Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
Binge-watch it if you’re not sure what to do with your extra house.
Some of my best childhood memories are of “cold plate nights.” On occasional evenings, my mom, brother, and I would climb into my parents’ bed, trade dinner for a plate of cheddar cheese and Ritz crackers, and abandon conversation in favor of HGTV. Watching other people’s domestic strife play out this way was our idea of domestic bliss: I’d lose myself in granite islands, poolside cabanas, jackhammer noises, adult tears. No one had to cook.
All this is to say I grew up with HGTV, and then I mostly grew out of it. But when I noticed recently that Netflix has its own home-renovation show, Stay Here, I needed to binge it.
At first, this show might resemble the same old formula: Person has house, wants better house, gets TV show to make house better. But, like so many things in 2018, it puts a cold, maddening twist on a thing that used to be good. The result is home-makeover reality TV taken to its logical extreme, sucked dry of humanity and cultural context, and entirely ruined in the process.
On Stay Here, owners are looking to upgrade their properties so they can rent them out on platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway. Leading each renovation is co-host Genevieve Gorder, an interior decorator who rose to fame on TLC’s Trading Spaces. Her co-host Peter Lorimer, a former DJ and current real estate expert, reveals the median rental price in each market and promises that they can beat it. The bare-bones intro is a short, poppy musical interlude that lists the show’s driving principles: “Travel. Design. Experience. Profit.”
And there is much profit to be gained: The U.S. vacation-rental market was a $100 billion-a-year industry in 2016, and it’s expected to grow to $167.9 billion by 2019. One couple wants to rent out their rustic Seattle houseboat to fund their daughter’s expensive childcare (which costs as much as college, they say). In another episode, a widow, still mourning her husband’s death, wants to move out of the Malibu oceanside house they once shared, but preserve the memories (and the investment).
With these rare moments of emotional honesty, the homeowners are made very nearly three-dimensional. But Stay Here also introduces an unsympathetic, silent character: the temporary rental market itself. It’s a force that’s been said to enforce inequality across race and class lines, increase rental prices, and gobble up housing that could have gone to people in need of somewhere to live. In taking the booming rental market as its subject, the show blows oxygen on a raging fire without acknowledging the broader consequences.
Some home-renovation shows manage (mostly) to avoid this. The hosts of Fixer-Upper were so distressed to find that at least six of the Texas homes they’d Fixed Up were posted on Airbnb and VRBO that they vowed to draft stricter pre-show contracts. “We want to do remodels for clients’ homes,” a spokesperson told USA Today. “[W]e want to ensure that does not get lost in this new vacation rental trend.” Stay Here, on the other hand, is committed to getting lost.
Take Episode 7’s subjects, Jess and Ryan, for example. They live in New York, but own a “beast of a house” in Palm Springs that hasn’t been touched since 1969. They’d bought it six months before coming on the show, Jess says, but were too nervous to rent it out. “It’s important that the right people are staying here,” says Ryan, her other half. Not “Axl Rose” types, Jess says later. Yes, Lorimer responds: “You want quality renters as opposed to volume.”
Later, he assuages their fears. The couple can install noise monitors in the house, alerting them all the way in New York if things get rowdy; and hire a professional renter-vetter, who promises to send a concierge to suss out potential occupants before they set foot in the home. A heartwarming stay in the surveillance state. (CityLab reached out to the couple for comment, but they said they were not doing press.)
Then there’s the finale in D.C., where we’re introduced to Michael Abbenante, who owns a gorgeous firehouse. It’s a historic property: the home of the first all-African-American fire company in the city’s history. (“This is gold!” Lorimer fawns.)
Abbenante had previously been renting out rooms in the house for $250 a night. When Gorder finds out that he’s living in the main, sun-dappled room of his own home—complete with floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed brick, pool table, and open layout—she chastises him: “You’re so greedy!”
“It was pretty selfish,” he admits to me on the phone later. He moves out of the front room into one of the back ones, allowing Gorder to totally redo his vacated bachelor pad. The takeaway here: If you’re running your home like a business, put the customers first.
Yes, we’ve established that the point is, in fact, to turn your home into a business. But still! Home improvement stories usually have some feel-good element, even if they’re pushing a couple to the precipice of divorce. They’re about watching people’s family lives get better, even if that life upgrade is implicitly tied to dollar signs. With this show, you won’t see any kids overjoyed at their new bunk beds. Instead, you get owners committing to a future of readjusting throw pillows and fielding late-night calls from honeymooners who’ve locked themselves out.
One landlord, at least, seems to understand that part of honoring a neighborhood’s history is acknowledging how one is changing it. “I want to keep the price the same—I want to keep it affordable,” says Gordy, who owns a brownstone in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that he rents out to 14 or 15 guests a night, hostel-style. He doesn’t spell out the potential consequences of a raised price, but they’re clear. “This is a working-class community, and we want working-class folks from all over the world to come back and enjoy it,” he says. All he wants is to fill the rooms on more nights, to fund education for his three sons.
I wanted to get a sense of if, in the editing process, some of these more measured reflections were lost; or if, post-show, people were willing to offer a more honest self-assessment.
Signs point to no. Abbenante, the firehouse guy, told me he doesn’t believe the temporary rental market has contributed to rising rental prices in D.C., and he only hopes these short-term housing options will someday fully eclipse the demand for impersonal, corporate hotels. This same debate—hotels vs. Airbnbs—has divided others in the city: A report from the D.C. Policy Center highlights the fact that the largest commercial hosts are “particularly problematic because they likely take housing units off the market that would have otherwise been available to residents.” But a bill that would put restrictions on the market, proposed by a D.C. city councilmember, has been dismissed as a hotel-backed agent of economic doom.
“The way they’re trying to regulate against Airbnbs and temporary rentals in D.C. is a real problem, and it’s all because these stupid hotels are lobbying against everything I’m doing,” Abbenante told me. “Right now they’ve got a bunch of African-American picketers coming to the D.C. government every month complaining about temporary housing, because it’s affecting their ability to afford housing in D.C.”
That’s “total bullshit,” Abbenante says. “I’ve read the report, it’s completely written by hotel lobbyists,” he continues. “And they just sent black people down to D.C. to picket.”
If you can avoid seeing this show as a lens through which to understand all of society’s ills, then maybe you’ll enjoy it. You’ll get a wandering tour of Paso Robles wine country, and peer into antique shops in Hudson, New York. You’ll learn a little about civil rights history in D.C. and barbecue in Austin.
After each episode (most of which I watched with my mom, back in cold-plate territory) we giddily checked each unit’s profile on various housing platforms. The houseboat couple is charging $300 per night (up from a $190 average for Seattle houseboats) and they’re pretty solidly booked until January. The Axl Rose haters in Palm Springs are charging $1,500 per night (but it looks like they haven’t gotten over their squeamishness over letting people in—only one week in the next 6 months is booked, and they don’t have any reviews). The Austin compound is listed on TripAdvisor from $216 a night, below the city’s average.
So it seems that these homeowners got the financial stability they sought. Still, we were too queasy to be inspired to enter the temporary rental market ourselves. And maybe, we realized, that’s not the point of Stay Here at all. Abbenante had a similar takeaway. “I thought people would … be like ‘Oh, I’ll make my own Airbnb,’ which was the main goal of the show: You can do this too,” he said. “But it turned into—I want to go someplace and stay in an Airbnb instead of a hotel, because look how cool this one is.”
Weeks after finishing the season, I booked a two-night stay on Airbnb. No coincidence: It was a houseboat.