HGTV Thrives on Gentrification, and It’s My Guilty Pleasure

Home & Garden Television (HGTV) recently announced a new special called Rock the Block. The premise of the show is that four of the network’s top designers will be given four nearly-identical houses on a suburban block and each a budget of $150,000 and four weeks to turn them into dream homes. The designer that makes the most profit wins!

Sounds fun, right? Bringing together our collective love of kitchen design and cold hard cash, HGTV has built an empire on our fascination with real estate.

But this fascination glosses over a hard reality: almost all of HGTV’s programming is about the gentrification of America and the elimination of naturally-occurring affordable housing.

Let’s take a look at two of the network’s top shows and break down how each of them is contributing to gentrification.

Property Brothers

Property Brothers is one of the earliest, still-airing fixer-upper shows on the HGTV network. First airing in 2011, Canadian twin brothers Drew and Jonathan Scott help homebuyers find a distressed, affordable property and renovate it into their dream home.

Analyzing the latest U.S. full season of Property Brothers, Season 13, reveals that the show is a dream of gentrification in the higher end of the local market. The show films most of its new episodes in Nashville, which has a median home sale price of about $320,000. On the show, the Nashville episodes have an average purchase price of $523,167, with only two episodes, “Making Momma Happy” and “Living in Harmony” at or below median for the market. On top of that high purchase price, the average Nashville episode invests 34.43% of the purchase price into renovations, raising the market value of the house considerably. None of the episodes add units of housing to rent.

Property Brothers

Check out the data behind this chart. Aired episodes 6 and 14 featured content from prior seasons.

Also of concern, of the Nashville episodes, only one episode features a black family. That’s 8.3% black for the show, versus Davidson County at 28.1% black, according to 2017 census estimates. This mirrors the network as a whole. Only one show currently airing — Flip or Flop: Nashville — features black leads.

Windy City Rehab

This Chicago-based show is pure gentrification television. Designer Allison Victoria and business partner Donovan Eckhardt flip houses in historic neighborhoods like Bucktown and Lincoln Park. According to Zillow, homes in the Bucktown neighborhood recently sold for prices ranging between $122,000 ($163 per square foot) to over $3,000,000 ($432 per square foot). On many of Rehab’s episodes, Victoria converts duplexes into single family homes with more space and higher price tags. The show is only in its first season, but I made a chart of the episodes aired so far.

Windy City Rehab

Check out the data behind this chart. Episodes 2, 5, 9, 12, and 15 are short webisodes without budget information. Episodes 7, 8, 11, 13, and 14 feature properties that were not sold during filming, and there is no title card listing renovation budget.

Gentrification Television: Flipping a Lincoln Park Fourplex

Episodes 2 and 4 are unique for the series so far. Victoria remodels a fourplex for “student” renters, with luxury finishes that will “make a killing” with “high-end, boutique” living. Episode 2 is a 6-minute webisode that features social media content and an overview of the project. Episode 4 is the full episode with budget numbers.

In the webisode, Victoria and Eckhardt head to DePaul University (where tuition is about $40,000 per year), do some market research. One student says they rent a four-bedroom for $2,500 per month. Another said they paid $1,200 for their share of an apartment one block off of campus. Another student pays $1,500 for an off-campus, dorm-like apartment, and claims that a garage spot is $500 per month in their building.

Victoria and Eckhardt note that they have two garage spots, so they could possibly make up to $1,000 per month in parking. In the end, after a months-long renovation, all four apartments are rented out for one-year leases. It is not shared what the rental income was in the end, but Victoria puts out a $2,700 number during the open house for what is hinted as a two-bedroom unit. However, the end game is selling the rental property once it is fully rented. The renovation and renting out increases the value of the property, from purchase price to sale price, a full 159%.

Gentrification Effects

For Property Brothers, the homebuyers are not flipping the home after they purchase and renovate it, so it is unclear what the effect on market value is. However, if we assume that every dollar of renovation investment yields a dollar in increased market value, then the Nashville episodes average a 34-percent increase in value.

For Windy City Rehab, it is both easier and more difficult to assess how the market was impacted. On the one hand, for the six properties that were sold, the average increase in market value was 127 percent, meaning the home price more than doubled. With many conversions of duplexes into single family homes, Victoria is both reducing affordability and reducing availability. On the other hand, only six of eleven properties sold during production, with the others often taken off the market until the spring buying season. Victoria is pushing the limits of luxury in the neighborhoods where she flips.

Guilty Pleasures

As a television viewer, I am watching for the entertainment. I enjoy the negotiation, the design, the final open houses. I know that in the process real people’s lives are being hurt, like the renter who was kicked out of their apartment when Victoria converts a duplex into a luxury single-family home. Other television viewers could defend college football or shows like The Bachelor with similar arguments.

But what if we didn’t have to compromise? With Minneapolis and St. Paul focusing on affordability and density, what if HGTV green-lit a show about an affordable housing developer flipping single family lots into triplexes or vacant land into six-story multi-family properties? Aspirational television doesn’t have to be cookie-cutter plot-lines of flipping and renovation.

Do you watch HGTV? How do you feel about television that runs counter to your expressed values? What can we do to make aspirational television match our values? Share your thoughts in the comments!

16 thoughts on “HGTV Thrives on Gentrification, and It’s My Guilty Pleasure

    1. Sarah

      The show “Income Property” gets you halfway there – it’s primarily about homeowners in Toronto renovating to add a rental unit to their property. The focus is obviously on maximizing rental income, not about housing supply or affordability issues. But it’s a super interesting contrast to homeownership culture in the US, because everyone in the show just thinks so differently about having a rental unit in their property than they do here. Housing in Toronto is expensive as hell, and I’ve gathered from the show that the City is very progressive/permissive when it comes to subdividing SFHs into multiple units. A lot of the homeowners featured need a rental unit to pay their redonk mortgages, and no one seems unhappy about “having to” have one – it seems like most of them think of it as just what you have to do if you want to own in the city. It might be the only HGTV show that’s not about crafting your very own dream castle in which to live in blissful isolation with your children and golden retriever.

  1. jared c

    My main moral qualm with HGTV isn’t related to housing economics, but the waste generated by unnecessary cosmetic remodels. These remodels often feature trendy finishes (sliding barn doors, barnboard, fake shiplap, etc) that quickly go out of style and into the dump 5-10 years later.

    So much waste is generated simply because we’re bored.

    1. Monte Castleman

      That and they generally find a well preserved period house and generally desecrate whatever remains of the original style. It’s their property but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.

    2. Andrew Evans

      Well and the cities do that too here by mandating energy efficiency and other “upgrades” that may require extensive renovation beyond fixing up the house. This adds cost, and red tape, and waste in landfills.

  2. Andrew Evans

    fwiw there were quite a few duplexes that were forced from single family homes, or at least the plans of single family homes. So not sure what the big deal is with converting them back, as long as it’s a feasible design and isn’t a over improvement for the area.

    To the comment about another show here. I was talking to a friend who was approached to audition for one of these types of shows. They said the producers wanted a volume of business to film, and that really limited them to just a handful of folks in that field who were contentiously grinding out work. I’m not sure, for a rehab type show, there are many homes here that would qualify, as opposed to Detroit or other cities. As far as the larger apartment buildings, they take so long to plan that I’m not sure it would be worthwhile for a producer to pick up. I’m also wondering if the production costs would be too much for a group like PPL to document the process that goes into a building like they put up on Lyndale and Lowry.

  3. Monte Castleman

    What’s the source of the numbers? Watching the shows and jotting them down? It doesn’t change the point of your article, but unless the sources are things like contracts, contractor bills, appraisals and such I’d regard them as pure fiction. Flipping Vegas was the only show that was completely scripted – or fake if you prefer, but most other shows have elements of fakery. The walls they’re busting out aren’t on a set, but multiple people that have been on Property Brothers have said that they already owned the house in question, therefore the “house hunting” portion is fake and the real part is the show is paying them some money in exchange for showing a real renovation. In general anything involving real estate transactions is fake (including the entire House Hunters shows) because in real life they happen so slow to make it economical to produce.

    Some elements of the renovation fake too. Remember the one Love it or List it episode where they were planning to remodel the kitchen along with the rest of the house. Then suddenly before a commercial break they discover bad wiring that has to be fixed so they can’t anymore? Go back and re-watch the beginning and on demo day notice how they never touch the kitchen when they’re busting open everything else. I know it really does happen that you find nasty surprises when opening up a wall, but you could see that the house has knob and tube wiring by walking around the basement.

    To answer your questions I watch shows like that, As a kid I’d watch This Old House; as an adult I still watch renovation shows. I also used to work for the sister company of Hometime and had family on Renovation Raiders. Both are two of the more real ones out there, although Hometime implied that the hosts were doing a lot more of the work then they actually were. As soon as the cameras stopped Dean Johnson would put down his hammer and contractors waiting behind the camera would swoop in. I do find it distasteful that rather than buying a McMansion that would be more suited to what they want, these people are taking an unreplaceable affordable house and make it unaffordable, as well as destroying much of the original homes character. But watching people smashing things and building things is just to compelling. I’d like to see a show where they take a grand old house and restore it to it’s former glory like This Old House used to do rather than just smash out all the walls and whine that they can’t afford granite counters.

    1. Conrad ZbikowskiConrad Zbikowski Post author

      I used the numbers that the show provided during each episode. As the chart notes say, some episodes didn’t end in a sale (Windy City Rehab). Some of the purchase prices are also * where there was an initial offer, but the episode didn’t clarify what the final purchase price was.

      For cost, Property Brothers generally includes trades and materials at bulk rates. The entire season is filmed at once. Design and general contractor fees are not included.

      Windy City Rehab should show more the true increase in value because they sell the property for a market price.

  4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Gentrification seems like a very complex and multi-faceted topic that lacks a clear, concise definition. Could the author elaborate on what they mean by gentrification? And is gentrification categorically bad? Are there certain instances of gentrification or particular effects of gentrification which are not bad?

    1. Conrad ZbikowskiConrad Zbikowski Post author

      Webster defines as, “the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents”

      For the chart I was looking at the increase in value of a property. For Property Brothers, this was harder because there was no market price at the end. I assumed renovations incresed value 1:1. For Windy City Rehab, it was easier because we had a purchase price and a sale price.

      In both shows, the buyers are taking one of the more affordable houses on the block and remodeling into a luxury property. Multiple this across space and time and a whole neighborhood becomes unaffordable for many.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        The unfortunate reality is that, barring net-new supply, people who can afford a $500,000 home will displace people who can afford a $250,000 home. I’m not nearly as sympathetic to the cause of flipping, but the end result clearly satisfies a need in the market assuming people buy the flipped house.

        I’ve done a rock-the-block-level investment in my home over the past decade. That probably makes me a gentrifier. And I’m far from alone on my block. What’s the alternative, though? Should I have not fixed up my home, leaving it at the level of disrepair that made it nearly unlivable? Should I have not modernized systems and updated energy efficiency? Should I have cut back on the exterior improvements? None of that would have even mattered, because even despite my work the majority of equity increase has come about due to increase in demand for living in urban neighborhoods.

        The reason why I asked my original question is because gentrification as a phenomenon seems to be neither good nor bad… It contains good things (investment, neighborhood improvements, etc) and bad things (displacement, benefits that don’t accrue equitably to all in a community). The Webster definition agrees, noting displacement “often results” from gentrification but is not necessarily inherent in gentrification. It seems problematic to discuss gentrification as purely a negative thing, rather than focusing on preventing certain negative outcomes of gentrifications.

  5. Madeline A Vinitsky

    I think its better to gentrify a property than leave it to deteriorate. In areas like Indianapolis and Chicago, I am sure these shows and fixes are improving the area.
    I live in the greater Boston area where property values have soared in recent years. We hardly ever see an HGTV show here.
    I love hgtv and the magazine.

  6. jack

    I stopped watching HGTV because all the “renovations” come out looking the same. I’m so tired of “the open-concept floor plan.” I live in a 120 yo house with walls and I won’t be knocking them down so I can see a large screen TV hanging over the living room fireplace from the kitchen.

    1. Andrew Evans

      I stopped a few years ago or more. It just felt odd getting all concerned about what is a private business supported by a tv show. As far as the renovation ones, I’m in a over 100 year old 4 square Victorian type house with a lot of original woodwork. I’m kind of stuck with that style, so a lot of remodel or house shows wouldn’t really apply to me.

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