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Speaker Series: Debbie Becher - Sociology, Columbia University in the City of New York

  • When: November 13, 2019, 12–1:30 pm
  • Where: ABF Woods Conference Room, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, 4th floor, Lakeside, Chicago, IL 60611

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Photo and Bio Courtesy of Columbia University in the City of New York

Professor Becher is currently revising her dissertation, Valuing Property: Eminent Domain for Urban Redevelopment, Philadelphia 1992-2007, for publication as a book about legitimacy of government investment in private markets. The exceptional act of taking property exposes a moral code operating in many other situations. This moral code of real property, which attempts to match returns to investments, guides individual and organizational action in the contemporary urban United States, but it is not yet described by legal, political, and economic scholarship. This project reveals how institutions and individuals employ this code to resolve tensions between public and private interests.

In the first comprehensive study of a city’s eminent-domain acquisitions, Debbie explores which properties the city pursues for private redevelopment and how stakeholders decide that government actions are either a use or abuse of power. A quantitative overview of citywide practice combines originally collected data on eminent domain with City of Philadelphia and U.S. Census data on properties and neighborhoods, showing that eminent domain has been largely uncontroversial though fairly common (approximately 7,000 properties and 400 development projects pursued from 1992 to 2007). Case studies of two controversial development projects probe more deeply into the porous and shifting boundary between desirable and undesirable government action. Readers follow these projects through planning and implementation, with evidence from public records, documents on file in offices of the Mayor and the Redevelopment Authority, and interviews with residents, business owners, community leaders, government representatives, attorneys, and appraisers. Though in moments of conflict those opposing eminent domain employ an idea of property security as possession (“what’s mine is mine and what’s your is yours”), more flexible approaches to property governance are more common.

Property-governing institutions enforce a moral code trying to value and reward property investment – including emotional, financial, temporal, and cognitive investment. Written rules, public claims, and individual practices aim to ensure that the social environment provides returns to investments of all kinds in a fairly equitable manner. Dissatisfaction and claims of public wrongs arise not when or because government threatens property titles. They arise instead when property-governing institutions fail to meet the task of enforcing this more complex and evasive moral code. The accounts in this book explore specifically how problems related to uncertainty and communications cause these institutional failures that emerge in public discourse as violations of property security as possession.

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