What Home Improvement Programming Tells Us about Race, Redlining, and the American Dream

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The following article is for educational purposes only. I use a Black feminist, socio-political, and pop culture lens to delve into the intersections of race, home ownership, and Black American history. Any trademarked images/video/audio belong to: PPG BUFFALO, BERKELEYSIDE, CITYLAB, DUKE UNIVERSITY, FAST COMPANY, LANSING STATE JOURNAL, MAPPING INEQUALITY, MOUNTAIN XPRESS, MSNBC, NPR, PACIFIC STANDARD, PBS, RETHINKING SCHOOLS, SMITHSONIAN, THE ATLANTIC, THE PHILADELPHIA TRIBUNE, THOUGHTCO., THE NEWS TRIBUNE, VOX, WESA 90.5, WHYY, ZOCALO, AND JPN, SAMASHI, AND TELEPATH. Thank you for reading/watching. Enjoy!

From lavish houses and stately apartments to high-rise condominiums and grandiose mansions HGTV caters to every expensive eccentric housing taste one can imagine. With its shiny veneers and picture-perfect catalog presentation, HGTV and other television programming channels such as DIY have tapped into a very (bourgeois) market of the average citizen that aspires to wealth and picturesque living. With the discussion of wealth seekers, there is the converse of affordability. If you weren’t aware there’s even a new TV and social media market of white millennials that seek tiny house living, not in preexisting neighborhoods or near non-white people, but built exclusively to their tastes and price point.

When I personally kept thinking of the very ideation of housing I could not divorce the words ownership and property from my mind as concepts and actions that centered back towards America’s very foundation built upon race. I happened to be scrolling through Twitter one afternoon and saw a tweet by Crutches & Spice @ Imani_Barbarin that synthesized my thoughts and general unease with HGTV, the racial underpinnings of “The American Dream”, and ultimate title of this video. She and twitter user Morgan Alex also addressed disability housing, HGTV’s lack of universal model homes and accessibility awareness. I’m racking my brain right now for an episode of House Hunters, Love It or List It, the various Flip or Flop shows, My Lottery Dream Home, Beachfront Bargain Front, Fixer Upper, Tiny House-Big Living, Property Brothers, or any of the other cavalcade of shows on the network that have even had a disabled person having a home built or searching for a house that meets all of their needs.

Deep discussions necessary about race and disability (housing).

The lack of disability or accessibility programming does the channel a further disservice, by not showing the reality of long or short-term living situations for many homes that have not been made with disability in mind. In one’s lifetime, an individual can experience the gamut of cognitive, range of motion, mobility, motor skills, sight, hearing, or energy levels related disability. The fact that doors, cabinets, appliances, steps, stairs, bathtubs, and many other home-based features are not pre-installed or retrofitted is cause for much greater concern than has been given by the larger housing market. Just leisurely looking online I had quite a bit of difficulty finding home based incentives for disability markets or vice versa for home access and equitable standard housing. I can’t even imagine if you’ve never been connected to community, state, or federal services for disability access how difficult or expensive it could potentially be for someone trying to acquire home modifications. Truly, most people don’t think of disability until it occurs.

Personally, I believe that if there was an educational element to the network it would greatly improve, if not elevate the channel. There’s also only a minimal number of non-white hosts and home modifiers on the network. I mean I can seriously count the number of non-white faces that helm the network’s shows on one hand, maybe two if their shows are still in syndication. If there were shows that focused on the reality of home ownership, disability access, the history of racial housing developments, or education about property acquisition in the US and abroad it could lend itself towards generating more equitable footing and great conversations surrounding the network. So before we delve into the modern landscape of today, I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the history of Civil Rights, Jim Crow, Reconstruction, and slavery in the United States that all laid the foundation for our current economic markets and housing systems. During these periods Black persons experienced rampant dehumanization and were denied access to their very autonomy, were considered a viable economic product, and were deemed property and denied property themselves.

US National Institutes of Health, Racism-African American Women-And Their Sexual And Reproductive Health — A Review of Historical And Contemporary Evidence And Implications For Health Equity: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6167003/#B37

The very idea of non-home ownership associated with criminality was created post slavery with Vagrancy laws that were a response to millions of Black people having no homes, no land, and no states that would allow them to be apart of their communities. Some of the ugly words that we associate Blackness with today found their connotations during this time period such as vagrant, worthless, and idle. Sundown towns were also enforced across the country that permitted Black people to come in for work but ultimately forced to go by penalty of violence — as the name implies — by sundown. Speaking of further methods of criminalization, debt peonage or slavery by another name, sharecropping, to include Black codes were additional insurance measures created by innumerable politicians/policies, labor markets, the federal government, etc., to keep Black Americans a permanent underclass of citizens whose sole economic benefit to the nation was once again free labor.

Sharecropping was a coupled labor-land system that kept Black people tethered to white landowners as property, even though slavery as an economic institution was supposed to be abolished. The decades in which it existed kept thousands of Black Americans from the possibility of their own economic capital attainment to the revolving door of the sharecropping system that constantly found Black people owing. The Freedman’s Bureau reinstated and re-monetized the value placed on Black bodies once again with monetary allotments for re-capturing Black people for the prison or farming systems. To add to the horror of this time period there are plentiful tabulations of stolen and kidnapped Black children who while on their way to school were targeted for imprisonment and free labor.

US National Institutes of Health, Racism-African American Women-And Their Sexual And Reproductive Health — A Review of Historical And Contemporary Evidence And Implications For Health Equity: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6167003/#B37

The demonization and denigration of Black people continued unabated and was meted out across the country in the north and the south, in the east and in the west. Regardless of the great migrations of Black people post slavery, post Reconstruction and post Jim Crow to larger cities trying to find equitable housing and footing remained difficult. Progress was constantly impeded throughout this time by micro-aggressions to unfathomable large-scale acts of violence such as mass lynchings and race riots that saw many Black communities destroyed and their remaining assets taken by white mobs. White flight, environmental racism, redlining, and segregation further diminished the economic status of Black communities which escalated the withdrawal of monetary refurbishment and economic capital from many urban cities containing Black people.

“Beginning in 1934, The Home Owners Loan Corporation and Federal Housing Authority Underwriting Handbook created residential security maps utilized by the government to decide which neighborhoods would make secure investments and which should be off-limits for issuing mortgages. The maps were color-coded along the basis of green representing best, homogeneity, ‘professional men’, with no foreigners or Negros. The blue still desirable areas had ‘reached their peak’ but were thought to be stable due to their low risk of ‘infiltration’ by non-white groups. Yellow definitely declining areas bordered Black neighborhoods. They were considered risky due to the ‘threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade populations’. Red hazardous areas were neighborhoods where ‘infiltration’ had already occurred. These neighborhoods, almost all of them populated by Black residents were described by the Home Owners Loan Corporation as having an ‘undesirable population’ and were ineligible for Federal Housing Authority backing.”

The existence of redlining was not exclusive to merely housing but extended to the denial of financial services such as banking or insurance, limitation or denial of health care services, and even removed access to various supermarkets and retail businesses. These decades coincided with the boom of Section 8, tenements, and housing projects which pigeonholed many from upward mobility due to home and land ownership still being tethered to economic access systems and representing veritable wealth cushions in times of economic recession.

Black Americans did not sit idly by during these hundreds of years of economic and political disenfranchisement either. With the capital, some were awarded via the federal government the building of our own communities and founding of our own Universities was made possible. Trying to formulate our own foundations of the ‘American dream’ was a tricky and tenuous enterprise because many Black Americans constantly pushed for more than their ancestors were constantly denied. I, we, and they truly seek a return on our ancestors forced investment to this nation which is why I will always advocate for reparations. Economic booms via education, work, and ranks that were once denied in employment, and access to higher governmental offices began to see a shifting class bracket for many Black Americans across the nation. However, one must always be aware that although some buoyed and thrived, there was turbulence and survival for others. So, I think constantly about the descendants of American chattel slavery and our individual and collective bargaining power and where do we start out in regards to wealth and the lack of accumulated wealth therein in regards to home choices and life choices.

Mapping Inequality Interactive Maps, Redlining in New Deal America: https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=4/36.77/-96.94&opacity=0.8

This brings us back to our initial talking point about HGTV and racial optics where many white Americans on these programs are buying their first homes, getaway homes, or second homes and have thousands if not millions of dollars of starting or continuing money from accumulated generational wealth. If not that, the generational political capital to assert more authority over where they or their ancestors could live. So, in truth home improvement programming tells us a lot about the history of race and red lining. The channel’s programming unintentionally presents a lopsided view of easy non-fraught home buying experiences — which is innocuous at least and dangerous at most — and ultimately lambasts the fraudulence and inauthenticity of the ’American Dream’.

Editor: We Are Horror Magazine. Writer: An Injustice, Fanfare, Gayly Dreadful, Haw Creek Horror, Rely on Horror, Something Ghoulish, and SUPERJUMP.

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