Claire Herbert, an assistant professor of sociology at Drexel University, presented her research on the rampant presence of informal and illegal property use in Detroit at the Michigan League on Friday.


Rackham student Lydia Wileden, who organized the event, explained during the talk the existing theories of urban growth do not apply to Detroit.


“I think Claire’s work is really interesting because she’s a really good example of a researcher who says these ideas, ideas of property informality, ideas of squatting or scrapping, happen all over the place, but we can study them in a more specific, in a more visible context in places like Detroit, where they happen at a much higher level,” Wileden said.


Hebert’s book, “Urban Decline and the Rise of Property Informality in Detroit,” is currently under contract with the University of California Press. Her presentation’s primary focus was why and how some Detroiters have come to accept and promote illegal uses of property.


Herbert started the event by arguing that the declining socioeconomic conditions in Detroit make it ripe for informal property use, which includes scrapping and squatting in abandoned homes and buildings. Having lived in Detroit for four and a half years to observe these conditions firsthand, Herbert said she was surprised to see how accepting the residents were of illegal property use.


“One example that always sticks in my mind is watching a couple men take the fire escape ladder off the Packard plant in broad daylight,” Herbert said.


Herbert then introduced the concept of “real property”, a term encompassing private property’s role in the maintenance and expansion of liberal democracy in the United States. She said private home ownership correlates with improved physical and social dynamics of neighborhoods, calling this ownership-induced responsibility for private property the “ownership-care nexus.”

“Given this, it’s surprising, or it was surprising to me, that residents in my study frequently accept or advocate for illegal uses of property in my neighborhood,” Herbert said. “And, as I will show, it is even more surprising that they do so in order to improve their neighborhood conditions.”


Herbert then explained why, in the face of this informal property use, property laws are not enforced in Detroit. Conditions including vacancy, low property values and an under-resourced municipality lead to this property informality, Hebert said. She further cited additional issues with the city’s population dynamics and governance.


“The population has decreased from around 1.9 million in 1950 to 670,000 in 2018,” Herbert said. “This decline in tax base combined with government corruption and bad financing deals, subprime mortgages, and aging infrastructure means that Detroit’s municipal agencies are underfunded and overburdened.”


All of this, Herbert stated, is the reason why the city cannot oversee and board up vacant properties, a situation which allows for these properties to be used for scrapping, squatting, drug sale, drug use, prostitution and illegal dumping.


Herbert explained the core reason why residents accept informality was related to the dynamic between property owners and residents.


“Because residents are angry with and blame the property owners, who have long since abandoned not only their properties but the city as a whole, space is created to view residents who appropriate these properties as morally blameless,” Herbert said. “So not only are appropriators not necessarily denigrated for their actions, but they demonstrate care and concern for the property and neighborhood.”


Herbert referred to this informal yet important care for property as an “ethos of care,” a situation which Herbert claimed inverts her concept of the “ownership-care nexus.” This “ethos of care” involves more productive use for property and a desire to make positive contributions to the community.  Herbert argued that scrapping, which may be generally viewed as illicit, can conform to the “ethos of care” if it is done to structures that are beyond repair and may pose a danger to local residents.


“My research finds that in contexts like Detroit, the law exhausts its normative explanatory capabilities,” Herbert said. “And the lens of informality is useful here, because it provides analytic tools to make sense of practices that blur the boundaries of law, legitimacy, deviance and crime.”


LSA senior Aditi Rajadhyaksha was surprised that breaking the law through informality was so accepted among groups of residents in Detroit.


“It’s not looked at as breaking the law, it’s looked at as helping the city,” Rajadhyaksha said. “I think it’s really cool that police officers and neighbors, rather than getting in people in trouble for breaking the law, look at it as, ‘The law doesn’t make sense, and breaking the law actually helps us a lot.’ That’s not something I ever noticed in any other community before.”


Taubman graduate student David DeBoskey, another attendee, was interested in how Herbert discussed the concept of property and how informality changes its definition.


“It was interesting to see how informality kind of moves that notion of property being this absolute thing,” DeBoskey said. “It’s not as clear cut.”


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