Book review forum: Housing in the Margins

reviewed by Rachael Dobson, Nicholas Blomley, Allan Cochrane and Ryan Thomas Devlin

15 Feb 2024, 10:16 a.m.

Housing in the Margins book cover

Hanna Hilbrandt, Housing in the Margins: Negotiating Urban Formalities in Berlin’s Allotment Gardens, Chichester: John Wiley, 2021; 175 pages. ISBN: 978-1-119-54093-9, £60.00 (hbk); ISBN: 978-1-119-54091-5, £19.99 (pbk).


Commentary I

Reviewed by: Rachael Dobson, University of London, UK

Despite much in the way of intellectual in-roads by critical scholarship, particularly through the sorts of human geography and socio-legal debates referenced in Housing in the Margins, phenomena like legislative implementations and regulatory interventions are frequently understood in a priori, scalar and size-driven, distanced and detached terms. As Hanna Hilbrandt explains, drawing on Boudreau et al. (2016), this manifests most strongly through imaginings of the ‘muscular’ Global North-Western liberal democratic state that functions through powers of oppression and domination.

Such conceptions of an ‘enforcing’ state, allow for very specific readings of contemporary governance structures and governing techniques. For example, a type of sociality and complexity is recognised via engagement with plural, multi-level and horizontal municipal and urban regimes and institutions, the hegemonic logics and rationalities that contextualise and shape these, and the lived experiences of people both subjected to and subjectified by these. However, what persists is the notion that top-down ‘formalised’ laws and rules exist in the world and that these are implemented by state bureaucracies and actors, unless imposed-upon citizen-subjects happen to resist these via the ‘informal’, meaning, through their capacities to exercise power and agency via encounters and interactions with organisations, their officials and regulations. As Hilbrandt explains, this way of understanding governance systems and actors engenders dichotomous analyses that pitch the state against civil realms. It therefore reductively positions human subjects as holding or not holding power, as state-actors-sitting-inside versus ‘ordinary-people’-placed-outside of institutional sites and settings, in a Manichean oppressor/resistor dynamic (Hunter, 2015).

The significant contribution of Hilbrandt’s rich, scholarly and vivid urban ethnography of Berlin’s allotment gardens is that it challenges these ways of understanding the state via detailed and empirical engagement with its formal and informal aspects. In a ‘mainstream’ reading, the ‘informal’ sits outside the state. It is constructed as part of citizen subjects’ armour as they come to resist and challenge the state’s dominatory excesses, and the ‘deviant other’ to which formalities are diametrically opposed (p. 28). ‘Housing in the Margins’ teaches us something very different, demonstrating that informalities are constitutive of the thing we think of as the ‘formal’.

To develop that argument, Hilbrandt draws on sustained observations and interviews with a constellation of different actors and roles, and explores their everyday and ambivalent negotiations and encounters, as they come to interpret and enforce processes of regulation in a particular urban bureaucracy and location. Drawing on critical anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli’s claim that ‘little things pile up’, Hilbrandt traces the sedimentation of particular ways of being and doing, and the social, cultural and material legacies these build on and reproduce, to demonstrate how the state ‘itself’ becomes enacted via the everyday practices of actors within and beyond formalised institutions. In that analysis, informalities are therefore not separate to, small or partial as compared to the things we think of as formalities. Rather, negotiations around, for example, ‘enacting new land use categories, tolerating transgressions, and fighting regulations in court’, are ‘part and parcel of the making of order’ (p. 28), they ‘shape the state’s character and material form’ (p. 94) and are fundamental to ‘making states work’ (p. 142).

Such insights are a direct riposte to the dominance of static, flattened and two-dimensional portrayals of the state. They build on, as noted, existing efforts to think differently about the state’s formal aspects through, for example, well established debates about policy delivery. As referenced in the book, works by Lipsky (1980) have done much to demonstrate the state’s peopled and embodied form, and have pushed at the doors of relational, temporal and spatial theorising via claims that policy is made at the front-line rather than in ‘elite offices’ (Dobson, 2015). Hilbrandt’s argument goes further by keeping the multiple interdependencies of state-making, theoretically and empirically, in analytic frame. The reader is then introduced to, not just an intersubjectively produced state, but a sentient and living state; a state that is in constant, shifting and dynamic movement, the directions of which are curated through past–present–future spatial and temporal relations.

In that engagement with the state, any rule-binding, policy decisions and enforcement outcomes can be understood as temporary ‘meeting points’ (Hunter, 2008), moments of rest or pause that are an uneasy, potentially fraught, negotiated and provisional set of arrangements riven with power relations and ‘networks of wider constellations of governing’ (p. 99). And, of course, how and why these moments occur are demonstrated as grounded in ‘ruling relations’ with exclusionary effects for some individuals and social ‘groups’ (see the powerful recounting of racialising and racist discourses on p. 109).

Reading Housing in the Margins is a stimulating and thought-provoking experience. It is a badly needed intellectual intervention because it teaches us about a state ‘as is’, in contrast to the more normative, projective and phantasmatic portrayals that abound across the social and political sciences. As I was guided through empirical, historical and theoretical insights, I was reminded of just how effective ontological engagements with the state are, where these are grounded in materialities. The ‘stuff’ of urban and housing studies provides a hugely stimulating way-in to engage with ontological orientations. The ‘matter’ of earth, vegetation and soil, pathways and vehicle access, gas tanks and plumbing, washing machines and telephone lines are the tangible things on, over and through which negotiations take place by situated actors (see also Lea and Pheleros, 2010). Hilbrandt adds to this point when clarifying the utility of a focus on local municipality, explaining that such a scale ‘forces us to understand the density of the materialities that are being negotiated, the heterogeneity of the actor constellations involved, the multiple sites of political encounter, and the complexity of overlapping statutory frameworks in multilevel administrations’ (p. 28). Put another way, local-state activity and the materialities these rest on and reside in, are instrumentally and conceptually productive avenues for making sense of the ontologically unwieldy.

Hilbrandt’s book and central thesis inspire important questions that I find myself grappling with in my own theoretical and empirical work on policy and state making. As noted, the book sits at the level of the local-state, and I am curious to think more about how the argument developed translates to an empirical focus at the level of the central-state, and with strategic and senior policy and institutional actors. I also am interested in the sustained language of the ‘quiet’ and ‘small’ (see e.g. pp. 7, 16, 27) when the book’s conclusions point to the significance of everyday negotiations for the materialising of governance processes. I wonder if there will be a time when there is no need for such a framing and what it might take to get us there. Finally, the book’s observations of a negotiated and ‘living’ state highlight different ways to think about possibilities for social change. At one and the same time, we bear witness to both a type of temporary and uncertain state, and at other times the ‘fixing’ of negotiations can seem so predictable and sure in the making, especially when set in historical, material, social and cultural context. In the fight for social and racial justice, I find myself asking, how does understanding the state ‘as is’ open up questions to think about opportunities for disruption, and of what it could be?



Boudreau J-A, Liette G, Danielle L (2016) “Uneven state formalization and periurban housing production in Hanoi and Mexico City: Comparative reflections from the global South.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 48 (12):2383–2401. Crossref | ISI | Google Scholar

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Commentary II

Reviewed by: Nicholas Blomley, Simon Fraser University, Canada

There are many reasons why you should read this excellent book. It is empirically grounded, full of rich detail and drawn from sustained fieldwork. It is well written and refreshingly concise, with no self-indulgent theoretical excursions. It is theoretically rich, addressing and contributing to state theory, legal geography, housing studies, socio-legal scholarship, Southern urbanism and its applicability to Northern cities and the formality/informality debate. Its focus was, for me, pleasingly original: irregular urban housing in Berlin garden allotments. It occupies an interesting interstitiality. It is not a traditional story of domination or resistance, or the housed and the unhoused, but rather moves between and within these binaries. Lower middle-income residents occupy tidy bungalows, with well clipped proprietarian hedges and gardens bedecked by ornamental gnomes, while lacking secure title to the land they occupy. Similarly, the book resists the temptation to view formality as a pregiven, but rather argues for the ways in which law is enacted and negotiated relationality by multiple state and non-state actors. This moves the argument away from a view of formality as either a form of state domination or a manifestation of autonomous DIY creativity.

The book does not explicitly address the lived practices of property and its social relationality, yet it offers many contributions to critical property scholarship. Allotment dwellers are clearly performing property on the ground, drawing from a prevailing social grammar. Their access to shelter is legally precarious, in the sense that they are dependent on negotiations with other more powerfully situated legal actors. They might be said to be engaged in a form of urban commoning: while they possess individual parcels of land, they collectively regulate this through forms of shared governance.

The important point here, for me, is that despite their informal status, they are generally able to carve out a degree of relative security to the land and housing they claim, amidst ambivalence and precarity. It is as if they were in a ‘Gallic village’, as one respondent put it, echoing the indomitable village of Gauls that holds out against the Roman Empire in Gosciny’s ‘Asterix’ comic books.

Hanna Hilbrandt documents – convincingly – how the allotment dwellers are able to do so, through forms of creative negotiation and grudging consent. As she puts it: ‘Across all chapters, I describe the production of socio-spatial order as a co-operative effort that is shaped by all parties concerned and leads, at best, to a joint though contested arrangement’ (p. 8). While there are clearly asymmetries and exclusions at work in this relation, it nevertheless allows many allotment dwellers to keep the bureaucracy at bay, and thus hold on to residential space in a neoliberal city.

I find the argument compelling and convincing. I was also reminded of another space of informal property relations, that while similar in many ways, it is the differences that offer lessons for the broader application of Hanna Hilbrandt’s argument. This draws from my work with the Right to Remain Research Collective ( Our focus, in collaboration with local residents and social movements, has been to understand the particular space of privately owned Single Room Occupancy (SRO) suites in the ageing hotels of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Often thought of as the housing of last resort for poor and marginalised people, the SROs are often characterised by poor quality housing conditions, and highly precarious tenancy rights. At least a third of SRO residents are Indigenous.

If we define informality as a form of social life that takes place supposedly without state oversight, seemingly detached from formal regulation and control, then we can characterise the SRO as highly informal. Indeed, this is often the way in which it is represented, as a lawless, outlaw zone. This is both a reflection of the predatory actions of violent slumlords, using violence and coercion to target vulnerable landlords, and a generalised association of the Downtown Eastside, and its SROs in particular, as sites of rampant criminality and immorality. But it is also clear that the local state has deliberately chosen to not enforce many municipal codes and regulations, including those relating to property maintenance and building standards (despite having considerable regulatory powers to do so). It is also clear that regulators have chosen to characterise property relations in SROs between residents and owners as exceptional, electing to remove such interactions from pre-existent landlord–tenant law, removing tenants from the conditional ‘protections’ available to other tenants in the private rental sector. While this exception was subsequently removed, tenant protections are poorly enforced, and landlords are skilled at avoiding them (Blomley and The Right to Remain Collective, 2021).

Informality is evident in a structural sense. The land upon which Vancouver (and the entire province sits) is stolen, illegally seized from the Tsleil-Waututh (səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ), Kwikwetlem (kʷikʷəƛ̓əm), Squamish (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw) and Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm) Nations. As such, the settler colonial city is required to perform the remarkable feat of navigating between the illegal and the legal, performing certainty in the face of radical uncertainty. To the extent that it is able to enact legal certainty, the colonial titles upon which landlord power in the SRO rest are realised, while converting Indigenous residents into conditional tenants.

Following Hanna Hilbrandt’s analysis, it is clear that this cannot be simply characterised as a lawless space. The apparent absence of regulation in the space of the SRO needs to be recognised as a legal decision, not a legal absence. Absence of enforcement, in other words, is not absence of law. Similarly, the apparent thin ice of colonial title is skated over through multiple forms of settler performances.

Yet unlike the Berlin allotments, this is clearly not a space of cooperative coproduction. It is not one that creates a degree of autonomous action for an otherwise precarious population, which successfully keeps the law at bay. Rather, this is a space of racialised and gendered precarity, producing forms of social death. It creates a form of radical precarity, further marginalising an already vulnerable population. Rather than keeping the law at bay, residents struggle for law, and for rights.

How might we understand the differences here? While both are clearly sites in which property relations are in play, the logics that underpin them seem different. We need to situate property and law in social logics of racial capitalism, and the manner in which they structure particular forms of propertied subjecthood. While both allotment dweller and SRO resident are legally precarious, they are surely differently imagined in the calculus of worth that undergirds property. The white lower middle-class allotment dwellers, with their tidy, detached bungalow surrounded by hedges, must be differently positioned as compared to the Indigenous tenant on ‘Skid Row’. This is not to refute Hanna Hillbrandt’s argument, but rather to extend it. There is much we can draw from her analysis that will help us make sense of the ‘informality’ of the SRO, and other propertied urban spaces in the Global North. To do so, however, we need to contextualise property and law.



Blomley N and The Right to Remain Collective (2021) Making property outlaws: Law and Relegation. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 45(6): 911–929. Crossref | Google Scholar



Commentary III

Reviewed by: Allan Cochrane, The Open University, UK

The materiality of the urban is conventionally represented in terms of infrastructure, such as roads, sewage pipes, railways and power cables; the concentration of housing in streets, high rise buildings and terraces; office blocks, retail spaces and factories; bricks, concrete and glass; industrial dereliction and shiny new development. The existence of parks and public spaces may be acknowledged but they are secondary (for an attempt to challenge this narrative, see Neal et al., 2015).

However, as this book so gloriously confirms, such a vision of the urban is partial and misleading. It ignores the extent to which the daily life – the ordinary life – of the city is also defined through features that are deeply embedded within it yet fit uneasily within such dominant visions of the urban and may even come together to present alternative ways of living.

Hanna Hilbrandt takes us on a fascinating tour of Berlin’s allotment gardens and the ways in which they have provided dwelling spaces for some of those occupying them. In a powerful and engaged history she positions them clearly within the wider story of the city’s development and that of the German state, from their roots in the imperial moment of the late 19th century to the present day. She charts their resilience even through the Nazi period, their redefinition in the divided city of the post Second World War period and sometimes uneasy incorporation into a united Germany. And this history leads thoughtfully into an active reflection on the present day. In describing her research methods she goes further to bring the contemporary allotment experience to life – outlining her impressions of different gardens or ‘colonies’; incorporating informative photographic images; introducing residents and gardeners in their own words and talking to those who take on the organisation of the allotment associations. A series of housing biographies helps to bring the underlying relations to life as the residents and occupiers of the gardens are encouraged to speak for themselves.

In the process an unspoken everyday politics of the city begins to emerge. Because the emphasis is on those who live in the gardens, using them as housing or dwelling spaces, it also points to a potentially transgressive politics – one that challenges and questions the formal assumptions (and legal expectations) about the role of the allotments as sites historically intended to foster the well-being of urban dwellers through enabling them to access open space, to pursue healthy leisure activities and grow fresh vegetables. One of the central issues to be considered is understanding how living in the garden allotments comes to be accepted or acceptable, even as it is expressly excluded as a legitimate use of the land and buildings on it. The ambiguities that underpin these arrangements are central to the argument that is developed.

In pursuing these concerns, Hanna Hilbrandt opens up more fundamental questions around the relationship between formal and informal governance. Drawing on wider debates (particularly those developed in discussions of urban living in the Global South) she questions the traditional distinction between formality and informality. Instead, she highlights the ways in which informal processes located outside the framework of legal systems and state structures are themselves part of a more complex process of negotiation that shapes (and effectively formalises) a set of understandings that determine the lived experience of those dwelling in and using the allotment gardens. While she notes the ways in which the formal rules are stretched and broken, she also sets out the ways in which new formalities are generated through the very practices of negotiated informality. This is apparent both in the working of their own community institutions – the clubs that exist at the level of the individual colony – but also in their interaction with state bureaucracies. Hilbrandt puts forward a vision of urban governance that is pursued through mundane processes of negotiation within and beyond the colonies. Legal rules that seem clear in some formulations become ambiguous to the extent that debates around what is acceptable become routine rather than exceptional.

While state officials have to make judgements about what is acceptable in practice (and not just in legal form) so those living in and using the allotment gardens have to discipline themselves, seeking to avoid behaviour that might draw attention to the ways in which they are moving beyond the formal rules while also finding ways of managing social relations in the spaces of the allotments in ways that fit with what appear to be community norms. Hilbrandt subtly charts the ways in which space is negotiated by those involved, walking the tightrope of acceptability, in ways that suggest it is not so transgressive after all, in moving beyond any simple distinction between formal and informal arrangements to set out what she describes as negotiating formality, producing urban formalities.

The book sets out a complex picture of urban governance in which different actors are necessarily dependent on each other. It questions models in which state agencies are always the dominant or decisive players and successfully uncovers a politics of governance that stretches across institutional boundaries. It highlights some of the possibilities of communal governance in the gardens, but also their potential limitations – the extent to which, and ways in which, they may lead to the exclusion (or disciplining) of those deemed not to fit in. Hilbrandt notes the ways this may advantage particular groups or individuals in an unfair manner, because of how they are positioned within what she describes as ‘constellations of consent’. This is an issue that might usefully be considered further to reflect on where power lies within emergent forms of urban governance, or perhaps simply who benefits and who loses out from its operation.

Hanna Hilbrandt charts a series of overlapping and often unspoken compromises. This enables her to effectively challenge those who frame matters through the simple lens of neoliberalism or other overarching power structures. She persuasively identifies the role of allotment holders in determining how the land is used – often in negotiation with bureaucracies. She points to the intertwining of urban planning and governance with self-production and incrementalism. But from another perspective the experience of the allotment gardens could also be read as a subtle description of the ways in which existing power structures are shaped and maintained in practice, in ways that incorporate the different players in the outcomes that emerge. In some key respects the book sets out what looks less like the espousal and promotion of an alternative lifestyle and more like a process of negotiated self-discipline, which is reflected in club rules and oral agreements as much as top-down decision-making. Rather than being transgressive or a challenge to dominant governing regimes, what is generated is a negotiated acceptance of existing arrangements.

This is a stimulating and thought-provoking book, deeply rooted in the experience of one city but raising issues of wider significance for those seeking to understand urban governance, as well as drawing attention to aspects of urban life that all too often are marginalised. The research allows those involved in the politics of everyday life to speak for themselves and uses their words to build a convincing story about the ways in which cities are governed and govern themselves, generating their own formalities beyond those of electoral politics and planning legislation.



Neal S, Bennett K, Jones H, et al. (2015) Multiculture and public parks: Researching super-diversity and attachment in public green spaces. Population, Space and Place 21(5): 463–475. Crossref | ISI | Google Scholar



Commentary IV

Reviewed by: Ryan Thomas Devlin, Temple University, USA

After nearly 50 years of use in urban studies, the term ‘informality’ is starting to groan under the weight of conceptual accumulation. Initially employed by development economists and economic sociologists to understand livelihood and housing strategies of the urban poor in the Global South, the study of the informal city now permeates all corners of urban studies. It has also long since travelled to the Global North, puncturing the notion that informality is a function of ‘underdevelopment’ in cities of the South. Despite its peripatetic journey across disciplines and geographies the idea of informality is still freighted with connotations of inferiority, poverty and otherness – so much so that some urbanists argue for its wholesale jettisoning (Agha and Lambert, 2020). While I do not agree that the concept of informality is irredeemably compromised, the concept does need to be fundamentally reconstructed in a way that emphasises its universality as a strategy for city-making employed by all sorts of actors in cities everywhere.

Hannah Hilbrandt’s book, Housing in the Margins: Negotiating Urban Formalities in Berlin’s Allotment Gardens, serves as a signpost pointing us towards a revised understanding of informality; one that views the informal not as a watermark of deficiency, but rather as an elemental and relational assemblage of material, social, political and administrative practices that enables a variety of actors, both inside and outside the state, to manage urban problems by working the edges of formal laws and institutions. In Housing in the Margins, Hilbrandt presents the case of allotment gardens in Berlin. These gardens, which often contain small huts that middle-class Berliners use as seasonal or year-round living quarters, are rather inoffensive, one may even say charming, examples of informality. The study of allotment gardens is an interesting deviation from most studies of informality, which tend to focus on housing and livelihood strategies of the urban poor, and the often intense conflict over the nature, image and form of urban space that results. Allotment garden living, on the other hand, is a practice that, while it violates laws and policies, has a long history on both sides of the once divided city, and, in Hilbrandt’s telling, is seen as a relatively minor transgression among most people in Berlin. It subject of negotiation between the state and practitioners, rather than fierce confrontation.

Conditioned as many scholars of informality are to examples of extreme disparities, desperation and pitched conflict, one may reflexively ask, why do allotment gardens matter? What can this relatively tranquil example contribute to our understanding of informal urbanism? I argue that, precisely by presenting a relatively non-conflictual, non-existential example of informal urbanism, Hilbrandt makes two important contributions. First, because the case of allotment gardens is characterised by relatively civil negotiation between state actors and urban residents rather than overt conflict, Hilbrandt is able to focus in on the nuanced way that state actors – individual administrators with specific aims and motivations – co-produce the informal through their own interpretations and operationalisations of laws and codes. Second, because allotment gardens are somewhat unexceptional practices, she demonstrates how the use of informality by various actors in Berlin is itself unexceptional. It is part and parcel of normal, everyday life in the city. In this way, Hilbrandt shows how informality is intrinsic to governance and management in Berlin, helping puncture the ‘myth of formality’ (Jaffe and Koster, 2019) in the Global North generally, and in Northern European cities more specifically.

Regarding the first contribution mentioned above, that of an understanding of an informality that is coproduced by state actors and urban residents, Hilbrandt provides detailed insight on the ‘mechanisms through which room for maneuver is gained and constrained in everyday (re)production of urban order and the exclusions these processes entail’ (p.1). She demonstrates how the production of the informal can be considered a complex assemblage (Dovey, 2012) of factors, produced by economic rationales, individual preferences, state strategies and path-dependent social and administrative histories. State policy and administrative decisions emerge as an important factor in the provenance and persistence of allotment garden living. In bringing the state back into the analysis, Hilbrandt follows the lead of a number of scholars in demonstrating the ways in which informality is not simply something ‘done’ by the poor, but is produced, enabled and used by the state as a means of governance (see for instance, Roy, 2005; Yiftachel, 2009). However, Hilbrandt avoids the overcorrection sometimes made in studies of state-produced informality where informality is analysed as solely or primarily a Foucauldian state tool of inescapable, flexible management. As Hilbrandt argues, ‘these accounts leave little room to explore the motivations and rationalities of all concerned agents, including the ambivalent and individual experiences of people acting beyond presumed institutional roes in sites of governance’ (p.21). Hilbrandt asks us to think of the informal less as an apparatus of decentralised state power and more as a zone where collaboration, even partnership, emerges among state actors and society through a negotiated production of space.

The gardens solve problems for both state actors and gardeners. They serve as a release value from the pressures of housing costs for Berlin residents, and a flexible way of managing the housing crisis. In this sense, Hilbrandt positions allotment gardens as a site where sharp categories of legal/illegal break down, and the discrete conversations between bureaucrats, enforcement agents and residents produce actually existing policy. As Hilbrandt states, the ‘room for maneuvering through rules lies, in part, beyond the realm of state institutions and is used, and at times coproduced, through civil and institutional actors’ (p. 8). This is in some ways reflective of Lipsky’s (1980) notion of the importance of ‘street level bureaucrats’ in policy implementation. But Hilbrandt goes further than Lipsky’s analysis of implementation, by showing how the street level policy implementation is not simply a function of decisions made unilaterally by individual enforcement agents, but rather ‘cooperative process’ (p.8) whereby all parties use informality to negotiate outside the formal rule of law.

Through the example of allotment gardens Hilbrandt shows that negotiation of rules and laws is a normal, everyday process in Berlin. By choosing a case of middle-class informality, one that is relatively mainstream and non-conflictual, Hilbrandt is able to provide us with an example of what can be called ‘ordinary’ informality. This is the second major contribution of this book. Hilbrandt brings the study of informality into the rather mundane, everyday workings of the city, its residents, and its administrators. Robinson (2006), in her call for a more post-colonial understanding of the world of cities, points us towards an idea of ‘ordinary cities’. This is a view of cities not dependent on notions of exemplars or exceptions. In this view, and in Hilbrandt’s telling, Berlin loses its aura of an efficient, rule-based, Northern-European global city and becomes simply another place where residents try to piece together lives in ways that bend or break rules governing urban space, and urban administrators bend and negotiate rules themselves as they attempt to manage on-the-ground realities. Berlin, when viewed from this angle, starts to share commonalities with other cities across the North–South divide. In taking us into the allotment gardens, Hilbrandt helps place Berlin in conversation with a world of cities where space is negotiated, where actually existing governance unfolds in the zone between laws as written and laws as lived, and where the informal is a fundamental aspect of city-making.



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Author response

Reviewed by: Hanna Hilbrandt, University of Zurich, Switzerland

I thank all reviewers – Rachael Dobson, Ryan Thomas Devlin, Allan Cochrane, Nicholas Blomley – for their through-provoking, generous and insightful engagement with my book Housing in the Margins. I also want to use this opportunity to thank Walter Nicholls for organising the AAG session from which this forum emerges, as well as Michele Acuto and Julia Macbeth from Urban Studies for facilitating it. The commentaries assembled here provide me with the opportunity to think again and further about the book’s core concerns with the ways in which practices of regulation, transgression and negotiation define the everyday workings of the state in the context of legal uncertainty and housing precarity. Given all commentaries touch on this topic, I focus this short response on questions about state power: how to understand it in contexts of legal ambiguity, how to account for legal (property) relations and norms in mediating power and how to depict its operation in these contexts. While state theories and policy anthropologists have long considered these questions, it is worth revisiting them in the context of informality debates to better understand legal ambiguity and regulatory enactment as a site of power.

To address Allen Cochrane’s questions ‘where power lies within emergent forms of urban governance’ and ‘who benefits and who loses out from its operation’ requires considering how – with which resources and through which modalities – power relations are practised in situations we might designate as informal. Housing in the Margins approaches the operation of state power through a cast of differently positioned actors who implement, follow, fix and bend rules: urban bureaucrats, gardeners dwelling in allotments or neighbouring allotment dwellers, as well as officials in Berlin’s allotment associations. Their power operates not through law-making itself. Rather, the book traces how actors on both sides of the (presumed) institutional boundaries employ legal frameworks in registers of everyday control, discretion and small-scale transgression in situations of legal ambiguity. This implies mediating and legitimising routines and norms, and it includes drawing boundaries that demarcate the limits of such wriggle room, thereby yielding both the more disciplinary powers of norm-making and self-making as well as the more repressive registers of authority and domination. To these ends, all actors concerned mobilise political networks between the gardens and the local bureaucracy (what I call ‘constellations of consent’), as well as different frameworks of order as leverage to fortify their interpretations. At the same time the book points to the ways in which these definitional powers work to exclude those whose dwelling practices lie beyond the norms established in these operations.

To widen the registers of power that play out in situations of legal ambiguity and regulatory transgression, let me also account for more asymetic power relations between those who yield state power (in and beyond state institutions) and those who are subject to it. To be sure, the book also speaks of stark power differentials when it explores evictions or more directly confrontational forms of boundary making in the gardens. The differences between these asymmetric registers and more horizontal power relations allows me to pick up on Nicholas Blomley’s concern with the broader applicability of the negotiations Housing in the Margins describes. Reflecting on research he conducted with the Right to Remain Research Collective on Single Room Occupancy (SRO) in Vancouver’s downtown hotels, Blomley points to a space where rampant power disparities define a struggle to avoid ‘social death’ (see also Blomley and The Right to Remain Collective, 2021). As I understand it, these are sites of governance in which the ‘boundaries’ of law have been redrawn by a ‘muscular’ state that employs property and rental law to ‘outlaw’ (Blomley and The Right to Remain Collective, 2021) the inhabitants of the SROs through interpreting law in ways that strips residents of the legal protection they should be granted. These interpretations in the interest of property owners legitimate landlords’ practices of eviction and negligence, thereby echoing the registers in which state power is increasingly described in informality debates (Roy, 2009). In both cases law – legal uncertainty and legal reasoning/interpretation/discretion – creates opportunities for arbitrariness which is used in different ways: on what does it depend which modes of state power prevail?

Nicholas Blomley’s commentary points to the need to contextualise ‘property and law in social logics of racial capitalism, and the manner in which they structure particular forms of propertied subjecthood’. I agree that to address the question why some residents can count on a degree of stability and others cannot, it is useful to start from considering property, and while echoing Nicholas Blomley’s concerns, I want to bring them back to the book’s core theme: negotiating formalities. To be sure, the residents of the SROs are (or have been rendered) propertyless, vis-a′-vis the gardeners in the allotment case who own their huts (not though the land in most cases). Without doubt, their owning or not-owning property is hugely consequential for their relation to the state. What can also be learned by talking across these cases concerns, in my opinion, is the critical importance of the power to construct meaning, and to institutionalise it in face of legal ambiguity. While some gardeners manage to legitimize and institutionalise interpretations on which they claim a right to stay put, in the case of the SROs the state and the landlords assert themselves in the interpretation of the SROs as outside of tenancy law. What is crucial then to account for Nicholas Blomley’s intervention and consider the wider applicability of the book’s concerns with negotiating power, is to consider how the ability to build coalitions and wield power in ways that stabilise the interpretations of different legal provisions articulates with imaginaries of the allotment gardeners as white and orderly spaces or with those of tenants residing in SROs, that is, on the normative underpinnings that are at the core of racial capitalism and liberal property regimes.

Another way of considering the power relations at play is by confronting the methodological starting points through which scholars envision the state. The book extends imaginaries of state power in informality research in which the state is viewed at a distance and thus appears to be big, fixed and bound. While such optics lend themselves to highlighting the top-down powers of domination and oppression, they tend to obscure the small-scale interventions that may be powered by practices that work in more horizontal ways. Rachael Dobson’s commentary here and analysis elsewhere (Dobson, 2020) highlight the necessity to depict the state ‘as is’, constantly in the making through practices that may appear both big and small. Dobson enquires about the possibilities of such an approach to explore ‘opportunities for disruption’ in the ‘fight for social and racial justice’. Exploring these disruptions with what Dobson calls ‘ontological orientations’ may be particularly fruitful when thinking about power relations in situations of legal ambiguity, where it becomes more complicated to analytically ‘fix’ the state or delineate if practices are (or are not) formal. Perhaps, precisely in these concerns – to learn about the related political repertoires in situations of legal ambiguity – lies the critical potential for research on informality that overcomes binary thinking in ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the state. Even if I have also argued that the notion of informality is ‘compromised’, I side here with Ryan Devlin’s comment that it is perhaps not irredeemably so: much of informality research has shown how the everyday life of the state functions in practice. If we think of informality as ‘intrinsic to governance’, as Devlin puts it and the book also suggests, it may offer a lens that accounts for the state ‘as is’ and through that provide crucial insights into how the state powers discussed in this commentary work in the fight for justice.



Blomley N and The Right to Remain Collective (2021) Making property outlaws: Law and Relegation. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 45(6): 911–929. Crossref | Google Scholar

Dobson R (2020) Local government and practice ontologies: Agency, resistance and sector speaks in homelessness services. Local Government Studies 46(4): 583–603. Crossref | Google Scholar

Roy A (2009) Why India cannot plan its cities: Informality, insurgence and the idiom of urbanization. Planning Theory 8(1): 76–87. Crossref | ISI | Google Scholar



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