We All Love HGTV — But It Misrepresents The Wealth Gap

When you think about it, HGTV's widespread popularity among everyone — from Millennials to conservative Christians — isn't actually all that surprising.
With smash-hit shows like "House Hunters" and "Fixer Upper," the channel feels like a blissed-out collage of pristine farmhouse sinks and eye-popping down-payments — an ode to the promise of inevitable upward mobility and property ownership. After all, owning a home has always been a central element of the American Dream — the belief that each generation can achieve a little more than the one that came before it (and with a more luxurious open-floor plan, of course).
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But if HGTV taps into a deeply aspirational part of the American identity, regardless of political or religious difference, it also breezes over some of the historical and economic complications that underpin home-ownership. This week, Strong Opinions Loosely Held host Elisa Kreisinger spoke with Brian J. McCabe, a professor at Georgetown University and the author of No Place Like Home: Wealth, Community and the Politics of Homeownership. Check out their full conversation below to hear more about an ostensibly benign tax policy, known as the Mortgage Interest Deduction, that actually rewards upper-middle class homeowners and consolidates property in the hands of the privileged few. Subscribe to Strong Opinions Loosely Held on Apple Podcasts and follow our video channel on Facebook.
In 2015, the U.S. government refunded $134 billion to help homeowners carry their mortgages, according to Professor McCabe — an astonishing figure that's larger than the combined annual budget for the Energy, Education, and Justice Departments. So while we tend to stigmatize "government subsidized housing" as a service only needed by low-income families, the Mortgage Interest Deduction overwhelmingly allocates tax dollars to help the rich pay their bills.
"We give back to wealthy homeowners 4-times as much money as we spend on all low-income rental housing assistance," McCabe says. "But it's a policy that everybody's a little afraid to touch. The Mortgage Interest Reduction is regressive — that is, it favors high-income households rather than low-income households. It doesn't really aid people on the margins, like if you're just about able to buy a home but you need a little push, it's not a great deduction for you, because most middle-class and lower-middle class Americans don't itemize their taxes so they can't take the deduction, and it incentivizes people to buy bigger homes, because you can now spend more money on a mortgage."
As we know from our favorite HGTV shows, home ownership represents Americans' most effective tool for investing and growing personal wealth — a reality that has caused property holders to resist any changes in their neighborhoods that might damage house values. Of course, that includes all the kind of changes that would eventually empower lower-income families to move from renting to purchasing, like vital social services from government-subsidized housing to homeless shelters.
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"[This system] has ramifications for the reproduction of inequality, for creating neighborhoods that are segregated by home-ownership status, that are segregated by income, that are segregated by race," McCabe summarizes. "So we don't object to people wanting to protect their income or their assets or their property values, but it doesn't come without implications for other people. When we equate homeownership with citizenship or being a good community member, we need more nuance to that story."
While we'd like to imagine that graduating to home-ownership really is as simple and accessible as an episode of "Property Brothers" might suggest, the American tax system has been designed to push all but the country's wealthiest buyers out of the game — a racialized wealth-gap that only feeds the economy's growing inequalities.