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Documenting our real estate obsession with Giorgio Angelini: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes talks with filmmaker Giorgio Angelini about his visually stunning new documentary, “Owned: A Tale of Two Americas."

Why do you live where you live? Not just the state or the city but the block you walk down and the door you walk through every day. Having a space to call home is packaged as part of the "American Dream" and it has become a full on real estate obsession. If you’re like Chris Hayes, you might find yourself binge watching HGTV or scanning house listings in cities you have no plans of living in. But our ability to partake in that dream is far from equal thanks to housing policies that have disenfranchised generations.

Despite these forces directly ruling over where we are able to live, talking about housing policy can make the eyes glaze over. Luckily, Giorgio Angelini managed to weave together the intricate history of housing discrimination from New Jersey to California in his visually stunning new documentary, “Owned: A Tale of Two Americas."

CHRIS HAYES: Okay, you've got an $800,000 home 'cause your home value's gone up, but so has everyone else's.


CHRIS HAYES: If you sell your $800,000 home, congratulations you don't pocket the difference, you got to you buy another $800,000 home if you want to live in the same neighborhood.


CHRIS HAYES: It's like the rat is trying to outrun the wheel the whole time.

GIORGIO ANGELINII: And what we're seeing now with Trump's election, when they talk about “making America great again,” I would argue what they're actually responding to is the end of that social contract. That system that they've paid into for 60 years, the system that told them that they could retire on the value of their homes? Well, that system is only valuable if there's someone else on the other end to buy that home. For many Americans especially in rural suburban areas there's no one else to buy those homes. So, you've paid into this system, you've paid off your home, but it's worthless.

CHRIS HAYES: Welcome to "Why is this Happening?" With me, your host, Chris Hayes. I'm going to tell you something about myself and about my dad, actually, and about my jobs, which is that my father was a community organizer when I was growing up. He did some other jobs, he ended up in New York City Department of Health. But when I was a kid in the Bronx he was a community organizer and specifically focusing on housing. And the reason he was focusing on housing is because there was this period of time when the Bronx was burning, when there was just tremendous underdevelopment and underinvestment in communities of color particularly, particularly urban communities of color. There was tremendous amounts of capital flight. It was getting so bad in the Bronx that the values of the buildings had sunk below their replacement value from insurance, which was why you had landlords burning their own buildings, which is where the Bronx is burning comes from. Literally setting fire to their own buildings so they can get the insurance and walk away from something that had sunk below the property values that made sense to maintain.

So my dad was a housing organizer. They did a lot of organizing around housing, around the Community Reinvestment Act, and was among this group of people that were all kind of housing people. And I spent a few summers at the University Neighborhood Housing Program where I did research into housing funding. Here's my big confession, housing policy is super boring. I mean it's not, it's fascinating at one level but the granular actual truth of housing is really dense, there's a lot of government programs and obscure tax credits, and the way financing works is really complex, and there's Freddie, and there's Fanny, and there's LISC, and there's Section 8, and there's mortgages and depreciation rates. And there's all this stuff that I just remember being like, every time I would hear the word housing as a topic I would get a little bored, or I would want to not be around that.

Tiffany's looking at me right now and shaking her head. It's like where is this going as you sell this podcast about housing? But, wait, wait, wait for the turn everybody. So, the point of that is I think actually that's a broad view. It's hard to sell, we don't do a lot of segments on housing, on "All In with Chris Hayes," it's not a real sexy topic on the cable news. And it's because it's hard, it's a hard topic, it's a complicated topic and so much of what housing and housing policy is, is stuff that is happening at the infrastructural level several steps removed from us that feels remote. And yet here's the thing, so housing policy obscure, wonky, kind of boring. Real estate… none of those things. I mean America loves some real estate. House Hunters, flip this house, flip this house hunter, this house hunter just got flipped, every iteration of every freaking HGTV show. We should tear this wall out volume one. We should tear this wall out volume two. Do you have subway tile for the splash back seasons one through nine.

And believe me I speak from experience as a person as you will hear in this interview, as a person who will ... There are nights when I am on the couch and my wife is like, "I'm going to go to bed."

And I'm like, "I'll be up in a minute." And she will come over and she will kiss me on the cheek, and as she kisses me on the cheek her head reaches around the laptop and she sees down to the laptop and what is there in front of me at 12:30? and I am looking at real estate.

Not only this, I do this insanely weird thing which is that I'll just pick a random place and be like those slideshows in New York Times what can you get for ... I'll be like, "What does $700,000 get you in Biloxi, Mississippi? Let's check it out. Oh, this one's right on the water. Oh this one's got a pool."

So, the irony here is Americans are obsessed with housing, they're obsessed with real estate, they watch television shows, they think about it all the time and never talk about housing policy. But it's like all the stuff that we're obsessed with and honestly the most important thing in your life, day to day, what's the most important thing in your life? Like really, your job and your house, right? Where are you spending your life? You're spending it in two places more or less. You're spending it at your job and you're spending it at your house. And yet, you talk about labor policy, you talk about housing policy I'm like everyone checks out. So there's this real challenge, which is here's this thing that is centrally important to America, it's centrally important to how we structure and order society, it's centrally important to social outcomes because zip code neighborhood determines so many outcomes in a person's life, schooling, earning potential, yada, yada. But try to talk about housing policy and it's like whew.

So there's this dude Giorgio Angelini who I met through email because he emailed me like a few years ago as like a fan of the show. And he's been working on this documentary about housing, it's called “Owned: A Tale of Two Americas.” And he's sort of talked to me about it, we've corresponded a bit about it, and I was like, "Oh that's cute, that's nice. Good for him. A housing documentary." And then he sent me a cut of it and I was like, "Holy smokes this is good. This is so good." It's gripping, it's beautifully shot, and it is the story of basically post war American housing policy but told with the gloss, and the panache, and the dynamism, and the fascination of like an HGTV show. He somehow managed to weave together the two things. It's got all the important and fascinating structural critiques and explanations of how housing policy works, and how we created the built landscape that we inhabit as Americans, but none of the boring and dreary wonkiness. Instead, it's a freaking great film. It's fun to watch, it's fascinating and amazing.

And so, he sent it to me and I was blown away, and he's been putting it into different film festivals. And so, we were corresponding. I was like, "You know what, why don't you come on the podcast and talk about it? Why don't you come on and talk about this film and about what you learned in your journey from architecture school in Houston to making this film sort of by yourself." This amazing film, this great film that you should all go see, and if you're listening to me and you're a film distributor you should acquire. "Come on and tell us what is the story of American housing."

One of the things that interesting about this movie, which by the way is great and sort of better than it has any right to be if that makes sense, would be how I describe it.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: I'll take that.

CHRIS HAYES: No, just because you and I emailed a while back. I think you just emailed me out of the blue.


CHRIS HAYES: And so, I sort of tracked it, I've looked at a few different cuts, and it was like, "Oh that's nice he's making a movie. He seems like a nice guy." But then the movies really good, and really beautifully shot and looks good, and is really smart. It's your first movie you ever made.

Dense growth surrounds an abandoned, boarded up house in Portland
Dense growth surrounds an abandoned, boarded up house in Portland, Oregon, in 2016.Don Ryan / AP

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah. I don't know how far back you want to go but basically I came towards the beginning of the story when I was in grad school in architecture at Rice University. We're in the depths of the housing crisis, it's 2010, 2011 and I'm in a really weird position, in architecture school a really interesting position to sort of survey the wreckage that this past several years of decadence had brought us. And as an architect at that time thinking about what our role is in the future going forward, and having everyone talking about us entering this recovery period I was thinking to myself, we're having these conversations about a recovery, we're talking about financial reforms and all this stuff but no one's really asking, "What the hell are we building? What are we recovering and what is the system that we're perpetuating? And is it actually the system that we want to recover?" And so, that's sort of where the film started for me. And I applied for a grant to go photograph these abandoned McMansions in Inland Empire, which if you've never been there I don't know why you would because it's like ...

CHRIS HAYES: Oh I've been.


CHRIS HAYES: I've been.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: No disrespect to the people that live there, but if you don't live there ... sorry. If you don't live there, there's no reason to go.

CHRIS HAYES: Let's just say that Empire has like a winky emoji around it.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: It's aspirational, literally. It was an aspirational neighborhood filled with McMansions.

CHRIS HAYES: It's such a weird ass place.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah. I think I read it's 5,000 square miles of centerless sprawl. And you say that...

CHRIS HAYES: By the way for people that don't know this is in California east of Los Angeles.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Right, it's basically everywhere east of Los Angeles and down south to San Diego basically.


GIORGIO ANGELINI: You say this to someone, yeah it's 5,000 square miles of centerless sprawl but when you actually drive through the neighborhoods and you feel what it's like to just be in an area that is completely devoid of public space, it is a really weird alienating experience. And so, when I was photographing these homes that at that time it's the depths of the crisis, there's no money, everything's dried up, it's half built McMansions as far as the eye can see. But what I came across was something I didn't recognize would be there, which were just burnt down orange groves.

So you had this situation where you had these burnt down orange groves sitting alongside half built McMansions and you could sort of see this commodity shift happening frozen in time because of the financial situation. And at that point it triggered to me, "How can you capture that alienation and that sense of just complete and utter human detachment from a system?" And it felt like filming a movie was the only way to do that. I've always wanted to make a movie and so, I'm sure as you know well once you get this idea in your head you can't cease until it's done. And it took me on this 5, 6 year path.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah you've been working on this for a while.


CHRIS HAYES: So I want to talk about ... there's great scene in there of the realtor sort of walking around the kind of mausoleum that is the Inland Empire McMansions.


CHRIS HAYES: Let's talk about the sort of core foundational social contract that the film describes and in some ways, it's essentially the invisible skeleton of American life. We see the dermis, we see the eyes and the lips and the nose and the facial hair, and those are all the parts about that we talk about in American life pop culture, representations, social media, all of that's built to top of structure where people live. The neighborhoods they live in, where they live, how they get their job. And that structure is produced by a set of social policies basically that come together in post war era that create the structure of American life, which is still the structure of American life now. What are those structures?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah. Following World War II you had this huge housing crisis, you had a huge job crisis, and I think most people don't know that the fear coming out of the war was that we'd reenter depression. So the government is sitting there figuring out, "What the hell are we going to do with these millions of GIs? They need jobs, they need homes, the whole world is crumbling, let's go out and create the world's largest middle class ever, and we're going to do that through home ownership." So, what the government created was an incentivized program through the GI bill and the FHA and all these other sort of litany of government programs to subsidize both the construction and purchase of homes. And so, it is what started the whole post war suburban boom, but part of that story that most people don't know is that it was incredibly racially exclusive.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean it was explicitly racially discriminatory. Before we get to the sort of exclusionary parts of it though, it's one of the great accomplishments of social engineering in civilizational history.


CHRIS HAYES: They basically completely create a mortgage market. They insure mortgages, they essentially through the interstate system they start subsidizing ...

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Highway construction.

CHRIS HAYES: Highway construction. They just like create this vision of this world in which everyone goes out and they buy their own home and then they're not a communist.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah, that was a great line. Yeah, Matt Stoller we interviewed in the film and it's something that I never really thought about that he brought to light, which is the social contract we talk about is a government essentially telling the American home buyer, "We're going to match you with a 30 year job and a 30 year mortgage, and the idea is that you're going to retire on the value of that home and it's going to be a clean, perfect little system. And in that system you're going to go buy things to fill your home and you're going to become a nice little consumer, and that's what the world will be based on." And when you have a stake in that system the chances of you rebelling are probably a lot lower.

CHRIS HAYES: The quote from Levitt who builds Levittown, which is sort of iconic version of the suburban sprawl is that, "No man who owns his own home can be a communist because he has too much to do."


CHRIS HAYES: Here's why that cut deep for this 39-year-old father of three, is I have found that the social signals about that stuff are so powerful, and so magnetic that what I do in my spare time is I look at different kind of grills that I might want to buy. I like my current grill but then think there's another grill that I'll like that'll be better. I think about and obsessive over grass that hasn't grown well or patio furniture, and I do this in my spare time.


CHRIS HAYES: We're talking like I get home and I pull up the laptop and I'm like, "We are Pintresting some patios for the next hour."


CHRIS HAYES: And it's going down. Tiffany Champion is laughing at how lame that is, and I know that's lame but it's so ...

GIORGIO ANGELINI: It's ingrained like you said.

CHRIS HAYES: But it's beyond ingrained, it's so powerful that desire and I'm so shocked to find myself subject to it.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah, I mean I am subject to it as well. I'm moving to Los Angeles and that's the very same Pinterest board, and especially as a designer filmmaker very interested in having a particular look in a home. And it's not to say that, that vision was a bad vision. I think everybody wants to attain that.

CHRIS HAYES: No, but I guess the boiler points I'm making is that Levitt was right.


CHRIS HAYES: It's true that I am going to think about patio furniture rather than the revolution.


CHRIS HAYES: There is part of that ... That idea is a freaking profound one.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Well yeah, and we're at the center of it now. This is the big debate we're having politically about what does it mean to be a centrist in this political spectrum? And is being a centrist more destructive or less destructive then being far left or far right? There's a sort of tyranny of the center that happens, and these are all the sort of value judgments we make in the system that we created.

CHRIS HAYES: One of the key things about the system that gets built, the 30 year mortgage, the 30 year job, is that the structures of subsidy are invisible.


CHRIS HAYES: The roads get paved, the FHA insurance program gets set up, the government housing finance backstop, which essentially allows the capital to flow gets set up. But as the consumer end what it looks like to you is you worked hard, you saved for a down payment, you made a deposit, it does not look like a welfare check.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Exactly, that's exactly why I wanted to tell the story in this way, because certainly a lot of people have written about Levittown and I'm not the first person to discover that it was racially exclusive. But I think what was important to me in making this film was putting all these disparate stories together in contrast with one another, because no one wants to feel like they got a leg up. Everyone wants to feel like they worked hard and they manifested their own destiny.

CHRIS HAYES: I feel like people want to feel about their parents, even more than they want to feel about themselves in some ways. It's almost easier to be like, I'm privileged or my parents ... But it's like if you start to come for my folks, then people are really prickly.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Absolutely. That's the spirit of Levittown. It's a blue collar town, like one of our central characters likes to talk about. It has a very distinct personality with the people there, and they're prideful and the neighborhood as they rightly should be. But behind all of that is, I would say, this sort of recognition and maybe quiet simmering guilt that they knew that they got a leg up over others.

I think what was really interesting when I went to Levittown, as usually happens in documentaries, you think you're going to get one thing and you get something else. I wound up meeting a group of retired cops and their stories all traced almost identically to one another. They all came from neighborhoods in inner city New York that we all now considered to be historically black.

One came from Bed-Stuy, the other came from the South Bronx, another came from Brownsville. They all lived in mixed race affordable housing projects until the FHA and the GI Bill came and plucked this group of people out of those conditions, and plop them out into the suburbs. Then they came back to those very neighborhoods they grew up in, but as police officers to police them. It's a really perverse, weird, circular tyranny of some sort.

CHRIS HAYES: Well because the other part of this is this social engineering project is incredibly successful. But it is explicitly for white people. How did the racial exclusion work?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: On a micro level, literally written in to the renters agreement in Levittown town because a lot of people could rent or own. It explicitly stated that only people of Caucasian background could rent and occupy those homes. So, in plain English, it's written there.

More nuanced and more sinisterly, you have from the top down a series of government programs and subsidies that get filtered through local governments which allow it to create layers of exclusionary barriers. Like the FHA says, "Okay, we'll ensure these loans but we're going to create a category of different types of areas. And we're going to color one green, one yellow, one red. The green ones will always underwrite those loans, but the yellow and red ones, maybe not. The way will classify those neighborhoods are mixed race, having poor services ..." It's a self-fulfilling prophecy that they create where they're driving insurance for mortgages to white neighborhoods at the exclusion of other neighborhoods. It has the net effect of segregating the entire country.

A worker boards a home in Detroit in 2014.
A worker boards a home in Detroit in 2014.Max Ortiz / Detriot News via AP file

CHRIS HAYES: In some ways, what's interesting to me about the FHA story… it’s mortgage insurance, and mortgage insurance is hugely important. It essentially keeps the whole system propped up, right? It's taking the risk away and allows capital to flow. Is that it's kind of a story of big government gone bad.


CHRIS HAYES: Right? One of dirty secrets about this system is that it's centrally planned and socially engineered by big government which is messing with the prices because the big government risk backstop is coming in and artificially changing the signals for capital flow away from black neighborhoods in towards white neighborhoods.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah. If you're a bank and the government saying we're going to insure these loans and not these others, not to say that the banks are blameless, but you're basically telling them to please be racist with the way you're doling out loans. There's no other way to read it.

CHRIS HAYES: You've got this situation where the capital flows to the Levittowns and away from inner city Baltimore, and you've got a great portion of the film that looks at Baltimore. To oversimplify, you get to ghetto and the suburbs.


CHRIS HAYES: And then what happens?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: When I was filming in Levittown, it happened to be during the time that the Freddie Gray uprising was happening in Baltimore. It was a really prescient moment to be in a place like Levittown with people who probably consume a lot of a particular kind of media that gives a particular kind of vision of America. There's a moment when we're interviewing one of the Levittown guys where he's saying that we fought for your right to protest. That is undeniable, but you can't go and burn down your own neighborhood.

It occurred to me at that moment that, I don't think these people consider this to be their neighborhood. I want to answer that question like, how can someone burn down their own neighborhood? That really is what starts the second half of the film is really answering that question that I think a lot of people in suburban America think when they look at stories like Ferguson or Southside Chicago or Baltimore, because they're looking at it through the purview of suburban lenses. Where ownership and a stake in the system is part and parcel to life in America. But it is completely different for millions of other Americans who've been divorced from that reality.

CHRIS HAYES: There's an iconic moment where the CVS is burning in Baltimore, I was there at the time, we were covering it. CVS is burning in Baltimore and the fire truck comes, the hose comes out, and there's a guy with a mask on who comes in stabs the hose? Which was the sort of iconic example, right? That that's what he's referring to, your character was like, why would you do that?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Why would you start the fire hose and prevent the firefighter-

CHRIS HAYES: And you find the guy that did it?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah. It was very serendipitous I was in Baltimore, doing some research on characters and who we could follow, I was in the home of an organizer there named PFK Boom. It had been a long day, and he's talking to a friend of his, and they're talking about this guy, Greg, and the stabbing the fire hose and I was like, "Wait a second. You guys know the kid that stabbed the fire hose? Because, six months ago, I was in Levittown talking about this very person. It was all over TV."

They're like, "yeah, it's Greg. He's like two blocks over." I want to talk to Greg. So I met Greg and he's this incredible kid, and we spend a day filming with him and then find out that he's flipping houses for a living. It was just like this astonishing snake eating its own tail situation where it's like we're so ingrained into our notion of housing that housing is necessarily a tool for capital accumulation, a way to build wealth. And for some people, the only way out. That his guy in Baltimore who a few months back was stabbing a fire hose, putting out the CVS is now flipping homes. It's bonkers.

CHRIS HAYES: It's also amazing too, because it's like there is no more American hustle. There's nothing more relatable to the folks of Levittown in some deep way, then what it turns out what the hose stabber is up to.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Exactly, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm just going to get this drywall in, my guy's got his caulking gun. It's like the whole thing.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah, it's not much to separates us. I guess that's the point of the film.

CHRIS HAYES: Part of what the film hits home is like, where do you live, and how you live is everything.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Everything. More than any other country, really, home dictates what school you go to, which is this weird thing that we've entangled where property taxes go to certain schools, and just inherently that creates huge divisions. So, education, access to food, access to just basic services, parks, all sorts of things that people that live in suburban neighborhoods take for granted.

The sum total of all that means that I don't think it's strange to say that if you're around poverty, it's much harder to leave poverty; and if you're around wealth, it's much easier to obtain wealth. If we're not fixing that system, if we're not correcting that massive government social engineering project that was created seventy years ago, then everything else is bullshit.

CHRIS HAYES: That's what's interesting to me about the turn that happened. You get the Fair Housing Act, it's essentially unenforced, and you basically never get desegregation or any massive scale of residential life in America. It's the system set up, and it plays out, and it accumulates over time. And it's not like Baltimore doesn't see segregate ... In Chicago, Illinois, the first ... I'll never forget it. The first time I got on the red line at Washington in the loop. You sit and you look at the red line. On one side of the red line is all white people who are on the northbound train, and on the other are all black people who are on the southbound train going down the Dan Ryan. It's like you just look down and you're just like, wow.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: It's ironic, the train's called the red line. For those who don't know, red lining is the term of art that is what essentially segregated America.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, the red line is the FHA drew on those maps, right? You set up the system, the system has all these terrible inequities, they'll tend to it, they persist, they persist, they accumulate. It's like the sand in the oyster that makes the pearl. It's the little moment back in ‘47 when like this GI gets a $5000 loan and this one doesn't, that extrapolated over time is hundreds of thousands and then millions of dollars and degrees in their descendants’ lives.

Then it feels like we get to the housing boom in which we never stitched the pieces back together, we never actually attack the political economy of segregation. Instead, it was like, well, how about if we get everyone cheap money?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah, it's a really ... The housing crisis too, still to me to this day, completely misunderstood in many ways. First of which is just access to housing because what you have during these decades from like the '60s to the housing bust in the early 2000s is a system of defunding affordable housing on a huge massive scale and then of course, homes becoming more and more totems to capital accumulation. Of course, in the '80s, you create mortgage backed securities and become fully commoditized, globally traded goods.

So, you're creating a housing economy that's heating up like crazy, and you're divesting from affordable housing. So, you have this situation now in the early 2000s, where you've sort of exhausted all the typical qualified buyers of homes, and now you've got to lower the qualifications, and you've also got these millions of people who have been disenfranchised from the housing system. They have section eight vouchers that don't work, or aren't taken by anyone. There's very few affordable housing complexes being built, because of course, the government's no longer in that business. They're incentivizing what few private developers are willing to do that stuff. Then someone comes on TV and is like, hey, you want a $400,000 loan for no money down? All the cost is 600 bucks a month.

You say, "Shit, I got 600 bucks. And I can get a $400,000 house? Sign me up." Then lo and behold, six years later, three years later, all these loans start bursting. But what people don't get right about the housing crash is that it is also emblematic of an affordable housing system that is completely eroded.

CHRIS HAYES: See, this is a key part, a key thing to understand is that there's a few things going on. You have this great graph that shows over time, in real dollar terms, the median housing price keeps going up and up and up, outpacing wage growth. It's like at one level, how is this working? How does the gap work? The other thing is, the perverse consequences of a world in which most people's wealth is in their house, is that policy drives towards home prices going up. But home prices are going up to the person that owns a home is great, but to the person who doesn't, it just means is more expensive.


CHRIS HAYES: You've got this totally perverse situation where the political economy of home ownership means people have this investment in high home values, for the class of people that own the home, but that just screws the people that are outside that category. So, now you've created a situation where it's like, "Well, great. I have an $800,000 home."

Here's the thing that people don't get, and I know I'm ranting, but okay, you got an $800,000 home because your home value's gone up, but so has everyone else's. So, if you sell your $800,000 home, congratulations, you don't pocket the difference, you got to go buy another $800,000 home if you want to live in the same neighborhood. It's like the rat is trying to outrun the wheel the whole time.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah, exactly. It's like, what are you accumulating that's actually useful? I think what you just described is not necessarily selling that home. What it did was it was masking wage stagnation. It wasn't necessarily the people were cashing out and selling their home, is that they were getting second liens on their homes and pulling out huge sums of money to mask the wage stagnation that they'd been experiencing.

So, what the crash also exposed, and what we're seeing now with Trump's election, is when they talk about “making America great again,” I would argue what they're actually responding to is the end of that social contract. That system that they've paid into for 60 years, the system that told them that they could retire on the value of their homes? Well, that system is only valuable if there's someone else on the other end to buy that home.

For many Americans, especially in rural suburban areas, there's no one else to buy those homes. So, you've paid into the system, you've paid off your home, but it's worthless. And all you can do is cash out the equity, but then the equity runs out, and you've got no job, and no chance for moving anywhere because you've at this point probably retired or close to retiring. So, you're stuck in the system.

I can understand where that frustration exists, but I guess the point of the movie for me is to show people the plight of the coal miner in Kentucky and the plight of the kid in inner city Baltimore are actually not that different.

CHRIS HAYES: So, there's two truths here, right? One is the system is incredibly segregated and segmented, but it's also the fact that everyone's participating in the same system.


CHRIS HAYES: That's one of the things that housing crash did, was holy crap, we're all in the same system. Some people got off worse than others. Some people got off better than others. In fact, the crash itself is massively racially discriminatory in terms of the amount of black wealth it annihilates compared to white wealth. But it's also the case that the system as a whole, which is doing a lot of things like replacing wage stagnation with home equity loans, there's a universality to that. And there's also no universal social contract that has been created to replace the one that exists.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Precisely. Yeah, you had this beautiful moment after the crash, to really say, for the last 70 years, we've been under this post war social contract. We're now reinventing that because everything's changed, and we got to create a new future for this whole new class of people. In lieu of that, you just have a lot of pissed off people who are trying to figure out who to be angry at.

CHRIS HAYES: You've also got this generational thing, right? The people that came of age and entered the job market particularly at that moment just earned so much debt, viewed home ownership as just like a preposterous impossibility. There really is no compensatory social contract. We had the crash, the crash was horrible, it annihilated all this housing wealth. It permanently altered the trajectory of millions of lives of people that were approaching retirement, young people who move back in with their parents. There was a big financial regulation bill passed Dood-Frank, there were some reforms to the housing finance system that happened at FHA and through Fannie and Freddie and things like that. That's technical and I'll spare everyone is listening to podcast. But essentially, what recovery looks like is very similar to what we had.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah, there's not really much that has changed in the sense that you still have a system where homes are considered necessarily vehicles for wealth accumulation. They're still commoditized, and there's still a need for capital accumulation. So, you'll still have people exhausting certain tranches of lenders and trying to figure out ways to bring more lenders into the system.

Of course, behind all this is just wage problems. I don't know, it becomes a real complicated issue, and you start to see why it's so important for us to really create a new deal or a new social contract.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, here's my big question, why do I love looking at real estate? I need you to explain this to me. I don't understand myself. Why do all I want to do is look at real estate?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: I think it's because it's built into the American DNA about manifesting about freedom, about freedom of choice, about property ownership, and about building a piece of your own, a slice of America that is your own and is under your control and this can be passed on to your family. It's just a powerful image. Every piece of media that we see on TV like HGTV is just basically a giant propaganda machine for house flipping and buying stuff.

CHRIS HAYES: But I think I disagree with you on the causality here. Because you're talking about the supply side. What I'm telling you is that exists because demand.


CHRIS HAYES: And I'm not saying the two are disconnected, obviously we're all propagandized about this.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah, one hand feeds the other.

CHRIS HAYES: But what is the thing? What is it? Do other places fetishize this as much? Do other places obsess over it? It's so much a part of American culture, but also this visceral experience of… I wanna look at houses, I wanna look at apartments, I wanna look at real estate.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: There was a moment in the film when I was trying to figure out how to bring in other global cultures related to housing into it. And do it so like in Japan for example, they treat homes more like cars. They depreciate actually. Because homes wear out over time, it sort of makes sense. So you start to see just how flimsy, and just how surface level our understanding of home values is. And that is, to me, the point of the film. It's an interrogation of values, not just cultural values, but economic values. And to showcase to people just how flimsy the system is just built on a system of essentially a collection of millions of people deciding this is what a home should be about.

It's a difficult conundrum, but essentially it's just a collective consciousness. And we just have to change that collective consciousness. 'Cause I know my dad's side of the family's from Italy, so I have a lot of family in Italy. None of them own single family homes, or think about home ownership in the same way. It's just something that was ingrained to us post-war and it's all that iconography, it's propaganda. It's literally-

CHRIS HAYES: So you're just saying ... Your answer to the question is that I have just been successfully propagandized. My desires and delights are not my own, and they're just merely the product of lame normcore messaging?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah, and I don't think it's just you, I am too. And in fact, if you talk to a lot of Europeans, or people from other countries that move here, they're super psyched to go buy.

CHRIS HAYES: That's my point though, dude. See okay, what I'm trying to talk myself out of, or have you talk me out of the idea that there is actually a universal aspiration to back yard grill.


CHRIS HAYES: At some level I wanna say that I actually believe that. That truly everyone wants-

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Of course they do.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean not back yard, I'm obviously joking about that. But there's a universal aspiration for home.


CHRIS HAYES: The definitions of what that look like are different in different places.


CHRIS HAYES: We have fetishized a specific version of it here.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah, I think what's important to say about that is that the fabric of America changed so profoundly so quickly. Before World War II people living in cities was tenement buildings, it was a shitty place to be. And we completely flipped the script in a very short amount of time.

CHRIS HAYES: So quickly, yeah.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: And you have countries like China who are starting to follow that model. So in a way I think we're still learning from this weird vision that we created. So much of about American culture, why is it that I like rock and roll over whatever other kind of music? It still is the new way to live.

CHRIS HAYES: But here's the sort of contrasting argument is that part of what made the housing crisis global was that cheap money was everywhere. And it turned out that when you poured a bunch of cheap money into Spain, they went nuts for homes too.


CHRIS HAYES: They didn't have the culture that we had, Spain looks a lot different than the US, they didn't have the post-war Levittowns. But you throw a lot of cheap money at people and start being like, "Hey, you could own your home." People are like, "Awesome."

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Well the spacial fix there of course is that they have different cities that are laid out, I don't know how much single family home construction was happening, but certainly condominiums were begin built.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. No, that's what I mean.


CHRIS HAYES: The point being that it looked different.


CHRIS HAYES: It looked different. But one of the reasons the housing crash is global is that the cheap money flows over a bunch of different housing markets, where people behave in similar ... The lenders and everyone sort of behave in somewhat similar ways because of all the capital markets backing these very high risk loans.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Well but it's also because there are only so many places to park money.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, that's true.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: So this is the invention of America in the '80s. It's like they created a whole new investment vehicle. And that's why you have buildings three blocks away from here that are completely empty, but fully purchased. It's just like virtual banks.

CHRIS HAYES: I know, and it's funny because there's something so eerie and sad in the parts of the film where you're in the Inland Empire. But the tallest building in midtown right now, which is that long skinny ugly ass tower, whatever it's called, it every bit as alienating, and lonely, and sad and weird as the inland empire, even though it's in some ways the most glamorous address.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: 432 Park Avenue.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. But it's super sad in a weird way. Why do I think it's sad? Who am I sad for?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: I mean it's sad because if you know how development works, and you know what could've been built with that money-


GIORGIO ANGELINI: In real estate development you always hear about the highest and best use. Right? So if you're a developer, and you're going out to spend five, six years on a project, it's tough to tell someone like that, "Go spend five or six years on affordable housing, or low income housing, or middle income housing," when you can go to Manhattan, buy 100 by 100 site, and then sell it for $5,000 a square foot to international capital who's just gonna come park it.

CHRIS HAYES: Who by the way, are almost certainly attempting to hide their assets from either law enforcement or tax authorities, or both.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Right, exactly. So that's what I'm getting at is that it's a perception problem. To our detriment, to the globe’s detriment we've necessarily coupled home ownership and physical air conditioned space with capital accumulation. And until we decouple those two things I'm not so sure that any policy could ever happen.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, and that's part of the dangers and the weirdness of ... And also from an investment standpoint, right? It's why the housing crisis is so massively horrific for so many people is because the thing we said to people is the way that you accumulate wealth in American society is you buy a home. But that's a single asset that could go down in value if a big thing happens. So if that's what you got, that can be very high risk.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah. Your home is a piggy bank, right? You've paid into it, you've built equity, but you haven't gotten a raise in 30 years. We can't continue in a system where we have wages stagnant the way they are, and also have a commoditized housing economy.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Where the prices always go up.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah, those two things are incompatible.

CHRIS HAYES: There's also the question of how people act when they become home owners in the public sphere, and in politics. Right? So there's this fascinating, we'll put this up in the website, but there's a fascinating map of Chicago that showed the neighborhoods where there was all the down zoning that had happened in the last several decades. And low and behold, it's the affluent neighborhoods, and largely the white affluent neighborhoods of Chicago. And down zoning means new restrictions on building. So it's not like, "Oh, we need to preserve the historical character." It's actually the inverse. It's people who are being like, "No, we're gonna create new restrictions to building that didn't exist prior." And the reason is, they wanna preserve their home value. It's simple supply and demand. If you restrict supply, then ...

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah. At a certain point you just run out of people that can afford to buy homes. So if you're not solving the wage problem, I don't know what the fuck these people think the future of home ownership is gonna be. In my interviewing with Jim the realtor in the documentary, he often talks about the “bank of dad,” quote unquote. And that more and more he's got younger millennial or Gen X home buyers who are using quote unquote the “bank of dad” to basically pay the down payment. So you have this weird subsidy program from baby boomers, sort of passing it on to their kin who are making far less money than they are.

So when that money dries up, I don't know. It's a really complicated really strange system that doesn't seem to have any path towards actually recovery.

CHRIS HAYES: Do you own a home?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: I do. Yeah, we just closed on a house in Los Angeles. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: What was that process like?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: We made 10 offers, and lost nine of them. And there were I think 10 people making offers on each of those homes. But Los Angeles is a unique situation. But it is a great example of scarcity, and a complete lack of dynamic zoning changes. LA could solve the housing crisis overnight if it wanted to. But to your earlier point, people who own homes are really hesitant to allow zoning changes to create more housing in their areas because scarcity is an issue.

So it was an awful process. It was to the point that when we finally closed we didn't even really care what house we wanted. You know? It's just that we had one. Because at the same time rents are going through the roof.

CHRIS HAYES: Just gonna go to my to-do list and cross this bad boy off.


CHRIS HAYES: House purchased.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Exactly. No, it's just that you become-

CHRIS HAYES: Did you get a grill yet?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: No, we're looking.

CHRIS HAYES: I got some thoughts on that.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: You have the vision of what you want to be the house, and then when you get rejected one over the next, the next, the next. Because what's behind all this too is the value judgment you have to make.


GIORGIO ANGELINI: In LA, to get a two bedroom house or apartment that we want, it's like many thousands of dollars a month. And it's like well the system that we've created basically incentivizes you to own it.

CHRIS HAYES: Plus it's all these crazily loaded messages that are both about where you are in the social pecking order, and what kinda person you are. I remember I went to a public school in the Bronx, and I grew up in an apartment 'till I was 10, my parents bought a house off the estate of a dead nun that was a very old house, that was very cheap. 'Cause my dad was a community organizer, and my mom worked in education. And it was a small house in the Bronx, and they hired their friend who was a contractor to fix up a little bit of it. But you know, the house just signals so much about the American class pecking order.

I can think in my head of the different houses that I walked into, and apartments, and in some cases housing projects of friends of mine who were in the Bronx. And then as I went through my high school, with the brownstones of the affluent professional class of Manhattanites at the time who could no longer afford those brownstones because they'd been displaced by the hedge fund managers. It's such a loaded purchase in that way too. It's like you're placing this pin on a board that says where you are in America's pyramid.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: And you're shoved into that system whether you can avoid it or not.

CHRIS HAYES: That's it.


CHRIS HAYES: That's what you're gonna do. It's like this is how much money I have, and this is where in the system I can fit.


CHRIS HAYES: And you can make these choices at the margins. Like you can make the choice of less space in a better school district. You're making these choices with the margins, but you're ultimately, when you make the purchase, particularly if you have kids, it really feels like you're planting a flag for a certain socioeconomic truth about your family.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah. And of course what comes with that, in terms of what you were saying earlier about the upper middle class person that gets displaced by the hedge fund manager, and that person has to go down to the next neighborhood. Downwind of all that is what we call gentrification, and it causes a lot of grief, and a lot of real pain and displacement of people living in those neighborhoods. But if you look at it on an individual by individual basis you're like, "Well I can't afford to live in-"

CHRIS HAYES: No, it's just people making decisions.


CHRIS HAYES: That's exactly right. That's what's so insidious, right? The system masks all the things that it's doing underneath. And it just presents to you as these consumer choices, or these life choices. And that was true back when you bought the house in Levittown, it's true now when you're like, "Well in East Bed-Stuy, that's the last neighborhood where if I squint hard enough and get some money from mom and dad afford to buy a home home." But that's gonna have all sorts of social consequences that have been constructed before you make that decision. Which to you is just an individual decision about what you're doing.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah. And of course the people that live there, and have lived there for decades have been deprived of access to the capital that you have.

CHRIS HAYES: Which is so perverse and maddening about the entire thing.


CHRIS HAYES: It's like okay, well now here comes all the capital, now here comes all the services, and now you can't live here anymore, is basically what happens.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah, exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: I've started asking people this, what's something that you change your mind about?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Home ownership. I mean honestly I think I went into it with a really cynical view.

CHRIS HAYES: Huh, oh that's interesting.


CHRIS HAYES: You were in the skeptical anti-home ownership side when you went into it?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: It was during the crisis, and you're in the depths of the toxicity of home ownership. But at its core, I think it is a noble plight, and it is a noble system to create in which you can have this nest egg, and you can have this piggy bank that is your home that you're invested in staying in. The only problem is we've perverted the system to the point that that's not really what it's about. So if there's a way, I mean one of the neighborhoods that we film in the documentary is in Marvista LA. It's this really beautiful bucolic neighborhood designed by this modernist architect named Gregory Ain, who was a socialist as it turns out. But it is some version of Utopia. It's the closest thing that I came across in filming this that was the idealized version of what we were trying to create in post-war America.

I think if we can make home ownership more equitable and we can make it less predatory, and less necessarily tied to the negative aspects of capital accumulation, I think home ownership is ultimately really good thing for society. I'm sure there's gonna be a million people who tweet at me and email me telling me why that's wrong. But that's sort of where I'm at.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah that's fascinating, yeah. I think I've done something similar actually in my own thinking on it. I think an equitable and just version of the project as opposed to scrapping it all together is sort of where I've ended up.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Yeah, because of course if you create a renter's society there's a whole litany of other issues there too.

CHRIS HAYES: Georgio Angelini is the director of the film “Owned: A Tale of Two Americas.” You can find more information about it at It's not at this moment, although maybe this will change after this interview.


CHRIS HAYES: After your big interview on one of the hottest podcasts that exists in the world.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Congratulations to you, by the way.

CHRIS HAYES: Thanks. You don't have a distributor for it yet?

GIORGIO ANGELINI: Not yet. We're doing the festival circuit right now. So we premiered at Full Frame Film Fest in Durham, North Carolina a couple months ago. And just did San Francisco Dock Fest, and we can't announce it yet, but we will have a really great New York premiere in the fall.

CHRIS HAYES: That's great. It's a really great movie. It's educational, it's beautifully shot, it's fascinating. It manages to take something that I think can be really dreary and dull, and really liven it. It's just totally dynamic, entertaining, gripping film making. It's great work. So you should, if you're a film distributor and you're listening to this, buy it. What's wrong with you? And make sure that people, I would love for a lot of people to see this film. Because it's really good.

GIORGIO ANGELINI: I really appreciate that.

CHRIS HAYES: That's a lot man.


CHRIS HAYES: "Why is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team, music by Eddie Cooper.

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