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Kris Krohn zooms into frame on a gray and green scooter. A snare drum, the kind that might signal a military advance, taps cheerily in the background, echoing from tinny laptop speakers. On this set, Krohn resembles a personal trainer, the kind who gets paid to never, ever, give up on you. Backlit, he asks us the question that serves as the title to his video: “Is the American Dream Dead?”
There are many reasons to say yes. Viewers who have found their way to Krohn’s channel are likely trapped inside, afflicted with the stasis or jittery anxiety that compels one to let YouTube or another streaming service wash slowly over them. Onscreen, Krohn notes the urgency of this moment in particular: lost jobs, uncertain futures, wiped out savings. “If I could snap my fingers, and make it all go away, I would!” he exclaims, hand encased in a glove from a superhero film.
Then he arrives at the crux of the video. “If you’re not making five or ten thousand dollars a month, every month, outside your job,” Krohn says, “you’re vulnerable.” Despite the campiness of the setup and the fact that the entire thing seems like a scam, he’s not wrong that most people do not have the savings to weather a temporary emergency, let alone a months-long one. “You need passive income,” he continues. “Did you know that 90 percent of millionaires did it through real estate? I know because I became financially free at the age of twenty-six.” The promise of freedom—of a life where money is no object, and the loss of it isn’t a constant worry—is a surreal one. The dire picture of the country six months into a pandemic sweetens this possibility further, rendering it even more otherworldly and golden.
In Krohn’s vision, the home is less the center of someone’s American Dream than it is a leveraged asset.
Krohn is one of a small community of YouTubers specializing in real estate investment and passive income generation. Their goal is to not only teach users how to make money, but to live a new kind of life: one without fear, limitations, or the pain of deprivation. In this community, success is the product, one marketed to viewers though books, mentorship programs, and advisory sessions. Both on and off YouTube, the movement has found its niche in an incomprehensible, financialized economy where there are few straightforward routes to meaningful work and prosperity for those born without it. YouTubers like Krohn teach their viewers and acolytes how to navigate a more circuitous path, colored with its own heroism. While real estate investor YouTube is part of the larger canon of financial self-help, which of course predates social media platforms, many of the genre’s most watched and subscribed channels appeared only within the last five years, boasting subscriber counts in the hundreds of thousands and up to the low millions.
At the end of Krohn’s video, he offers a hand to viewers presumably suffering from confinement and uncertainty—“Together we’re going to swing into a better 2020!”—before grasping a yellow rope and disappearing from the frame. Less subtly, text appears compelling viewers to sign up for an upcoming training session.
In Krohn’s vision, the home is less the center of someone’s American Dream than it is a leveraged asset. Rather than places to live, houses and property are stepping stones to a better you. Beyond this shimmering promise lies a series of calculations: about various loans and their terms; a home’s ROI after being renovated and resold or rented out; macro trends in the housing market; and hyperlocal considerations, such as a neighborhood’s proximity to good schools, restaurants, and important industries. Neither Krohn nor YouTubers like him are the architects of this reconceptualization of what a house is for. But their ideology is suited to a world where financialization has made wannabe investors of us all.
According to Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings’s The Asset Economy: Property Ownership and the New Logic of Inequality, a person’s salary is becoming increasingly immaterial to their status in the world. “The key element shaping inequality is no longer the employment relationship, but rather whether one is able to buy assets that appreciate at a faster rate than both inflation and wages,” they write.
Employment remains an important factor as it shapes the ability to purchase assets (e.g., the ability to service a mortgage), but it is increasingly only one among other factors. Of course, income from work remains vitally important for many people as a way to access subsistence goods, but the important point is that by itself it is less and less able to serve as the basis of what most people would consider a middle-class lifestyle.
The amateur real estate investor would agree. Despite being agnostic to anything resembling politics, real estate YouTubers are among the many who no longer believe that success can be equated to a person’s job. Work, conducted without an understanding of how to exploit the various systems governing the lives of people in this country, is of little value to them. There may be good reason for this: so many knowledge worker jobs can only be obtained by first accumulating debt. And while white collar, college-educated work is supposed to be proof of having made it, many of these jobs add little value to the world, beyond the enrichment of an elite class of people who already hold capital. In Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris notes that “progress” in the late twentieth century “has made employees both desperately productive and productively desperate, while the profits from their labor accrue to a shrinking ownership class.” He describes how the preparation of young people to enter into the labor market is “motivated more by fear of a lousy future than by hope for dignity, security, and leisure time.”
Unsurprisingly, then, some of the biggest real estate YouTube channels are run by millennials, who began investing as an alternative to pursuing a traditional career path in order to achieve lives of freedom and leisure. Perhaps more surprisingly, most of these YouTubers are men, many of whom see their investments as one way to remain a man in a merciless economy—a successful practitioner can achieve the material security required to be a provider without being under the thumb of an employer. To them, the hustle and risk of being self-made is infinitely superior to being another blank-faced office drone. While not directly related to real estate YouTube, posters on red pill and neomasculinity forums often seek advice about passive income generation and real estate investing.
Like many niche online communities, real estate YouTubers combine faux-spirituality with cutting pragmatism: only through an admixture of enlightened thinking, careful study of the market, and steely decisiveness can one heal, cultivate their vitality, and grow into something better. The comment sections of these videos are littered with praise to the effect of “I’m seventeen and I’m going to learn about real estate” or “I wish they taught us this in school.” YouTube is the perfect medium for the inexperienced, bored, and listless, providing divergent world views at the click of a button.
It makes sense that the real estate gurus of YouTube would encourage viewers to take advantage of the current crisis: many of them got their start investing after the last one. During the foreclosure crisis of the late aughts, banks seized millions of American homes. The gutting of residential communities was especially hard on Black neighborhoods and other majority non-white neighborhoods, where many people had been targeted by banks and financial institutions with predatory lending offers. While countless homeowners were stripped of this title, others who still had cash on hand watched the market, poring over listings and foreclosure sales. Both small time amateur investors and large corporate groups hedged their bets on the catastrophe. Foreclosed on, many households found themselves renting again, sometimes to new and aspiring landlords like the ones now peddling their advice on social media. In especially hard-hit places, the majority of home sales during the recession years were properties that had been repossessed by lenders. Take California’s San Bernardino County, where 61 percent of the homes sold in 2008-2009 had been foreclosed on. It was here that Graham Stephan, a self-proclaimed millionaire by twenty-six, claims he began investing in property in 2011.
Today, Stephan has nearly 2.4 million subscribers on YouTube. Despite his successes, his affect is still boyish, face contorted into exaggerated expressions for the thumbnails of his videos. His most popular uploads range from clickbait like “How I Bought This House For $0” to the more instructive “How To Buy Your First Rental Property, (Step by Step).” In one video, titled, “THE WORST TENANT I EVER HAD (EVICTION),” Stephan grimaces in the thumbnail as if to say, “idk lol sorry,” while the text next to him reads, “I evicted them!”
Whether or not viewers become successful in real estate investing isn’t really the point.
According to the video that details his start as a real estate investor, after spending a few years as a real estate agent, Stephan purchased a foreclosed-on home in San Bernardino County for just under $60,000: 25 percent of what it had sold for in 2006. He is matter-of fact about the circumstances that led to the purchase, noting that “when the real estate market tanked, a lot of people became renters.” Seeing the opportunity to rent out this underpriced property for around $1,300 a month, he transformed a home that, in his words, had belonged to a “drug addicted hoarder” into his first rental property. Today, Stephan owns six rental properties, in addition to working as a real estate agent.
Now, many YouTube investors are purporting to prepare their viewers for the next inevitable, ugly recession, the worst effects of which are currently being staved off by patchwork eviction moratoriums and forbearance agreements. Daniel Kwak, part of the popular Kwak Brothers YouTube channel, recently hosted two guests, Dave Seymour and Kevin Tuttle, in a video titled “Housing Market Update | ALARMING Signals From The Pros (economic crisis 2020).” In it, all three men suggested a simple truth: there is ample opportunity in this crisis, if you play your cards right. They refer to one such opportunity—offering a lease option on a house around the corner to buyers who’ve had to short sell their own homes—as “philanthropic” and “good work.” This advice is part of a tendency among YouTubers who manage rentals to pride themselves on their relatively kindly treatment of tenants. After all, private equity firms like the Blackstone Group gobbled up far more foreclosed properties after the last crash than individual investors did. Their empathy, however, only extends so far: Brandon Turner of the account BiggerPockets urges viewers to work with tenants if they have them but purposely conceals information about rental relief from his own tenants to ensure payment. The Kwak Brothers’ channel warns any potential tenants watching that without rent, and consequently the ability of small landlords to hold on to their properties, a tenant could easily be evicted by a bank or a bigger buyer instead.
The transformation of housing into a pure commodity embeds it in a tangled web of linked exploitations. Aspiring small-time property owners who purchase a $1,000 consultation session with a real estate YouTuber may seek to flip a foreclosed property, or turn it into a rental, but they are also being manipulated by their would-be gurus. In “The Culture of Amateur Real Estate Investing,” sociologist Philip Garboden characterizes the housing market as a “multi-dimensional system of value extraction.” He writes, “Amateur rental property owners most certainly exploit poor tenants . . . but they in turn are vulnerable to exploitation from above, in the form of lending and educational services.” According to Garboden’s paper, becoming an investor is no longer the purview of just the affluent:
The cultural identity of the investor has become increasingly integrated into lower and middle class behavior; increasing financial insecurity, the casualization of employment, and the privatization of pensions has created a vast demographic of investor-citizens. . . . More and more economically marginal individuals have transitioned from a savings strategy to an investor strategy to pursue financial security.
Many of the would-be investors Gaborden interviewed for this ethnography reported being tired of low-wage work and career mismatches or didn’t have sufficient retirement savings.
Despite their own financial success, real estate YouTubers have a vaguely populist outlook. Many claim to come from little to nothing. Another millionaire by his late twenties, YouTuber Meet Kevin describes how he used multiple lending services to develop a rental property based partially on savings from a job at Jamba Juice. These days, he posts near-daily videos on updates about Congressional relief negotiations, federal aid, and investment advice for the coming crisis. He speaks rapidly and passionately, walking a tightrope between compelling the viewer to watch more, and confounding them with blurry chronologies of what is already happening, what could possibly happen, and what viewers should do, depending on what happens.
Social media, and YouTube especially, provide an aura of enlightenment: watching a video conveys the feeling of expertise, rather than expertise itself. In truth, no one can predict exactly what will happen next on the real estate market. Inevitably, property will transfer hands, perhaps even to a handful of opportunists who’ve spent enough time watching these videos to understand how to successfully navigate short sales. But whether or not viewers become successful in real estate investing isn’t really the point. While this type of personal financial media isn’t new, YouTube and the other social media platforms that these new investors work through have a special addictive power; they are algorithmically linked into an endless trove of similar content. In the midst of a recession, perhaps on the cusp of a wholly unprecedented depression, real estate investor YouTube takes the form of a comfort, where viewers are only one click away from complete transformation.