Filmmaker Fredrik Gertten and Advocate Leilani Farha “Push” for the Human Right to Housing

by Andrew Parker

With their documentary Push (opening in Toronto at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and Vancity Theatre in Vancouver this Friday, while expanding to additional Canadian cities throughout the summer), Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten and policy maker and activist Leilani Farha are out to show millions of people in the greatest need of help during the current global housing crisis that they aren’t alone in their frustration and anger. Furthermore, Push is a film that wants to illustrate that the current lack of affordable housing and skyward climbing rents isn’t as difficult to understand as one thinks it might be.

Gertten (whose previous socially minded works include the documentaries Bananas! and Bikes vs. Cars) travelled the world with Farha to illustrate the dangerous ways that housing has become commodified by wealthy investors keen on growing richer. They care little as to whether or not the units are affordable, or if they’re even used at all, since most of them can turn a profit for companies that play the game properly just by letting apartments, condos, houses, and various building sit there to grow in value. Since the most recent crash in the housing market, properties have been bought up en masse by multinational corporations as place to put their money around the world. International companies like Blackstone and Akelius simply buy existing buildings, drive up rents to astronomical heights, offer next to no customer service, and make minimal advancements to pass their units off as luxury properties. Some corporations purchase land to build new properties on, but the investors in such unaffordable units won’t ever live there themselves. 

On a global average, wages might’ve increased 133% across the past thirty years (not accounting for cost of living increases, mind), but the price of housing has risen 425% across the same period, making it impossible in some parts of the world for middle class and lower income families to comfortably afford keeping a roof over their heads. It’s a scenario that many Torontonians and Canadians who pay attention to the news might be familiar with, but it’s one that Farha sees playing out all over the world.

Farha, a lawyer by trade and an executive with Canada Without Poverty, now works for the United Nations as the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing. She visits various countries, meets with people from various backgrounds and local, state, and federal governments to discuss housing and why it should be seen as a human right. She hears tales of woe, disgust, and anger on a regular basis as part of her job; stories that are all the more poignant and incendiary when one considers that most people caught up in the midst of the housing crisis are ashamed to talk about their problems because their concerns and cases have fallen on the deaf ears of corporate lawyers for so long. With Push, Farha and Gertten are trying to make renters, buyers, and owners in similar financial situations understand that they aren’t alone and that speaking openly, angrily, and factually about the insidious nature of treating housing as an investment is the only way to facilitate change.

Leilani Farha

“Although I’m globally minded when it comes to my job, I still have lots of one-on-one conversations with people around the world who’re living this reality that Fredrik is exposing in his film,” Farha says about her profession during an interview alongside Gertten, conducted shortly after Push had its Toronto area premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival back in the spring. “In my experience over the years, I became acutely aware that I am often the first person who has ever bothered to ask what this reality is and then listen to their concerns. It’s an intense experience. You can’t imagine the number of tears that have been shed in my company. I’m a complete stranger that’s either walking into someone’s home or squat or out there on the pavement interviewing someone, and they completely expose themselves to me. At first, I wondered why anyone would do that, and then I realized that they do it because I’m there. I’m present.”

“The film isn’t meant to deal with this directly,” Farha continues, “but when you deal with housing and look at it as a human right – and there’s a good reason why we call it that; because it deals with human beings – then you hear all these stories and you learn about this reality. When you treat housing like a commodity, you don’t hear these stories. There’s no venue for humans in those discussions. It’s my opinion, those kinds of one-sided, human-free dialogues are why we’ve ended up where we are now. We’re not doing a legal analysis with this film, and I’m not trying to be a lawyer in this moment, but the heart of human rights goes directly to people and their stories. These stories and shared experiences help us to define and identify things that are assaults on human dignity. They shine a light on the things that matter. If we always looked at the human side of this, we would’ve known back in 2011, when this particular business model was emerging, that this wasn’t working for people and it was going to be a huge problem. There’s nowhere to go for people to speak. Where can they go to tell these stories and talk about this stuff to impact some sort of structural change? I’m a person that’s big on trying to facilitate those structural changes, so I can have these conversations and work with a filmmaker like Fredrik and try to figure out how to get this on the map.”

Watching Push, it’s hard not to be taken aback by how simply the global housing crisis is built on the greed of only a handful of corporations keen on making lots of money. There are plenty of differing federal and municipal legal loopholes that corporations, investors, and tenants have to navigate when it comes to discussing individual situations, but Gertten was shocked and appalled that these issues all had the same underlying cause. It’s always about a particular corporate entity using properties and pieces of land essentially as holding companies in the same way the ultra-wealthy would invest in masterpiece paintings or precious metals. As long as these corporations continue to do the absolute bare minimum to keep such properties in their possession, governments are powerless to intervene on any meaningful legal level.

Fredrik Gertten

“When you look at things on a national scale or a global scale, there are so many varying details that you have to zoom out when taking a look at things because they would become too complicated to talk about otherwise,” Gertten says about helping viewers understand his film’s subject matter and Farha’s job. “But there are also an overwhelming number of similarities when looking at these issues in different countries. If you zoom out, you see that global pattern emerging, and suddenly it isn’t that complicated to understand anymore. It’s actually quite simple. The financial crisis meant that there were a lot of undervalued assets on the market, and that attracted all of these high finance types like Blackstone and Akelius. [Roger] Akelius didn’t own buildings before the peak of the financial crisis. He was a tax advisor. He was a hedge fund guy. Blackstone started in a pretty classical sort of way: they bought up companies, broke them down into separate pieces, sold them off and gave them all new values. They’re really financial tricksters. That’s what they’ve been doing all the time. It’s just a new way of doing it. Blackstone didn’t own one apartment in 2011, and that was around the time all the Wall Street guys started coming in.” 

“It’s not about housing to them,” he continues. “It’s all about the financial products that they’re selling. These properties aren’t seen as places for people to live. They’re items in a portfolio. They found out that the value of their company and their assets will go up because everyone in the industry understands the significance of them owning a property. People will look at a property owned by Akelius or Blackstone and know that once they buy it, the value of that building could go from two million dollars to ten million dollars almost in an instant. They know these corporations have an aggressive enough position to advance on a property and know that the price will go up. They make that money back in most cases before they even do anything with the property. It’s not about how they make that money back from renters and tenants immediately, but from the speculative future of that investment. They might sell the property before they ever see a profit from whatever it brings in from tenants. It’s only financial gain they’re interested in. They’re playing around with people’s lives. It’s nothing personal to them.”

“And they’re nothing if not up front about how this isn’t personal to them,” Farha adds with a degree of resignation. “They’ll be the first people to say that this is all about their financial dealings.”

 Setting aside for a moment cases of investment firms, conglomerates, and shell companies buying up preexisting properties and driving tenants out of what might’ve previously been affordable housing options, our conversation turns to the proliferation of brand new, large scale construction projects that are constantly popping up in cities all over the world, documented in Gertten’s film most memorably by trips to Chile, London, and Toronto. While some might suggest that the addition of hundreds of new units into various neighbourhoods could be both a boom to the local economy and provide more affordable housing options, Gertten and Farha stress that this is rarely the case. In many cases, the buildings under construction are still the work of speculators who might never step foot inside the units they purchase, and the notion of “affordability” is never part of the equation.

“This monster has so many different heads, Gertten begins when talking about how the skyward development of big cities plays into his film’s depiction of a vanishing middle class. “There are the investors. There are the buyers. There’s the developers. There’s the construction industry. It’s a large game. Everyone involved with the construction of a new investment property pretty much demands a sixty percent return on investment at the very least. You see a lot of it in Toronto. There’s a massive boom when it comes to all of this development based around copy-and-paste architecture. It’s all crappy, minimal housing that not many people would want in the first place – if they had a choice – and that fewer people still can afford. When the true housing crisis hits, and if nothing is done about it, all of these buildings will turn into slums because that property will become greatly devalued. These people build the property, get the return on their investment, and then they promptly move on to the next one. The people who buy these condos, some of them will buy ten or more at a time. Those types of buyers thrive on the same energy and feed into the same monster. It isn’t always giant corporations who own these units, but the smaller guys are caught up in the same schemes. There are plenty of normal, everyday people who are also a part of the game, and I’m not just talking about the people who are handy and get into it by fixing up a place and selling it for a profit. The big thing is the scale all of this is happening on.”

“You can go to Blackstone’s website and get a look at their business model and see how individuals become a big part of their overall strategy. Buy, fix, and sell is what they do, but unlike individuals, companies like Blackstone and Akelius are doing it all with money that isn’t theirs. They aren’t growing organically. They’re growing from other people’s money. All of that money floods in and fucks up our cities. Companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks are also part of the game because they’re also in the real estate business. In most cases, their properties are worth more than the businesses themselves. Starbucks and McDonalds are real estate companies. The money isn’t in the burgers or coffees. The money is in the property you own. It’s so much bigger than claiming gentrification is the only cause of the lack of affordable housing in a city. That’s only part of it, and that ignores the bigger issues in play.”

“One of the things I’ve been talking about a lot lately is the notion that these buildings that are going up are being built in the name of supplying the market,” Farha begins, speaking to the false notions many have about “affordable” housing. “I like to talk to governments about that because most ministers of housing – not all, but most – buy into that notion. Thankfully, all of them realize that there is a global housing crisis, and I no longer have to argue that point like I did five years ago. Everyone agrees on that, but their solution always tends to be supply. ‘Well, our problem is that we don’t have enough affordable supply.’ I hear that all the time. ‘Affordable supply’ might be the correct way to phrase that, but we do have the supply. All those buildings going up have supply that will never be opened up to those who need it the most, or at least not in any sort of timely fashion to help with this crisis because they are being built, not with people in mind, but as investments. Outside my hotel room window here, I can see dozens and dozens of cranes. There is a lot of supply going up in Toronto, but it’s the completely wrong supply, and there’s no practical regulation in place for any of it. In Toronto, you do have inclusionary zoning, which helps to some degree, but there are ways of getting around it.” 

“On top of that, the definition of ‘affordable’ housing is constantly being shifted and changed,” Farha continues. “There is, actually, a definition of affordability under international human rights law. But affordability is based on household income, and not what the market can bear. The definition that most governments use now – thanks to a model set forth by the UK – is 80% of market rent is deemed to be affordable. That’s already unaffordable by most metrics, but then you have all of these financial guys working their hardest to push the market rent higher and higher. It’s completely ludicrous.”

“Part of this battle is fighting the language that they hide behind,” Gertten adds. “That was one of our biggest ambitions for the film. We have to change the discourse and look at it from a new perspective.”

Regardless of the countries Gertten and Farha travelled to while making Push, that translated language and the stories were almost always the same. What they saw playing out in Toronto was happening in Copenhagen, Barcelona, and New York City, with companies often hiding behind high powered lawyers, savvily navigating legal loopholes, never returning calls, and intimidating anyone who might try to oppose their corporate powers. It was an emotionally trying and devastating experience for Gertten to take in on a daily basis, but he hopes that by exposing these patterns, Push can help to mobilize and empower people who could benefit most from a shift in power and attitudes.

“The pattern is the same all over the world,” Gertten says with a noticable, justified hint of anger and exasperation towards the situations depicted in his film that unfold time and time again. “We met plenty of fucks kicking people out of their homes or waiting in the hopes that one of the tenants makes a mistake so bad that they have a legal reason to kick them out. There are people employed by these companies just to provoke tenants, and then turn around and say that it was the tenants who were aggressive. It isn’t in the film, but we went to a place in Kensington Market where a new owner changed the locks to twenty apartment units and then employed people to basically scare tenants out of their building. That place is now an AirBnB hotel. We saw that exact same thing happen in Chile, Barcelona, Korea, and the UK. We see these developers coming in without permits all the time, but in some countries, like in Chile, things can get a lot more aggressive.” 

“But you also see that these companies have really good lawyers. In Copenhagen, Blackstone had bought 20,000 apartments and lots of their tenants came to screenings of the film, and those people said that contractors were constantly coming back to work on the windows of their apartments every few months. It’s not the kind of job that one needs to do more than once every several years, but in Danish law, one has to invest a certain amount of money into a property if they want to continue renting out the property at an increased rate. So instead of making any meaningful or costly changes, they keep working on the windows and that qualifies as their investment, and as a result, they can legally raise rents. In Sweden, their building maintenance offices and customer service departments are only open for three hours a week. If something goes wrong, you can’t get anything done. It’s the same in Sweden as it is in Parkdale. They want people to move out, so they can rent the same property of increased rent. And they do it by not listening to anyone or doing anything at all. They do it by not answering their phone. It’s a global model that works for all these companies, and it’s fucking brutal. It’s aggressive, and it’s pretty much the same across the board.”

“But that’s also what makes this story simpler to understand than people might expect. These are entities that don’t care about people. They have access to almost limitless amounts of money that can lead them to mountains of more money. The money is the biggest monster of all. There’s so much money that it stops being money altogether. Most of this money is even speculative and doesn’t exist yet. The cities are so much poorer now as a result. Salaries are staying the same, taxes on the poor and middle class go up, rich people find ways around paying large amounts of taxes, and yet the price of housing continues to skyrocket. Every government talks about growth and growing as a nation, but what do these numbers say about your country? Is the growth in Canada really good for Canadians if it just goes into these companies that aren’t owner or operated by people in their own country?”

Gertten has touched on a nerve that Farha has wanted to discuss on a global level for quite some time when he brings up the overall lack of tangible, lasting contributions many of these corporations bring to local economies. While she has been able to make a considerable global impact through her work with the UN, getting governments to realize that these corporations are only in the investment market for themselves might turn out to be the next major hurdle in her fight for the human right to housing.

“We know that none of this contributes to any global economy in the world, especially the Blackstone/Akelius model, where they’re not developing new properties at all,” Farha says about the next big fight on the horizon. “They’re only purchasing existing properties, getting rid of affordable stock and increasing cost. Let’s say you’re living in an Akelius building and they raise your rent. You might still be able to afford to live there, but what does that mean? It means you have less disposable income. When you have less of that money, what does that mean for the economy? If you’re not able to contribute to the economy, what good does that do the country on the whole? Then you go down to your local bar, and his rent has been pushed up, and now you can’t even afford to buy a beer because the owner of the pub had to raise all the prices just to pay their rent. There’s no contribution. As for these buildings that are being built for the sake of creating luxury units, sure, there is a contribution to the local economy for as long as that building is under construction. People are getting paid for that, but once those construction workers are gone, how does this property contribute? The investors aren’t the ones living there.”

Push opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, July 19, 2019. It opens at Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on the same day, and screens as part of the Open Roof Festival in Toronto on July 24. It opens in Cobourg, Ontario (The Loft) and Calgary (Globe) on July 26, Montreal (Cinema Moderne) on August 3, and Kingston, Ontario (Screening Room) on  August 9. It screens in Waterloo (at Princess Cinemas) on August 15 & 17, the Winnipeg Cinematheque on September 20, and at the Guelph Film Festival on November 9.

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