Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Broken Cities: Inside the Global Housing Crisis

Deborah Potts

Zed Books



Broken Cities talks to housing need in the global North and South. While not intended to be published to coincide with COVID-19, the pandemic highlights the significance of housing quality for wellbeing. This is a scholarly text, in terms of the depth of referencing and data analysis. But it is also a publication written for an interested non-expert audience, with multiple examples to illustrate the key points of the argument. Insights, particularly from southern Africa and the UK, are used to craft a narrative that describes and analyses the housing crisis.

The title of the book refers to the housing crisis, and specifically the inability of urban residents to afford the homes they need. Housing is, for the most part, supplied through the housing market within a capitalist economy. But there is a gap between the products offered by the formal housing market and the incomes of many lower-paid residents. And that affordability gap has been exacerbated by neoliberal approaches to welfare with a reduction in the funding for council housing and a shift towards private-sector involvement in housing provision. Housing offered through informal markets – common in the global South but also present on a less significant scale in the global North – may be neither safe nor secure.

The volume begins with a global analysis through the lens of southern Africa with an exploration of the ways in which households sought adequate and affordable housing within a policy framework that emphasized homeownership based on cost recovery. The focus shifts to the UK with a demonstration of how unaffordable housing is, especially for those living in London. The cost of housing is in part related to the required standards. Potts examines this issue, drawing on information from the UK, US and Zimbabwe. She highlights the inability of growing numbers of households to afford public standards, even in the richer countries of the global North. Informal housing development is introduced. The situation in Zimbabwe illustrates both the inappropriate nature of such regulations (inherited from the colonial period) and the ways in which contravention of standards is used against low-income households. Operation Murambatsvina (Clear Out the Trash) in 2005 involved the demolition of hundreds of thousands of informal structures, both homes and workplaces, across Zimbabwe. 

Potts discusses both private-sector and social housing provision, homeownership and rental, and incremental housing development. She highlights the changing nature of state responsibility for housing, across both countries and ideologies, and the ways that housing provision has been used marginalize populations in the North and South. The vulnerabilities of tenants renting in the private sector are highlighted, as are the efforts of governments to respond.

The history of recent efforts to address housing need in the North and South are discussed, including the shift of public-sector housing to private homeownership and the subsequent pressures on these households due to rising land prices and gentrification. The relations between housing and finance are considered, as is the way in which government efforts to address housing need have favoured higher-income groups, while low-income groups occupy smaller and smaller spaces in their efforts to find affordable homes. The substantive discussion ends with a consideration of demographic trends, smaller families and migration. 

Potts concludes that the housing crisis is intensifying as housing becomes less rather than more affordable. The inability of the market to address the needs of low-income groups in both the North and South is ever more evident. The crisis is represented by the competing definitions of affordability. Potts warns about the intensifying pressures on families – and the social costs if decent housing continues to be unaffordable – as well as trends towards the segregation of cities. 

It is not possible to address housing needs without recognizing that wages are too low. Informality becomes integral to housing provision as formal housing is too expensive. Meanwhile the regularization of informal housing means that it becomes formal, and is less likely to be relevant for low-income households.

The Grenville Tower fire in London demonstrated the similarity of some housing challenges across the North and South. Solutions are imposed on residents and their voices are ignored. Regulations that protect the interests of low-income households are disregarded. And complex subcontracting processes render public accountability meaningless. What is evident from this volume is that housing is essential to health and wellbeing. Governments are challenged to rethink housing options, and to recognize the centrality of housing to development.


Book note prepared by Diana Mitlin

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