When Catherine Jheon first toured the $560,000 Toronto home that she and her husband bought and intended to renovate, she was surprised to find that the building, formerly a rooming house, still had people living inside. Maybe she would have been less shocked if she’d found a family in a well-appointed home, reading by a fireplace. Instead, she found people struggling — living on low incomes and dealing with addictions — and she wanted them out. Jheon recounted her horror in a May 29 Toronto Life article, “We Bought a Crack House”. “We weren’t particularly handy, but we’d seen all the home reno shows... How hard could it be?” wrote Jheon.
What isn’t in itself an unreasonable desire — wanting previous tenants to move out of a home you own — sparked a strong reaction online soon after the story was published. Readers were upset with Jheon’s callous indifference to the residents she was displacing in the city’s rapidly gentrifying Parkdale neighborhood, and the way she positioned herself as a victim of their circumstances. She showed a stunning lack of self-awareness as she characterized the purchase and renovation as a struggle while glossing over the implications her dream home would have on the people she was displacing.
“The real story here is the poor tenants who got booted out of their home,” tweeted one person. “I think her definition of cash strapped is a bit off,” tweeted another. Two days later, Jheon emailed a response to the Toronto Star’s Metro section: “I understand why the story and my insensitive descriptions triggered anger around real issues of affordable housing, homelessness and more. I'm going to take some time to reflect on everything that has happened.” What seems intended to have been a zany tale of what happens when your home improvement TV show fantasies don’t go quite as planned… didn’t go quite as planned.
There’s no denying that Jheon’s article was classist, out of touch, and insensitive. But classist, out of touch, and insensitive media stories and figures find success and fawning audiences all the time (ahem, Bill Maher). Jheon’s error was that she broke the cardinal rule of any successful house flipping or finding tale: erase the immediate past and context from which you plucked your new property. Just look at some of the most popular shows about homes on television right now. Shows like HGTV’s House Hunters and Flip or Flop and DIY Network’s Kitchen Crashers would likely lose their loyal viewerships (each network is distributed to 90 million and 57 million U.S. households respectively) if they explored what their audiences may already know to be true: For many people, a dream home is a home that you can own in the first place.
Jheon’s article called attention to the divide between wealthy house hunters and those being displaced by gentrification and lack of affordable housing. But her being inspired by the long list of home reno and improvement shows on air, at least nine of which are airing new episodes this summer, also calls attention to where folks learn about housing and homeownership today. I’d argue that, like venture capitalism and finding a romantic partner, many people learn about home ownership from television and one especially popular channel in particular: HGTV. Admittedly one of my favorite channels, HGTV thrives on TV audiences’ love of escapism. How else could a network mostly about home ownership and investment have been the third most popular channel in 2016, at a time when the national home ownership rate was at its lowest since the 1965 that year and an estimated 2.7 million people faced eviction the year prior.
HGTV will always be walking a fine line between making dream home living feel accessible and bumping up against the reasons why it is not.
Home renovation shows in particular — including Fixer Upper, Love It or List It, Rehab Addict, and House Hunters Renovation — have found success at the network. But as long as housing instability and homelessness continue to be national crises, HGTV will always be walking a fine line between making dream home living feel accessible and bumping up against the reasons why it is not. Until displacement and the reality of finding a place to live on a low income are acknowledged by HGTV, the network and the home reno dreams they present will always be built on fantasy. And any attempts to bring the type of housing fantasies these TV shows present back down to Earth, as Jheon did, are risky.
Tarek and Christina El Moussa, the now-divorced hosts of Flip or Flop, discovered as much in 2015 when they attempted to host a house flipping seminar in Portland, Oregon, a city buckling under the consequences of its lack of affordable housing. The pair was forced to postpone the event and others in the Pacific Northwest indefinitely after a wave of backlash online. The couple told the Orange County Register in 2013 that evicting people, including families, is a regular part of the home flipping process. “I’ll buy any house, any condition (and) any location as long as I can get it at the right price,” Tarek told the paper. That potentially troubling aspect of home renovation never makes in onto Flip or Flop, however. If it did, the show might not be in the position to be renewed for its seventh season on the network and have its hosts profiled in the New York Times.
Eviction is rarely a focus anywhere in pop culture. Housing instability occasionally pops up as a quickly resolved plotline in shows like Shameless and Hoarders. But when it comes to the networks dedicated to homes and gardens and televisions, namely HGTV and the DIY Network, it’s practically nonexistent. Shows about homeownership are great at doing what entertainment is supposed to do: indulging viewers’ fantasies. But as some of the most prominent pop culture products shaping discussions of homeownership, do they have a responsibility to do more? Perhaps not. But in a time when “reality” shows are impacting current events more than anyone could have imagined, it’s worth taking a moment to examine the television shows that shape our understanding of what it means to be a homeowner today.