From Toronto to Berlin to Seoul:
Shedding light on the global housing crisis
On November 5th, 2019 IHC Global and Global Land Alliance were glad to bring a screening of “PUSH” the film to Washington, DC. PUSH, first screened at the United Nations to support World Habitat Day on October 7th provides insight into the global housing affordability crisis from the perspective of residents being pushed out of their homes and cities from London to New York to Seoul. Swedish director Fredrik Gerten follows Leilani Farha, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, and her team as she tries to understand why individuals, families, and communities struggle to access affordable and decent housing.
Farha takes her audience travel from North America to Europe and Asia as she interviews leading experts on the root causes of housing insecurity, the people who have been effected by global housing developments, and the mayors, local leaders, and activists who are fighting to change it.
Farha’s journey begins with a troubling statistic: Over a thirty-year period, housing prices increased 435% in the Greater Toronto Area, while real wages went up only 133%. The stark contrast between rising housing prices and wages means Toronto residents are struggling to pay rent. Farha’s interviews with residents and experts is supported by a similar trend in the United States. Research has demonstrated that weak income growth among low- and moderate-income households along with escalating housing costs as factors in dramatically increasing housing insecurity in the United States. The standard measure of affordability is spending 30% of income on housing. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, in 2016, 38.1 million households spent more than this. The ratio is even higher for renters, whose cost-burden share surpassed 47% of their income. JCHS claims financial difficulty to pay housing costs is exacerbated by the fact that federal rental assistance has not kept up with the growing number of low-income renters who are eligible for subsidies.
For PUSH and for the Special Rapporteur’s team, multinational investment companies and luxury real estate developers have worsened soaring housing costs. Through Farha’s conversations with Noble Laureate Economist Joseph Stiglitz and Sociologist Saskia Sassen, we learn how some major foreign investors directly target low-income and subsidized housing stock with the intention of either flipping the units or holding them vacant until the land underneath becomes more profitable. A recent estimate says that in Toronto, of 200,000 new units constructed over the past 10 years, 20,000 are currently sitting empty, which would be two years’ worth of supply.
As Farha captures the testimonies of residents in different countries, we learn about the globalized impact of housing insecurity. In Harlem, New York, she interviews a man who spends 90% of his income on his two-bedroom apartment. He shares how is worried about where he will be living as the cost will soon increase even more. In Barcelona, we meet Ahmed and his family who are the last left in their building after the new owner has pushed all of the other residents out. In London, the documentarians conduct a series of interviews with former residents of Grenfell Tower, victims of a June 2017 fire that killed 72 people and displaced several hundred. We learn that tenants had reported many of the poor and unsafe housing conditions there. At a town hall led by Farha, several tenants reported they had yet to be rehomed and that government housing was partly predicated on their willingness to locate across the country. One former Grenfell Tower tenant stated the compensation offered to him was not enough to stay within the neighborhood and would only be enough if they would move out of London to find somewhere to live.
Following the breadth of perspectives provided by residents experiencing housing insecurity across the world, Farha introduces us to her #MakeTheShift campaign to hold governments accountable if they don’t meet their human rights obligations to enable the provision and delivery of adequate and affordable housing for all. “Housing,” Farha asserts, “is a fundamental human right, a precondition to a safe and healthy life”.
Indeed, housing plays a key role in advancing equitable outcomes and lessening inequality. It has a multidimensional relationship to health and well-being as it affects all areas of an individual’s life: physical and mental health, economic empowerment, social stability, and access to basic services. As former President Jimmy Carter and founder of Habitat for Humanity International’s Carter Work Project noted in a 2017 City Lab interview, it is difficult to take advantage of individual talents and opportunities without decent housing: “I don’t see how a family can enjoy other human rights, like freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to vote, if they live in a disreputable place of which they are ashamed and makes their family lower their standard of ethical and moral values”.
For Farha, it is the job of national governments to ensure that none of their citizens are denied the right to safe and accessible housing. PUSH and the Shift movement can play important roles in initiating government recognition and commitment to supporting decent, affordable housing to promote equity and improve the quality of life for all city residents.
Sarah is a senior at the George Washington University studying public health and pre-medicine. She is passionate about public health and the social and economic determinants that impact health. She intends to pursue a Master of Public Health focusing on global health policy and global health development. She has previously worked as a research assistant on project that focused on the efficacy of text-message based smoking cessation programs among smokers. This experience has introduced her to the structure and development of health-related projects and interventions.