Debbie's book, Private Property and Public Power: Eminent Domain in Philadelphia (Oxford University Press, 2014), analyzes the legitimacy of government involvement in private economic actions. The exceptional step of taking property exposes a logic operating in many other situations. This logic 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 logic 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 logic 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 logic. The conception of property as investment offers progressive possibilities because it draws attention to the socially produced, changing value of land and buildings and demands a respect for multiple kinds of value.
In her next project, Debbie is investigating transfers of property rights necessary for the extraction of oil and natural gas. With this project, Debbie plans to shed more light on the value of private property in highly uncertain environments and across power differences. Many places in the United States are witnessing a monumental land rush, as oil and gas companies try to capitalize on fairly new technology, knowledge, regulations, and prices. Scholarly attention to the issue is booming as well, but most studies focus on environmental, health, and community impacts and activism; few scholars are investigating the property rights that make gas production possible (or prevent it). Debbie is studying how energy companies and surface- and mineral-rights owners make deals for the property rights to do the drilling, including how the rights are valued financially.
Publications and Work in Progress:
Becher, Debbie. Private Property and Public Power: Eminent Domain in Philadelphia, 2014. Oxford University Press.
Becher, Debbie. “Race as a Set of Symbolic Resources: Mobilization in the politics of eminent domain,” Forthcoming 2015 in Race and Real Estate. Eds. Adrienne Brown, Kim Lane Scheppele, and Valerie Smith. Oxford University Press. pdf
Book Review. Everyday Law on the Street, by Mariana Valverde. 2012. University of Chicago Press. 2013. City and Community. 12(4) 410-12. pdf
Becher, Debbie. 2012. "Political Moments with Long-term Consequences” in Remaking Urban Citizenship: Organizations, Institutions, and a Right to the City. Eds. Michael Peter Smith and Michael McQuarrie. Volume 10 in Comparative Urban and Community Research. New Brunswick (U.S.A.) and London (U.K.): Transaction Publishers.pdf
Becher, Debbie. September 2010. "The Participant's Dilemma: Bringing Conflict and Representation Back In" International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 34(3) 496-511. pdf
Becher, Debbie. 2010. “The Rights behind Eminent Domain Fights: A Little Property and a Lot of Home” in Property Rights and Neo-liberalism: Cultural Demands and Legal Actions. Eds. Wayne McIntosh and Laura Hatcher. Ashgate Press. 75-93. pdf
Becher, Debbie. 2008. “Narrating and Naming Positive Agents: Storytelling by Philadelphia Postwar Political Elite.” Poetics. 36(1) 72-93. pdf
Law and Society (Lecture and Advanced Undergraduate Seminar)
Eminent Domain and Neighborhood Change
Sociology of Law (Graduate)
2009-10 Visiting Scholar, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
2008-09 Research Fellow, The Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Policy Program
2008-09 American Fellow, American Association of University Women (AAUW)
2007-08 Graduate Prize, American Studies, Princeton University
2006-08 Fellow, Society of Woodrow Wilson Scholars, Princeton University
2006-07 Graduate Prize Fellowship, Center for Human Values, Princeton University
2006 Arthur Liman Fellowship, Yale Law School/Princeton University
In the News
Sociology Prof. Debbie Becher is the author of Private Property and Public Power: Eminent Domain in Philadelphia, forthcoming this month from Oxford University Press.