Seeing residential segregation in House Hunters

In showing buyers of different races and ethnicities as well as different priced homes in different locations, House Hunters helps reveal residential segregation in America:

I really notice this whenever Chicago is featured on “House Hunters.” My city is hyper-segregated and diverse, with a vast number of housing and neighborhood choices for aspiring homebuyers. I quickly noticed a pattern: Chicago-set episodes usually show couples on the hunt in white North Side neighborhoods or gentrifying Latino neighborhoods. They skip over the biggest geographic part of the city—the South Side. And their budgets are $400,000 and up. One agent said that price is typical for a first-time homebuyer. (According to Zillow, the actual median home price in Chicago is about $225,000.) People shell out double that for small condos in expensive neighborhoods, or they look to the Latino communities where whites continue to move in, driving up prices and igniting racial tensions.

Aspiring buyers never explicitly say they want to live in a white neighborhood: They rattle off amenities and architectural styles, and then they choose the whitest segregated neighborhoods in Chicago. Their money would go further if they shopped on the South Side, where I live. But few seem to venture there. I recall an interracial couple—wife black, husband white—who bought in a historic black neighborhood. She pushed the fact that the house was large and under budget. He complained it was too far to bike to work.

Chicago is vast—there’s plenty of housing choice here, but that concept has been muddied by the racially restrictive housing policies that the city fine-tuned in the 20th century; banks, income inequality, legacy wealth, and discrimination have all played a factor. The redlining and racial covenants are gone, but, as “House Hunters” shows us every week, their legacy remains.

The show’s white couples might not agree on much, but they do all seem to want the same thing in a neighborhood. In the new book Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification, authors Maria Krysan and Kyle Crowder provide some insight into why. They posit a different spin on why housing segregation remains 50 years after the Fair Housing Act. Housing segregation is self-perpetuating, they say: Segregation persists because it already exists. “[R]esidential moves are structurally sorted along racial lines, which individuals’ perceptions and knowledge of residential options shaped by lived experiences and social interactions within a racially segregated social system,” they write. If you grew up in white segregation, that’s what you know and the social networks, neighborhood experiences, and daily activities reflect that reality.

I might even go a bit further: the show suggests white buyers do not typically have to consider non-white neighborhoods in which to purchase homes. Because of the resources they tend to have, white buyers are mostly purchasing in middle-class or higher neighborhoods that are often mostly white.

Additionally, House Hunters International occasionally features families explaining that the reason they desire to live in a foreign country is to experience some cultural diversity. However, they often end up living in relatively well-off neighborhoods that are often white (even if they are not full of Americans). And the families could have found more diversity in the United States if they were willing to expand their options of where to live.

On the whole, House Hunters does very little with the neighborhood in which dwellings are located or even the block. Outside of very general descriptions, homes are treated as physical objects that could exist anywhere. This makes some sense given the way that Americans emphasize homes as private spaces. Of course, homes cannot be separated by their surroundings and certain aspects of neighborhoods matter a lot for buyers.

American problem and solution: too much stuff? Just buy a bigger house

Episode 11 of Season 88 of House Hunters opens with this claim from a Jacksonville, Florida couple:

We have a very American problem. We have too much stuff. And we’re going to do the very American solution. Instead of getting rid of some of our stuff, we’re going to just get a bigger house.

This is indeed a very American problem. I’m not sure whether this couple should be applauded for recognizing the issue at hand (how many Americans really recognize they have lots of stuff?) or we should sadly shake our heads at their decision of how to move on. We have a consumer driven economy where Americans own enough stuff to fill lots of self-storage facilities. And the size of new homes have risen over 50% in the last four decades, even as household sizes have decreased. Perhaps the interest in McMansions isn’t about having private space or impressing the neighbors or showing off the owner’s status; perhaps they are about having so many square feet of space that the owner can keep consuming.

As an aside, it might be fascinating to see how many McMansion owners rent self-storage units…

“The 12 Most Annoying Things People Say on House Hunters”

While this isn’t a scientific study of the hundreds of episodes, this list rings true from my watching experience. Here are a few of the 12:

3. “We Love Entertaining!”
How many dinner parties are these people throwing? Kid & Play didn’t have as many house parties as those couples. You aren’t hosting the Presidential Ball, so I’m sure your terrible friends are OK hanging out in the living room and the kitchen…

6. The Walk-In Closet Joke
I didn’t realize I was watching comedy hour! You gotta love that same, stupid joke where the lady walks into the closet and she says, “Well, this should be enough room … FOR MY CLOTHES! LOL!” Sometimes the guy will say it and sort of nudge his wife in a way where you can literally see the unhappiness in her eyes…

10. “We’ve Just Outgrown Our Old Place”
There are two of you and you lived in a three-bedroom house. Mathematically, you could not be more wrong. You could remedy this by selling some of the boxes of garbage piling up all over your hoarder-y house, or just admitting you want a bigger place for no other reason than you feel like it. Or just say the old place is haunted…

12. Crown Molding
Please shut up about crown molding. No one sits in their living room and thinks “Wow, look at that crown molding. If that wasn’t here this house would be a toilet.”

There could be several good reasons for these common concerns:

1. Participants are coached to talk bout these topics. Perhaps producers are feeding them these lines. Perhaps these are the lines the producers think people want to hear about.

2. Perhaps participants have seen enough of the show that they are imitating what they have heard. When they don’t quite know how to respond (watch their microexpressions as they react and then what they say), they fall back on these “scripts.”

3. As sad as it might be, maybe this represents what a lot of Americans think when they look at new housing: they often focus on a few details (closets, crown molding, etc.) without talking much about the big picture (do we really need this house?).

All that said, House Hunters certainly follows a certain “formula” for each episode that is fairly predictable. And while viewers may scoff at the comments of the participants, it wouldn’t be the same show if you took the people out and simply showed three homes as a comparison.

Bad options: “grand McMansion” vs. “cookie cutter townhouse”

This description of a Season 87 House Hunters episode suggests the homebuyers have two less than stellar options:

Ryan and Stacey have $300,000 to buy their first home outside Baltimore, but they want very different things. He dreams of a grand McMansion, but she wants a cookie cutter townhouse with a uniform look. And since they’re both a bit stubborn, neither one is willing to give an inch. Can they find a place that they can agree on, or will this house hunt become a Battle in Baltimore?

This sounds like a typical House Hunters episode: the couple have different visions on what they want and perhaps they will compromise on a third option that gives them each a little of what they want. But, the choices set up here are interesting. McMansions are disliked by numerous critics. Does Ryan himself say he wants a McMansion or is this description using this as shorthand to describe a large suburban home? Then, is a “cookie cutter townhouse” a superior alternative? Critics of McMansions might note that at least townhouses are denser developments and tend to not be as large. Yet, townhouses aren’t usually known for their fine architecture and a uniform look doesn’t help anyone distinguish themselves. Both McMansion owners and critics tend to buy into the idea that a home is supposed to express yourself – though they disagree on what should be expressed and how – and a townhouse with this sort of description wouldn’t fit the bill.

Does buying a vacation home in Mauritius really expose your kids to other cultures?

I just saw the end of a House Hunters International episode on HGTV and heard a justification for buying in a more tropical location that is often used on the show: it is good to expose kids to other cultures. On one hand, there may be some truth to this: the kids may indeed meet people very different from themselves as well as see other social and cultural practices. This exposure might be more significant if the family is living in the the new location full-time, as was the case in this episode as the father had a new job, versus flying to the location a few times a year for vacation.

However, there are some factors that are working against this significant exposure:

1. The family typically buys in a Western-style housing complex. This suggests they may be living more near other internationals or at least near more people with money.

2. The families typically are people of means, those who can afford to purchase a second home or have the kind of jobs that transfer them to foreign locales. This status would particularly stand out in developing countries.

3. At least on the show (which is not a good depiction of reality), the families are not typically shown doing “normal” things in the new society in which they live. No trips to the grocery store or market, hanging out in local eating establishments, or participating in social life with people who look different than themselves. Instead, we typically see shots of them on the beach or at the pool or enjoying their home.

In the end, I’m skeptical about the level of exposure to other cultures. This sounds like wealthier Westerners wanting some diversity on their terms and social standing.

Argument: fake “House Hunters” does a disservice to the realities of American homeownership

Responding to the recent news that the HGTV show House Hunters may be fake, one writer suggests this does a disservice to the realities of American homeownership:

So what’s the problem? By now, the onus is on the viewer to consume all “reality television” with a chuckle and a grain of salt. The genre’s underlying appeal is often rooted in its escapist, aspirational qualities (or, at other end of the spectrum, its indulgence of our basest schadenfreude). But House Hunters was always much more about showing us an attainable reality than a fantasy. The show (and its many iterations), in which people just like us (juggling budgets, worried about school districts, pulled between city and suburb), go shopping for the best home their money can buy, not only glorifies the dream of home ownership, but makes it seem achievable. (If that IT guy and his elementary school teacher wife can successfully get out of their dingy apartment and into a new home with the requisite granite countertops, “marriage-saving” double vanities, and bedroom-sized walk-in closets, so can I!) This plays right into our inexplicably unwavering attachment to home ownership: Despite the collapse of the housing market, polling continues to demonstrate that we regard owning a home as the cornerstone of the American Dream—a perception that undoubtedly played a role in the home-buying craze prior to the bubble’s burst.

Showing houses that aren’t even for sale at prices divined by its producers, House Hunters is presenting dangerous misinformation about the home-buying process and deleting all of the accompanying complications and consequences. It’s turned what is actually a messy, frustrating, often dead-end process into a seamless (and perhaps necessary) path toward fulfillment. What’s more, it seems likely that viewers use the prices, locations, and home criteria discussed on the show as barometers for their own house hunts because the information is presented as fact. No, House Hunters does not explicitly condone selling one’s soul for a white picket fence, and other HGTV shows like My First Place and Property Virgins do delve into money and home-inspection woes from time to time. But doesn’t HGTV have some obligation to portray the housing market as it is, or, at the very least, offer a pronounced disclaimer about the producers’ creative and logistical liberties?

Maybe they could fix this whole mess and wipe the slate clean with a good old fashioned “where are they now” episode, showing us the truth after those mortgage payments start taking a toll.

So the main worry here is that House Hunters makes homeownership seem too easy and could lead too many people into more decisions? Perhaps we need an extra paragraph here extolling the virtues of renting

I’m not sure what to make of this argument. Homeownership is indeed an American value. One could argue that HGTV itself stands as a giant beacon for homeownership and a consumerist lifestyle. Is this necessarily bad? Does HGTV simply reflect the interests Americans have or does it insidiously push people toward too much homeownership and consumption? Are impressionable kids and adults watching this channel and then going out and spending beyond their means? I don’t think we have the public data to examine this (though some marketing company may have this information).

In the end, I suppose it comes down to this: do you think HGTV has a moral/ethical/social obligation to also show the downsides of homeownership?

Gated communities on HGTV

As someone who studies suburbs and housing, I admit enjoying watching people choose homes on HGTV on shows like House Hunters. I’ve noticed that one factor that occasionally influences the choice of homes is whether it is located in a gated community. A few thoughts about this topic, gated communities, which has attracted more attention from sociologists and planner in the last two decades:

1. On these shows, the gated communities often pop up in the South or West, particularly in Florida or California.

2. We rarely see any evidence of the gated community like the entryway to the neighborhood (a fake guardhouse or a real guardhouse?)  or a fence around the entire neighborhood. We are simply told that the suburban home is in a gated community.

3.  At least when making their choices on screen, the people rarely talk much about the fact that a home is in a gated community. This is probably due to the fact that the show is supposed to be about the home and not the neighborhood. (So how about a new show where it is less about the individual housing unit and more about selecting a neighborhood?)

4. The homes in the gated communities vs. those that are not in a gated community look very similar. Ultimately, it is really rare that anyone on this show is selecting a home that is in a “unsafe neighborhood.” As sociologists have suggested, living in a gated community is often a decision made regarding some amorphous outside threat. They are devices that portray a certain image while also acting as reassurance for residents. As some have shown, like Setha Low in Behind the Gates, some suburban residents feel very afraid even when they live in exclusive, upscale neighborhoods. The gates in many neighborhoods don’t really keep people out but they help the residents feel better.