If you aren’t aware that there is currently a massive global housing crisis than I wonder what you’ve been doing with your life? Around the world, cities have been swamped by developers building new, glass high-rises whilst investors from other countries swarm to purchase them.
The big issue, or one of them at least, is that those investors don’t want to live in them, and they damn sure don’t want you to live in them. Welcome then, to our world where housing is an asset, a commodity if you will, to be traded for money.
Filmmaker Fredrik Gertten (“Becoming Zlatan”, “Bikes vs Cars”) tackles this thorny issue by highlighting the work of Leilani Farha, a United Nations special rapporteur (someone who is independent, an expert on a subject, but works on behalf of the UN).
Farha travels around the world, from her home in Canada, investigating and highlighting the issue of housing and gentrification. And you thought it was a problem just in your city, right? Wrong, from Canada to South Korea, London to New York and all in between, the problem is global and now.
There are plenty of stats to chew on: house prices in Toronto have risen by over 400% in recent years whereas the average family income has risen by just over 130%. Or people in 59 out of 102 countries would need to save their yearly income for at least ten years in order to buy a house in their own country.
There’s a startling map of London showing houses that have been purchased by foreign companies. It makes London look like a teenager with bad acne, and then they inform you that 80% of these houses are empty.
That is, completely empty, not available for rent, not for sale, owned by who knows who and left empty. An asset on someone’s portfolio, a number on an Excel sheet.
A company called Blackstone gets a lot of attention, they are the largest private housing firm in the world. They entered Sweden in 2014 and in just four years became the largest private owner of social housing in the country.
The filmmaker talks with Saskia Sassen and Joseph Stiglitz. Stiglitz is and American economist and professor at Columbia University whilst Sassen is a Dutch-American sociologist noted for her analyses of globalization and international human migration.
Both of them speak wonderfully about the issue, Sassen in particular is passioned and moves you to want to do something about the situation whilst simultaneously making you understand there’s probably nothing that you can do.
It’s sad that housing has become an asset, a tangible good, something to be traded in the way gold might be, something finance buys and sells. A good analogy, therefore, is to compare finance to mining; once finance has extracted what it wants (profit) it doesn’t care what happens to the rest (Sassen).
This can be made even more startling when you are made aware that $163 trillion dollars worth of property is traded as an asset, this is more than twice the amount of GDP of all economies in the world, combined.
Farha does what she can to highlight this issue but even at a UN meeting people aren’t listening, just looking through their phones, one guy with his headphones in shopping for watches.
And this brings me on to the main issue with this documentary. As good as it is, as scary as it is, it never offers any solutions, not that the ordinary person can do, and maybe there’s nothing we can do but then, who will see it that can actually make a difference?