Selling Sunset Is a Window Into the Out-of-Control Luxury Gentrification of LA

The long-running Netflix reality show Selling Sunset often veers into the territory of Real Housewives–style drama. But it also provides a close-up look at the investor-fueled irrationalities of the luxury real estate market.

Agents from Selling Sunset on the balcony of a luxury property. (Netflix, 2023)

Near the start of Netflix’s now-long-running reality show Selling Sunset, real estate agent Heather Rae El Moussa (née Young) pans to the camera and makes a rather Marxian observation about labor in a wage-based economy. The impeccably made-up agent (it has been reported that she and her coworkers, not Netflix, pay for their own makeup artists) says, “It’s hard because if you don’t work and hustle . . . you don’t get paid.” A few scenes later, she is ostensibly “at work” at the office of her employer, the Oppenheim Group, but is chided by another agent for excessively gossiping: “Heather, shut up and do some work!” “I told you, I don’t have a computer!” she cries back.

The office scenes in the show are often like this: not a lot of emailing or other obvious work going on, but small groups of women inevitably veering into shit-talking. It quickly becomes clear that, like for any good salesperson, building and maintaining relationships — in their case, with multimillionaires and their handlers — is the real job.

Soon to enter its seventh season and having spawned two spinoffs, Selling Sunset follows a rotating crew of female real estate agents and their male bosses at the Oppenheim Group, a brokerage dealing with luxury property mainly in the Hollywood Hills and the Sunset Strip. It is the apotheosis of TV producer Adam DiVello’s work. His first long-running megahit show, The Hills, prefigured Selling Sunset’s approach, with high-quality footage — described in one publication as “cinematic” — of attractive women dealing with often very banal workplace drama (eyerolls and sideways glances over laptop screens are perfectly rendered).

While the series traffics in many of the usual antics of reality TV, the show in effect chronicles the increasingly luxury-obsessed nature of gentrification and the entrepreneurs who aid and abet it. Selling Sunset pulls the curtain back on many of the dynamics — such as the role of agent-developers and increasingly of investor-fueled home flipping — driving the overproduction of high-income housing and the shrinkage of affordable housing in cities like Los Angeles.

The Limits to Growth

Over the course of six seasons, the show has become less and less about real estate, perhaps because of the increasing fame of the agent-influencers. As the focus lands more and more on infighting between a handful of model-esque female agents, Selling Sunset can veer into the territory of Bravo’s Real Housewives shows.

But it is possible to contextualize the show in relation to the broader political economy of Los Angeles real estate. In his seminal 1990 book, City of Quartz, Mike Davis argued that a key transformation in the city’s postindustrial economy, marked by steep inequality, was “the conversion of the tract lot — the basic input of Los Angeles’ major mass production industry — into a luxury good affordable only by a shrinking minority of local residents.” Davis chronicled how this transformation led to persistent conflict between homeowners (especially the affluent) and the previously dominant land development industry, which includes, albeit on a smaller scale, the boutique developers that the Oppenheim Group’s agents work with.

Selling Sunset offers some insight into the hypercommodification of the single-family home as outside investors target increasingly segmented parts of the city’s housing market. While the hills above Sunset Boulevard, where the agents most frequently sell property, have always been for the wealthy, their clients are definitely new money, with an eye to level, rebuild, and sell at a profit. Viewers might almost pity the neighbors of the new houses: they are often garishly bland and uniformly boxy in white and black, with huge expanses of tinted windows and sliding glass doors, and which achieve their large size by extensive excavation of hillsides. One such house features an actual putting green on an extended balcony, and was built by a software developer who says he basically created a construction company to realize his vision. The new seller’s entrepreneurship illustrates the role that this housing is taking on as investment property for the newly rich to park their surplus wealth.

Sitting high above the sightlines of the middle-class tract home that, Mike Davis wrote, was increasingly being turned into a fortress to guard against the poor, the new luxury boxes also reflect real estate’s struggle to redevelop their old-money neighbors. The banal, semiopaque aesthetics conceal anonymous, frequently absent occupants who personify global capital. The conflict between existing homeowners and developers is alluded to when Heather tells a potential buyer that a massive house under construction on the slopes of Beverly Hills will be among the last of its kind, after the city recently closed a zoning loophole exploited by new-money developers to erect the bigger, more pricey houses. (One local luxury agent attempted to repeal this ordinance as a threat to his future earnings; he was later made to apologize for trying to do so.)

The show also depicts an increasingly blurry line between real estate agents and developers. Heather herself leaves Selling Sunset after marrying agent-turned-house-flipper-influencer Tarek El Moussa of HGTV’s Flip or Flop. The coupling reflects Tarek’s move beyond flipping cheap houses and into the luxury market. On their new show The Flipping El Moussas (only five episodes have aired so far), he is seen repeatedly instructing Heather to avoid luxury flourishes that would cut into profit margins on the ninety-one (!) houses that they have in the renovation pipeline. They follow a formula of buying mid-century tract homes, blowing out walls to make an open–floor plan kitchen, and covering red-orange kitsch in black, white, and gray.

The El Moussas’ new business reflects a kind of vertical integration, in which they supervise crews of construction workers and target flips in multiple segments of the market — offering cash to struggling homeowners in San Bernadino as well as owners of multimillion-dollar homes in Silver Lake. The scale of the business suggests how much investors with surplus capital to burn are pumping up the prices of housing to the exclusion of working- and middle-class buyers. (Recently, the couple attracted controversy when Tarek announced that he would be doing his “biggest flip ever,” building a 138-unit building in North Hollywood that would require evicting several longtime residents — who have been subject to a campaign of planned arson by their former landlord — from their apartments on the development site. The Los Angeles Times reported that the El Moussas projected a $26 million profit to their investors.)

Most of this social context lies outside the scope of Selling Sunset and its offshoots. Viewers are transported by drone between different luxury properties and the restaurants and coffee shops where the agents meet up; it’s a self-contained world. But within it, there are occasional references to the agents’ pressing need to overcome obstacles to the growth of home prices, and therefore to the overall profit margin of their firm.

These limits — especially because most of the show was set, until recently, during a long stretch of booming homes sales fueled by low interest rates — are always hovering in the background. The firm’s figurehead, Jason Oppenheim, will remind the agents that flubbing the occasional deal is ok only so long as they have a good “batting average” that grows the firm’s overall annual sales volume. Individual agents contribute by graduating from smaller sales to those in the double-digit millions. In so doing they also chase higher and higher commissions and the dangling prospect of life-altering wealth. Los Angeles real estate, they know, is a grind — but “where else can I sell a $20 million house?” In this type of market, it can seem that the only limit is, as Heather said, how hard you hustle.

Selling Points

The show’s unique selling point is its depiction of conflict over professional norms in the industry. Those around the pricing of properties are particularly revealing. As in any industry, there are standards for pricing, here called “comps,” among similar properties, which the agents aim to surpass in their drive to grow profit. But with this imperative comes a potential conflict with professionalism: where agents have to trust each other to work with sellers to move the price tags higher and higher but also not too much, staying within reason.

In season three, things go awry when one agent, Davina, lists a house for the ridiculous sum of $75 million — because the client forced her to under threat of withholding the listing and future ones from her. Jason is openly skeptical of the price, and the lack of offers on the property for months on end drives him close to firing her. Davina’s role is notably diminished, underlining the importance of an agent’s ability to mediate between the potentially conflicting interests of the firm and the client.

Writing about commercial real estate selling, planning scholar Rachel Weber argues that agents and sellers participate in a kind of “collective irrationality” of marketing newer and better buildings with the aim of luring clients to abandon their current leases. Ultimately this results in “overbuilding,” or a property bubble. That the market is producing a $75 million house with twelve bathrooms betrays a total disconnection from its original utility, and when pressed by the agents, however gently, the builder feels no need to give a rationale for the price. This is merely one egregious example of agents being enlisted to try to create demand for a property where there wasn’t any.

How much to price a property is therefore one of the most sensitive parts of the job, and one where the agent’s role in gentrification is most on display. In season six, Jason, getting into the development game himself, is diligently working on a renovation of a condo in Hollywood, and he decides the finished result is so impressive (“There are no comps”) that he simply adds a million dollars onto the price. Chrishell — the soap-opera-actress-turned-agent whose romantic entanglements generate the most headlines — is the only one to question this, as she thinks the condo is priced too high for the neighborhood. (Often called “two-faced” for her saccharine smile, she delivers this judgment with a worried frown.) As she debates the viability of the price with another agent, Mary, the viewer gets the sense that — unlike with the widely shared response to Davina’s more egregious overpricing — maybe Chrishell is just being a party pooper.

Jason’s condo flip illustrates the drive of agents and developers to pad their profits by exploiting new regions where one can buy cheaper and sell higher. Marxist geographers call this space between a declining property’s current value and its potential value after redevelopment the “rent gap.” As traditionally high-income areas are oversaturated with the bland hulking boxes, the aggregate effect of developers’ work is to expand the horizon of luxury selling further upward and outward, to once-middle-class areas like Hollywood or the San Fernando Valley. At the same time, Los Angeles, like most of California, is experiencing a dearth of low-income housing development, and the “reno-viction” machine contributes to a homelessness rate on the scale of a humanitarian crisis.

The Slowdown

In the sixth season of the show, filmed in 2022, the big slowdown in real estate sales is clearly taking a toll on the agents. Mary, having been given greater responsibilities at the agency by Jason, doubles down on the hustle but is miserable with the added stress and no additional pay, and starts to wonder if middle management is a scam. Other agents are also agitated by trying so hard all the time to keep up appearances, while outside forces bear down on their designs for endless growth. One of them loses a deal after the buyer balks at a requirement for an annual fire insurance policy costing $200,000. (At the time this piece went to press, the potential firetrap, along with Davina’s boondoggle, are both still available on the Oppenheim Group website).

Meanwhile, Chrishell finds herself questioning the point of the grind. In the same conversation in which she tells Mary that she’s not comfortable with the high price of Jason’s condo flip, she discusses her budding and unexpected romance with an Australian singer-songwriter named G-Flip, whom she is considering joining on her world tour. Chrishell was famously dumped by her ex-husband, the heartthrob actor Justin Hartley, and subsequently dated Jason, who is portrayed as a noncommittal playboy. The season closes with Chrishell — who eventually dumped Jason — confiding in her exasperated friend and manager that she’s thinking of leaving another bad situation: in this instance, her job.