The University of Chicago Magazine Feb 1995

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Chicago's high-rise public housing was constructed on a foundation of prejudice. It took the landmark Gautreaux v. the Chicago Housing Authority, a case hard fought by U of C alumni, to frame some new solutions-from the ground up.

By Debra Shore
Photography by Lloyd DeGrane

At 1533 W. Pratt in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood stands a two-unit townhouse like any other on the block. Actually, it appears cleaner and newer than the others, because it was built in 1990 and Niokie Perry, who has lived there for a year with her two children, does her best to keep the yard neat. Certainly this modest building doesn't look like a battlefield, nor is it listed in any guidebooks as a historic site meriting inclusion on a national register.

Yet if history has shown that wars are sometimes won in a series of small skirmishes, then 1533 W. Pratt-and 1424 N. Artesian and 1215 Maplewood and 11223 S. Green Bay-are all scenes of notable victories in the huge struggle to fight urban decay-what used to be called the War on Poverty. That war is being fought in Chicago building by building, block by block, census tract by census tract.

What's notable is that the fight has been transformed from the capitalized frontal assault begun in the 1960s to a lower-case battle waged guerrilla-style at sites scattered throughout the city and suburbs. The old War has as its monuments of defeat the forlorn hulks of public-housing projects like Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini Green. Today's war has as its signs of modest success new homes such as Niokie Perry's and a subsidized-rent program giving families the chance to move to private apartments in the suburbs.

The change in strategy and tactics reflects the fact that most people now agree the huge concentration of poverty found among the residents of high-rise public housing is a signal disaster for the residents themselves, for their urban neighborhoods, and for society at large.

Scholars may differ about the reasons for concentrated poverty, but none deny its devastating harm. "When you concentrate poverty," argues Douglas Massey, a co-author of American Apartheid and former U of C professor of public policy (he moved to the University of Pennsylvania last fall), "you concentrate anything that's correlated with poverty-female heads of households, welfare dependency, crime, violence."

Speaking before a symposium on public housing held in Chicago last summer, Massey talked about the pernicious effects of the segregation long found in Chicago's public-housing projects: "You force a group to adapt to this environment, and they adapt in ways the rest of society simply does not find very attractive. The way you adapt to a hostile environment is by becoming hostile, by becoming violent yourself."

Desegregation, according to Massey, is the key to avoiding the damaging consequences of concentrated poverty. But dismantling the ghetto has proved to be an immense task, as can be seen in the long and often frustrating history of a landmark class-action case, Gautreaux v. the Chicago Housing Authority. Filed 28 years ago by a team of American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, including several U of C alumni, and taken all the way to the Supreme Court, the hard-fought case has fostered viable solutions to the problem of segregation in public housing that, over time, have become models for the nation.

The history of high-rise public housing in Chicago's ghetto-and the problems it has created-begins between 1957 and 1961. During that period, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) completed three projects in already predominantly black neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side: Together, Stateway Gardens, the Henry Horner Homes, and a later addition to Horner numbered 24 high-rise buildings and 3,340 apartments. In the early 1960s, virtually next door to Stateway Gardens, the CHA built the Robert Taylor Homes: 28 16-story buildings with 4,415 apartments. Today, with more than 12,300 official residents (and generally double that number of unofficial residents), Robert Taylor-located in an area with one of the nation's highest concentrations of urban poverty-remains the largest public-housing unit in the world.

In the 1960s, civil-rights activists in Chicago began charting the pervasive pattern of segregation in the CHA's selection of public-housing sites. These activists formed the Chicago Freedom Movement to fight housing discrimination, and in the summer of 1966 hundreds joined in marches and rallies led by Martin Luther King, Jr. By August, the Chicago Freedom Movement ceased its demonstrations on the promise that city government and civic groups would work together toward opening up housing.

August 1966 also saw the birth of Gautreaux. The suit stemmed from a civil-rights committee established in 1965 by the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union-a committee that placed the selection of public-housing sites among its chief concerns. Filed in federal district court against the CHA, the class-action suit charged that, since 1950, almost all of the sites selected by the CHA for family public-housing projects had been in black neighborhoods, and that the housing agency had "deliberately chosen sites for such projects which would avoid the placement of Negro families in white neighborhoods."

The lead lawyer in the ACLU's effort was Alexander Polikoff, AB'48, AM'50, JD'53. As a law student at Chicago, Polikoff had begun a long association with the ACLU, assisting Abner Mikva, JD'51, and the late Bernard Weisberg, AB'48, JD'52, in several pro bono cases. After graduating, he joined the Chicago law firm of Schiff, Hardin & Waite but continued to pursue his interest in civil-liberties issues through work with the ACLU.

In filing the Gautreaux suit, Polikoff-assisted by attorneys Weisberg, Charles R. Markels, Milton I. Shadur, SB'43, JD'49, and Merrill A. Freed, AB'49, JD'53-hoped to prove an intentional pattern of racial discrimination under Title VI, a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlaws such discrimination in any program receiving federal aid.

To bring their case, they found several black CHA tenants and applicants who wished to live in less-segregated sites. One was Dorothy Gautreaux, a civil-rights activist and a resident of the South Side's Altgeld-Murray apartments. "She was a strong woman," Polikoff recalls, "a leader, and a fighter."

In 1953, when Dorothy Gautreaux registered with the CHA, she desperately needed housing-and was well aware of the CHA's unstated policy of excluding blacks from public-housing projects in white neighborhoods and limiting the number of blacks in mixed-neighborhood projects. Indeed, as the plaintiffs noted, after 1949 the CHA "deliberately determined not to submit any sites for City Council approval…which would result in the placement of Negro families in white neighborhoods."

"Everybody knew this was going on," says Polikoff. What he and his fellow ACLU attorneys didn't know was whether they could prove it in court. Then a "bombshell" deposition from a CHA official revealed that the CHA had yielded to the power of the aldermanic veto in Chicago's City Council-and that the only sites the City Council would approve were in solidly black neighborhoods.

"The point at which I first began to think we had any chance at all to win the case was when [the CHA's] response came in to our motion for summary judgment," recalls Merrill Freed, now a partner at D'Ancona & Pflaum. "I expected the CHA to defend on the basis of economics, to say that land in white sections of the city was too costly, so it was build in the ghetto or not build at all.

"But that's not what they did. They said they submitted a balanced group of sites when they were getting ready to build and that white aldermen nixed the sites in their wards, so they were deliberately implementing a program of racial segregation!"

In February 1969-seven months after Dorothy Gautreaux died of cancer at age 41-federal Judge Richard Austin ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

But then the thorny question became how to translate the court's decision into a workable housing strategy-a problem even more complex than school segregation. As Polikoff points out: "We couldn't move buildings around in the same way you could move schoolchildren."

The remedy finally suggested by Polikoff and others was for the CHA to build public housing on sites scattered throughout the city-in fact, on sites located in predominantly white neighborhoods "so that over time," Polikoff says, "the numerical imbalance would be changed."

So ordered Judge Austin in July 1969. In hindsight, the exact ruling-which defined scattered-site housing as no more than 32 units per site, with 64 units being allowed under special conditions-had its own tinges of irony. "Nobody today would want 32 on one site, let alone 64," says Polikoff. "But in the context of the times, 32 units seemed awfully small."

For its part, the CHA had little incentive-beyond the federal court order-to begin implementing a politically unpopular program, nor did it have the development expertise to do so. Instead, the agency resisted the court decree so steadily that Polikoff repeatedly pleaded to the court: "Take it away from them. Get someone else to do the job." That plea was finally granted in 1987, when federal Judge Marvin Aspen decided to wrest control from the CHA and appoint a receiver to take over the agency's role in supplying the scattered-site housing required by the Gautreaux decision.

Enter Daniel Levin, JD'53, a classmate of Polikoff's at the U of C Law School and a successful private-sector developer in Chicago as the sole owner of the Habitat Company, a firm that manages 25 properties with more than 11,000 apartments throughout the city.

The Habitat Company was one of only three candidates recommended by a citizens' committee to manage the scattered-site program. "Most people who were mentioned as possible receivers had no interest in it," Levin recalls, "because they thought it was too complicated, they didn't believe in it, they felt they wouldn't make enough money, and they knew they would be criticized." But Habitat had a successful record in housing production, some experience with affordable-housing development, a demonstrated financial and organizational capacity, and a willingness to do the job. As Levin recalls, "I felt, `There's got to be a way of doing this thing so that it's sensible, because there's a court order.'"

However, by the time Habitat was appointed in 1987, Levin says, "Chicago was pretty well built up. In most white areas of the city, there were almost no single-family zoned lots that were not built on-and the land that was available is at a price prohibitive for the program."

Still, in the last seven years, Habitat has constructed close to 1,000 townhouses, compatible with their surrounding neighborhoods, in 37 different areas of the city. By late 1996, Habitat will have built or rehabilitated close to 2,000 units of housing at an average cost of $90,000 to $100,000 per unit in areas ranging from 111th Street on the South Side to Rogers Park on the north.

Although Habitat finds the sites and selects an architect and contractor, management of the finished buildings is turned over to community organizations such as Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, Hull House's Housing Resource Center, and the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation. These agencies select, and assist, tenants.

Dilia Saeedi, vice president of property management at the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, describes the typical tenant as "a single mother with two or three children. She's on welfare, and if a child is a teenager-even if the teenager's not a gang member, then their friends are, and the gang is going to become visible in the community.

"They bring their reality with them along with their furniture," Saeedi says, "and we have no funds in our budgets to deal with that reality-to deal with the reality of helplessness, to deal with the reality of teaching them housekeeping because they have never seen painted walls, because their walls have never been painted before."

And yet, notes Sue Brady, property manager for the Housing Resource Center, "tenants show remarkable changes if they stay with us over time. More people become employed; more kids finish high school; more people reach out for help."

Niokie Perry, for instance, had spent four years in old-style CHA housing at the Lathrop Homes, contending with terminal mildew inside her one-bedroom apartment and needles, crack bags, and urine in the hallway outside. Although she'd heard the waiting list for scattered-site units was ten years long, she began calling property manager Virginia Billings at the Housing Resource Center. "I called her about once a week," Perry recalls, "and then I was so desperate I called her about twice a week. Finally this apartment became available and I was so grateful."

In 1993, she moved to her new residence, a ground-floor, three-bedroom apartment in a group of three townhouses at the corner of Pratt and Bosworth. The place is modest-about 1,000 square feet-but clean, with a parking space out back and nothing to identify it as "public housing."

This past October, Perry enrolled in an 11-month cosmetology course at nearby Truman College; she talks of someday owning her own salon. In the meantime she spends all her free moments with her daughters, Erin, 5, and Jasmine, 1, and dreams-this woman who has never had a vacation in her life-of taking her girls to Disney World and "letting them know that the world is bigger than Chicago."

As much as Niokie Perry has improved her circumstances by moving out of the ghetto, residents of scattered-site housing don't totally escape the stigma of public housing. Often neighborhood residents protest the placement of even modest three-unit townhouses in their communities, as happened recently in Humboldt Park. There, in a census tract with no assisted housing and a population that is 75 to 80 percent Hispanic, Habitat proposed building about 130 units. When the residents protested, Habitat revised its plan to include 77 units, a community garden and playlot, and a management/maintenance office with a room for community use.

Beyond such practical challenges is the reality that scattered-site housing, by itself, will not solve Chicago's public-housing segregation problems. There are just too many low-income blacks who need housing compared to the potential number of scattered-site residences available within the city.

Instead, an increasingly popular alternative is to provide rent subsidies within the private sector. As with scattered-site housing, this attempt to address the problem of segregation in public housing is a direct product of Gautreaux-and may prove to be a far more lasting legacy.

When Alex Polikoff and his ACLU team sued the CHA on behalf of Dorothy Gautreaux in 1966, they also filed a separate suit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, charging that HUD shared responsibility for public-housing discrimination in Chicago. Judge Austin dismissed the suit against HUD in 1969, saying that the agency had merely supplied funding to the CHA. However, in 1971 the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, reversed Austin's decision.

Because HUD's programs and jurisdiction encompassed the entire Chicago metropolitan area, including the suburbs, Polikoff tried to persuade Judge Austin that the remedy for the department's past discrimination need not be confined to the Chicago city limits. (In 1970, Polikoff left private practice to become executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a Chicago public-interest law firm, and the Gautreaux case moved with him.)

Supporters of Gautreaux were delighted with the appellate ruling holding HUD responsible, and they hoped that would end the matter. But the government sought a decision from the highest court in the land, thus pitting Polikoff against another Law School classmate, Robert Bork, AB'48, JD'53, then Solicitor General of the United States. Polikoff remembers when he got the call saying the Supreme Court had agreed to hear the case on the question of metropolitan relief: "I was so mad I kicked a metal wastebasket and hurt my toe."

Polikoff knew he was vulnerable. The Court's decision in a recent school-desegregation case from Detroit, Milliken v. Bradley, would seem to have ruled out Polikoff's proposed remedy. Thus, on January 20, 1976, when he finally appeared before eight Supreme Court justices ( John Paul Stevens, AB'41, had recused himself, because he had been involved in earlier rulings on aspects of the Gautreaux case), Polikoff did everything he could to refute Milliken as a precedent.

People seek housing within a greater metropolitan area, Polikoff contended-not solely within the boundaries of political entities. "The nature of the wrong in this case is not a schools wrong, it is a housing wrong," Polikoff argued. "And the nature of the universe of housing is that we deal with market areas, we don't deal with identifiable and confined geographic units called school districts. And the nature of the housing wrong in this case not only justifies but compels the equitable relief of using the housing-market area as the remedial geography."

Rarely do oral arguments tip the balance in a Supreme Court decision. Yet Polikoff later learned from a clerk that, on that day in Washington, his did. In April 1976, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision affirming the principle of metropolitan-area relief. HUD could, as an appropriate remedy, provide alternate housing for Chicago families throughout the area.

Spurred by the Supreme Court ruling, HUD adapted its Section 8 rent-subsidy program (established in 1974) to help public-housing residents move into private housing in low-poverty areas of the city and suburbs. Since November 1976, the program has helped more than 5,000 families find housing in more than 100 communities in six northeastern Illinois counties.

Administered by the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, the Gautreaux model not only gives families rent subsidies but also counseling and assistance in locating housing, with staff working to enlist landlords as program participants. And a seven-year study of Gautreaux families by Northwestern University education professor James Rosenbaum shows that these assisted moves to the suburbs have been beneficial to both parents and children.

"The program is distinctive because it creates both residential and school desegregation," Rosenbaum wrote recently in the North Carolina Law Review. "Children arrive in suburban schools as community residents, not as outsiders in a busing program, and they come to school in the same bus as their white neighbors." Studying some 400 families, Rosenbaum also found that the parents were more likely to find work in the suburbs and their children were far more likely to enroll in college or find full-time jobs than their city counterparts.

Across several cities and agencies, the influence of Gautreaux seems to be spreading. Even the CHA is trying to reform the city's public-housing structure-an effort led by Vincent Lane, MBA'73.

Since 1988, when he was named chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority, Lane has been attempting to wrest that moribund bureaucracy-an "adjudicated wrongdoer," in the words of HUD regional administrator Edwin Eisendrath-into the late 20th century. Generally, Lane has received high marks-though his ability to make dramatic changes has been hampered by the mess he inherited.

"When I got here, the CHA was underfunded by $700 million," Lane explains, "because HUD's response to management problems was to withhold money."

Lane's own strategies involve luring eligible working families back into existing public housing to provide role models and a stable social environment, and building new housing for mixed-income residents with an array of social services and "contracts" for participation-requiring, for instance, that residents remain drug-free, and children stay in school. "The future," he stresses, "has to provide for geographic dispersion of low-income people."

Meanwhile, HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros recently launched a national demonstration of the Gautreaux model-a project called Moving to Opportunity-in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

"This is a potential big deal, not just in housing policy, but also in anti-poverty policy," Polikoff muses. "The core of the urban poverty problem is roughly 1.3 to 1.6 million families. If we could enable half of our hard-core poverty population to move to better neighborhoods within a decade, that would be a substantial dent."

While expressing some reservations that the Moving to Opportunity program may not result in the strong successes seen in Chicago, Susan Mayer-professor at the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies and a member of HUD's advisory board for the program-still calls it "one of the most promising and interesting potential policy options we have available."

With the ultimate success of the Gautreaux model still to be determined, some believe the nearly 30 years of litigation behind it may have done more harm than good. Not only did it halt all public-housing construction in the city between 1969 and 1976, these critics say, it also siphoned families to scattered sites that still aren't infiltrating the white parts of town, instead of helping them to stay in the inner city and revitalize those neighborhoods.

Its proponents concede that Gautreaux can't solve all housing problems-and that housing can't solve all social problems-but they nonetheless believe that Gautreaux has demonstrably improved the lives of thousands of families. At the very least, it has stopped further concentration of public housing in the black ghetto and has provided a viable choice to those who want to leave.

"Would alternative avenues have produced any better result?" asks attorney Merrill Freed. "My hunch is not. Race is such an intractable issue that we are hard-wired beyond redemption and it's going to take force-the force of a court decree-to make any difference.

"If you have to score Gautreaux," Freed reflects, "you have to score it as a success. What Gautreaux did was to create an experimental model and the experimental model apparently works. In areas where we've tried so many things that haven't worked, then something that works, even on such a small scale, is good. Maybe this is a way we can begin trying to make it better."

A home that blends into the neighborhood is the charge given to scattered-site housing architects. These buildings, constructed or renovated by Habitat, are located at (from top): 1500-1502 N. Campbell, 2442 W. Augusta, 1452 N. Washtenaw, and 11223 S. Green Bay.

Alexander Polikoff filed the Gautreaux case in August 1966. He remembers civil-rights activist Dorothy Gautreaux as "a strong woman, a leader, and a fighter."

Daniel Levin of the Habitat Company, the court-appointed receiver in the case, knew the job would be hard but felt, "There's got to be a way of doing this thing."

Go to feature, "The Unbearable Llightness of Being Bibfeldt"
Go to feature, "Into the Music"
Go to feature, "Upstaging Authority"
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