By Liam Lacey
Anyone puzzled, shocked or traumatized by the outlandish prices of rent and property ownership will find vindication and moral indignation in Push, a documentary about the global high cost of shelter, which focuses on the personable Leilani Farha, an Ottawa-based lawyer and a United Nations special rapporteur on housing.
Swiss director Fredrik Gertten follows Farha from Toronto — a city where housing prices have risen more than three times the rise in family incomes in the last 30 years — to vastly different cities around the world facing similar issues. Along with rent-strikers in Toronto, we meet survivors of the Grenfell fire, where 72 people died, and the former residents are unable to afford new accommodation. She travels to Barcelona, Seoul and cities like Valparaiso, Chile, where people are evicted from their homes while the skylines fill with soaring new high-rises.
To add some insult to injury, some of these condos are actually empty, owned by the rich individuals or asset companies, purely as investments. Increasingly, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, mortgage-backed securities and low-interest rates have made housing a profitable commodity. Some properties, says sociologist Saskia Sassen, flip ownership more than 30 times an hour. All fair and legal? Not always, as Italian investigative Italian journalist Robert Saviano (Gomorrah) explains; there’s a flow of money between international crime, political corruption, real estate and tax havens.
Farha — who we see juggling child care, planning media events, and getting face time with politicians — is an insightful, likeable subject. But Gertten’s film sometimes strains to connect the abstractions of high finance and the desperation of people needing a place to live.
A portion of the film is presented as a kind of who-done-it? with Farha perusing graphs and Internet searches to find a culprit. Her attention focuses on the Blackstone Group, a New York-based multinational asset management company which benefitted from the 2008 economic crisis by buying up mortgaged properties, renovating them, and holding them as investment chips. A series of scenes of Farha trying to meet with Blackstone’s CEO Stephen Schwartzman never go anywhere.
A couple of scenes feature Toronto bartender and musician Michael Louis Johnson of Dundas West watering hole The Communist’s Daughter. Johnson does a spiel to a bar full of young hipsters about the evils of gentrification which seems, at best, paradoxical. As sociologist Sassen and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz point out, the current crisis goes well beyond gentrification.
As the U.S.-based National Coalition on Low-Income Housing puts it, gentrification can lead to better health care, education, and job opportunities “but only to long-term residents who are not pushed out. Development without displacement is the key.”
In any case, Farha’s creative advocacy is a compelling subject without the diversions. Near the end of Push, we learn about a program Farha has spearheaded called The Shift, in which various city governments (including Amsterdam, Berlin, Geneva, Mexico City, Seoul, Montreal, New York, Paris, and Toronto) have agreed to base planning decisions on human rights, an important step in thinking of buildings as homes again.
Push. Directed by Fredrik Gertten. With Leilani Farha, Saskia Sassen, Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Saviano. Opens July 19 in select cities (including Toronto’s Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema) and throughout the summer nationwide.