A House but Not a Home: How Surveillance in Subsidized Housing Exacerbates Poverty and Reinforces Marginalizationedit
A robust literature has shown that surveillance disproportionately targets poor people of color through the criminal justice and welfare systems. However, little empirical research traces the mechanisms through which surveillance reproduces inequality in other domains, such as subsidized housing, where private actors including property owners and landlords do the work of surveilling tenants. In this article, I apply the theoretical lens of surveillance to the case of subsidized housing to explore the symbolic and material consequences of being monitored at home. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 67 low-income Black mothers in the Sunnyside neighborhood in Houston, Texas, I argue that the scrutiny mothers face in and around their homes reproduces inequality through two key mechanisms. First, surveillance creates a home environment devoid of privacy, that mothers liken to being in prison. Mothers interpret this scrutiny as an effort to control and contain them because of their race, reinforcing racialized notions of presumptive Black criminality. Second, surveillance heightens the material risk for mothers of being caught breaking rules, which paves the way for eventual eviction and exacerbates poverty. Although mothers develop strategies to counter and at times resist disciplinary monitoring, these efforts come with drawbacks that can make surviving poverty harder. Taken together, these findings suggest that being surveilled at home not only diminishes low-income Black mothers’ status in society, but also pushes them into deeper economic precarity. This research extends our understanding of the reach of surveillance into the lives of the poor even in spaces considered to be private.