Wed, Jun

Unveiling Urban Inequality: A Comprehensive Review of "The Broken City" by Patrick M. Condon


PLANNING WATCH - Urban designer and professor Patrick M. Condon’s latest book, *The Broken City: Land Speculation, Inequality, and Urban Crisis* answers some of our most pressing questions about why housing costs (and rents) have spiraled out of the reach of most residents living in large cities. Not just in the United States where skyrocketing prices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City are forcing more and more people to live on the street, but in the English-speaking world that includes London, Vancouver, and Sydney is included in his comparative study. Based on his reading of classical, neoclassical, and not-so-classical economic theory and a new look at the historical data, he steers away from easy answers to delve into the intricacies of the relationship of land, labor, and capital. The results are a readable, provocative, and satisfying look at how we can change current practices and begin to address some of the underlying pathologies and misconceptions that dominate contemporary thinking on the subject.

Based on a broad analysis of the history of housing strategies, land purchases and speculation, and urban planning interventions, he searches for a more foundational understanding of why, regardless of what has been tried, housing costs have increased so dramatically, and with them socioeconomic inequality and health disparities. He starts with a clear overview that summarizes his points—useful if you are new to economic theory and issues of urban land prices—and then plunges you back into the COVID-19 pandemic, a period when he was writing and researching the book. With a clear eye, he uses the differences in the death rates to illustrate their relationship to race, socioeconomic status, segregation, and neoliberal policies and ultimately the correspondence of COVID-19 deaths to housing and urban design. Using this disease and housing case study, Condon points out that it was both the density of housing and density within homes that led to the disproportionate death rates.

I also wrote about the differences in COVID death rates during this time. I. The New York Times published interactive maps of numbers of virus cases and deaths in New York City in which the lines of race and wealth were clearly demarcated. Neighborhoods with the lowest death rates were in the richest zip codes in Manhattan, while the highest number of COVID-19 deaths were in the most impoverished areas. My explanations for why there was this large discrepancy in the number of cases and deaths included 1) inequality in access to health care; 2) inability to stay home when sick because of economic need; 3) predominance of essential workers being Black, Latino, and POC who were forced to work during the pandemic; 4) dependence on public transportation such as subways and buses; 5) living in multigenerational families often in small apartments; and 6) medical risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high body mass. Low-income neighborhood residents already suffered from food deserts, where fresh and high-quality ingredients were scarce and expensive, and during COVID-19 the lack of access to healthy food only became worse.

Condon uses the pandemic to launch into what he correctly identifies as the real urban crisis based on the core problem of accelerating land prices (and therefore housing prices and the rent structure) and the stagnation of wages (regardless of special programs) leaving most middle-income, working-class, and low-income workers without adequate shelter. The option is for families to move very far from the center of employment, which is not possible with child and elder care issues and a lack of public, dependable transportation, or to live in tiny, overcrowded spaces that had everything to do with the differential in deaths and illness.

Having set the stage for why land value matters critically to the well-being of people as well as the health and future of cities, Condon takes the next three chapters to explain the economics of land value and trace how during the 1950s through the 1980s there was a temporary alignment of land prices and wages when many residents became homeowners for the first time, and were able to participate in the building of land wealth (he points out that this is a cycle…). But beginning in the 1980s, with numerous financial and housing crises that triggered a political and economic (re)turn to market-driven approaches to housing provision worldwide, and with it, flat wages with an ever-increasing investment in land value. Condon makes the point multiple times that land is the nonproductive part of the land, labor, capital triad and increases in value due to its urban location and externalities such as public investment in urban infrastructure including public transportation, parks and sidewalks, and urban amenities.

So, why does it increase so much more than wages—this is the part I struggle to understand. Condon’s explanation is that all this value (the labor and capital that is spent) accrues to the land value except marginal wages and most of the capital value provided by entrepreneurs. Following David Harvey, my colleague, I know that land value is a spatial fix for capital speculation, but as I understand it Condon is being more specific here…it is not just a spatial fix but absorbs most of the value being generated within its urban context.

One of the ways that this excess has been redistributed is through taxes, that is, the land is taxed on its value and then these revenues are returned to the public coffers to address the inequalities produced by this lopsided financial system. The problem is that taxation is becoming less and less popular and politically unacceptable, while at the same time the consequences of land speculation have generated the greatest economic inequality of our time. The amount of money that cities need to address affordable housing and unhoused residents has also grown such that current tax structures do not touch the problem.

Condon reviews many solutions to today’s urban crisis, from historical examples derived from the Vienna model and European-style provision of social housing to land tax strategies in Taiwan. He also explores public policy tools to secure affordable housing in the U.S. including taxes on developments where the funds are used to secure nonmarket units and bonuses to developers in return for nonmarket-housing units. The problem with these strategies, however, is that in most U.S. states, municipalities are the only level of government that has the power to control the speculation value of urban land. But this limitation is an opportunity as well since zoning, which both creates and limits land wealth, is usually administered locally.

The political reality, at least in New York City, is the ever-present fear of a return to insolvency and bankruptcy similar to the 1970s and the ever-present competition for corporate headquarters and positive city branding that guarantees that developers usually get the deal they want. Hudson Yards is an example of the way in which the loss of affordable housing that is razed for a new development is often greater than that of the new affordable housing proposed and ultimately delivered. ii Condon offers what a modern tax on land value could do instead and how city-wide zoning approaches used in Portland or implementing an affordable housing overlay district in Cambridge, Massachusetts are models for moving forward. Armed with these case studies and a critical analysis of the
problem, we are ready to address the role that land value plays—and undo it—to create a better future for our cities today.

(Setha Low, Why Public Space Matters, Oxford University Press, 2023 ii Mark Maguire, Trapped: Life Under Security Capitalism and How to Escape It, Stanford University Press, 2024.)