investment saw an increase in misdemeanor arrests.”
Beck authored an earlier study with Adam Goldstein, a sociology professor at Princeton, which found that cities that “relied more on their housing markets for economic growth in the lead up to [the 2008 housing crash] spent more on police.”
“We suspect that that was an attempt for cities to protect housing values,” he said. “We know crime rates and housing prices are very closely related. Mayors, city council members, and police chiefs often talk about the importance of keeping crime low so that they can keep housing prices high.” In a study of 170 cities, Beck said, they found “development-directed policing” occurring at both the level of individual neighborhoods and citywide.
Nima: To talk more about HGTV house-flipping shows, we’re going to be joined by Ann-Derrick Gaillot, culture writer and reporter based in Montana. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Rolling Stone, The Nation, The Fader, Pitchfork, The Outline, and other publications. She’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Ann-Derrick Gaillot. Ann-Derrick, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Thank you.
Adam: So in your article, “HGTV’s hidden dark side,” you document what more than anything, what’s important is what’s not being seen on these shows. Namely, that in many of these properties, the houses that are being flipped are so because the previous tenants were evicted or driven into poverty by other circumstances. One of the few times this callousness flared up was, I thought, interestingly enough, the opening of your article was in May of 2017, when one of These sort of professional home flippers wrote an article entitled, “We Bought a Crack House” based on their experiences in Toronto. Can you tell us about the “We Bought a Crack House” article as a kind of entry point into this discussion and what it says about the overlooked human toll of house flipping?
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Yeah, for sure. So this writer in Toronto, Catherine Jheon wrote, “We Bought a Crack House” talking about her and her husband and giving their story of trying to renovate a house and all the struggles they went through to get their dream home in Toronto and a lot of the story concerns them trying to get the previous tenants out and they talk about how the tenants are drug users and they had to pay them to get out and they invoke their tenants rights and then they finally get those terrible people out and they have a terrible contractor and then they poured all this money into it and then they finally got their dream house and kind of painting themselves as like these hard working heroes. And there are so many incredible moments of tone deafness in this article she talks about, there’s not a lot of options to find homes for a couple that doesn’t have a lot of money in Toronto, which is totally true, but then she talks about how her budget was $560,000.
Adam: (Laughs.) Holy shit.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Yeah, and then she says, ‘Oh, when we bought the house finally, we had to sell our old rat trap apartment but then she says, we sold it for $690,000 or something like that and then there’s all these kind of moments of tone deafness, and she ends with, she says that a man knocks at their newly, finally beautiful, newly renovated house and asked if there are any rooms available for rent, and she says, ‘No, not at the moment, but maybe if the market turns’ or something like that.
Nima: As like a triumphant ending.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Which is so weird. And so she kind of wanted a story to be look at all these things we went through to get our dream home, but what everybody, angry people online like myself latched onto was just her callousness when talking about the previous tenants who were drug users, who seem to be living in poverty, who were living in a city that has a housing crunch and is experiencing a shit ton of gentrification. So it just showed how this narrative that we see a lot on TV shows of this person triumphing through their home renovation, just completely steamrolls over the stories of people who are looking for a place to live and survive.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, I think the weird coda of that story, as you write, is also that there was some level of contrition afterwards and yet still, it’s who is being centered in the story and it’s Catherine Jheon and her family still as the heroes, it’s like, ‘Oh, then I learned from my experience of being an asshole writing that article.’ It’s still just about her. I think something that we’ve been talking about on this episode is how these shows really promote a very sanitized version of gentrification. They’re drowning in all the typical real estate euphemisms like “up and coming neighborhood,” “new frontier,” “developing communities,” what it’s going to take to “turn a neighborhood around,” to give this very greed driven industry some thin moral pretense, right? So can we maybe talk a little bit about how the racial displacement of often black and brown people in these shows, especially a show set in like Atlanta or New Orleans, is wholly erased from this TV version of house flipping, and how this really informs the public’s perception of what’s at stake in this industry?
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: When I was like growing up and watching HGTV and even now it’s so obvious when someone who isn’t white is the person looking for a house or doing the renovation and it’s really other than those stray House Hunters that you see who are black or brown, you really don’t see a lot of people of color really and when you do, it’s sometimes like shots of someone working to kind of give color to when the host is saying like, “this colorful neighborhood” or “this transitional neighborhood” or “look at how vibrant it is.”
Nima: “Vibrant” is such a good one.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Oh, my God, yes. And then some shows, they don’t speak explicitly about people of color in the neighborhood or displacement, but they do talk about ‘This project that I’m doing is going to bring this neighborhood back,’ or they just talk about some sort of benefit that these nameless, faceless people that we never see or come in contact with will benefit from. So it’s really just that absence of not seeing many people of color at all, and not seeing residents of the communities at all on these shows that makes the stakes seem not human, more ephemeral or something.
Nima: Yeah, it’s really isolating. We see that homes and these homeowners and the renovators in a vacuum and so you learn nothing really about the neighborhood except for the lovely B roll shots of the new cafe or brewery where they go to talk about their blueprints and their plans for the open concept and what fun vibrant colors that are going to put on the house next to all the other drab exteriors.
Adam: The artisanal pet food stores are usually the go-to.
Nima: (Chuckles.) Exactly.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Yeah.
Nima: But you never actually get a sense of what these neighborhoods are or why people would want to live in a neighborhood with their neighbors as opposed to just this nice looking new house.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Absolutely, and it kind of supports this idea that people’s biggest complaints about gentrifiers in their neighborhoods is they don’t interact with anyone, they don’t say hi to anybody and I think it really strengthens this idea in people’s minds that your house is your dream house and in it, it just exists on an island and you don’t have to know your neighbors, you don’t need to talk to them and if anything you should be afraid of them or that you should never have to be aware of anything that your neighbors are doing, right? People who move into “vibrant, colorful, up and coming neighborhoods” never want to hear their neighbor’s music, they never want to smell their neighbor’s barbecue, they just always want to be siloed in this bubble of their dream home, and I think that you really get that idea with the flipping shows.
Adam: Yeah, because I think people who watch these shows and are listening to this may be tempted to say, ‘Okay, you guys are a bunch of buzzkills. It’s just a fun little TV show.’
Nima: That’s what I say about us.
Adam: Which is sort of true enough, but nonetheless, you know, reality asserts itself and it’s still a conduit of ideology, whether it sort of wants to be or sets out to be or not and of course, this is, I would say, more than anything, this is the vast bulk and I don’t know if we have data to support this, but I’m going to go on a limb and say it, this is the vast bulk of people interface with concepts with topics like housing and quote -unquote “development,” right? This is the entry point most people have and it’s rested entirely on this very capitalist, libertarian solipsism of not only monetizing people’s suffering, because it really is monetizing the rot, I mean, quite literally, most of these begin with, in fact, there was one show and out of the Bay Area that begins where they go to a courthouse and bid on condemned properties, which have been foreclosed on, right?
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Yeah.
Nima: And then they literally tear out the rot of the walls and communities.
Adam: Yeah and there’s never any sense of what the moral context is to any of this, of what came first. I want to speculate a little bit about what the impact you think these shows have on the average media consumer. I know it’s difficult to always gauge pop culture impact, because it’s difficult to draw a clear line, but anecdotally, from people I know, people I’ve spoken to, a lot of people’s impressions about what it is to buy a home and what it is to sort of get a deal and to sort of arbitrage the market is driven by programs like this.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Yeah, I think people learn so much from television. ‘I know a lot about investing and I learned about from Shark Tank’ and when you watch the cake competition shows or whatever, all of a sudden you think you know everything about decorating cakes or whatever.
Nima: You’re like, ‘Wait, that’s not homemade fondant. Are you kidding?’
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Yeah, there’s so much labor that’s erased from the show in the interest of time and story that you start to think, ‘Oh, I can do this,’ and that’s exactly what the person who wrote the “We Bought a Crack House” article said, she was like, ‘Oh, we saw this on TV. We thought we could do it.’ And people have written articles about how these flipping shows have affected their cities like Fixer Upper in Waco.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: There are some great articles about just how hard some of those houses are to resell because they’re so expensive for the area or people’s taxes going up because this show has become such a tourist magnet for people wanting to stay in Airbnbs at this house and people wanting to do their own flipping. But I think more than that, these shows just make it socially acceptable to do this, you know what I mean? Like, it makes people think, ‘Oh, it’s not scummy to do this, it’s just fun and like a good investment.’ So I think that, I mean, I don’t have any data for that, but that to me is the thing, that the biggest impact it has is making it socially acceptable or socially desirable.
Adam: The amount of labor that goes into creating this value that they pocket, whether it’s $40,000 or $50,000, sometimes it’s a quarter of a million per house in some markets, that they just skip from the sort of dusty raggy house to the beautiful teal paint and they erase what I strongly suspect there’s a lot of Latino or undocumented labor or other immigrant labor, that is sort of just not pictured on the show, with rare exception and sort of what that says about who’s actually doing the work here rather than the people who just have a million dollars to piss away on a home flipping adventure.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Yeah, again, I’m just speculating here, but the kind of time limits they’re on, there’s no way that they can do that work with those returns without kind of first of all, having a ton of people helping them and trying to make it as affordable for them as they can as a television network.
Adam: Non-union labor, I would assume.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Yeah, I’m assuming so. I think if they showed that in the show, I think, obviously people wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh, I want to do this’ or if they showed people, evicting folks. Oh my god. Can you imagine if they showed people evicting people on television? That would change everything, for sure, about how people view what kind of labor goes into, first of all, renovating a house and bringing value to a neighborhood or to a community.
Nima: Yeah, you’re really hitting on something that we also wanted to ask you about, which is who becomes the hero here. In the flipping shows, it is never the laborers, right? It’s never the workers doing the work and it’s not even the home buyer, like the young white couple, they’re not even the heroes, it’s always the flippers themselves. So the idea that these real estate speculators who get cheap labor, who are working on timetables, that flip a house in a matter of weeks to get it rapidly to market, there’s always this impression that the producers of the shows, some of the writers and certainly the editing makes clear that ‘Oh, if these flippers don’t turn a profit on this one house, they’re going to go bust. If this next job goes bad, they’re done,’ and so we really hope that they can turn this thing around and get it to market and that a lovely family is going to come in so that they can then flip the next house. How do these shows just perpetuate the idea of who the heroes are here? It’s a lot of what right-wing media does, ‘Oh, it’s these scrappy, small business owners just trying to make it through the next project, don’t really scrutinize what they’re doing.’
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: I think these shows just lie so much about the stakes and what’s going on behind the scenes whether these people have already chosen a house, blah, blah, blah, which obviously raises the stakes on screen, but also they just kind of use different narratives that already exist in housing conversations to tell their own story. So one show I just watched, it was Fixer Upper, they bought a house and they were like, ‘Oh, no, a developer bought the lot and they just want to raise this house. They don’t care about houses. Greedy developers just want to build new modern houses. Gross, we’re going to move it.’ So I thought that was so interesting that they kind of flipped it around to say, ‘We really love houses, we care about houses, we care about homes, this developer’ — which essentially they’re in the same business — ‘is the evil one.’ So I think HGTV, from what I remember in the ’90s and from looking at some of the titles, it was a lot more like how to make your space your own, take care of your home, maintenance, like look at this woodwork, craftsman style, stuff like that, so I think on these shows there’s some of that lingering, latching on to, ‘We’re craftsmen or we really care about homes. We’re not like those other developers.’
Adam: Yeah, the reverse-engineered, I’m sure producer created, paper thin moral narratives are so funny to me. They do this on Good Bones all the time, they’re like, ‘We care about our neighborhood.’
Nima: Well, the mother always finds one thing to salvage from the old property and then she spends the entire episode turning it into a lamp that then she puts in the staged home so that when the young white couple comes to look around, they’re like, ‘Oh, and this old bathtub is now your new loveseat.’
Adam: Yeah, it’s a storytelling device at cocktail parties for boring yuppies. I don’t really care about any of this.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Yes.
Adam: I find it so amusing because it’s always so thin, like even the one, this was the show Flip It to Win It, which is in the Bay Area, which is huge stakes because these houses are a half a million to a million, they flip them for two, three million, and that’s the show that begins on the court steps where they pick up eviction notices, and they all sort of rush to buy it. But this one guy, you know, he’s bald, has this cheap silk shirt on, straight out of central casting, looks like a pit boss in Vegas and he’s looking at this home from 1911 that they’re going to renovate and he gives some sob story about it reminds him of his grandmother’s home and how it’s really personal to him and I’m like, none of that’s true. Obviously! Obviously some producer was like, ‘This scene needs some sort of very, and again, I stress, paper-thin moral context, so we’re going to do some bullshit story about how it reminds him of his grandmother’s house.’
Nima: ‘With the bulldozer off screen, just say that thing before we take the wall out.’
Adam: Again, I know it’s storytelling, but it’s so funny to me how it’s this totally depraved, empty, dead-eyed, purely capitalistic endeavor and then they sort of need to build these stories to give you a sense that there’s some moral context. Of course there’s not, it’s just a way of, they’re just making really quick profit. And of course, they make all their money off, you know, they do the George Hamilton sort of famous for being famous where they, you know, the Instagram accounts and clothing lines and all kinds of shit.
Nima: They all have their own magazines and —
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Right, building their personal brand, especially the Property Brothers and the Fixer Upper people with their Magnolia empire and like you said before, these shows just end up as vehicles for their brands, but they never advertise the bricklayers or the cement mixer or the gardener, their businesses in the end so like you said, it’s just yeah, paper thin.
Adam: Before we let you go, what are you working on? Let’s do a little self-promotion here. What do you have on the horizon? Where can we find your work?
Nima: Build your own brand here.
Adam: Yeah, exactly. Don’t tell me it’s a house-flipping show.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: (Laughs.) One thing I’m working on a walking tour, a zine that’s a walking tour of black history in Missoula, Montana. So keep an eye out for that.
Nima: Thank you, Ann-Derrick Gaillot, culture writer and reporter based in Missoula, Montana. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Rolling Stone, The Nation, The Fader, Pitchfork, The Outline, and many other places. Ann-Derrick, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: Thank you so much. I’m just so happy I got to talk about HGTV.
Nima: We are, too.
Adam: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that the ways in which that article about “We Bought a Crack House,” the joke is supposed to be ‘lol, crack house,’ I mean, this is sort of standard stuff for a lot of people, has been years where, the poor, the sort of drug addict, they’re sort of not really part of the human equation.
Nima: And they just become the punchline to gentrification, that ‘We’re all in this, if you’re reading this article, you clearly know what I mean when I say a crack house. Whoa is us and let’s tell you our adventurous pioneer story and then we came out of it and we can all agree that that was harrowing but look where we have come, look how far we’ve come,’ and that the original community members are props in this story. They’re like the ghosts of what was in order to get to a richer, whiter endgame and you know, I think that that’s kind of what HGTV does a lot, it’s what gentrification I mean, literally does, but just the way that we see it on TV obfuscates the reality of what so often is going on, and that we see the glossy open concept version of it on TV.
Adam: Yeah. Which is why I’m excited to talk to our next guest who’s going to talk about the sort of human stakes on the ground in Atlanta, where he does anti-gentrification work.
Nima: Yes, we will now be joined by Kamau Franklin, community organizer, attorney and founder and Board President of Community Movement Builders, Inc. Kamau will join us from Atlanta in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Kamau Franklin. Kamau, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Kamau Franklin: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
Adam: So this episode is focusing specifically on the ways in which house-flipping television shows, reality shows promote gentrification and the hyper commodification of housing, but obviously the problem is much bigger than just HGTV shows, they’re largely symptomatic of a broader trend, although, you know, we sort of argue they are a feedback loop. Can we sort of begin by discussing how the popular view of housing as something to sort of be flipped or kind of turned around, or whatever euphemism people want to use, to make a quick buck, let’s sort of establish the stakes here, I guess, and I know it’s a generalization and I know you have experience in Atlanta and New York, can we sort of establish the human stakes of what this approach to housing, this kind of commodity first, bourgeois first approach to housing and housing policy, what effects it has on the communities that exist before the cameras start rolling?
Kamau Franklin: I mean, to be quite blunt about it, it dehumanizes people and it makes their communities non existent. It says, basically, that where you live, is not sort of a part of who you are, culture or fabric, but it’s, like you said, this commodity that has to be shaped and shifted by other folks. And, you know, I think it’s interesting that HGTV started approximately 25 years ago, right in that time period of when the housing bubble really took off and I think it worked hand in hand, you know, as well as sort of relaxation of government regulations, to move flipping houses and treating houses strictly as commodities, not thinking about people’s right to live in their spaces and to enjoy their communities and even to have power within their communities to decide what should happen to them, not only the housing stock but the commercial stock, but this stuff played hand in hand as a sort of free for all for folks to come in, make decisions, I think we’re all trained to get excited about shiny new things and I think this show and this sort of appetite for getting rich quick, kind of played right into that and led to some of the housing devastation that we’re still going through today.
Nima: So, you know, you mentioned previous housing crises, we are living through one again right now, the ongoing housing crisis, it’s only going to get worse as we see the pandemic continue, we’re releasing this show in July, I think things are not about to just get better and actually, you know, to talk specifically about the work that you are doing there in Atlanta, I’d like to kind of lay out some of these stats and then ask you about the effect that they have. So according to Atlanta Magazine, from May 2013 until May 2019, the median rent for a one bedroom rental unit in the city increased from $1,100 dollars per month to over $1,600 dollars per month. That’s a 37 percent jump, even adjusting for inflation. Atlanta ranks five out of the 70 large US cities in the rate of eviction notices per rental homes. Can we just like talk about the work that you are doing in Atlanta and kind of what Atlanta housing markets are looking like and kind of the drivers of housing insecurity and how those are just fed upon and reinforced by parasitic real estate speculators that we see, you know, glorified in these HGTV shows, but what are you seeing in real life?
Kamau Franklin: Yeah, I mean, you know, we started as an organization approximately six years ago now and we started with the purchase by an individual donor of a community house in what’s called Southwest Atlanta in the Pittsburgh Community and that home was purchased for us for $60,000. The house wasn’t in great shape, but it allowed us to sort of establish ourselves, do youth work, do organizing work and right away, we could see that this neighborhood was beginning to flip and in fact, I mentioned this $60,000 because now five years later, our house is approximately worth $195,000 on the open market and trust me, we haven’t done that much to the house in terms of improvements or anything of that ilk. So when we saw what was happening in this neighborhood and what was happening across Southwest Atlanta, you know, we started doing community meetings, working with the neighborhood association around what was the need that folks like us, as organizers, as young people who were with us who were from the neighborhood, what could we help to, and a whole bunch of issues came up, but the thing that kept coming back over and over again, was the idea of gentrification and the idea that people were feeling like they were about to lose their neighborhood in their communities and that’s exactly what’s been happening in Atlanta. And I think another prominent stat that folks don’t always relate to gentrification, but it’s obviously directly tied in, is that Atlanta has gone from a 62 percent black community in the year 2000, the so-called Black Mecca, to now basically a 50 percent black population in Atlanta and this is because the housing stock continues to rise exponentially. This is because there’s no rent control, there’s no rent stabilization. There is no way for folks to really fight back against the high cost of housing stock in Atlanta. And I want to say also that this is really a political issue even more than an economic issue because what we’ve had in Atlanta is a teaming up of the black political elite, in terms of mayors and city council members, and the white economic elite, right? And that pairing has meant that, you know, the cliche that Atlanta is the city too busy to hate, that the rich and well off, get to play in Atlanta and do what they want to do in terms of commercial buildings, in terms of new developments, in terms of box stores, and the city officials would pave the way for that. That started, you know, with the Olympics in Atlanta, and then later on, where public housing was torn down so there’s no more public housing in Atlanta and people were actually paid $1,000, poor people, to leave Atlanta and not come back. So this is a political question, even more than just, ‘Oh, how did this happen?’ This happened because there are political officials are tied in with economic elites, and they’re deciding what’s good for Atlanta, and it’s not for them, working on the issues of working class people and poor people to make their lives better, it’s more about displacing those folks and bringing in middle class folks and large corporate hubs to make it a home for them as opposed to everyday Atlantans.
Adam: Yeah, because people don’t quite understand that the people who are displaced or priced out, they don’t just disappear or cease to exist. They go further out, further east and some of the sort of poorer suburbs and this is in the Atlanta Magazine article we referenced, you know, move into apartment complexes, there’s communities that exist that have social ties. Now, they may have, they may not be aesthetically great, they may not have bright green paint, they may not have a Starbucks, but they are communities that actually exists, working class communities, and that I think people sort of don’t understand that, when you quote-unquote “turn them around”you’re just displacing the human capital, as it were, to use a capitalist term, that’s there with new people. So what have you really turned around? You know, you’ve sort of destroyed the village to save it. I don’t think people quite understand the extent to which you’ve “improved” quote-unquote, it’s purely aesthetic.
Kamau Franklin: No, I think that’s completely correct. The whole idea around capitalist development is to not think about what those communities already have, and like you said, no one is saying these communities are perfect. They suffer from lack of access to resources. Unfortunately, there’s crime that takes place, there’s a lack of jobs, there’s issues with public transportation, but there’s a fabric and a history that people don’t even think about in terms of people, you know, their neighbors babysitting, folks loan each other money, they watch out other’s homes and cars, there’s the friendships, there’s relationships that develop all through these places where people have lived and survived in. You know, I grew up in Brooklyn in a place called Albany Projects for the most part, and, you know, everybody looks at these places as ‘Oh, my God, they’re so dangerous’ and people forget, again, that folks learn and have the social relations which folks on the outside don’t see, they don’t care about, they just look at them as ‘Oh, we can again, like shine this up and make it pretty and new, bring in a new population and look, we’ve improved the neighborhood.’ Basically you’ve done exactly what you’re talking about, you displaced people, you’ve moved them away from jobs, transportation, et cetera. And even when folks sell their homes in places that are working class, places in Atlanta, and they do make a profit, they think, you know, obviously, that means they’re going to be able to come up, but what that actually means is that they get pushed out further from the city because whatever resources they’ve just gained, it doesn’t mean that they can now live in a better place in central part of the city, it just means that they can afford someplace further out where they’re tied up in traffic and again, the resources and the jobs, are something they got to come back to the city for anyway. So these non solutions are really about wealth building for a certain class and not feeling like the people who are long term residents should have any say whatsoever in how their communities operate.
Nima: Yeah, so actually to that point, you have multiple experiences with gentrification, you know, you said you are from Brooklyn, as a native New Yorker myself, I would, you know, have to kind of pull that thread a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences growing up in Crown Heights, what you were seeing then and there and what you have seen since you’ve moved to Atlanta and what those parallels are?
Kamau Franklin: Yeah, I mean, I grew up like I said, Albany Projects. I lived in New York the first 40 some odd years of my life. It was only after marriage, and my wife gave me an ultimatum to leave New York for Atlanta that I sadly, kicked rocks and left. I was a true New Yorker through and through, I didn’t even drive until I moved down South, but there was a certain time period, particularly in the ’90s, where in Brooklyn, you could see in the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn you could see the changeover. You saw new bars and restaurants, nightlife and at first as a 20-something-year-old, those are the things that are actually interesting and fascinating and a coming together of cultures and people going to clubs together and having good times and so forth. But little by little, it became this thing where that didn’t just become the nightlife but during the daytime, you start seeing these higher end stores, you see more white folks walking their dogs, you see more of a backpack crew coming around and these folks who come in from relatively speaking, well off family members or are just able to get more loans or just access to better jobs or resources, and landlords wanting to cater to this crowd, they began to sort of push people out. And again, you had folks who even around the issue of police brutality and misconduct during that time period, you had the issue of stop-and-frisk, which ratcheted up, you know, first under Giuliani, but then under Bloomberg, where over a million people over a two or three year period were stopped and that became even another driver of people leaving the city, particularly black folks and returning to the South. So By the time I went back to Brooklyn to visit my mom and so forth several years later, even in my neighborhood, again across the street from the projects, you would see these brownstones occupied by what looks to be Midwest white families and just sort of like this enclave now of a project building, which too it looks like it might be turned into something different and new and people may be pushed out.
Adam: I want to talk about policing, you mentioned that. We talked about this in the introduction, which was the lawyers in the family of Breonna Taylor in their lawsuit against the Louisville Police Department explicitly mentioned gentrification as a motive for these police raids. I know activists in New York, people like Josmar Trujillo and others we’ve had on the show have repeatedly mentioned the connection between stop-and-frisk, Broken Windows and gentrification as a kind of harassment regime to basically make life a living hell so people will leave or sell their property or move out of these neighborhoods, that all sort of gentrification is and there our analysis now that show this, are preceded by over policing. I want to talk a bit about that aspect of it, that it’s not just displacing communities, but it really does incentivize over policing, when real estate developers put pressure on city officials to quote-unquote “tackle crime” in areas that they incidentally happen to have. It’s like Chinatown, right? It’s like where the water’s going. It’s all about real estate. And I want you to comment on that for a second because I do think that’s actually an important material factor here.
Kamau Franklin: It’s under-reported or talked about in its connection to gentrification and how it works. There’s no doubt that these communities are already over policed, but when you start to see the flood, I mean, we you know, we come home, I come home, on a C train to Kingston and Troop and you get out and all of a sudden, again, this influx of new young white residents and then there’s several police officers now, at the train stop, they’re following young black folks as they get off the trains. There’s these new posts where they are, you know, these bright lights that shine 24/7, sometimes, even during daytime, they don’t cut them off and these new sort of security cameras that have 360 vision to look at the community. So these things are already in place in terms of Broken Windows, some aspects of these things were already in place, but they just were ramped up completely when the city saw that, particularly after 9/11, where there’s this swing of folks who were leaving Manhattan, and felt maybe safer in Brooklyn, or the real estate market in Brooklyn just was more advantageous to them at that particular stage and the police ramped up the attacks, the harassment, the arrest numbers of young black folks. As an attorney, while I worked on the actual civil lawsuits, the class action lawsuit against the police, the stop-and-frisk lawsuit, where the numbers were obvious that folks were being targeted in certain communities for no offenses to small offenses. And again, families and some of this has been reported in the New York Times, families have openly said, ‘I wanted to go to a place where I thought the policing was easier or people weren’t watching us all the time or where we didn’t think we could leave our house and get harassed as much.’ And it’s an interesting change to see the South now looked upon during that time period as a safer place for black folks then Eastern cities or industrialized, formerly industrialized cities up north.
Nima: Yeah, I think to kind of take this back to not only Atlanta but also our kind of entry point into this conversation, these flipping shows, you know, we wanted to ask you about this one show Flip or Flop Atlanta, it’s one of the many spinoffs of the Flip or Flop Empire, the host of this particular show, dead eyed white couple, when you look across all these shows, maybe they’re like uniquely unconcerned with the racial implications of what they do. For instance, in one early episode of the show, they say this quote, “East Atlanta is an area that’s really up and coming. It’s sort of the next big neighborhood to turn. I think it’s one of the few places you can still get a deal and in turn, make money.” End quote. Now, East Atlanta’s majority black and used to me more so and if for some reason, the hosts of Flip or Flop Atlanta ever listen to this episode of Citations Needed —
Adam: Which they won’t, but if they did.
Nima: Which they won’t but if they ever do, Kamau, what would you want to say to them? They may not have a soul searching moment but what would you say to them or to aspiring house-flipping wannabes who maybe do have some ethical reservations about this line of work?
Kamau Franklin: I would probably ask them to just think deeply about the commodification of someone’s housing and not look at it strictly as, again as a get rich scheme, or this idea that there is no impact on larger society and I think that part of this is what happens is that we’re itemized so much into what’s important for us as individuals where we don’t think about the larger picture or we make excuses that our actions are not having the impact that they’re having. And I think that’s one of the things that keeps us, particularly in this society, from short of forging some sense of unity and understanding around how important housing stability is for people as they go about their day to day lives. Just the release of tension, the idea that you have a place to go to, that it’s not going to be ripped away from you, that you don’t have to worry about your rent going up an extra $600 or $700 a month as soon as the lease is up, or if you’re on a 30 day day-to-day or rental, that the rent won’t jump up, that these things that they are doing, really, really have an impact on people’s everyday lives. And I think that is the thing that is the hardest to get through to folks because we don’t think about ourselves as a larger, interwoven community. We don’t think about the impact of these things and when we do, we think about them in sort of very selfish, individualized ways that don’t help us see that folks again, folks have been living in these places for years and they want their communities to improve, but they want to be a part of that improvement, right? They want to have some power over what happens in their community, and not to feel like they’re disposable because someone else can come in and make changes or has more resources. So, I think, you know, if I had a chance to talk to these chiseled white couples or white folks, I would try to pull them into some working class, black community like Pittsburgh, where we do our work, Pittsburgh is an area of Atlanta, you know, that was founded in 1887, by formerly enslaved Africans, and who built their lives in his community from that day to this day, trying to figure out their lives, their communities, and they want to have a say, and they want to stay and they want to enjoy sort of the prosperity of living in a city, as opposed to feeling like they are disposable and can be just pushed out. And I think that’s one of the things that you got to really make people see, that these folks are human beings, because I think on the flip side of it, you know, the folks who live in these communities, particularly the black folks who live in these communities, have to also see that they’re in a fight for power and they can be collectivized also in terms of creating organizations and institutions to struggle against some of this stuff, as opposed to just thinking about individually selling houses or something along those lines. So I think there’s work to be done that folks like us, people on the ground, people who do shows like yours continually have to fight to make sure that people see this.
Adam: Yeah, because I think people get and maybe this is somewhat self serving, because I myself was a gentrifier in Crown Heights for a while, full disclosure, is that when you sort of talk about gentrification people get super defensive or they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s, you know, it’s the only place I can afford,’ right? Which is true, you know, I mean, as a white sort of hipster writer there’s not anywhere I could afford to live. So that’s where you end up. But it is a sort of systemic issue. Let’s say you look at a historically underserved, marginalized, redlined community that has not been given any resources, has been sort of left for dead and then naturally, it follows poverty-driven crime and the response isn’t to say, ‘Okay, how can we reinvest in these communities? How can we put millions of dollars into them? How can we create jobs programs?’ It’s ‘Okay, let’s just sort of let it die off and then once people are so atomized and sort of frightened and scared, we just sort of pick off the homes one by one, and then displace the people, the undesirables,’ because a lot of it’s like homelessness, it’s very aesthetic driven. People just don’t want to see it. We want poverty to exist in the sort of far-off suburbs or the trailer parks, we don’t want to see it on our walk from the Starbucks or whatever and I think that when you talk about the collectivization of the solution, I think that’s a great way to look at it and I do think that these shows as silly and as frivolous as they may be, they really do promote a kind of hyper atomization and hyper sort of personal approach to housing and that I do think sort of leaks over into policy.
Kamau Franklin: Again, I think you’re correct that these issues, they don’t come out of nowhere. They’re not things that can’t be addressed. There are avenues around area, medium income, to decide how to put an amount of affordable housing, who gets to build affordable housing. There’s ideas around land trust to stabilize homes so that folks can have housing prices which are stable and which don’t jump up and down depending on markets. There’s ideas of public housing. There’s other things that communities can do to purchase and maybe to hold on to some commercial real estate that can be resources that can go back into the larger community. So there are ideas out there that have been tried and in small ways, what you have is a political problem, again, I go back to, is that you have a class of elected officials and you have a class of economic elites, which they get to decide what happens to where people live and how they live and the last thing they care about are poor people, the last thing they care about are poor black people, and they care only about what they see can be their bottom line in terms of flipping and profits. And that seeps into even day to day, folks who are not rich people, but they’re looking to make their quick buck too. That’s the kind of thing, it’s a long-term challenge, but it’s not insurmountable and it’s something that is human-created and so it can be human-solved.
Nima: I think that is a fantastic place to leave it. Kamau Franklin, community organizer, attorney, founder and Board President of Community Movement Builders Inc., speaking to you straight from Atlanta, Georgia. Thank you so much, Kamau, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Kamau Franklin: Thanks for having me.
Adam: Yeah, I think the, you know, like I said, I think the issue of gentrification is always kind of people’s first instinct is to do kind of a tu quoque thing like, ‘Well, you gentrify.’ Well, okay, sure, yeah, but that’s not really the point. I think it’s not about individual moral failings, which is admittedly, again, a self serving position. I think it’s about sort of thinking critically about these systems and whether or not we want to sort of mindlessly endorse the idea that housing is a pure commodity to be profiteered from because I think some people would listen to this and say, ‘Okay, all these houses were sort of destitute before.’
Nima: Right. They were sitting empty for X number of months or years.
Adam: Yeah, even though for the most part, they’re not for the most part, they get their evictions. I would say the bulk of these are evictions, people aren’t abandoning these houses, they’re getting kicked out actively and they go to the banks, and then the banks put them on the market and then the vultures come in. I think that again, even if something is sort of within a specific genre of whimsical, funny kind of reality TV, that even within that it can reinforce ideas about who matters and who doesn’t matter and whose bottom line we root for and whose we don’t and the sort of centering of these wealthy millionaire, although they always sort of position themselves as scrappy or sort of barely getting by, but that’s bullshit, that’s whatever, said every one of these minor, bourgeois, self-victimizing, MAGA types say, I think that it does begin to warp our perceptions of what’s at stake when it comes to housing and I think maybe it wouldn’t make a very sexy reality TV show if we were like, a socialist approach to housing where we have 10 contestants compete to pitch a city board about the best land use of parks and schools and recreation centers for at risk youth, that’s not very, maybe that’s not very fun?
Nima: Yeah, it’s hard to brand that. (Laughs.) All the spinoffs.
Adam: Yeah, we could, we could do it! Let’s take it to market.
Nima: Community Housing Denver.
Nima: Community Housing Austin.
Adam: Socialist Utopia Oakland.
Nima: Community Housing Albany.
Adam: Right to a Home Albany would really be a barn burner. Yeah, I don’t know, I mean, I think when you do pop culture criticism, you have to understand that obviously, there are, there are conventions of the genre, but I do think they can still have a negative effect even if they are operating within the quote-unquote “genre.”
Nima: Well, yeah and I think that you know, for us to end our season with this makes a lot of sense ending our third season with a show that kind of brings together a lot of what we talk about on Citations Needed, gentrification, over policing, media, and of course, entertainment and pop culture and just how all of those work together to create this really fun bingeable genre of TV that under the surface of it, you know, these are really fun really entertainingly produced shows, I do literally watch a lot of them, and I very much enjoy them, but that’s kind of the point what is unseen and what is unsaid, actually, kind of speaks volumes to what the point of these shows are, and how they work to kind of create and exacerbate the systemic issues that I think are really critical to talk about, and they just wind up really silencing voices that need to be heard from in favor of painting with lovely colors and having marble countertops.
Adam: So that is the last episode of our third season. We’re going to be taking our usual summer break. We’ll be back in September with all new episodes. We’re very excited about season four. We’re going to try to raise the stakes. We may have a ticking time bomb episode.
Nima: You never know, someone’s getting tortured.
Adam: We may do a big marriage. We may kill a character off — wait that’s too soon, sorry. We may, we may.
Nima: You never know. You never know. Open elevator shafts, it could happen.
Adam: We may do long-lost twin.
Nima: Births and deaths and yeah, it’s good, it’s all, you know, backstabbing twists and turns.
Adam: Maybe like one of those totally degenerate season eight Grey’s Anatomys where we’re just running out of ideas and someone, no, never seen it. Thank you so much again, for all your support. Season three was a lot of fun and we’re, again, like I said, we’re very excited about season four and your continued support, we very much appreciate it.
Nima: Yeah. Thank you, everyone, for listening to Citations Needed. It has been a hell of a season and of course in the interim, we will not leave you completely high and dry. We will have some News Briefs coming throughout August, so stay with us. Of course, always, your support is so appreciated. You can share and comment, review, rate, whatever you do about the show on Apple Podcast and wherever else you get your artisanal neighborhood podcasts and you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson, we are 100 percent listener funded, your support is so incredibly appreciated, it keeps the show going, and no more so than our wonderful critic level supporters who get an extra special shout out every episode. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thanks, everyone, for listening to season three of Citations Needed. Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks so much, everyone. Have a wonderful summer. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.