Flip That House: Turning Gentrification into Political Art

When gentrification comes creeping, get your tools ready. Image: Greg Harman

By Marisol Cortez and Brian Gordon

Materials

Disgust
Brazenness
Obsession
Facebook
Stepladder
Rake
Scissors
Car, and probably a truck too
PVC pipes and connectors
PVC glue
Duct tape
8 8’x4′ campaign signs
FLIPPER SIGNS (50-75 is good)
Box cutter blade
Staple gun
Staples (longest you can find)
Hammer
Marker
Zip ties (the longer the better)
Extra help and support from friends

FUME/SCHEME/DREAM

Images: Marisol Cortez, Raul Gomez, and Maureen Lydon Galindo

1. Sit in a coffee shop in gentrifying neighborhood one Sunday afternoon and overhear conversation between investors from Stone Oak—an old guy and a young’un—who have driven down to the near-Southside for an afternoon of cruising around and looking for inventory: houses to buy up low and sell off high. Get pissed off.

2. On way home from coffee shop, drive past huge former beer factory that until recently was the site of big plans for mixed income blah de blah until out-of-town investors pulled out and the deal collapsed, and do a double take when your companion spots “We Buy Houses Cash!” sign at an intersection and jokingly suggests you jump out of the car and take it. Hesitate, murmuring, Can you DO that? Then watch in amazement as your compa jumps out of the car as it idles at the light and pulls it out of the wet black earth by its metal frame. Feel a fire of delight and obsession suddenly kindled within you.

3. Spend the next year jumping out of cars at intersections, pulling down flipper signs from telephone poles with a rake, and stowing a step ladder and hair cutting scissors in your car just in case, as your daughter screams at you TO NOT STOP, MAMA, she’s tired and she just wants to go home!! Store an ever-growing stack of signs out in your shed and fantasize about the day you will be able to construct a giant mobile home out of the signs, to be placed outside the grand opening of the luxury apartments they’re building over the site of the former Mission Trails Mobile Home Community.

4. Laugh when someone puts a flipper sign on the street corner outside your work, not knowing who it is that works there. Early one morning, before any of your co-workers arrive, take a big black sharpie marker down to the street corner for a little light editing. Cross out “BUY” and write in “STEAL” so that sign now reads, “WE STEAL HOUSES CASH.” There, that’s better!

5. Read someone’s idle suggestion in a housing justice group on Facebook that someone else create a spreadsheet for keeping track of all the flipper signs popping up all over. Create a spreadsheet for keeping track of all the flipper signs and title it “We Steal Houses Cash.” Create a secret Facebook page called “Flippers Get Out” and post the spreadsheet there, so that others equally disgusted and obsessed can post pictures of signs they see driving around the city, then later enter the data into the spreadsheet.

6. Mention in the secret Facebook group that you’d really like to build a model mobile home someday out of flipper signs. Google around and see that others have done it too, in other cities—dammit! You thought it was your own idea. Oh well, why not do it anyway?

7. Get invited by the organizing committee for the International Women’s Day March to build a big house out of flipper signs for the starting point of the march, an affordable housing complex undergoing renoviction and displacement due to city/county-driven gentrification (ie. the publicly-funded redevelopment of San Pedro Creek). Squeal with joy: at last your dreams are coming true!


 

DESIGN

Image: Greg Harman

8. Invite a crew of folks from secret and non-secret Facebook groups to come to your house to figure out how one might engineer a model house out of flipper signs. Draw it out on paper first to get the measurements correct. Here is the blueprint Brian developed:

9. Pool all your flipper signs! Be sure to enter all those telephone numbers into your “We Steal Houses Cash” database!

10. Pool yer cash and buy/collect all materials needed—we ended up spending about $60, mostly on PVC, but YMMV depending on what you have on hand already.

CONSTRUCT

House Flipping at International Women's Day March.

Image: Greg Harman

11. Build the frame. Using 3/4” PVC pipe and connectors, create a rectangular structure 8’ long x 6’ wide x 6’ tall. Sides should be 8’ long by 6’ tall, while front and back walls should be 6’ wide x 6’ tall. When roof is added, its pitch will add an additional 2’ to the overall height, for a house that is 8’ long x 6’ wide by 8’ tall.

Photo: Marisol Cortez

12. Construct holders for the roof. Take a 2-foot, 1.5” PVC pipe and cut it into four pieces 6” in length (one for each corner of the house). Plug the bottom of each 6” piece with duct tape or spare PVC parts so that the roof frame can be inserted without sliding all the way through and down. Attach the four 6” tubes to the top corners of the front and back frame at a 45-degree angle, using lots of duct tape. These holders will allow you to easily insert and remove the roof frame.

13. Create wall panels for the sides of the house. Start with three 8’x4’ campaign signs (all from expired campaigns, of course!). Since one campaign sign will only cover part of the frame, cut the third sign in half lengthwise, and sew each half to the bottom edge of the top signs with zip ties—but loosely enough that you can fold up the wall panel. This will help later when transporting or storing panels.

Next, punch holes along the entire length of the entire panel at both top and bottom. Using zip ties, secure panel to top and bottom PVC pipes. These will eventually screw into the front and back wall frames when you assemble the house. Zip ties should be loose around the pipe, allowing lot of slack—like the rings that secure a curtain to a rod.

14. Create the front and back walls of the house. First cut another campaign sign in half lengthwise with your box cutter or scissors, and duct tape the narrow piece lengthwise to one full-sized sign (the entire panel will be 6’ wide x 8’ tall). Using a nail or screwdriver, punch holes on either side of the seam from top to bottom, then fit zip ties into holes to secure the seam (like stitching closed a wound). Cut top 2’ of the panel into a triangle shape to fit beneath the roof line of the frame. Then cut a 4’ wide rectangular door frame into the front panel (leaving 1’ on either side). Create the back wall in the same way, but no need to cut out a door frame.

15. Create roof panels, starting with two full campaign signs. Punch holes into the top of each so as to attach both with zip ties to a single 8’ long PVC spine.

16. Once all wall panels have been created, it’s time to start attaching your flipper signs! To do this, lay each panel flat onto a soft surface (like cardboard or the grass). Campaign signs should be face up—you’re about to cover up that shady shit with some other shady shit, magically turning it all into something super cool. Arrange the flipper signs on top of your panels so that they cover the area completely.

Be creative in your layout! Vary the colors and the messages to show the diversity of predatory practices in your community (Christian house flipping? Check. Vermont area codes in San Antonio? Check). When you have the layout you want, staple each flipper sign to the campaign sign. Use four four long staples per sign, one in each corner. The staples must be long enough to punch through two layers of signs and still have enough length to hammer closed.

After stapling, flip each whole panel over onto a hard surface and hammer down the staple ends to lock them into place. On the side walls, it’ll be easy to evenly arrange the flipper signs, but front and back wall panels will require you to overhang the signs and then trim down with box cutter at the top so as to fit the triangular roofline.

17. Finally, secure front and back wall panels to the frame with zip ties. Unlike the side wall panels which you attached loosely, you want to secure front and back walls as tightly as possible, as these pieces will become the anchors of the entire structure when you begin assembly.

ASSEMBLE

18. Once all pieces are complete, you have the option of laying them all out and taping or stapling pictures or other items to the blank, inside-facing walls of your house. In this way, when you assemble the structure, you’re also creating a pop-up gallery space or altar. We filled ours with pictures of San Antonio homes and neighborhoods either removed or threatened with removal over the past century.

19. Start by raising the back wall.

20. Connect one of the side walls to back wall, screwing the PVC pipe at the top of the wall panel into the connector on the back wall. Turn it about four times—you will need to unscrew it two turns on one side to get it to screw into the front wall at the other end.

21. Screw front wall to the side wall at the top.

22. Screw front and back walls to the side wall at the bottom. Again, you will need to first over screw at one end so that you can unscrew and attach the other end.

23. Repeat with the second side wall.

24. Now hang the roof. When you start, you’ll have two panels hanging from a PVC spine. Screw this spine at each end into your two downward-facing PVC “V”s. Punch holes down the left and right sides of each panel and use pipe cleaners or zip ties to secure panels to roof frame. Lift the whole thing over one of the side walls and insert one side into frame holders. Then insert the other side of the frame into holders attached to the other wall.

Click on time-lapse video below to watch it from start to finish, all in 21 seconds:

25. Voilà! You’ve now taken a community scourge and turned it into the “We Steal Houses Cash” pop-up gallery! Click image below to watch a short tour from our installation at San Antonio’s 2018 International Women’s Day March.

Here it is in all of 21 seconds!

Take a narrated tour:

 

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Marisol Cortez is co-editor of Deceleration. Brian Gordon is a food justice guru and construction wizard. When he’s not growing food, he can be reached at brian@swunion.org.

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