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Leilani Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, meets residents in Barcelona.

Janice d'Avila /Courtesy of GAT

  • Title: Push
  • Directed by: Fredrik Gertten
  • Classification: N/A; 92 minutes

rating

Leilani Farha has a big challenge. The Ottawa-born lawyer is the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, which means she’s been asked to solve a global problem: why cities have become so expensive.

Fredrik Gertten’s atmospheric, lushly shot documentary Push follows Farha – earnest, empathetic, dogged – as she chases answers to this question around the world. From Valparaiso to London, New York to the Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale, she seeks a common thread: What is squeezing out Toronto apartment tenants and killing the residents of Grenfell Tower in London? Big capital. For her, the answer is that housing “has been financialized.” This is a complicated argument, and it’s a credit to Farhani and to Gertten that they manage to make this polemic so clear and compelling. It is, in fact, a bit too clear for its own good.

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But there’s a useful truth here. Farha sees a change in urban real estate. That industry has historically been messy and highly local; now it’s being reshaped by investment managers such as Blackstone and Akelius that deploy huge pools of capital – often pension funds. The Columbia University scholar Saskia Sassen refers to these entities, metaphorically, as “monsters.”

These operators are big enough to be detached from the lives of their residents yet highly aggressive in looking for ways to increase asset value. Farha summarizes the pattern this way: “Buying up of land, the displacement of the poorest people and the putting up of luxury units that are not actually for the people who live in the community.”

Here, in one sentence, is the problem with Push and with the anti-development rhetoric that it channels. Why should new housing be “for” the people who already live in a neighbourhood, and not for new people? Cities that are growing rapidly – of which there are many – can’t only build for their current residents.

One response in Push is that nobody actually is going to live in all those new homes; they are simply investment vehicles left empty by their super-rich owners. Farha “has heard” that this is the case in Valparaiso, Chile. She sees expensive new apartments sitting empty in London. But where is the evidence that this is a dominant phenomenon? And are those rare cases really the problem?

Push focuses heavily on Wall Street and Bay Street villains, and ignores another: the NIMBY.

Iris Ngjpg/Courtesy of GAT

Push focuses heavily on Wall Street and Bay Street villains, and ignores another: the NIMBY. In every Western city, affluent residents keep new housing away from the places where they live (“not in my backyard”). The consequence is that New York and Toronto and London all are putting new homes in very specific areas, such as London’s public-housing estates. What follows is what bothers Farha: Poor people get displaced by an uncontrolled firehose of capital.

But at the same time, more privileged people are dry and comfortable. This is a crucial part of what’s happening in rich cities right now, and Push doesn’t even hint at it. Farha argues that “unbridled capitalism” in the market for housing is dangerous. She’s right, and this is critically important to understand as our cities become more unequal. Yet it is also worth looking at the places where those flows of capital are not allowed to run, and to ask why.

But that would make a more boring film. Thematically and visually, Push is quite coherent, hero-izing the small and textured; big new buildings are clearly aligned with evil. Yet, the very first high-rise that Gertten shows in the film – big, looming, abstract – is actually a Toronto social-housing building in the CityPlace neighbourhood. It was constructed on a site that used to be a rail yard, displacing exactly nobody. In this particular case, big is not so bad. It might be too much to ask a documentary to wade into that kind of complexity, but making cities work for everyone in the 21st century will be no simple thing.

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Push opens June 19 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto

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