Linkage In cities around the world, housing is becoming a dwelling place for money rather than people. Toronto is no exception; for buyers and renters finding somewhere to live here grows harder every day. As costs go through the roof, an increasing number of Torontonians, especially the young, find themselves forced out of town. In London, U.K., whole neighbourhoods have been hollowed out as they are bought up by foreign investors and private equity firms. The new owners, who have little or no interest in letting their properties, would rather leave them empty than deal with the hassle of tenants and their endless demands for basic services. As Swedish director Fredrik Gertten makes clear in his compelling documentary, Push, the financial sector has turned housing into a commodity, one that can be bought and sold dozens of times in the course of an hour. The notion, established by the United Nations, that housing is a basic human right now seems an antiquated nicety, a leftover from a more ambitious age. What remains now is the right of the rich to get richer. “Finance is an extractive sector,” notes Dutch-American sociologist Saskia Sassen in one of several on-camera interviews. “It might as well be mining.” Finance, she points out, exists to squeeze every last drop of value out of any given asset. “This is not at all about housing,” Sassen explains. “Buildings function as assets.” Gentrification, she points out, is the least of it. “It’s much deeper than that,” she argues. It’s more a wholesale appropriation of cities and the accompanying displacement of the poor and the middle classes to make way for the wealthy. Sassen’s dire insights are echoed by economist, author and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who also speaks on camera. As he said recently, since the 1980s, “…the income share of the top 0.1 per cent has more than quadrupled and that of the top 1 per cent has almost doubled, that of the bottom 90 per cent has declined. Wages at the bottom, adjusted for inflation, are about the same as they were some 60 years ago. Wealth is even less equally distributed, with just three Americans having as much as the bottom 50 per cent.” As incredible as these figures are, what’s less obvious is governments’ role not only in allowing this massive shift of wealth, but enabling it. The 2008 financial crisis, for instance, was a disaster for millions of homeowners, yet it turned out a gold mine for large fund management firms. There’s no better example than Blackstone, a private equity company that controls assets worth $512 billion — more than half a trillion dollars. It acquired thousands of properties lost in the fallout of the subprime mortgage scandal. As Push documents, Blackstone entered Sweden in 2015 and just four years later is the largest private owner of low-income housing in that country. In Uppsala, its modus operandi has been to buy public-sector housing estates where it can evict tenants, renovate units and raise rents as much as 50 per cent. The same thing happens in Toronto regularly, with landlords who view their properties as little more than money mills and treat tenants with casual indifference. “They’re not intrinsically evil,” Stiglitz says in the film of these corporate property owners, “but they are intrinsically amoral. So amoral, they are, I would say, evil.” As Gertten follows a special UN housing rapporteur on her research trips around the world, it becomes clear that similar scenarios are playing out in every corner of the planet. Globalized financial markets mean capital moves at the speed of an electrical impulse. From Berlin and Barcelona to Valparaiso and Toronto, corporate actors are turning cities into enclaves for the rich. It doesn’t have to be this way. Berlin, for example, has started to buy land in vulnerable neighbourhoods. Vancouver has implemented a vacant home tax. Across Canada, however, let alone Toronto, many governments would rather sell “surplus” land to developers than use it for affordable housing. But, Stiglitz notes, “You can make money by destroying the world.” That’s why change is so necessary and so hard.