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Book review: Little book brimming with big ideas on affordable housing

UBC professor’s work reflects on the dire lessons about inequality we have learned at great expense during the pandemic

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Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land

Patrick M. Condon | Off the Common Books (Amherst, Mass., 2021)

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$16.99 ( also available for free download here ) | 152pp


University of B.C. expert Patrick Condon has been thinking and writing about urban land use issues for a long time. Some admiring observers, noting that his intention to run for mayor in the last Vancouver election was cancelled because of a health issue, refer to him wryly as “the best mayor the city never had.”

In his latest book, Sick City: Disease, Race, Inequality and Urban Land, Condon reflects on the dire lessons about inequality that we have learned at great expense during the current pandemic.

Citing the scandalous fact that among Americans — the audience to which this book is primarily directed — people of colour are three times more likely to catch COVID and, once infected, three times more likely to die than “white” Americans, Condon argues that inequality is the vector for disease and that disease, racial injustice and economic inequality are made worse by the way we organize and assign urban land.

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Condon, a fan of the theories of 19th-century economist Henry George, argues, like George, that the economy cannot be reduced to a simple dialectic between capital and labour. There is a third independent variable — land — that should not be folded into our understanding of capital, Condon says.

The often-astronomical cash values often assigned to real estate can, over time, absorb more and more of the real value generated by labour and productive capital, such as factories. Then the bubble bursts.

So is there any way to reform this doomed system of boom and bust? Condon argues that impressive long-term experience in Vienna and a promising new experiment in Cambridge, Mass., suggest that useful and lifesaving reforms are possible.

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In the end, Condon offers cautious hope, pointing to a pair of encouraging examples:

• To the Austrian experience, where a blend of rent controls, public investments, taxation and zoning are designed to encourage the creation of truly affordable housing that sees over 60 per cent of all housing in Vienna protected from the gusts of the market.

• To the Cambridge experiment that creates a special “overlay” zoning that mandates 100 per cent of new and refurbished units built under this overlay zoning and the expanded density it allows must be permanently affordable, with that term defined far more stringently than it is in Vancouver zoning (Condon notes that one of the leaders of the Cambridge reforms is his daughter Alanna).

This small volume is rich with challenging ideas. Highly recommended.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at [email protected]

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