PUSH, a new documentary that had its world premiere at the CPH:DOX film festival in Copenhagen in March, where it won the festival’s Audience Award, is coming to the U.S., and not a moment too soon. With a large majority of Americans in favor of making the issue of affordable housing a priority and multiple Democratic presidential candidates laying out detailed plans for 2020, PUSH offers important insight into why it seems to be getting harder and harder for city dwellers around the world to find and keep a decent place to live.
Since the global financial crisis in 2008, urban housing prices have skyrocketed and luxury apartments continue to spread, forcing people out of their homes as multigenerational communities unravel. But rather than critique gentrification, PUSH sets its sights on a lesser known culprit: the modern marriage of private equity and real estate, a ruthless enterprise that too often leads to housing insecurity, homelessness and human rights violations. Such devastating consequences have been inspiring local social movements and, increasingly, responsible government action.
Each city has its own version, but the general pattern has become unmistakable. As rents soar, long-term residents have no choice but to leave their homes and, if they’re lucky enough to find a new place, move farther away from where they work. Wealthier people settle into the neighborhood, but a significant share of the best new homes remain without residents. As the local demographic shifts upward socioeconomically, a new neighborhood — and a new culture — replaces the old.
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Professor Saskia Sassen, theorist of global cities at Columbia University, explains that, at one level, the evolution that cities are seeing today is not new. For thousands of years, private interests have snatched up rural land, forcing people into urban centers. Higher population density means increasingly valuable city property, and the price increases cause families to lose control of their homes. If wages stagnate or unemployment spikes as rents go up, cities can suffer demographic earthquakes.
For Sassen, this process of gentrification, powerful as it is, is only part of the story today — and not the most important part. In a historical paradigm shift following the 2008 financial crisis, corporate finance groups have shifted business models toward buying and trading urban real estate, including residential properties. The result is that many family homes now function not as places to live and to build community but as financial assets.
This means that wealthy new tenants aren’t even necessary. As commodities that can be traded, high-end buildings are extremely valuable when empty. As securities, empty properties can be bought and sold many times per second in high-frequency trades driven by corporate algorithms.
This powerful synergy of gentrification and financialization — fueled by the trend toward privatization of municipal housing — has tragic human costs. PUSH gives voice to many of the people suffering the effects. Their interests, like dignity and shelter, tend not to figure in the corporate calculations.
Global firms, led by Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private equity manager with more than half-a-trillion dollars in total assets (and the documentary’s bête noire), are able to buy up entire neighborhoods and essentially do what they like with them. Blackstone today enjoys “record firepower” in the real estate market according to the Financial Times, with control of over $150 billion in property globally. Such unmatched muscle means that, as a result of the decisions of a few money managers, entire communities can be displaced without anyone being held the least bit accountable, and entire subcultures can dissolve into economic externalities. As Sassen has written for Truthout, “These expulsions don’t simply happen; they are made.”
Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, describes the core issue as a fundamental conflict between a financial security based on a house — one that can be bought and sold in the blink of an eye — and the interests of the family living in that house. Are cities for the people who live in them?
If they are, vulnerable communities need protection from the firepower and the algorithms. PUSH spends much of its time with United Nations Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing Leilani Farha, closely following her work investigating housing issues across several continents. Farha has prioritized the impact of financialization since her tenure began in 2014. As she gathers data, discovering frequent violations of international human rights law, she is also organizing city governments and building a worldwide multisectoral movement aimed at protecting tenants through legal action. She meets passionate residents, activists and politicians. Some have organized local campaigns demanding change, and some cities are indeed seeing meaningful successes blocking developments, pushing back Wall Street landlords and passing progressive legislation.
Director Fredrik Gertten manages to make a complex, disturbing and often abstract subject highly watchable. The tone is at times light and bouncy without sacrificing the underlying gravity of the issue. Although his free-spirit style has the film occasionally feeling a bit disjointed, jumping between subtopics and locations without much structure or explicit reasoning, the film maintains an eloquent coherence as it offers a valuable education in global municipal politics.
Gertten said at the world premiere that his intention with PUSH was to offer a new language for people to talk about a poorly understood process, a language that has often evaded even Farha, as she freely admits. The camera follows her closely, and we witness her reaction when Blackstone, the “monster with a language no one understands” as one analyst puts it, backs out of a big meeting at which she had hoped to raise the human rights issues with CEO Stephen Schwarzman.
PUSH renders a much-needed public service by exposing the connection between housing rights and the private equity industry, but despite Gertten’s intention, it has a harder time offering the simple, clear and precise vocabulary needed to explain the process easily to your neighbors. Fortunately, the film does not oversimplify things either, which would be an easy out. The problem may be that the correct language is still in the process of being discovered.
Viewers of PUSH are likely to come away with the exhilarating feeling of having had a heavy curtain partially lifted. As the daylight washes in — and as we hear about the important role played by public pension funds in propping up private equity firms — so do more questions about what can be done.
PUSH had its U.S. premiere on the opening night of the San Francisco Green Film Festival on September 24. Theatrical release by Argot Pictures is slated for early 2020.