Interview with 2018 CUSS Student Paper Award Recipient Robin Bartram

CUSS Newsletter, 2019 Winter, Vol 32, No 1

Interviewers: 
Kyle Galindez, University of California, Santa Cruz 
Steven Schmidt, University of California, Irvine

Robin Bartram, Northwestern University, “Going Easy and Going After: Building Inspections and the Selective Allocation of Code Violations”

What motivated you to study this particular research topic?

The project is a mixed-methods analysis of building inspections in Chicago. I have long been fascinated by the conflation of buildings and the people who live within them, and the stakes of making assumptions about people based on where the live. Building inspections offered a case of this process with implications for urban inequality. Inspectors interpret buildings (and their inhabitants) for a living, and their interpretations shape the landscape of housing in cities: inspections can lead to court cases, fines, evictions, demolitions, as well as improvements to substandard housing.

Early on in my fieldwork – which entailed ride-alongs with inspectors, neighborhood ethnography, and courtroom observations – I realized that inspectors have a great deal of discretion. Yet, sociologists know next to nothing about how inspectors decide what counts as a building code violation, for example, or which buildings should be vacated or demolished. To be sure, building inspectors have a bad reputation as corrupt or mindless bureaucrats who cause headaches for all concerned. And, in academic accounts, inspectors appear as pawns in processes of uneven urban development, gentrification, and urban inequality. Yet, these views of inspectors exist with little empirical basis.

What theoretical debates interest you the most, and how do you see your research contributing to them?

The main theoretical aim of my project is to advance the notion of city workers as urban intermediaries. Paying more attention to these powerful actors underscores their multiplicity and heterogeneity within city governments, which sociologists often paint as monolithic machines. We talk about urban policies, plans, and practices, but it is these intermediaries who implement these policies, enforce regulations, and make cities work. I provide a framework for understanding the potential and limitations of frontline actors to interrupt and contest the connections between everyday decisions and inequality.

I am also investing in bridging a gap between urban sociology and materiality studies. I draw on both areas to demonstrate how the relationship between material conditions and their production – in terms of effort and neglect – is more important to inspectors than aesthetics of (dis)orderliness or the normative evaluations of social (dis)order. Instead of disorder, inspectors assess buildings through a schema I call malign neglect. This schema contrasts with the more common phrase “benign neglect,” and captures more intentionality than social disorder, where the creators of that disorder remain indiscernible. Inspectors infer malign neglect through clues to negligence, maintenance out of proportion with financial status, bad reputations of producers, and issues related to property owner disobedience and culpability. Conversely, inspectors laud homeowners who keep up with maintenance despite not having much money, who are obedient or wrongly held accountable for buildingrelated issues, and who employ workers with good reputations.

Paradoxically, however, inspectors’ actions reproduce uneven landscapes of disorder. Inspectors’ logic of malign neglect means that they often force professional landlords to make repairs and pay fines, resulting in rent hikes and allowing for upscaling and gentrification. In contrast, they do not insist that low-income homeowners fix up their unmaintained buildings, meaning poorer neighborhoods remain dilapidated. Thus, through the selective enforcement of code violations, inspectors maintain disorder despite their alternative schemas. My research illuminates mechanisms that maintain disorder as well as a process that challenges the universality of perceptions of disorder.

What surprises did you find as you conducted your fieldwork?

Although this theme cropped up very early on my fieldwork, it took me a long time to accept that inspectors were trying to help out struggling minority homeowners. Existing literature would suggest that inspections would enact biased perceptions of disorder or align with the growth machine. But I found that inspectors in Chicago categorize the city according to the very disparities that urban policies produce; they go easy on low- and moderate-income homeowners by not levying fines and not insisting they make repairs. In contrast, inspectors go after professional landlords, wealthy homeowners, and speculators by nitpicking and dragging them through red tape. I use quantitative analysis of building violation data to show that my qualitative findings are representative of patterns across the city and over time.

What are some future directions for this project?

An article stemming from this research is forthcoming in City and Community and I am working on a book manuscript. My conclusions about urban intermediaries and housing inequality also informed my new project, which compares disaster assistance in post-Katrina New Orleans with financial subsides for everyday issues stemming from deferred maintenance in Chicago. The project investigates the effects of state investment in mundane structural repairs to existing housing stock.

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