Wasta on Steroids: Speculative Finance & the Housing Market

14 June, 2021
San Francisco, summer of the wildfires, 2020.

San Fran­cis­co, sum­mer of the wild­fires, 2020.

Mischa Geracoulis

By the end of this account, I’ll relay how wasta in the spec­u­la­tive “hous­ing empire of finance” — to bor­row a phrase from Unequal Cities’ Raquel Rol­nik — has ren­dered me a tran­sient. First, a few words on wasta. While it belongs to the Ara­bic lan­guage and is a trans­ac­tion­al medi­um most asso­ci­at­ed with the Arab world, the con­cept of wasta is world­wide and advances through a vari­ety of cir­cum­stances. The idea of call­ing in a favor, hav­ing “pull” because of who you know, receiv­ing pref­er­en­tial treat­ment, spe­cial pro­tec­tion, or celebri­ty sta­tus is by no means an Arab thing. When VIP any­where becomes the modus operan­di, depend­ing on who’s hold­ing its sway, wasta may enter the realm of corruption. 

Con­sid­er multi­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions and cor­po­ra­tions that dom­i­nate cer­tain mar­kets — some are legal (albeit unscrupu­lous or amoral per­haps), such as media con­glom­er­ates, hold­ing com­pa­nies, extrac­tive indus­tries, and pri­vate equi­ty lim­it­ed lia­bil­i­ty com­pa­nies, while oth­ers are ille­gal — drugs, arms, human traf­fick­ing and ille­gal sell­ing of endan­gered species and nat­ur­al resources. Some­times there’s no clear demar­ca­tion between nepo­tism and mafioso, between tax eva­sion and tax avoid­ance, between legal and ille­gal cash­flow, or between cor­rup­tion and sus­pect account­ing. The lat­ter of each might be viewed as an extreme ver­sion of wasta.

High hous­ing costs are accel­er­at­ing pover­ty every­where, and in nations like the Unit­ed States and Unit­ed King­dom, for exam­ple, home­less­ness is ris­ing at shock­ing speeds. 

Push (2019, Swe­den), the award-win­ning, inves­tiga­tive doc­u­men­tary by direc­tor Fredrik Gert­ten, brings to light a par­tic­u­lar­ly vir­u­lent strain of cor­rup­tion — the finan­cial­iza­tion and mar­ke­teer­ing of hous­ing.  Fea­tur­ing Leilani Farha, Cana­di­an lawyer, UN Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on the Right to Hous­ing (2014–2020) and Glob­al Direc­tor of The Shift, an orga­ni­za­tion and move­ment that advo­cates for the human right to hous­ing, Push casts the “dark build­ing” phe­nom­e­non into the lime­light, illu­mi­nat­ing the oxy­moron­i­cal­ly-termed “hous­ing mar­ket,” the com­mod­i­fy­ing of a most basic human need and right, and what Trans­paren­cy Inter­na­tion­al calls “land cor­rup­tion.”   

Spot­light­ing the actors and fac­tors that have cre­at­ed and esca­lat­ed this near-world­wide phe­nom­e­non, the film explores hous­ing exploita­tion in such cities as Lon­don, New York, Hong Kong, Toron­to, Tokyo, Val­paraiso, Syd­ney, Mel­bourne, Cara­cas, Barcelona, Paris, Ams­ter­dam, and Stock­holm. Priced-out hous­ing does­n’t stop at metrop­o­lis­es; small­er towns and sub­urbs are being impact­ed too. High hous­ing costs are accel­er­at­ing pover­ty every­where, and in nations like the Unit­ed States and Unit­ed King­dom, for exam­ple, home­less­ness is ris­ing at shock­ing speeds. To be clear, high hous­ing costs and home­less­ness are not nat­ur­al or nor­mal out­growths of progress, but are red flags for the inva­sion of finance — “pri­vate equi­ty” and spec­u­la­tive mon­ey that turns homes into invest­ment assets. 

Most dis­con­cert­ing is for­eign-owned, unused hous­ing — con­do build­ings, apart­ments, and sin­gle-fam­i­ly homes that are pur­pose­ly kept vacant, or “dark.” Invest­ment own­ers are not inter­est­ed in becom­ing land­lords; rather, the goal is to cre­ate “secu­ri­ties” with the prop­er­ties, which are sold to investors as assets; and then sold again and again and again.  Such “high fre­quen­cy trad­ing” is patent­ly more prof­itable than the one-time sale of a house.

 

Stream the film  Push   on demand .
Stream the film Push on demand.

Stream the film Push on demand.

Hous­ing:  one of today’s most press­ing & con­tro­ver­sial issues

 

Fun­da­men­tal­ly, Push advo­cates for the uni­ver­sal right to hous­ing as enu­mer­at­ed by the Unit­ed Nations 1948 Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights, arti­cle 25.  Home is a pre­con­di­tion to a safe, healthy, dig­ni­fied life; and yet world­wide, prop­er hous­ing is increas­ing­ly unaf­ford­able for the mid­dle and work­ing class­es. Take the super-heat­ed “hous­ing mar­ket” in Toron­to. At the time of the film, hous­ing prices there had increased by 425% in the last 30 years, well out­pac­ing income, which had increased only by 133%.  Over­ar­ch­ing ques­tions the film pos­es are, “Who are cities for?” and “What is home?” Are cities turn­ing into play­grounds for the ultra-rich?  Do only the priv­i­leged, those with wasta, get to call the shots?  To delve into these ques­tions requires some back­ground information. 

A rel­a­tive­ly new phe­nom­e­non known as “dark build­ings” is the buy­ing up or putting up of lux­u­ry res­i­den­tial mid and high-rise build­ings that are intend­ed to remain vacant, or “dark.”

As a result we see the buy­out or force­able pushout of locals and natives who had orig­i­nal­ly occu­pied the area. There are nuances, of course. In some cas­es, cities wel­come or invite for­eign investors to buy into their coun­try, offer­ing attrac­tive incen­tives. Such is the case in places like Greece, Cyprus, and Mal­ta. In Greece, a major­i­ty of those buy­ing in are from Chi­na and Rus­sia. If investors choose to dis­close their iden­ti­ty (instead of oper­at­ing via pri­vate equi­ty, which we’ll dive into lat­er), among the bonus­es they receive is the “Gold­en Pass­port” — in oth­er words, EU citizenship. 

In South Amer­i­ca, in Chile for instance, investors (pri­vate or oth­er­wise) are lured by the promise of prof­its from lux­u­ry vaca­tion con­dos, min­ing, and export­ing.  As regards Chile, the film reminds view­ers of Mil­ton Fried­man’s neolib­er­al exper­i­ment on which dic­ta­tor Augus­to Pinochet (1973–1998) seized. Fried­man’s ide­ol­o­gy that the mar­ket solves all prob­lems, amped up by the likes of Rea­gan and Thatch­er, has led to increas­ing­ly more pri­va­ti­za­tion and dereg­u­la­tion of indus­try, com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of social goods and ser­vices, and reduced tax­es for cor­po­ra­tions and the rich. 

The cor­po­rate media, and per­haps con­ven­tion­al wis­dom, would have us believe that the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic is respon­si­ble for emp­ty pubs, reduced shop­ping, hous­ing evic­tions — for dead zones. 

In the film, Joseph Stiglitz, Amer­i­can econ­o­mist, pub­lic pol­i­cy ana­lyst, Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor, chief econ­o­mist at the Roo­sevelt Insti­tute and for­mer chief econ­o­mist at the World Bank (1997–2000), asserts that the neolib­er­al agen­da ignores all the areas where mar­kets do not best serve. Fried­man essen­tial­ly “green­light­ed greed and gave jus­ti­fi­ca­tion as to why moral­i­ty should be of no con­cern.” Sure, says Stiglitz, with this out­look, loads of mon­ey can be made, but with a blind eye to the rest of the world. Hence, the neolib­er­al ide­ol­o­gy has helped hur­tle us for­ward to where we are today.

To bet­ter under­stand its effects on hous­ing, it’s impor­tant to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between investor-dri­ven con­struc­tion ver­sus local­ized, com­mu­ni­ty-based stake­hold­er projects.  Con­struc­tion for invest­ment works as a repos­i­to­ry into which cap­i­tal pours, some­times cre­at­ing “dead zones” in cities. A dead zone might look like emp­ty high-rise con­do build­ings that are priced above the means of the local econ­o­my. It’s a façade for nor­mal life with­out any real activ­i­ty — no cafes or pubs, and no shops, per­haps aside from a few high-end boutiques. 

The cor­po­rate media, and per­haps con­ven­tion­al wis­dom, would have us believe that the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic is respon­si­ble for emp­ty pubs, reduced shop­ping, hous­ing evic­tions — for dead zones. Much of the west­ern world is see­ing record-low hous­ing avail­abil­i­ty. We’re told that, due to COVID-19 and/or low inter­est rates, esca­lat­ing home sale and rent prices are the cause. The law of sup­ply and demand seems clear; and yet, the sit­u­a­tion is not straight­for­ward because there actu­al­ly is new res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion, espe­cial­ly in mid-rise and high-rise con­do build­ings in cities and towns across the US, UK, and EU.

Look­ing around the world at cities and towns with new con­struc­tion and/or revi­tal­iza­tion projects that oust his­toric res­i­dents, super­fi­cial­ly, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion assumes some of the blame.  Refer­ring to the process of ren­o­va­tion and/or renew­al in dete­ri­o­rat­ed neigh­bor­hoods by the more afflu­ent class­es, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion often­times results in an influx of high­er-income, demo­graph­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent res­i­dents, dis­plac­ing low­er-income res­i­dents. As Sask­ia Sassen, pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, says in the film, “If only!” Some­what to her point, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly exploita­tive, or always only ben­e­fi­cial to an elite few. To be fair, in best case sce­nar­ios, devel­op­ers, his­toric res­i­dents and new­com­ers can opt to work togeth­er, treat­ing deci­sion-mak­ing as an inclu­sive, demo­c­ra­t­ic process that posi­tions diver­si­ty as desir­able, and pri­or­i­tizes human­i­ty above capital. 

Men­tion­ing cap­i­tal, one might assume that such prop­er­ty devel­op­ment and own­er­ship is sim­ply a func­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, that the mar­ket is play­ing out as it may.  At times an invis­i­ble hand is at play, but not in ways that Adam Smith imag­ined it; and there­in lies the dilem­ma. Over­whelm­ing­ly, own­er­ship of these vacant dwellings is held by pri­vate equi­ty cor­po­ra­tions.  Noth­ing to do with pro­vid­ing hous­ing, own­er­ship of res­i­den­tial dwellings, as it turns out, is more prof­itable than stocks or mon­ey in the bank.  This is prob­lem­at­ic on mul­ti­ple levels.

 

Defin­ing our terms

Before going fur­ther, let’s define some key terms spe­cif­ic to this divi­sion of the finan­cial sec­tor known as “pri­vate mar­kets.” For clar­i­ty’s sake, old school com­merce is dif­fer­ent from finance.  Com­merce is the exchange of goods and ser­vices. In a tra­di­tion­al cap­i­tal­ist mod­el, com­pe­ti­tion can work as the moth­er of inven­tion, impelling the cre­ation of bet­ter goods and ser­vices. Not so with finance. Finance is the sell­ing of some­thing intan­gi­ble. Sassen likens finance to min­ing. It’s extrac­tive, it takes, and is cer­tain­ly not an even exchange. 

Pri­vate equi­ty refers to shares or stocks in a pri­vate cor­po­ra­tion, where­as pub­lic equi­ty refers to shares or stocks in a pub­lic cor­po­ra­tion. The pri­vate equi­ty indus­try is com­prised of high-net-worth indi­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions, where­as pub­lic equi­ty tar­gets the gen­er­al pub­lic who can buy, sell, and trade shares. Pub­lic equi­ty investors, as the label implies, means that the names of indi­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies com­pris­ing the invest­ment group are pub­li­cized. Required by law, their finan­cial infor­ma­tion exists in the pub­lic domain; not so for pri­vate equi­ty investors.  Pri­vate equi­ty invest­ments are made in mature, tra­di­tion­al indus­tries, like hous­ing, in exchange for “equi­ty,” or major­i­ty own­er­ship. Pri­vate equi­ty firms invest with the sole goal of turn­ing a prof­it. Own­er­ship of major­i­ty stakes in mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies make up the fir­m’s port­fo­lio.   

Typ­i­cal­ly, pri­vate investors buy into mar­kets or com­pa­nies that are stag­nant, dis­tressed or poten­tial­ly dis­tressed, yet show signs for growth poten­tial. A com­mon deal is the “lever­aged buy­out” (i.e. hous­ing fore­clo­sures, urban decline, there­by trans­form­ing real estate into assets).  Pri­vate equi­ty investors trade among them­selves, where­as pub­lic equi­ty investors trade among the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. Though less com­mon, this isn’t to say that pri­vate equi­ty can’t trade among the pub­lic. It can, but only with founders’ con­sent.  More­over, there’s no gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion, like the Secu­ri­ty Exchange Com­mis­sion, for instance, to reg­u­late pri­vate mar­kets or oblig­ate them to dis­close any infor­ma­tion, where­as public equi­ty is reg­u­lat­ed by gov­ern­men­tal over­sight and oblig­at­ed to dis­clo­sures. By con­trast, no or lax reg­u­la­tion allows for exploita­tion, removes all human rights’ safe­guards, and sells polit­i­cal pow­er to the high­est bid­der. Sum­ma­riz­ing, Stiglitz states that “the asym­me­try of infor­ma­tion gives the few the abil­i­ty to take advan­tage of many.”

In short, Push illus­trates how hous­ing — a basic human need and right — is com­mod­i­fied.  As Farha con­tends, “there is a huge dif­fer­ence between hous­ing as a com­mod­i­ty, and, say, gold, as a com­mod­i­ty. Clear­ly, gold is a com­mod­i­ty, not a human right.” She goes on to explain that cap­i­tal­ism, in and of itself, is not the issue. How­ev­er, unbri­dled, unreg­u­lat­ed cap­i­tal­ism in the are­na of human rights — in this case, the human right to housing—is what con­verts peo­ple’s homes into com­mod­i­fied, finan­cial­ized profiteering.

In the Unit­ed States alone, for­eign investors account for approx­i­mate­ly one third of all sin­gle-fam­i­ly rental homes. Once a prac­tice asso­ci­at­ed with cities, espe­cial­ly since the pan­dem­ic, sub­urbs now serve as open mar­kets for anony­mous, for­eign, pri­vate equi­ty cor­po­ra­tions with deep pock­ets. Cana­di­an homes, name­ly in Van­cou­ver and Toron­to, are also favored by for­eign investors. The crafty finan­cial engi­neer­ing that treats hous­ing as a com­mod­i­ty is in no way lim­it­ed to North Amer­i­ca though. Cities in nations hard hit by aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures, like Athens, Rome and Barcelona, and those hit by war and polit­i­cal upheaval, like Dam­as­cus or Val­paraiso, are rife with for­eign-owned, pri­vate equi­ty res­i­den­tial real estate own­er­ship. War and occu­pa­tion are advan­ta­geous for wealth redis­tri­b­u­tion, and the chan­nels of pri­vate equi­ty add to the stealth.

 

Democ­ra­cy disrupted

 
Trans­paren­cy Inter­na­tion­al, the glob­al coali­tion that works to hold to account the pow­er­ful and cor­rupt, includes in its expla­na­tion of land cor­rup­tion the point that Push makes:  opaque deals between pri­vate investors and local author­i­ties are often respon­si­ble for ille­gal or ques­tion­able evic­tions that result in hous­ing takeovers and land grabs. Reduc­ing avail­able res­i­den­tial hous­ing, fuel­ing inequal­i­ty, dri­ving up hous­ing costs, and depriv­ing peo­ple of their right to home are maneu­vers that hurt vul­ner­a­ble indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties the worst. Back-chan­nel deals and deci­sions inter­fere with the very fab­ric of soci­ety, which is nat­u­ral­ly con­ver­sant and inter­ac­tive. Rob­bing local com­mu­ni­ties of infor­ma­tion, par­tic­i­pa­tion, and deci­sion-mak­ing pow­er, land cor­rup­tion dis­rupts democ­ra­cy too. 

Oliv­er Bul­lough, jour­nal­ist and author, dis­cuss­es that very point in his book, Money­land, (St. Mar­t­in’s Grif­fin, 2020). If a democ­ra­cy oper­ates by tax­es to pay for pub­lic goods and infra­struc­ture, tax mon­ey (in the­o­ry and hope­ful­ly in prac­tice), is used for com­mon goods. If, how­ev­er, there’s an influ­en­tial seg­ment of soci­ety that avoids con­tribut­ing, they are, in essence, enjoy­ing the priv­i­lege of cit­i­zen­ship with­out pay­ing dues or oblig­a­tions. That same seg­ment is effec­tive­ly break­ing the social con­tract, opt­ing out of democ­ra­cy, which is par­tic­u­lar­ly wor­ry­ing if that seg­ment also hap­pens to be part of a soci­ety’s rul­ing class.   Bul­lough quotes fig­ures from Glob­al Finan­cial Integri­ty, stat­ing that approx­i­mate­ly one tril­lion US dol­lars per year are moved from coun­tries that receive inter­na­tion­al aid, like Ango­la, Nige­ria, Azer­bai­jan, Kaza­khstan, Ukraine, and India, and stashed “off­shore.” 

 

Mafioso busi­ness model

Italian journalist and author Roberto Saviano lives under death threat for disclosing the mafioso business model that includes offshore tax havens.

Ital­ian jour­nal­ist and author Rober­to Saviano lives under death threat for dis­clos­ing the mafioso busi­ness mod­el that includes off­shore tax havens.

The suc­cess of these actions depends on the amenabil­i­ty of inter­na­tion­al finan­cial sys­tems.   Accom­plished by the aid of wasta — or pro­fes­sion­al enablers like bankers, accoun­tants, real estate agents, politi­cians, and lawyers who know how to work the sys­tem — pri­vate equi­ty investors slip through loop­holes, pur­chase influ­ence, and obtain the abil­i­ty to laun­der mon­ey as need­ed.  Asserts Simon Far­rell, QC in the film, the loose­ly-termed UK “reg­u­la­to­ry regime” is one of the world’s largest enablers of tax avoid­ance by allow­ing off-shore com­pa­nies to pur­chase UK prop­er­ties with­out dis­clos­ing their “Ulti­mate Ben­e­fi­cia­ry Own­ers” (UBOs), or with­out record­ing sales in a gov­ern­men­tal registry. 

Ital­ian jour­nal­ist and author Rober­to Saviano is inter­viewed in Push. Liv­ing under death threat for dis­clos­ing the mafioso busi­ness mod­el that includes off­shore tax havens, he explains that at one time, the tax haven was real­ly only a tiny, alter­na­tive sec­tor of the econ­o­my uti­lized by those who deal in arms, drugs, and humans. Saviano describes how dirty mon­ey is laun­dered by fun­nel­ing it through tax haven “shell com­pa­nies.” Accord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton, DC think tank, Glob­al Finan­cial Integri­ty, the process works to dis­guise the pro­ceeds of crime by inte­grat­ing it into the legit­i­mate finan­cial sys­tem. Ille­gal­ly pro­cured mon­ey, shroud­ed in secre­cy, becomes untrace­able.  That said, the new nor­mal is for near­ly all glob­al cor­po­ra­tions to have shell com­pa­nies in tax havens. 

 

What exact­ly are “tax havens” and “shell companies?” 

 
Tax havens pro­vide a way to avoid or evade tax­es, to glean greater prof­its, and to expand into oth­er coun­tries. A tax haven is not ille­gal, nor is it only com­prised of ill-got­ten gain; but it is where ille­gal and legal mon­ey eas­i­ly mix­es and min­gles. ProP­ub­li­ca reports that giant multi­na­tion­al corps fear­less­ly stash bil­lions in tax havens all the time.  Apple, for instance, while legal­ly reg­is­tered off­shore in Ire­land, deft­ly dodges tax­es. Saviano puts this into con­text when he states that the aver­age Ital­ian pays 60% of their income in tax­es whilst cor­po­ra­tions pay maybe four. The prac­tice may be legal, but begs ques­tions around ethics, equi­ty, and justice.

Tax havens serve as “off­shore” finan­cial cen­ters. Refer­ring to island nations, nations oth­er than the home of an invest­ing indi­vid­ual or com­pa­ny, the off­shore loca­tion offers for­eign indi­vid­u­als and busi­ness­es no or lit­tle tax lia­bil­i­ty in a polit­i­cal­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly sta­ble envi­ron­ment.  These locales are havens too because of the con­fi­den­tial­i­ty promised to investors. The struc­ture for this is rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple:  the haven nation will accept funds and assets from any­where with­out report­ing to any author­i­ty from the orig­i­nat­ing nation. In such havens, there’s no legal mech­a­nism that would force disclosures. 

“Shell com­pa­nies” (AKA “front com­pa­nies”) exist on paper. Own­er­ship is dis­guised. There’s no phys­i­cal loca­tion, no employ­ees or oper­a­tions, per se, though they own bank accounts, assets, real estate, and invest­ments. Essen­tial­ly oper­at­ing above the law and hid­den from pub­lic view, shell corps are the core of anony­mous inter­na­tion­al busi­ness. Reg­is­tered in coun­tries oth­er than where assets may actu­al­ly be locat­ed, one shell com­pa­ny is owned by anoth­er and anoth­er and anoth­er, almost like Russ­ian nest­ing dolls. 

Tax havens are not just for crim­i­nals — obvi­ous­ly, multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions (MNC) such as Ama­zon, AirBnB, and Apple use them, although a bit dif­fer­ent­ly. It’s typ­i­cal for an MNC to use cre­ative account­ing to claim less prof­its and more expens­es to low­er their tax brack­et.  How­ev­er, by reg­is­ter­ing a com­pa­ny’s head­quar­ters or home address in a tax haven nation, the MNC is almost always able to get away with “tax avoid­ance,” which in con­trast to “tax eva­sion,” is legal. To note, cer­tain states in the US are con­sid­ered tax havens too. It’s easy enough to pur­chase a shell com­pa­ny in states like Neva­da, Wyoming, or Delaware, for example. 

 

Vio­la­tion of human rights 

 

Pri­vate equi­ty equates to anonymi­ty and impuni­ty; thus, the resul­tant chal­lenge to track­ing down actu­al per­sons. And so, these mys­te­ri­ous equi­ty enti­ties con­tin­ue to find their way into hous­ing mar­kets around the world. This is not to say that all is with nefar­i­ous intent. Nev­er­the­less, the very fact that hous­ing — a basic human need and right decreed by inter­na­tion­al law and agreed to by 192 sig­na­to­ry nations — is finan­cial­ized and exclu­sive to those of high-wealth is an egre­gious human rights vio­la­tion. In almost any nation, these exploita­tive deal­ings affect the aver­age per­son, whether they rent or own, defy­ing the dec­la­ra­tion that hous­ing should be afford­able and decent. 

Whether for mon­ey laun­der­ing and tax eva­sion, or legal for­eign invest­ment, what’s being used as assets for the wealthy could oth­er­wise be shel­ter for those in need of hous­ing.  Take note of some fig­ures as of Decem­ber 2020 for per­spec­tive:  accord­ing to the UNHCR, there are 80+ mil­lion refugees world­wide, and as report­ed on the Make the Shift site, 150 mil­lion are home­less world­wide. As long as the push fac­tors remain, those num­bers will only con­tin­ue to rise, fur­ther accen­tu­at­ing the point that home­less­ness is a vio­la­tion of human rights. 

To recap, for­eign, absen­tee home and con­do build­ing own­er­ship-invest­ment in any city only ben­e­fits investors. Off­shore pri­vate equi­ty finance, for the most part, is not bound by any laws, is dis­rup­tive to local economies and democ­ra­cies, and takes wasta to a whole new level. 

 

What can be done?

 
A nec­es­sary first step, says Trans­paren­cy Inter­na­tion­al, is gov­er­nance that’s will­ing to do its due dili­gence, and leg­is­late and enforce pol­i­cy at all legal and insti­tu­tion­al lev­els. It requires trans­paren­cy and demo­c­ra­t­ic par­tic­i­pa­tion, as well as knowl­edge­able, atten­tive admin­is­tra­tion.  Loop­holes in the glob­al finan­cial sys­tem that allow for the per­pet­u­a­tion of cor­rup­tion schemes must be closed.  To this I would add the need for edu­ca­tion, and strate­gic local com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment and coali­tion-build­ing that can con­nect to wider glob­al cam­paigns such as those con­duct­ed by Trans­paren­cy Inter­na­tion­al.  Their aims to stop anony­mous cor­po­ra­tions (such as those that buy up hous­ing), secret juris­dic­tions and “Gold­en Visas” that give free reign to for­eign pur­chasers of large swaths of land and hous­ing in oth­er coun­tries will gain greater momen­tum as more peo­ple under­stand what’s at issue.  Seek­ing inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion and inter­ven­tion, Trans­paren­cy Inter­na­tion­al posits transna­tion­al infor­ma­tion shar­ing, sanc­tions, super­vi­sion, and asset recov­ery to guar­an­tee trans­paren­cy and over­sight, and to pre­vent the cor­rupt from enjoy­ing the self-enti­tled priv­i­lege of finan­cial havens for exploita­tive­ly or ille­gal­ly got­ten gain. 

Arthur Doohan, banker turned activist and co-founder of ClampK, a polit­i­cal action non­prof­it that advo­cates for reg­u­la­tion and laws for the trans­paren­cy of off­shore prop­er­ty own­er­ship, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the UK hous­ing sec­tor, exem­pli­fies local efforts with glob­al reach. His list of reme­di­al actions to reduce mon­ey laun­dered pro­ceeds from enter­ing the res­i­den­tial hous­ing mar­ket in the first place can be repli­cat­ed in oth­er places.  Sim­i­lar­ly, Leilani Farha’s endeav­ors since step­ping down as UN Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on Hous­ing is through the glob­al orga­ni­za­tion that she found­ed and directs, The Shift.  As well, she and film­mak­er Fredrik Gert­ten con­tin­ue inves­ti­ga­tions via their week­ly pod­cast, PUSHBACK

 

Post­script

 
The irony for me is that as I write on “hous­ing wasta,” I too am liv­ing the burn of an over­heat­ed hous­ing mar­ket. My sto­ry began quite uno­rig­i­nal­ly in San Fran­cis­co where the rip-off cost of hous­ing is com­mon knowl­edge. My last apart­ment there was in a large com­plex owned and (bare­ly) man­aged by the third largest equi­ty real estate invest­ment trust cor­po­ra­tion (REIT) in the US. REITs are pub­licly trad­ed, lav­ish high div­i­dends upon share­hold­ers, and are remiss at any sem­blance of gen­uine rental home management. 

Dur­ing the first stages of the pan­dem­ic lock­down in spring 2020, my REIT land­lord abid­ed by the gov­ern­ment-issued evic­tion mora­to­ri­um; but as soon as it lift­ed, raised already exor­bi­tant rents even fur­ther. In the juris­dic­tion in which I was liv­ing — a land­lord’s par­adise — there exists no cap on rental increas­es. Exem­pli­fy­ing this fact, an elder­ly Hait­ian neigh­bor asked me to read a let­ter she’d received from the land­lord, con­vinced that her French-to-Eng­lish trans­la­tion must be incor­rect. Find­ing no mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion on her part, we were stunned to real­ize that her rent was being jacked up by $500, start­ing the fol­low­ing month. Not hav­ing the means to pay the increase, her daugh­ter pro­vid­ed a solu­tion by fold­ing her elder­ly moth­er into her household. 

Not hav­ing such an option for myself, I turned to AirBnB in late sum­mer 2020, which coin­cid­ed with his­to­ry-mak­ing fires in Cal­i­for­nia in which over 10,000 homes, apart­ments and oth­er prop­er­ties were burnt to the ground, fur­ther com­pound­ing hous­ing short­ages and home­less­ness. And so when I found accom­mo­da­tions on the AirBnB app, it was all the more dev­as­tat­ing to arrive at a “bait-and-switch.” As it turns out, the bait-and-switch is one of many scams com­mon to AirBnB — a top­ic, I came to learn, cov­ered by the likes of Vice News, Vox, Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist, Ash­er Fer­gus­son, and the PUSHBACK pod­cast.  More­over, as ten­ant rights researcher Chelsea Kirk has point­ed out, AirBnB has been respon­si­ble “for the removal of thou­sands of rental units from tight hous­ing mar­kets across the coun­try and dis­placed peo­ple along the way.” 

My own hous­ing fias­cos led me to the work of Farha and Gert­ten, mak­ing the issue of exploita­tion and cor­rup­tion in hous­ing is as per­son­al as it is glob­al.  And though wasta is the lens through which I viewed Push the film and focused my research, the infor­ma­tion pre­sent­ed on pri­vate equi­ty, off­shore tax havens, and finan­cial­ized hous­ing affects mil­lions. Jour­nal­ist Robert Fisk once said that we don’t report facts to change the world, but as a means for ensur­ing that the guardrails of human­i­ty remain intact. Saviano, the Ital­ian jour­nal­ist who lives under death threat for expos­ing facts, or any whistle­blow­er who takes per­son­al risk to take a stand for truth, lend them­selves as soci­etal safe­guards. A jour­nal­ist, film­mak­er, or sto­ry­teller does­n’t report sheer­ly by log­ic, or void of human emo­tion. To do it well, con­cern for the sub­ject mat­ter is pre­req­ui­site. That Farha and Gert­ten care deeply about the glob­al hous­ing cri­sis poten­tizes their work, as well as pro­vides val­i­da­tion for my ongo­ing experiences. 

No mat­ter how vir­tu­al and online lives can be lived in 2021, nav­i­gat­ing soci­ety with­out a prop­er address is a test of endurance. Friends have attempt­ed to put a pos­i­tive spin on my unteth­ered sit­u­a­tion, say­ing, “you’re free as a bird!”  But even a bird has its nest.  The unrec­on­cil­able twist is that I’m a pro­fes­sion­al with advanced degrees and loads of work expe­ri­ence in the field of human rights and social jus­tice; and it does­n’t mat­ter. In a sta­tu­siz­ing world that com­mod­i­fies human needs and rights, elim­i­nates soci­etal guardrails, and prizes wasta, it’s too easy to slip through the cracks. 

Neolib­er­al rhetoric, finan­cial­ized hous­ing notwith­stand­ing, would cas­ti­gate us as unfit to con­trol our own des­tinies, to hold liable indi­vid­u­als for soci­etal and glob­al fail­ures, and to insti­gate dis­trust of one anoth­er.  The neolib­er­al sys­tem is one that accords val­ue and pow­er to those with means, no mat­ter how they’ve acquired it.  It’s a sys­tem in which pri­vate equi­ty flour­ish­es, if not for these inter­ven­tion­is­tic con­ver­sa­tions.  It’s also a sys­tem that oper­ates out­side the human rights frame­work, which is the heart of the mat­ter. Stream Push the film online and join the conversation.

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TMR contributing editor Mischa Geracoulis is a writer and educator of critical media literacy, English for speakers of other languages, and those with learning differentials. Her writing, teaching and approach to life are informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some of her topics of research include the Armenian Genocide and Diaspora, restorative justice, equitable education and child welfare, and the multifaceted human condition. Her work has appeared in Middle East Eye, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Review of Books, Colorlines, Gomidas Institute, National Catholic Reporter, and openDemocracy, among others. Follow her on Twitter @MGeracoulis.

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