Under-Propertied Persons

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Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy


Property shapes the way we talk about our communities and ourselves. It also, unintentionally, shapes the way we talk about the poor. Within property, the doctrine of waste reinforces notions of autonomy, privacy, and boundary-making for property owners, while leaving those without property searching for other ways to assert these self-defining protections. Likewise, nuisance assists owners' participation in their communities by dictating when individuals must account for harms their property use causes to neighbors. The law, however, provides few legal remedies for poor persons who are harmed by owners' sanctioned use of property. Through the language of ownership, property doctrines facilitate special benefits for those with property, while forcing those outside of property to seek other means to assert similar benefits. Owners-landlords of gap rentals, public housing authorities, and cities-often treat their poorest residents as problems to be managed rather than residents deserving autonomy and community. Housing units are destroyed, families are displaced, and homeless are forced further out of sight. The doctrines and rules that encourage these outcomes focus on the improper, the impaired, or the imperfect instead of facilitating discourse about how living environments promote human flourishing for these residents. In this way, our property system's rules and language create a class of persons who are under-propertied, under-housed, and under-valued.