The push to make housing a human right comes to Hot Docs

PUSH (Fredrik Gertten). 92 minutes. Apr 26, 9:15 pm, Hot Docs Cinema Apr 27, 4 pm, TIFF 1 May 1, 1 pm, TIFF 1 May 4, 9:15 pm, Hart House.

Leilani Farha is the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, a lofty-sounding title that actually has a straightforward mission: to prompt an international paradigm shift to recognize housing as a human right.

Since 2014, the Ottawa-based lawyer and executive director of Canada Without Poverty has travelled around the world to study the growing global homelessness crisis, the increasing commodification of housing and what cities need to do today to protect their residents in the future.

Push, an eye-opening documentary from Swedish director Fredrik Gertten, follows Farha over a year and a half as she exposes the massive financial players turning affordable housing markets in major cities into tradable commodities. We see this play out in Toronto – which is prominently featured in the doc – where Parkdale tenants organized rent strikes to oppose huge increases and in London, England, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which killed 72 people and left hundreds more displaced.

In Toronto, the doc also shows the bartender of Communist’s Daughter lamenting gentrification, examples of urban agriculture next to condo construction sites and a former school teacher who started flipping houses before becoming a real estate agent to capitalize on the “superheated market.”

As Farha explains in the film, Toronto house prices have increased by 425 per cent in the last 30 years, whereas average family income has only gone up 133 per cent. “It’s pretty grim,” she says. 

Ahead of Push’s North American premiere at Hot Docs (see review here), we spoke to Farha about Toronto’s obsession with one-bedroom condos, the global homelessness crisis and why she really wants to have a conversation with Mayor John Tory.

How have you seen housing worldwide change since 2014, when you became the rapporteur?

It’s hard to say, but we do know that informal settlements – living in tent encampments or in really shoddy housing that lacks basic services – are on the rise because of a shortage of affordable housing options coupled with urbanization, the drive of people going to cities because they have no other viable economic options. And we know that homelessness is on the rise in pretty much every country except for Finland. It used to be that those experiencing homelessness were mostly people who suffered deinstitutionalization and had psychological disabilities. Now we’re seeing a shift. It’s families, it’s young people, it’s LGBTQI, which suggests a structural problem at play.

In Toronto, we’re not building the type of places that can house families. They’re designed for single people.

All those condos going up, who are they intended for? They’re intended for middle- to upper-income people or as investment properties. Corporate asset management firms buy up several [units] or an über-rich person turns them into short-term rentals, for platforms like Airbnb, Expedia or

In Push, you investigate Blackstone, a company that buys up high-rise apartments to convert affordable units into higher-end units. It turns out that Blackstone, in a partnership with another company called Starlight, has bought eight apartment buildings here. You spoke with Parkdale tenants who staged a rent strike to push back against their landlord, Metcap – and now with Blackstone, it feels like it’s going to become even more pervasive.

One of the things that’s really important for those of us who care about housing as a human right is to name this stuff properly. I don’t call these people landlords. I call them what they are, which is multi-billion-dollar asset management firms or private equity firms. They create financial instruments out of people’s homes. They don’t interact with properties as landlords, they interact with them as financial actors.

The doc revealed that private equity firms like Blackstone are partially funded by pension funds. Can you explain how that works? We meet a Toronto tenant who can barely afford to pay his rent, which comes out of his pension fund. It seems like a gross cycle.

It’s very straightforward, but I even say in the film: why did it take me so long to figure this out? Where does a private equity firm get the money to invest? How is it they have so much capital? Well, they get it from pension funds, which have huge dollars and give their huge dollars to private equity firms, who invest on their behalf. They want the highest return on their money to satisfy their pensioners, and to get the highest return, they want to go to the alternative asset class of housing or real estate because it’s such a solid return. The awful irony, which is so well-captured in the film, is that Blackstone’s business model is to buy, renovate, evict and jack up the rents. Pensioners are being kicked out of the units that their pension dollars are purchasing.

Some people would say the lack of affordable housing is because of supply and demand, and that rents are so expensive because our vacancy rate is around one per cent. How does financialization play into this?

I don’t think supply-only solutions will work to address what’s happening in the housing market right now. Since the 1980s and early 90s, governments have been retreating from building affordable housing and protections like stringent rent control in North America. Now we’re seeing the repercussions of those moves. Social housing in Canada is in pretty poor condition, and that’s why the federal government just announced it’s going to upgrade TCHC homes in Toronto because the stock is so bad. The government needs to get back in the business of building social housing, but what about housing for the rest of the population?

Then the question is, what if we just keep building and building with, say, inclusionary zoning to get a proportionate amount of affordable units – would that create affordability? I don’t think it would. For example, Baltimore has a high vacancy rate and yet there’s still an affordable housing crisis where young people can’t find a place to live. You can’t just throw supply at a very complex situation that involves other factors, like big financial actors. Even if you build more affordable units, the model of Blackstone is to swoop in and buy them up. There aren’t enough incentives and programs to encourage [developers] to build affordable units, and when those units are built, do we even have the legal protections to keep them affordable? We need to regulate this sector.

That’s why there was push-back against the mayor’s Housing Now program, which will lease city-owned land to developers and potentially non-profits to build housing with a small percentage of affordable units. Why can’t it all be affordable, since that’s what we need?

That model of freeing up city-owned land to private developers is not the way progressive cities are moving. Look at the 40,000 people who protested in Berlin earlier this month. They were demanding the nationalization of property, land and buildings. For cities, affordable housing is the crisis of the 21st century. That kind of small brokerage, where it’s like 25 per cent for affordable – and then affordable is defined as 80 percent of market value – that’s out of step with the way many cities around the world are trying to deal with affordability.

You’re currently working on The Shift. What is it, exactly?

The Shift came about when I started to understand how big the forces are that are affecting affordable housing around the world. I have a position to effect change as a rapporteur, but there’s no way one woman in this one position can do what’s necessary to really restore housing to its human rights place. The Shift is like a show of force and numbers. The idea is to bring together a whole variety of different actors, all of whom are already committed to the implementation of housing as a human right. Cities have been leading the way with The Shift. We now have 35 cities from around the globe who have joined and are going to try to resist the commodification of housing: Amsterdam, Berlin, Geneva, Mexico City, Seoul, New York, Paris, Barcelona, Montreal and more. Their commitment to The Shift is to the concept of housing as a human right, but they also have to take action. This isn’t a ribbon-cutting thing.

How did Montreal’s participation come about?

I met Montreal’s Mayor Valérie Plante in early 2019 and she is working on some bylaws to try to address financialization. Blackstone is in Montreal now. Plante’s very astute and recognizes that this could be quite problematic in Montreal, where rents are lower [than other major Canadian cities], but that also makes them ripe. You have to picture Blackstone and other private equity firms literally as vultures flying around looking for prey. They’re looking for undervalued properties, where people are paying reasonable rents.

What’s the status on Toronto joining The Shift?

While I’m in Toronto for the premiere of Push, I hope to meet with the mayor and city officials. I imagine John Tory will want to stand shoulder to shoulder with cities like Paris, New York, London and Seoul. International human rights law is always seen as remote and not understandable, but in fact, it’s incredibly practical. The right to adequate housing simply means the right to live somewhere in peace, security and with dignity. When people are living under a bridge, when people don’t have toilets and showers and are sleeping on concrete or air vents above subways, it’s not a stretch to imagine that there’s a dignity issue at stake, and that triggers a human rights concern. I would be happy to explain that to him and have a discussion. I’m sure I have my critics who’d say, “C’mon, the city is evicting people who are under bridges. How could they be Shifters?” And it’s true that the city would have to commit to a moratorium on those evictions and anything else that contravened the international human right to housing. But I think the city might be willing to do that.

I think most Torontonians would love for you to have that conversation with Tory. His response to the homelessness crisis this past winter was pretty disheartening.

The beauty of Push is that it really promotes these conversations. It’s part of why I was happy to have a film crew follow me around for a couple of years, because I wanted to engage a diverse audience. We need to access as many people as we can to think about this differently and the film is an amazing vehicle for that.


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