Pushing: how housing became a commodity

How the real estate financial model is harming us | Leilani Farha | TEDxQueensU

Pushing: how housing became a commodity

Swedish filmmaker has traveled the world analyzing the residential real estate crisis

NEW YORK –

The global housing crisis is an alarming reality. Home ownership is becoming an investment for large corporations, and a new type of landlord treats housing primarily as a commodity. Many apartments in big cities are empty – an increasing number of people cannot afford to live in them..

These are just a few of the observations made by Swedish director and screenwriter Fredrik Gertten in his new documentary, Push. This full-length film examining the latest trends in the housing market in the largest metropolitan areas of the world, is shown these days on virtual platforms in the United States..

And, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation of millions of residents who have lost their jobs and do not know from what means to pay their rent or a bank loan (mortgage) for a house..

Barcelona, ​​Berlin, Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, other cities of the planet – these are the travel routes of Fredrik Gertten. The choice was not accidental, as he followed Leilani Farha, a Canadian lawyer and UN expert on housing affordability, to make the film..

Leilani Farah (right)

The main question facing Leylani Farah was – what makes people leave the city? What exactly is pushing them into the suburbs and countryside? “There is a huge difference between housing as a commodity and gold as a commodity,” she says. “Gold is not a human right, but housing is.”.

Among the experts that the viewer will see and hear are Saskia Sassen, an American sociologist and economist of Dutch origin, Joseph Stiglitz, a professor at Columbia University, a Nobel laureate in economics, and Roberto Saviano, an Italian writer and journalist..

Professor Joseph Stiglitz

Fredrik Gertten is a Swedish film director, producer and journalist. Was born in 1956 in Malmö. In 1986-1994 he worked as a foreign correspondent for a number of European publications, radio and TV in South Africa. In 1994 he founded the film production company WG Film. His films have been shown in over a hundred countries. Fredrik Gertten’s interests include global problems of humanity, including social and economic inequality. In the documentary “Bananas!” (2009) he accused Dole Food of using pesticides on banana plantations in Nicaragua, causing serious health problems for the fruit pickers. When the corporation sued him for defamation, Gertten directed a sequel to the film, Big Boys Are Going Out of the Mouth! (Big Boys Gone Bananas!), In which he strongly rebuffed the accusations.

Directed by Fredrik Gertten

The traffic and ecological collapse in large cities due to the dominance of cars was the theme of his film Bikes vs. Cars (2015), in which the author proposes an eco-friendly bicycle, the herald of the Green Revolution, as a life-saving alternative to Carmageddon. In 2017, Fredrik Gertten received an honorary doctorate from the University of Malmö.

Correspondent of the Russian service “Voice of America” ​​spoke on Skype with director Fredrik Gertten.

Pushing: how housing became a commodity

Oleg Sulkin: What prompted you to tackle the topic of the global housing crisis?

Fredrik Gertten: This film is an attempt to understand why living in large cities is becoming too expensive for even the middle class. A new type of landlord has emerged, whose clients are not tenants, but investors in his hedge fund. These investors often have no idea that their funds are invested in residential buildings and apartments. With the advent of the coronavirus, the strange and alarming situation has worsened. In America, 40 million families have money to pay only one month’s rent or mortgage, and then, in the future, forced eviction is possible. We can put it this way: the residential sector is facing full financialization. Look, in the midst of a pandemic, the financial market is doing well, as it lives some kind of separate life from the lives of people who are experiencing a disaster or are close to it..

O.S.: How did you meet Leilani Farah?

F.G .: I usually follow interesting people on Twitter. I read Leilani’s interview, called her and offered to meet. We met in London at Saskia Sassen’s home. Leilani went to Chile. I have worked a lot in Latin America before and decided it would be interesting to accompany and shoot Leilani for the film. Then we went to Toronto together. For two years I filmed Leilani. We talked with her on Whatsapp almost every day..

Pushing: how housing became a commodity
Pushing: how housing became a commodity

O.S.: In the course of your conversations, did you manage to find ways to solve the global housing crisis, or is it still a utopia?

F.G .: Of course, there is a rational solution. The first condition is democracy. A government that protects the interests of its citizens. The world premiere of our film took place in Copenhagen, shortly before the Danish elections. The new Danish government has taken a number of measures that restrict the inflow of foreign investment in real estate by such transnational players as Blackstone (Blackstone Group – American investment group of companies, founded in 1985. – OS). Germany has also adopted similar protective measures. Canada is in the process of renegotiating residential investment terms. Of course, it is very difficult to resist the pressure of such influential corporations as Blackstone, which have great political ties. They invest a lot of money in lobbying for their interests..

O.S.: What do you think is typical of the situation with residential real estate in the United States?

F.G .: After the 2008 financial crisis, millions of Americans lost their homes, that is, they ceased to be the owners of houses and apartments. Among them, a disproportionate number were African Americans and Latinos. As a result, in California alone, the Blackstone Corporation acquired approximately 80,000 single-family homes. In fact, that crisis created a new business model. Billionaires began to buy up housing bank loans in packages, turning them into a kind of commodity. New mechanisms for deriving profit from home ownership have emerged. Corporations have increased their revenues, and millions of people spend most of their earnings on rent or mortgage. This is some kind of global disease when real estate becomes an investment in the financial game. This, by the way, is one of the reasons for the massive discontent of the Americans, who took to the streets with protests..

O.S.: The film mentions gentrification many times as one of the characteristic tendencies of urban development. What is hidden behind this concept?

F.G .: At the very beginning of our communication with Leilani, we realized that we did not have enough terms to describe the changing situation. Words like gentrification are clearly not enough. Gentrification is not the right word. It’s just silly to blame a trendy corner coffee shop or an art gallery across the block for pushing poor tenants out of a promising neighborhood. Much more aggressive and formidable forces are involved here. If citizens and politicians want to stop the destructive invasion of the real estate world by speculative money from hedge funds and the criminal world, you need to understand more deeply what is happening. I hope the Push will strengthen the platform for a better understanding of the situation. People in different places of the planet must understand that the situation in their city is not unique. There is a global model that is repeated over and over again. “Pushing” can be seen in different countries, including Russia. And everywhere I meet people who the film helps to overcome loneliness, but also adds anger to their emotions..

O.S.: I know that you made another film in parallel, Jozi Gold. What is he talking about?

F.G .: Jozi Gold is the story of an environmental disaster in South Africa. Some time ago, a third of the world’s gold was mined there. Today, abandoned gold mines have become a dangerous source of radiation exposure. Several million people live in the immediate vicinity of these mines..

  • Oleg Sulkin

    Journalist, film critic, correspondent for the Russian Voice of America Service in New York.

Pushing: how housing became a commodity

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