Architecture on Film: PUSH + Q&A

Skyrocketing prices. Faceless landlords. A global housing crisis. With devastating clarity, PUSH illuminates the shadowy transformation of the city into an epic financial instrument. Who and what are cities for, when we can’t afford to live in them?

Starts:

06:30pm, Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Until:

08:30pm, Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Venue

Cinema 1
Barbican Centre, Level -2
Silk St, London, EC2Y 8DS

Tickets

Standard:
£12.00

AF Members:
£9.60 (Please contact AF for promotional discount code)

Concessions:
£11.00

Young Barbican:
£5

Tel (9am-8pm):
+44 (0)20 7638 8891

This is a past event

We are delighted that director Fredrik Gertten will be present in person to join us for a Q&A following the film, in conversation with Anna Minton (writer, journalist and Reader in Architecture at the University of East London (UEL); author Big Capital: Who is London For?).

PUSH [London Premiere]


PUSH examines one of today’s most urgent issues – the epic transformation of cities into financial instruments – to reveal with devastating clarity the shadowy operations and forces that threaten the very foundations and principles of urban life. Who and what are cities for, when nobody can afford to live in them?

Following Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, as she goes on a global fact finding mission, the film soon demonstrates how and why house prices are rocketing, whilst wages are stagnating – a problem with symptoms known by so many, but true causes by so few. Sociologist Saskia Sassen, economist Joseph Stiglitz, and Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano help illuminate a crisis that makes gentrification look almost quaint, when the full scale of this new monster is revealed.

When I hear people today saying, ’It’s gentrification’, one reaction, an ironic reaction, is: ‘If only’. It’s much deeper than that.
- Saskia Sassen



The tragedy at Grenfell Tower, the sale of Swedish public housing to investment behemoth BlackRock, journeying from Toronto to London, Valparaiso, New York and beyond, the film illuminates the shape and extent of global finance’s ongoing conversion of real estate into a tradable asset – a market that is currently valued at more than double the combined GDP of every country in the world, actively surpassing the power of nation states and undermining the legally established human right to a home. An essential film exploring the 21st century city. Winner of the Politiken Audience Award at CPH:DOX 2019.

Sweden, 2019, Fredrik Gertten, 92 mins


Programme Notes by Anna Minton


“The first sign you’re going to have to leave your neighbourhood is when vintage clothing shops show up… they’re going to make the neighbourhood really cool… and then the housing values are going to go up and then they’re all going to get the push.” So the film opens, illustrating neighbourhood after neighbourhood around the world where the juggernaut of global capital is destroying communities as soaring house prices and rents push local people out, from Berlin to Barcelona, Seoul to Valparaiso, Toronto to London.

As Saskia Sassen declares, when people say this is gentrification, one reaction is “if only”. A Berlin baker, finding his livelihood squeezed by spiralling rents, is convinced this has nothing to do with gentrification. I reached the same conclusion in my book, Big Capital, which investigated the causes of London’s housing crisis. This is not gentrification, it is another phenomenon entirely.

What this phenomenon is and how it functions is the question at the heart of the film, which follows the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Leilani Farha around the world as she tries to find answers. Blackstone, which is both the biggest private equity firm in the world and the biggest real estate property investor, is a key actor. The £6.7 billion company crops up in location after location where tenants are facing rent hikes and evictions; since the financial crash Blackstone has specialised in buying up hundreds of thousands of cheap homes in the US, Spain, Ireland, Germany and Sweden, where they are now the biggest private owner of low income housing.

It is chief among the new nameless, faceless global corporate landlords with the money to purchase entire neighbourhoods, do up properties and increase rents, in some cases by 50 per cent in Sweden and nearly 100 per cent in Spain where a mother described how her family’s rent increased from €58 to €436i.  They particularly favour what are described as “distressed markets”, as these have the greatest potential for capital growth. But what of the residents? Inevitably they are the pushed out, giving the film its name. Farha wants to meet Blackstone and, perhaps to everyone’s surprise, the company agrees to a meeting as the audience waits with anticipation to see how they will respond to her questions.

Blackstone’s strategy shares similarities with that well-known cycle of gentrification, where the middle classes move into cheap neighbourhoods, often with artists – Grayson Perry’s infamous “shock troops of gentrification”ii – alongside those vintage clothing shops as the first wave. Working class areas gentrify, and a hipster, more expensive aesthetic gradually takes over, displacing the original population and often the artists and middle classes themselves as prices rise inexorably. The appeal of the cycle to developers was described by the late geographer Neil Smith in the 1970s, who looked at the gap between the rent a property currently earns and what it could earn if redeveloped for new inhabitants. He argued that when that gap becomes big enough, developers become interested and private capital flows in, attracted by the potential to make large profits. The transformative difference with today is in terms of scale and speed; where in the past areas like Islington or Notting Hill gentrified over a generation, since the financial crisis the glut of luxury apartment developments defining so many parts of London, and other cities, are rendering vast swathes unrecognizable in just a few years. And because the process is so profitable and widespread investors have no interest in whether or not anybody lives in the new homes, which are often empty; they are financial instruments, seen by investors as no more than a financial asset or a commodity like gold.

The other question concerning Farha is where the new landlords like Blackstone get their money from. Pension funds, which need to invest their money profitably, are a big part of the answer. In South Korea, for example, Blackstone is in partnership with the country’s biggest pension provider, the Korean National Pension Service. Adding to the toxic mix is the impact of criminal money, laundered through tax havens, which also provide financial services to legitimate enterprises, like pension funds, contributing to the opacity of what money comes from where. What the pension funds and the money launderers have in common is a need to spend money to create more money; they don’t want property prices to go down, they want property to be expensive and to maintain its value. In the contemporary economy the value of real estate, which totals $217 trillion, is greater than the value of global GDP.

Farha hopes that once people become aware of the activities of landlords like Blackstone their activities will be held to account. That is part of what she hopes to achieve with her new global movement ‘The Shift’ which advocates interventions in the market to safeguard the right to adequate housing. “I don’t believe capitalism is hugely problematic. Is unbridled capitalism, in an area which is a human right, problematic? Yes. That’s what differentiates housing as a commodity from gold as a commodity. Gold is not a human right. Housing is,” she says.

There is a big shift taking place in politics before our eyes, reflected by the energy and success of activists and progressive city Mayors, alongside the crisis at central government level. But holding faceless landlords worth billions to account will not be easy; Blackstone, who have recently entered the UK market, did indeed hit the headlines recently after CEO Stephen Schwarzman gave Oxford University its largest single donation in modern history. The £150 million gift, to fund the Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities, was rapturously received by the university and the British media, with barely a mention of Blackstone’s housing activities.

 i Dowsett, Sonya, ‘Special Report – Why Madrid’s poor fear Goldman Sachs and Blackstone’, Reuters, 30 June 2014
 ii Perry, Grayson. Reith Lectures 2013: Playing to the Gallery. BBC Radio Four. 29 October 2013, http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/radio4/transcripts/reith-lecture3-londonderry.pdf