By now, we are bombarded by almost daily articles related to our increasingly dire housing affordability crisis. A cacophony of messages is constantly being broadcast by the media: Millennials are being priced out of the market. Supply is tight. Rent control is a solution. Rent control hinders development. Average house prices have climbed even higher. Blame foreign investors. Blame government regulations. Blame greedy speculation. The list goes on.
This phenomenon is not specific to Toronto, but is inflicting cities around the world. This phenomenon is also completely unprecedented.
Leilani Farha is on a mission to find out why this is all happening. Hailing from Ottawa, she is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, travelling the globe conducting research, meeting with tenants and landlords, and consulting with government officials and experts in the field in order to come up with an explanation and, more importantly, a solution to the global crisis.
In a new documentary titled PUSH, director Fredrik Gertten follows Farha on a journey around the world in search of answers. Toronto features prominently in the film - in fact, the movie begins in CityPlace - and also features places around the globe from London to New York, Valparaiso, Barcelona, and more. Beginning with a simple graph showing the huge disparity between income growth and the rising cost of housing, the documentary takes us on an eye-opening ride to the heart of the housing crisis, not just laying out in plain terms what is happening and why, but also where the money is coming from, and how it can be stopped.
Farha works from the foundation that housing is a human right. Laws are put in place to uphold these rights for every individual, but Farha points to the failure of the state to properly enforce these laws as a reason why the state should be held accountable. As she puts it, "I don't believe capitalism itself is hugely problematic. Is unbridled capitalism in an area that is a human right problematic? Yes. And I think that's what differentiates housing as a commodity from gold as a commodity."
The film also makes an important distinction between banking and finance. Banking, the film explains, is an everyday necessity of people storing and investing their money, but finance is more akin to mining, where it finds a source of wealth and squeezes everything out of it before leaving the waste behind and moving on to the next. This is used to explain the trend of private equity firms buying up social housing or land in poorer areas of cities, forcing the often low-income occupants out, and then renovating or building new luxury housing units in their place with inflated prices that the local community can no longer afford.
When asked if this is simply gentrification, Farha responds saying, "I wish this was gentrification". Gentrification, as explained in the documentary, would provide benefits to the local community and include them as the neighbourhood evolves, but the recent trend is to simply push them out and replace them with lifeless investment properties. This situation, she says, is a different kind of monster. Farha also rejects a simplification of the problem to only supply-demand economics, pointing out that many luxury units just sit vacant, acting as metaphorical parking lots for investors' money.
She uses the upscale neighbourhood of Notting Hill in London, England as an example: one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the city, which is home to an increasing number of vacant houses, and which also happens to be home to the infamous Grenfell Tower tragedy, a social housing tower that fatally went up in flames due to neglectful construction and maintenance. The irony of such a tragedy happening in one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in London illustrates the dark side of today's housing crisis.
The enlightening film dives to the source of the money being funnelled into housing - and it is not what you would expect. Exposing the crux of the issue, the documentary finishes off on an optimistic note, highlighting new efforts and increased political will from municipal governments around the world to bring an end to the housing crisis and a return to affordable living.
After debuting at the Hot Docs Festival back in April, PUSH begins its theatrical run on July 19 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Tickets can be purchased here.
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