Theses Doctoral

Larry's clique: the informal side of the housing market in low-income minority neighborhoods

Thery, Clement

Despite the attention given to the role of the housing market in the constitution and duration of low-income minority neighborhoods in American cities, little is known about the inner-workings of the housing market within these neighborhoods. The kind of housing professionals that populate this local economic world, the strategies they develop, both orthodox and unorthodox, especially towards tenants, are deemed of little interest by the dominant perspectives in the field, Human Ecology and Political Economy. The shared intellectual movement behind these two widely different theoretical perspectives is to understand how the city is mapped, how people and activities come to be distributed in space across the city. In this agenda, low-income minority areas are seen as a residual geographical entity, something whose existence is the effect of external forces: real estate brokers who steer households according to race, white ethnic immigrants who flee to the suburbs, white middle-class youths who gentrify the inner-city, downtown elites who disinvest from low-income minority neighborhoods. To focus on local actors of the housing market who operate within low-income minority neighborhoods requires a shift away from the traditional question of spatial distribution.
Instead of framing the housing market as a spatial mechanism, this research looks at the housing market as a set of varied economic circuits that plug into a local social life with the goal of extracting money out of a local population's housing needs. In this view, the empirical questions are the variety of economic circuits in which the poor and near-poor minorities are embedded; the economic roles that define these various circuits; the strategies that are adequate, both for housing actors and for the local population; the opportunities for upward mobility and the risks of downward mobility they offer; the experience of hardship that emerges from these circuits. In brief, the key issue is how the different modes of organization of a local housing field (a term more open to variations than "market") participate to the local process of economic differentiation in low-income minority neighborhoods.
The process under study can be conceived as the mutual shaping between two linked ecologies (Abbott 2005). On one hand, there are small and independent local housing professionals. For these actors, the issue is: how can they meet the specific challenges and seize the specific profits that stem from the economic project of making money out of the housing needs of poor and near-poor minorities? On the other hand, there is the ecology of the local population living in these neighborhoods. This population is internally differentiated by class and by a myriad of support networks, which may include formal organizations, such as lawyers, community based organizations, religious organizations, or legal aid societies. For this population, the key question is: how to benefit best from the housing field they face with the variety of resources at their hands? The interactions of these two ecologies with the larger regulatory framework shape the economic circuits that make up the housing field in low-income minority neighborhoods. The outcome of such interactive process can be approached from the inside - i.e. the inner-workings of the economic circuits as seen by those who derive money from them. It can also be seen from the outside - i.e. the economic structures that people living in these communities face.
For almost three years (2009-2012), I was embedded into an informal group of housing actors operating in central Brooklyn and central Harlem, NY. This group is made of small landlords, larger real estate investors, independent real estate brokers, several housing lawyers and a criminal lawyer, construction workers and handymen, local community leaders, and, more marginally, New York City agents and bureaucrats and tenants. My research is an ethnographic study of this group, which I call "Larry's clique". It yielded three main results. First, the local housing field in low-income minority neighborhoods is segmented between the "housing market" and the "housing game". In the "housing market" economic dynamics fall within the boundary of institutional regulations. Roles and strategies are encapsulated in common terms like "tenant", "landlord", "housing lawyer", "real estate broker" etc. Next to this institutionalized housing market, exists a predatory segment, which, following the people I have observed, I call the "housing game". In this second segment, institutionally-proscribed modes of making money are common, formal economic roles are transformed and new categories emerge such as "the professional tenant", "the foolish landlord", "the predatory machine", "the tenant who plays the game right"; new boundaries between fair and unfair business practices are drawn; and the texture of ordinary economic transactions is not one of middle-class doux-commerce, but one of incivility and verbal violence.
Second, the housing game sheds a new light on the local economic life in which poor and near-poor minorities are embedded. I have observed the formation of patrons-clients ties between local housing actors of the "game" and the local population. Patron-clients ties are a classic structure in the social scientific literature. However, it is a vocabulary that has disappeared from the scholarship on the contemporary forms of American poverty and near-poverty. My research brings back this vocabulary. Associated to this form of relation is a particular experience of hardship. The poor and near-poor who come in contact with the housing game experience the world as full of concealed riches that can be unlocked through personal yet distrustful relations of dependency. In this worldview, people shift quickly from being friend to being foe, double-agents are constant worries, simple questions as who works for whom receive unstable answers, and hubristic anger and joy accompany expectations of high rewards, of rainfalls of money, and feelings of being robbed. In this deeply personalistic worldview, something key is obliterated from the eyes of the people: it is the marginality of most of the actors I have observed from larger formal organizations and bureaucracies that chiefly affect the distribution of economic rewards in the housing market.
Third, the housing game is not a well-ordered underworld in the tradition of the Chicago School. It is not a sub economic system with its own parallel culture and practices. The real mode of existence of this economic world has much less substance. Economic actors in the housing game are haunted by feelings of inefficacy and amateurism. Beyond the scams, the predatory attempts, the shouts and the insults in Housing Court, beyond the moralizing discourses about who "abuses the system" and who deserves to be "fucked", beyond all this gesticulation, people of the game have the nagging feeling of being stalled. The economic life of the housing game fights by all means necessary the actors' creeping experience of passivity, helplessness, and low self-efficacy - but it is not always successful. The vocabulary of the "game" indicates not only the distance with the institutionalized housing market, but also the dramaturgy of this economic world, the layers of meaning and symbolic practices that cover up, but only in part, the fact that the game does not fully work, does not bring the expected rewards. The concealed riches of the world remain out of reach.
The intellectual posture behind this research is the reconstruction of economic categories through intimate ethnographic observations. Such reconstruction requires an epoch (i.e. a suspension) of the common modes of description of economic life inherited from both economics and legal studies and from the regulatory framework that supervises the "market". This research is the occasion, then, to interrogate the place of rich narratives and close descriptions in the study of economic life.


  • thumnail for Thery_columbia_0054D_12415.pdf Thery_columbia_0054D_12415.pdf binary/octet-stream 2.79 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Venkatesh, Sudhir A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 19, 2015