'Push' unpacks the core culprit behind global housing crisis

UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, in New York. Photo: Janice d'Avila/Courtesy of Push film

A couple of years ago, I had an interesting chat with the East German woman running a shop selling products from the former GDR in my neighbourhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin. She told me about an encounter she had with a young American woman.

"She was unhappy because she and her husband have bought an apartment across the street for 400,000 euros and the building has no elevators. They live on the fifth floor and she has a new baby, too," said the shop owner. "Who are these people that do that? Just buy an apartment without looking?"

Indeed, that query has a few answers in Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten's incisive new documentary Push, which has its North American premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs International Documentary Festival (April 25 - May 5).

Gertten does a flyby through Kreuzberg in his film. My neighbourhood recently became (in)famous for mounting a year-long campaign against Google, which was about to set up another Campus in the area. Google backed down.

In the last few years, what I've seen is now common in many cities around the world: so-called edgy, slightly gritty neighbourhoods deemed "cool" start to get an influx of new inhabitants and tourists who then amplify the coolness, attracting investors who buy buildings, renovate and then seek to kick out older tenants. In fact, the German capital topped an international list of cities for housing price growth in 2017, according to estate agent Knight Frank. Rents have doubled within the last seven years. Alarming -- or as someone in the documentary puts aptly: "It's eviction by another name." (Side note: Berlin could soon be holding a referendum on banning big landlords and allowing for the expropriation of their property for social housing.)

What's wonderful about Push is that it begins at the point where you start to notice changes in a neighbourhood -- the new-fangled coffee shops and slightly upscale stores. Then the film keeps digging into the forces at play: the history, the politics and the economics until you end up at the conclusion -- seeing the vast web that's strangling regular people out of shelter all over the world.

Toronto rent strike

Push launches in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood where local raconteur and bike enthusiast Michael Louis Johnson, doing a kind of gig-show at the Communist's Daughter bar, is proclaiming the utter insanity of that city's housing dilemma: "What's the first sign you're going to have to leave your neighbourhood? Vintage clothing shops show up … that's when you're pushed out!" The film goes on to chronicle tenants in the neighbourhood who launched a rent strike there.

Gertten -- his team includes Brazilian director of photography Janice D'Avila and Canadian cinematographer Iris Ng whose past work involves award-winning films such as Stories We Tell, Migrant Dreams and Shirkers -- crisscrosses the globe with Canadian Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. Farha bears witness to stories from residents in Toronto, London, Valparaíso, Seoul and New York, where a man reveals he spends 90 per cent of his income on rent (and the newest property owner is about to jack up rent by another $900). Push also lands in Berlin, where the local government is now buying back public housing (40 buildings so far) and has forbidden the sale of public lands to private interests, and in Barcelona, where the mayor and her administration are purchasing buildings when equity firms express interest.

"It's pretty grim," Farha says early on as she stares at a graph showing how house prices in Toronto have skyrocketed 425 per cent in 30 years while the average family income has only budged up 133 per cent. Affordable housing is supported by international law -- so why has this happened? The statistics are scary. As Farha points out, one-third of deaths in the world are linked to poverty and inadequate housing.

'Who is going to live in these cities?'

While diving in and out of Farha's mission, Gertten does a brilliant job of including the personal stories of individuals in each locale. One young woman in Notting Hill, London expresses the core idea of cities and community: "it's actually a family" where "accidental intimacies" happen while another urban denizen asks: "Who is going to live in these cities?"

The film acts as a roving eye on Farha's mission as she comes face-to-face with the human consequences of mismanaged housing, urban development and economic predation. After a meeting with the survivors of London's Grenfell fire, where 72 people died, she also examines the urban displacement that's happening in London and sees Grenfell as a representation of the "narrative of the world right now."

Push fluidly interlaces personal accounts with didactic moments involving urbanization expert Saskia Sassen, economist Joseph Stiglitz, housing advocates, and the film's main character, Farha. Gertten systematically pulls back the curtains to unveil the machine that's at the cold heart of the matter.

Through Stiglitz and the wise words of Sassen, who has studied the impact of globalization for 40 years, we come to comprehend why an empty apartment is a better asset for investors. Push also has the extra sauce of Roberto Saviano, the Italian journalist who penned Gomorra and was forced into hiding after exposing how organized crime does business. His interview on tax havens is worth the price of admission and more: "In Italy, a worker pays 60 per cent in taxes but a multimillion-dollar corporation pays 4 per cent!"

More than halfway though, Gertten also reveals what's happening in his home country of Sweden. The urban crisis was already reflected in his previous film, Bikes vs. Cars, but here we discover that one American company is now the largest owner of most of Sweden's low-income housing.

Yet, there is some hope… once you arrive at the very last part of the documentary. Farha herself goes through a change and comes out with a revelation and her own solution.

Meanwhile, the words of Sassen will echo long after you've finished watching Push: "[The financial world] is an extractive sector. It might as well be mining. Once it has extracted what it needs, it doesn't care for the rest."

Catch the film at Hot Docs.

Keep up to date on where Push is screening.

Or follow the film on Facebook.   

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Photo credit: Janice d'Avila

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