Push documentary review: why the rent is too damn high (and how to fix it)

MaryAnn’s quick take: Badass UN Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha probes the global housing crisis and breaks down the complex cause into something readily comprehensible... then enraging. (But she has a solution, too.)
I’m “biast” (pro): love a good SJW doc
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Why is the rent too damn high? I pride myself on being a well-informed lefty SJW, and even I was sure I knew the answer: Gentrification. Horrible rich people swooping in after poor working folks and starving artists — none of whom could afford to live anywhere else even before the rents got so damn high — have created vibrant enclaves with great food and cool vibes in neighborhoods long neglected by monied interests, colonizing them and consequently driving up housing prices so that the people already living there can no longer afford these places, either.

But it turns out, dirty gentrifiers are only a small part of the story… a very small part. Turns out — you’ll be shocked by this, I know — that this is yet another example of all us ordinary humans being trained by well-honed propaganda to blame one another rather than turning our sights on those truly responsible: the mindbogglingly, immorally wealthy. The everyday-rich doctors and lawyers and, yes, even the famous overpaid athletes and movie stars? Their affluence and comfort may be the envy of us proles, but it is nothing next to that of the unfathomable resources of the oligarchs and the globocorps for whom we need to start bringing out the guillotines, or at least the wealth-confiscating tax reforms.

Push documentary
New luxury residential towers are going up around the world… and remaining mostly unoccupied.

That’s me talking, not this documentary, but it’s the unspoken undercurrent here.

In Push, from Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten (though the film is mostly in English), we meet Leilani Farha, a Canadian UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. (“Adequate Housing”? It’s such a low bar, and we’re still not even managing to clear it.) Farha travels the world trying to ferret out why the rent is too damn high and who is to blame, and boy howdy, does she ever succeed. (Another surprise: turns out a bureaucrat can be absolute badass.) From Toronto, London, and New York to Stockholm, Barcelona, and Seoul; from Valparaiso to Berlin… the answer is the same everywhere: private equity; noneuphemistically, vulture capitalism.

Look, we’re talking amped-up rentier tactics and legal money laundering, all via arcane high finance manipulated by the huge corporations that created the 2008 financial crisis and then leaped in to benefit from it… with the full and happy collusion of national governments. It’s complex issue, one that the film concedes very few except those in “private equity” understand, but Push breaks it down into something readily comprehensible… and then beyond enraging. (The film’s title refers to how people are forced out of urban homes they and their families may have lived in for decades or longer, destroying lively, successful communities in the process.) These vampire corporations, pre-2008, set up the economic environment in which mass foreclosures were inevitable, then bought up properties on the cheap — social housing, single-family houses, whatever they could get their hands on — and then proceeded to extract as much money as possible from those properties. Or high-end new builds are snatched up as investments and now sit empty, exacerbating the housing crisis. These schemes add no value, create nothing useful, contribute nothing to society. Instead, they tie up capital that could be doing all those good — and in the long term, much smarter — things, and funnel the returns upward, to further enrich the already extremely wealthy.

Push documentary
Leilani Farha talks to people impacted by the housing crisis in Barcelona.

This is Smaug sitting on his piles of gold. This is the bit in GoodFellas where Henry Hill explains for us how the mob works, just sucking dry the honest toil and real assets of hardworking people. It’s “fuck you, pay me” on a planetary and, much more essential, legitimate scale.

How do we fix this? Well, Farha has some ideas. If I have one big beef with Push, it’s that it doesn’t spend enough time delineating the concepts behind her program The Shift, which is about cultivating a new economic paradigm that recognizes housing as a right rather than a commodity. (This is not to be confused with the French think tank The Shift Project, which is about transitioning to a postcarbon economy. Also a good and noble and necessary move.) In fact, housing is already recognized as a right as far as the UN is concerned, and the nations in which housing is in crisis have already signed treaties agreeing to enforce this. So this should be easy, right?

Aye, of course there’s a rub: Farha’s work, the task of the UN, is all about holding states — that is, national governments — accountable. Globocorps such as Blackstone, mentioned here as a primary villain, exist outside the nation-state model. They are powerful planetary entities on their own, and they answer to no one. Unless we force them to answer to us. Push is a remarkably easily digestible rundown of why we must make them do so.

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