As it happens, Sidney Torres and I are neighbors.
The rear gate to the real estate developer’s slate gray manse, on the edge of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, is four blocks from my apartment, though in at least one sense we inhabit different worlds: Torres’ 5,188 square-foot, pre-Civil War home was listed at $3.3 million when he purchased it in 2013; the monthly rent on my 2-bed, 1-bath carriage house, which I share with a roommate, is $1,800. (I haven’t bothered to measure the square footage.) The reason I mention these details isn’t prurient, or confessional, though I’ll admit to feeling a certain excitement at the chance to peer behind the high wall separating Torres’ minimalist garden and knife-edge reflecting pool from the hoi polloi on Esplanade Avenue. No, the point is that real estate, in New Orleans as in urban areas around the country, is an issue both personal and political, and Torres, now in his second season as the host/investor of CNBC’s house-flipping reality show The Deed, is the most visible developer in a city facing a housing crisis. And, as his TV series makes clear, the numbers matter.
The premise of The Deed is that Torres partners with each episode’s guest to renovate and sell a New Orleans property, putting up his own money in the bargain and mentoring the aspiring flipper on everything from verifying line items in a budget to choosing buyer-friendly fixtures. (Torres says he’s invested a total of $4.7 million in the series’ guests in the second season alone.) Though Season Two is designed to be more “inspirational” than the first, per Torres—in other words, everyone is making money—it nonetheless wades into sticky territory: gentrification. In the season premiere, for instance, local contractor James Brooks turns a $230,000 purchase in the Treme—a neighborhood significant in the evolution of the city’s distinctive black culture—into a $1.3 million sale, using Torres’ $200,000 loan to put the finishing touches on a $400,000 renovation. This in a city where the median list price for single-family home has increased more than 25% since 2015, and the median rent on a 1-bedroom apartment is up 6% year over year, but where the median family income grew only 5% total from 2013 to 2016 (the most recent data available). Sitting at an oval table in his sleek, modern kitchen, the skies—visible through the high windows—threatening rain, I ask Torres if The Deed encourages a form of development that benefits an affluent subset of the population, to the detriment of the rest.
“It goes both ways,” he says. “The people who are living there, their property values are just going up. There’s people that have been living there their whole lives that are 70, 80, 90 years old, and for them, their property values are just going up… New Orleans is a place that’s very different from a lot of other places in terms of values. We’ve never seen the values that New York has seen. We’ve never seen the values that L.A. has seen. We’ve never seen the values that Miami has seen.”
Torres would know. He’s been invested in real estate here for two decades, and has since created (and sold) the waste removal company that cleared debris from the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; developed a (controversial) public/private task force and accompanying app to combat crime in the French Quarter; and been tipped as a potential candidate for mayor (though he’s so far declined to run). And he’s sensitive to the implication that The Deed is contributing to the problem of gentrification in New Orleans: “That’s already happening,” he says, “regardless of my show.” To his credit, though, Torres is open to hearing out dissenting opinions. When I point out that New Orleans real estate values have never matched those of New York, Los Angeles, or Miami because New Orleans wages are much lower than in those metro areas, he admits that the disconnect between earnings and real estate prices is an issue for politicians to consider. (In particular, Torres supports a more comprehensive assessment of AirBnB’s role in pushing up rents in New Orleans, which has become a hot-button political issue in the city in recent years.)
”[W]e have to have these tough conversations,” Torres says. “With the politicians and the business community and the people who live in the neighborhoods who are getting pushed out with the rents going up. Because I do believe that as we’re doing this, the same attention needs to be brought on, how are we going to adjust the income, how are we going to deal with the wages, how are we going to deal with the schoolteachers, how are we going to deal with the police officers?”
To be clear, The Deed isn’t Million Dollar Listing. Its approach might be described as “aspirational but attainable,” with a range of purchase/selling prices and renovation costs: This season’s second episode features business partners choosing to forgo a major addition to avoid four additional months of work on their property (“Shit or get off the pot,” Torres advises); the third focuses again on the Treme, only this time the starting point is a blighted Creole cottage purchased for $77,000. Most dramatic of all, the upcoming fourth episode stars the Fitches, to whom Torres lends $100,000 when they can’t secure a loan from an institutional bank. The purchase price of the St. Roch property, which the Fitches bought after Katrina? $8,000. According to Torres, he’s partnered with the couple on a second house, separate from The Deed, and they stand to net $350,000 or more this year.
“What’s amazing about that is, it changes not only their financial picture, but it also helps them improve the street that he grew up on,” Torres says, noting that he encourages flippers to invest part of their profits in cleaning up sidewalks, parks, and other shared neighborhood spaces. “He’s able to go through that neighborhood and take a lot of blighted properties and turn them around through what he learned working with me on this show and outside of the show.”
There are drawbacks to relying on homeowners to treat the public square as a sort of “pay it forward” campaign, though. For one, this approach tacitly excludes renters—a significant portion of the population, in a city whose largest sectors are the tourism and service industries—from the commons, and gives government officials at all levels a pass.
“The improving of these homes and taking care of this blight and improving these neighborhoods—somebody paying $400,000 for a home, $500,000 for a home, or even $1 million for a home, like the Treme deal, they’re not going to tolerate the crime,” Torres says. “They’re not going to tolerate their kids not having good schools.” (In New Orleans, where charter networks have largely replaced traditional schools, students do not necessarily attend neighborhood schools, and as recently as 2014 the city had the highest rate of private school enrollment in the country.)
Torres is not a politician, but he is—and The Deed sells him as—a quasi-political figure: In our interview, he teases a cameo by the mayor and several city councilors in the Fitches’ episode, and he’s introduced in each episode’s title sequence by the claim that, “In New Orleans, everyone knows Sidney Torres.” As such, it seems fair to ask Torres how the city might codify and expand piecemeal efforts to improve neighborhoods, and whether anything can be done to ameliorate the socioeconomic pressures of gentrification. Bristling at my suggestion that real estate development pushes people out, he describes one of his earliest purchases, a run-down complex on Esplanade known as the Prince Murat—once Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew’s home.
“They had prostitutes and pimps hanging out in there and it was a complete mess,” he says of the property, which he bought for $200,000 in the late 1990s. “That building took $1 million plus to renovate. At the time, people were like, ‘Oh, you’re buying these buildings on Esplanade, you’re improving it, you’re pushing people out.’ But, I mean, at the time, the element of what was in the area—the drug dealing, the prostitution—that was not a good element. I’m not saying every neighborhood has it, but there is the side that, if you do improve streets and neighborhoods, they’ll get more attention from the politicians. Rather than a street that’s blighted like in the Ninth Ward, where they’re piling up trash like a landfill on some of the streets.”
Though some might suggest that Torres’ order of operations is backwards—that politicians should be paying the most attention to the neighborhoods with the worst infrastructure—he’s right to point out that the central goal of The Deed is to give ordinary viewers—folks from your neighborhood, or his and mine—the knowledge and skills that real estate developers already posses.
“My hope is that we show individuals how to go into neighborhoods and use locals to improve the neighborhoods, rather than out-of-towners coming in to improve the neighborhood,” he says. “I look at it as improving streets, communities, and cities by starting with one person in one area to do that.”
As for urbanites nationwide, though, Torres is not done sorting through the complications of New Orleans’ fast-changing fabric, even if his development on The Deed is generally of a gentler variety than the city’s downtown high-rises or ghastly Hampton Inns.
“My point is, there’s two sides to that,” he reiterates near the end of our interview, our conversation about a reality TV program having expanded into an hour-long talk about the state of our city. “There’s always a balance. I don’t know what that balance is, but what I’m saying is, there’s a balance.”
The Deed airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on CNBC.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.