You see them all over the cities now. Enormous luxury condo towers going up as fast as they can be built, sending rents and real estate skyrocketing while making formerly cozy neighborhoods unlivable for working people who were raised there. You probably wonder who lives in those things, and in a lot of them nobody does. This isn’t just gentrification, but something more insidious that’s the subject of PUSH, a blood-boiling new documentary directed by Fredrik Gertten. See, all those shiny, empty silos cluttering up the skylines are investment properties that in a lot of cases can’t be bothered with miniscule matters like tenants. Rent’s chump change. This is big business.
Ottawa native Leilani Farha is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, struggling to figure out what, if anything, can be done about this crisis, which is happening in countries all over the world thanks to market deregulation. (One sobering statistic says that housing prices in Toronto have increased 425% over the past generation while wages have remained stagnant.) Families are being pushed out of their homes as the cost of doing business, and when the moneymen move on there’s often nothing left behind them. One subject shows us a formerly bustling district in London that’s now a ghost town. He does the interview standing in the middle of a once-busy street, uninterrupted by traffic.
Farha is a compelling camera subject and a welcome guide through this morass. She’s five-foot-two and Gertten frames her in the shadows of enormous office buildings like David being dwarfed by Goliath. The main frustration is that this is a new problem for which we don’t really even have a language yet – the word “gentrification” doesn’t begin to cover it, and besides that clouds the issue and leaves locals blaming their woes on vintage clothing stores and hipster coffee shops. The real monsters in this scenario are the private equity firms, who by design turn everything they touch into that sporting goods store Tony Soprano and his pals busted out back in Season 2. It’s remorseless capitalism at its most rapacious.
Farha is empowered with holding governments responsible if they don’t meet the human rights obligations as listed in the U.N. charter, but what happens to a culture when a right becomes commodified? She doesn’t now how much power she has here, or if she really has any at all, but it’s hard not to empathize as people are being put out in the street by phantom property management companies. We see one modest city apartment where a tenant explains he’ll now need to make $100,000 a year to meet the new owner’s rent increase. Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz is on hand to explain how they get away with it.
So is Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, speaking from seclusion because his book “Gomorrah” didn’t earn him many fans in the underworld. He talks us through the relatively simple process by which buildings become money laundering operations for the mob, and if you think a certain perpetually bankrupt New York real estate blowhard wasn’t up to his combover in similar shenanigans with American gangsters and Russian oligarchs, I’ve got a bridge I can sell you in the “anarchist jurisdiction” of his former hometown.
“Push” doesn’t offer any solutions, and as far as private equity goes I really think we don’t have much choice besides sitting back and watching the vultures hollow out everything worthwhile in our society. But it is a small comfort to know there are people like Leilani Farha out there doing what she can to keep the bastards at bay.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.