Picking Battles with Buildings: Governing Material Inequality in the City

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This dissertation is a mixed-methods study of municipal building inspections in Chicago. Existing literature demonstrates links between housing, urban governance, perceptions of dilapidated buildings, and racial and economic stratification. Less is known, however, about the intermediary actors who work at the nexus of on-the-ground interpretative processes and city-wide regulation. Building on urban sociology, cultural sociology, political sociology, and legal geography, I ask 1) what do inspectors take into consideration – about the social characteristics of residents, landlords, and property owners – when deciding what to do when their inspections turn up violations; 2) how do inspectors interpret physical characteristics of buildings; and 3) how do inspectors’ decisions aggregate to either reproduce or ameliorate existing inequalities in the city? To answer these questions, I draw on ethnographic observations of inspections in action, neighborhood ethnography, courtroom observations, interviews, and statistical analyses of building violations, complaints, and housing market data. I find that inspectors try to protect and discipline unlikely suspects: they go easy on low- and moderate-income homeowners, go after professional landlords, understand building conditions through a lens of effort and negligence rather than disorder, and often misalign with City priorities. I also show that inspectors’ decisions backfire; going after landlords increases rents for tenants and going easy on homeowners lowers their property values. As such, my dissertation challenges conventional wisdom about the coherence of the growth machine and perceptions of disorder, and sheds light on how state actors unwittingly perpetuate inequality. Overall, I urge sociologists to attend to the potential and parameters of intermediary social locations and the processual nature of the perpetuation of inequality to understand how cities work and how change might occur.

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  • 05/06/2019
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