Claire Herbert graduated from the Sociology department in 2016 with her Ph.D. in Sociology.
In declining cities, an abundance of vacant, devalued property, and under‐resourced regulatory mechanisms challenge dominant understandings of private ownership of real property as a source of investment and stability for individuals and neighborhoods. Drawing on four years of ethnography and 65 interviews in Detroit, this article finds that, despite the privileged standing of private property in U.S. culture, residents frequently accept or advocate for illegal property use, such as squatting or scrapping. Instead of adhering to the law, residents use a community‐embraced norm—an ethos of care—to assess the acceptability of illegal property use, and they do so in order to positively impact the physical and social dynamics of their neighborhoods. The findings of this article highlight the influence of local conditions for how residents perceive property law violations, and call into question the generalizability and applicability of neighborhood improvement strategies that rest on private, legal ownership to induce responsible care.
The ubiquity of private property is bolstered by discourses and institutions that presume legally‐codified private ownership to be a good for individuals and society (Harvey 2005, 2007). In urban centers, private ownership of real property (such as land, housing, and other buildings) is increasingly a tool for regulating socio‐spatial dynamics (Davis 1990; Banerjee 2001). In the neighborhood context, empirical research has verified beneficial social outcomes correlated with one kind of private property— homeownership (e.g. McCabe 2013)—and that in everyday life, residents express belief in this dominant discourse (Goetz and Sidney 1994; Rollwagen 2015). Furthermore, Kinder (2016) finds that some Detroit residents, motivated by this discourse, act as informal realtors in an effort to find homeowners for vacant but livable properties nearby. Given these empirical findings and the dominance of private property, we might expect that residents of distressed neighborhoods would also demonstrate ideological and practical commitments to private property in search of improved neighborhoods.
Despite the privileged status of private property in this country, and the accompanying moral and legal sanctions directed against transgressors, residents in Detroit often accept or advocate for illegal property use in their neighborhoods. Here, many people squat houses for shelter, garden on vacant lots or fence them in for personal use, scrap metal from derelict buildings, or even tear them down, all without permission from legal owners. Rather than necessarily indicating widespread apathy or social disorder (Wilson and Kelling 1982), in certain contexts illegal property use can gain a measure of support and acceptance from nearby residents. Becher (2014) notes that in two Philadelphia neighborhoods targeted for redevelopment, residents support illegal property use that accords with an ethic of investment. I find that residents in distressed neighborhoods in Detroit support and encourage certain forms of illegal property use in order to improve their area.
Drawing on in‐depth interviews and over four years of participant observation, this article first identifies three conditions common to declining cities that contribute to the informal practices I observe in my study: available property for appropriation, lack of an economic market for property, and underfunded municipal agencies that fail to reliably enforce property laws. Within these conditions, residents rarely involve authorities to regulate property use, nor do they take the law into their own hands to enforce property laws. Instead, residents informally adjudicate the non‐legal “right” to property using a community‐embraced norm rooted in what I call an ethos of care, which requires that appropriators demonstrate solicitude to both the property and community in order for their practices to be accepted. These findings highlight the importance of local conditions for how residents perceive property law violations and for the efficacy of neighborhood improvement strategies that rely on private ownership as a mechanism for inducing responsible care.