One woman’s struggle to make housing a human right

Leilani Farha has dedicated her life to combatting the global housing crisis. talks to the United Nations special rapporteur about spearheading a worldwide movement
By H.G. Watson - Published on Jul 23, 2019
Push, a new documentary from Fredrik Gertten, follows Leilani Farha as she visits cities around the world to investigate the housing crisis. (Courtesy of WG Film.)



How do you get people to see housing not as a commodity — but as a human right?

That question has been the focus of Leilani Farha’s life and work for years. Since 2014, Farha, an Ottawa-based lawyer, has been the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. “I'm interested in housing from the perspective of human-rights obligations,” she says. “In particular, the obligations of governments.”

In the new documentary Push, making its North American debut at Hot Docs on April 26, filmmaker Fredrik Gertten follows Farha as she visits cities around the world, including Toronto, where renters staged a strike against their corporate landlords; London, where squatters have taken over a multibillion-pound home left empty by its owner; and Berlin, where a baker laments the rising rents that will force him to raise prices. The film demonstrates that the housing squeeze isn’t simply a local issue — it’s a problem worldwide. spoke with Farha about the global housing crisis, her efforts to combat it, and the role she hopes Push will play in educating people. (TVO served as a production partner for Push.)

I'm a renter in Toronto; many of my friends are renters. We frequently have conversations about how we feel stuck where we're living because we can't move — the rent is too high. There’s sort of a weird comfort in finding that this is a global phenomenon. How, in the film, do you show how interconnected all these issues are?

I think what caught Gertten’s attention was that I have a global approach. I see things from this bird's-eye view — way up high. I'm mapping what's happening around the world, and I'm not mired in one city or another, although of course I get attached to places and issues. I can see that this is a truly global phenomenon. The impact and consequences are huge on a personal level. But, also, when you look at the scale, then it's like, whoa, this is an issue tantamount to climate change in terms of its global reach and global impact, you know? In that way, every city is experiencing its own thing, and every city is part of this broader landscape.

Comparing the housing crisis to climate change obviously shows how big an issue you believe this to be. How do the impacts compare?

Climate change affects people on a very personal and intimate level. There's a bigger picture: Will the planet survive? But there are all these micro happenings. For example, if an area is subject to tornadoes or flooding because of climate change, then that has a direct impact on people's lives. Their homes get demolished or destroyed. They often have no place to live. If they're low income — and it’s low-income homes that are the most precarious — they will have a hard time reestablishing themselves.

When we're looking at financialization of housing, it has the same direct and immediate impact on individuals and families and households. I met a woman in Oakland who had been working at a medical clinic. She'd been living in an apartment, and she was managing to make ends meet. I think that her rent was something like USD$1,000 a month, maybe USD$1,200. And then the building got bought, and the new landlord raised the rent, because they don't have rent control there, and she couldn't afford the rent any longer. She was going to fall into arrears, so she self-evicted. She tried to find another, more affordable place — but, of course, she's in Oakland. There was nowhere more affordable. So then she availed herself of sofas in her friends’ apartments. And when that charity and generosity ran out, she wanted to live with her sister. But her sister had brought in her mom, who had also lost her housing. And so there was no room for her. And, lo and behold, there I am meeting a woman who works at a medical clinic living in a tent encampment in Oakland under a highway. This is what I mean about the direct, huge impact on someone's life.

There are an estimated 1.8 billion people around the world living in inadequate housing that is lacking basic services: sanitation, running water, electricity. This is a big 21st-century issue — there's no doubt about it. I'm not saying it's worse than climate change; I'm saying it is as significant and as important as climate change is in the everyday lives of people.

When we talk about what's forcing people out of neighbourhoods, we often talk about gentrification. But the movie also focuses on financialization — how big financial players are buying up real estate. I know it's a hard concept to explain in brief. But how do you get across to people that there's this other, bigger issue?

Gentrification is easily understood as a concept, and we often think of gentrification as being negative. But I'm not sure its roots are negative, in that there is an organic thing that can happen in neighbourhoods that's not bad. You know, you're in a neighborhood, and you've got no park, and you need a park because there are lots of kids there. So you build a park, and that starts creating the process of gentrification because suddenly it's like, that neighborhood's not so bad. People start moving in with their families and then want other amenities. Those amenities start arriving — that's gentrification.

We're talking about something entirely different when we're talking about financialization of housing, which is the unfortunate language I'm stuck with. What's happening with financialization is not organic. It's completely purposeful, and it's a business model. Private-equity firms, these big financial actors with uber amounts of money, need to invest that money somewhere. So they are like vultures flying over territories, looking for what they call undervalued properties — they mean properties where people are paying average rents. They purchase them and then upgrade those units — it can be cosmetic, or it can be more substantial. Then they evict the people first and raise the rents, or they raise the rents and people self-evict, and then they bring in a different class of people. And why do they do this? Is it because they hate low-income people? No. It's because they need a good return on their investment, because they're trying to satisfy their investor clients. They don't view these units as housing, per se. They view them as a tool they can use to leverage more capital. Basically, the income stream from these buildings provides the securitization for the investor to then leverage more capital and buy more properties and more properties and more properties — it's endless.

There's nothing organic about that, right? It's business people looking to satisfy business interests, and the way that they're doing it is by swooping in to cities and buying up properties.

One of the initiatives that you came up with to address the housing crisis is called the Shift — a worldwide movement aimed at getting people to start viewing housing as a human right rather than as a commodity. How does it help in fighting something that for a lot of people is very hard to understand?

The Shift is an attempt to counter this financialization stuff. These big asset-management firms and private-equity funds that are scooping up properties and really making it difficult for average-income people, let alone low-income people, to live in cities — their power is huge. They’ve got so much capital and so much political weight. Remember when Donald Trump had that economic advisory committee? Who was the chair of that? It was the CEO of Blackstone, Steve Schwarzman. These guys — and they are mostly guys — have so much political power.

So here I am, a little rapporteur, thinking, what can I do? And people are looking to me to do something about this. What can I possibly do? I'm just one little individual. I can't do anything on my own.

We need, and we have, our own currency. And I think our currency is strong. I think it's stronger than capital currency. Our currency is human rights. That's strong — not just because it's morally strong, but because it's a legal obligation. But I needed more people. I joined forces with the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and United Cities and Local Governments. And together we decided we are going to create a global movement because we knew there are lots of people around the world who are really resisting. The idea is to harness that energy and that support and commitment for housing as a human right sort of as a show of our own force.

What role does this documentary play in the Shift?

I think it was the most amazing tool, which is why I agreed to have a camera crew follow me around for two years. The film can reach so many more people than I can just on my own. It's going to premiere in North America at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Bloor Street — that's 650 seats. That's a lot of people.

We need to start changing people's minds. We need to help them understand what's happening in their cities, which a lot of people don't. This stuff happens by stealth. We need to enlighten people and make it really clear what's going on here.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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