Selling Sunset as LA Burns

Updated: Feb 20

Netflix Reality TV smash hit Selling Sunset treats viewers to high-end homes, glamorous real estate agents, and impressive views of the LA skylines – as seen by the rich and famous. With the release of the latest series coinciding with the aftermath of yet more devastating summer wildfires in the region, Leila Sackur considers the show’s role in allowing the rich to buy their way out of the impacts of climate change.

In the opening episode of the second series of Netflix’s latest reality TV hit Selling Sunset, the real estate agents of the Oppenheim Group sit inside the walk-in-closet of their newest $44 million listing, looking out of the floor to ceiling window at the view of Los Angeles that stretches beneath them. ‘You could just look out here to know what weather to dress for!’ enthuses Chrishell Stause, the newest recruit to the agency. In the distance, downtown glistens with heat and smog, and open roads are disguised by well-placed shrubbery and foliage in the foreground. A neighbour’s roof beneath them has been covered in bright green astroturf, and nearby power lines have been dropped to create an uninterrupted scene. The house, in the Hollywood Hills, has a 150-foot pool, which snakes around the property like a choker, and from which you can admire a 360o view of LA: downtown, Century City, and, on a clear day, all the way to the ocean.

But, in the autumn months, a homeowner looking out at this scene might find a clear day harder to come by. In fire season in Los Angeles, which normally runs from August to October, woodland fires gather speed in the wind corridor of the Valleys, spreading all the way to the sea basin. A thick layer of yellow smog obscures coveted views. At this time, even without Coronavirus, residents are urged to stay inside to avoid toxic air quality. In Downtown Los Angeles, where temperatures are up to 10 degrees hotter than the Hills and the LA basin, commercial fires in the fashion district are common, and the air smokes as older buildings blaze. Under global warming, fires in California are becoming more common, and more hazardous. On September 6th, the Woodland Hills neighbourhood in the Valley reported its hottest temperature on record: 49oC. By early October of this year, wildfires had burned through 3.2 million acres of land, the most destructive season in the state’s history. 70% of the most damaging wildfires have occurred within the last five years.

There’s something particularly morbid about watching Selling Sunset whilst knowing that Los Angeles is in flames

There’s something particularly morbid about watching Selling Sunset whilst knowing that Los Angeles is in flames. In fact, the type of aggressive buying, selling and developing we witness on the show is pushing California’s already volatile natural environment — already prone to both earthquakes and fire — to its limits. Between 1990 and 2010, 85,000 new houses were built in high-risk areas of Los Angeles County. The continued development of high-risk zones, such as the Hollywood Hills, Malibu, and the San Fernando Valley, elevates the level of property destruction experienced by residents in those places — the more properties that exist in regions of fire, the more will be burned down. In addition, the encroaching of housing into woodland makes it more difficult for CalFire to implement controlled burns in cooler months, to get rid of old wood which acts as fuel. Although housing activists are increasingly appealing against aggressive private development on ecological grounds, for local councils, the prospect of new building works are often too good a source of income to resist. Given the introduction of Proposition 13 in California in 1978, which limits property tax increases on older houses that go up in value, new development is one of the only ways that authorities can generate higher property tax bills. In 2018, Orange County officials gave the go-ahead for new development Esperanza Hills, a gated community of 340 multi-million dollar properties, constructed on some of the most highly flammable land in Los Angeles County. Indeed, Eric Garcetti’s tenure as Mayor of Los Angeles has been characterised by the controversial practice of ‘spot-zoning’; approving specific pieces of land for developers’ use in spite of the city's wider land use regulations. In 2017, the LA Times reported that Samuel Leung, a real estate developer, illegally donated $600,000 to the Garcetti re-election campaign whilst at the same time persuading officials to rewrite zoning rules so that he could build a $72 million apartment complex in Harbor Gateway. This February, Garcetti announced a ‘Decade of Action’ on climate change which would set LA up for carbon neutrality by 2050 yet a promise to curb destructive private development was noticeably missing from his proposals.

In LA, every neighbourhood spells fire, and in these ones, the wealthy are able to accept the risks, and enjoy disproportionate state investment in evacuation routes, cooler sea air, and cleaner altitude

Why would anyone want to live in a fire zone? In California, some of the most desirable land could spark at any moment; Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills. But in LA, every neighbourhood spells fire, and in these ones, the wealthy are able to accept the risks, and enjoy disproportionate state investment in evacuation routes, cooler sea air, and cleaner altitude. Moreover, a 60 year historical precedent allows the wealthy to rebuild after disaster. After a week-long firestorm in Malibu in 1956, the Eisenhower administration — committed to Malibu’s international reputation as a bohemian beach paradise, and concerned about how firestorms might damage perception of civil defense admist a public fear of nuclear holocaust — promised enhanced federal protection against fires, and offered public subsidies and low-interest loans to anyone willing to build in the area. In doing so, the Eisenhower administration established newly-urbanized Malibu as an example of eco-gentrification almost in reverse. Low and medium income renters and homeowners were pushed out of a uniquely hazardous space in favour of the wealthy, who could afford to incur some level of damage to new beachfront hotel complexes and swish development blocks, as long as there was artificially low insurance, and subsidized disaster relief. According to social and environmental historian Mike Davis