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Stacked Decks

Building Inspectors and the Reproduction of Urban Inequality

Stacked Decks

Building Inspectors and the Reproduction of Urban Inequality

A startling look at the power and perspectives of city building inspectors as they navigate unequal housing landscapes.
Though we rarely see them at work, building inspectors have the power to significantly shape our lives through their discretionary decisions. The building inspectors of Chicago are at the heart of sociologist Robin Bartram’s analysis of how individuals impact—or attempt to impact—housing inequality. In Stacked Decks, she reveals surprising patterns in the judgment calls inspectors make when deciding whom to cite for building code violations. These predominantly white, male inspectors largely recognize that they work within an unequal housing landscape that systematically disadvantages poor people and people of color through redlining, property taxes, and city spending that favor wealthy neighborhoods. Stacked Decks illustrates the uphill battle inspectors face when trying to change a housing system that works against those with the fewest resources.


“Bartram’s smart, succinct, and elegantly written book is ostensibly an ethnographic study of building inspectors in Chicago.  In reality, Stacked Decks is a book about power. It uses the daily struggles of building inspectors in Chicago to illuminate a fundamental moral, economic and political problem of our era – the persistence of racialized housing inequality despite the efforts of “frontline” city workers to mitigate it. Distinguishing between individual inspectors’ efforts to mete out justice and the systemic workings of power, Bartram shows us that the former will always be thwarted as long as the latter remains obscure. Stacked Decks is a compact study that raises big questions.  Anyone interested in cities, the built environment, racism, wealth inequality, and the operation of municipal, legal, and financial power will want to read it.”

Beryl Satter, Rutgers University

Stacked Decks is a much needed and methodologically cutting-edge example of the EMERGING sociology of housing, giving us new tools with which to observe that the long-standing structures that made housing opportunity unequal by race are alive and well in new forms. Expertly leveraging ethnography, interviews, archival records on code violations, and 311 calls, Bartram brings into glaring relief the seemingly mundane and invisible dynamics of urban housing, sounding an alarm about housing insecurity, racial equity, and social mobility in America. Stacked Decks is a must read as we as a nation consider how to confront our housing crises.”

Stefanie DeLuca, Johns Hopkins University

“Bartram brilliantly opens a window onto an enormous world of overlooked activity. We see how Chicago building inspectors take ‘stabs at justice’ as they enforce the law. Reading this book compels us to think about how all workers in America understand inequalities and injustices—and how they might use their discretion on the job to right the country’s wrongs.”

Debbie Becher, Barnard College, Columbia University

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Stacked Decks
Chapter 2. Building Inspections
Chapter 3. Rentals and Relative Assessments
Chapter 4. Helping Out Homeowners: Changing Faces and Stubborn Realities
Chapter 5. Justice Blockers
Conclusion. Reshuffling the Deck
Appendix A. Methodology
Appendix B. Building Violation Counts
Appendix C. Map of Strategic Task Force Inspections

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