Homes for sale are seen on Chicago's South Side, Tuesday, May 29, 2007.
Hey, Chicago house hunters: Prices on the South Side are a lot lower. Charles Rex Arbogast/Reuters

The HGTV show highlights more than just open kitchens and bickering couples

Confession: Until I started watching “House Hunters” on HGTV, I had no idea what a “Craftsman-style” house was. I also didn’t know that white kitchens were all the rage, or that “en suite” was a phrase that normal people might use. Indeed, until I picked up my “House Hunters” habit—a mindless routine at night as I get ready for bed—I didn’t truly understand that one must always have an open concept floor plan; any spouse desiring separate spaces is just as stuffy as an old Victorian.

The show, a longtime cable favorite among fans of shelter-TV programming, has a familiar paint-by-numbers formula. Usually, but not always, we watch a straight couple search for a home sweet home. They visit three places, all very different spaces. She wants rustic. He craves mid-century modern. Everyone swears they entertain all the time and need an outdoor deck to guzzle wine in the summer. The show quickly drifts into absurd complaints. The neighbors are too close. This paint is ugly. They go way over budget. Finally, someone acquiesces and they choose a home. (There’s also a spinoff show, “Island Hunters,” which is like a crash course in colonialism, with people buying actual islands.)

With its relentless appetite for scenes of spousal bickering, “House Hunters” makes good pop culture fodder for armchair sociologists to study the state of the American marriage. (Seriously, how can some of these people be married to each other?) But the more I watch the show, the more I understand that it’s also a study of how race and housing play out in American cities, usually unbeknownst to the purchasers whose biggest cares are closet size.

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.

Krysan and Crowder also found that many whites in the Chicago region tend to know little about the neighborhoods outside their predominantly white communities. Stereotypes flourish when white North Siders think about the black South and West Sides, as their information about those areas comes only from news reports about local crime.

“House Hunters” is also a useful place to monitor exactly how the structural advantages of race operate. On one recent episode, I watched a couple, both in their 20s, pay $1 million for a home in a tony North Shore suburb. (With no backyard. Insane.) Naturally, we viewers aren’t privy to the Hunters’ bank statements or financial portfolios, although a few Twitter parody accounts take note.

But when I see how people’s job descriptions and buying budget don’t seem to match, I wonder how they can afford those places.

For many younger homebuyers, the answer is that their families gave them down-payment assistance. Many researchers have examined the vast racial wealth gap among homebuyers. (See this recent Zillow study, for example, which finds that a U.S. family earning the median black household income of $39,466 would be able to afford fewer than half of all homes listed for sale last year in 17 of the country’s 50 largest markets.) Thomas M. Shapiro’s Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, & Threatens Our Future devotes an entire chapter to the inheritance advantage.

Money passed from generation to generation can be measured in dollars easily enough, but its enormous impact in transforming lives is harder to quantify. Inherited assets give those who receive them a huge head start in life and provide incalculable, unearned advantages….Scariest of all, America’s history of racial exclusion and vast inequities in wealth accumulation collide most dramatically in inheritance.

As a black woman who once owned a condo on the South Side, watching “House Hunters” is likely more complicated for me than for the white viewers who watch the show to see couples perseverate about paint. I took a huge hit after the housing crash. I see and live how black neighborhoods are regarded and undervalued. The show is a constant reminder of the enduring impact of racist housing policies. But at least I get to laugh, too, at those couples who never thought to hire a painter to change the living room color.

So whenever the show hits Chicago, I live-tweet the broadcast. My crew of Twitter-strangers mock couples’ budgets, lament the segregation, cheer the occasional diversity win, and brag about what we would buy with their money in our own overlooked neighborhoods. A whole community of critical watchers finds joy and humor in this exercise, but we’re also drawn, like other HGTV fans, to the guilty pleasure of snooping into other people’s homes and lives. Everyone these days thinks they have certified home rehab chops.  

One day after a recent Chicago episode, a stranger tweeted me that I roasted her brother and sister-in-law in the previous night’s episode. Oops! No worries; she said she laughed at the collective tweets that poked at them for buying the smallest unit at a steep price. But she also greatly appreciated the thread, which she found via #househunters, because everyone brought up good points about income inequality. Now she and her brother were having useful discussions because of that online discourse. I smiled. And I take comfort in knowing that at least my hate-watching habit is helping a few other people think about why our neighborhoods look the way they do.

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