Issue #149, Spring 2007
Lessons from a Chicago Saga
Reviewed by Dennis Keating
Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing, and the
Black Ghetto, by Alexander Polikoff. Northwestern University
Press, 2006, 422 pp. $40 (hardcover).
After five summers of urban riots, the Kerner Commission Report of
1968 warned of two separate societies-black and white, separate and
unequal. It called for the dismantling of black ghettos and opening
up the suburbs to promote racial integration. The city of Chicago has
long been noted for its racially segregated housing and neighborhoods.
Its policies were documented as early as 1955 in such books as Politics,
Planning and the Public Interest: The Case of Public Housing in Chicago
by Martin Meyerson and Edward Banfield, which recounted the failed efforts
to introduce pro-integrative public housing after World War II.
In 1966, the same year that Chicago witnessed its own riots and two
years before federal fair-housing legislation was passed, a team of
public-interest lawyers, led by Alexander Polikoff, filed suit against
the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) in federal court, charging that
its housing policy was illegal. The case, Gautreaux vs. Chicago Housing
Authority and HUD (it later added a companion lawsuit against
HUD for funding the housing authority) eventually went before the U.S.
Supreme Court in 1976.
In his recent book, Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation,
Housing, and the Black Ghetto, Polikoff examines the Gautreaux demonstration
program, a 30-year effort to eliminate the black ghetto and move CHA's
black tenants to integrated neighborhoods. The program began with the
Illinois Housing Development Authority subsidizing apartment buildings
in metropolitan Chicago and then using Section 8 certificates for apartments
in predominantly white Chicago suburbs.
Waiting for Gautreaux is a lengthy and complex tale with fascinating
characters-presidents, HUD secretaries and administrators, Chicago mayors,
heads of CHA, federal judges and lawyers. It chronicles the deconcentration
of Chicago's public-housing tenants, the promotion of mixed-income projects
through HUD's HOPE VI program and the attendant controversies over tenant
relocation and the loss of low-income housing.
It also covers transformative moments in the evolution of Chicago's
housing policy such as Federal Judge Richard Austin's ruling against
the CHA's practices and his decision to withhold Model Cities funding
until CHA adopted fair-housing policies. Polikoff recounts other memorable
chapters in Chicago housing history, including a 1972 lawsuit filed
by housing-integration opponents who argued that poor, public-housing
tenants were "people pollution" under the National Environmental
Protection Act and the appointment of a receiver in 1983 to replace
CHA in implementing a 14-year-old court order to build scattered-site
low-income housing in suburban neighborhoods.
The Gautreaux program succeeded, argues Polikoff, in part because suburban
governments were unable to veto tenant moves, as they were with the
siting of subsidized housing projects. But success did not come easily.
According to Polikoff, it was difficult to find landlords willing to
operate under the Section 8 rent ceilings and tenants willing to leave
their old neighborhoods, friends and family to confront new problems.
In order to move, tenants had to pass credit checks, afford the necessary
rent deposit, find transportation and possibly face hostility from white
residents. As of 1998, only 7,100 families of the 40,000 Section 8 applicants
had moved from Chicago's ghettoized public housing to suburban housing.
Some tenants didn't qualify, and others chose not to participate or
dropped out of the program.
Nevertheless, Polikoff sees Gautreaux as a model that should be adopted
as national public-housing policy. Indeed, the Gautreaux demonstration
program in Chicago did contribute to HUD's creation of a five-city national
demonstration program called Moving to Opportunity (MTO) in 1991. The
idea was to test the scattering of Section 8 recipients over metropolitan
areas as an alternative to their restriction to inner-city areas marked
by poverty, racial segregation and deteriorating projects that have
high rates of vacancy, vandalism and crime. To date, nearly 4,600 families
in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City have participated.
Since 1992, the primary program to reform public housing has been HOPE
VI, which calls for replacing the most distressed public-housing units
with mixed-income housing. HOPE VI has drawn strenuous opposition from
housing advocates and others because of the reduction in low-income
units and the likelihood that displaced residents will relocate to other
racially segregated and high-poverty neighborhoods-a pattern that defies
the original intent of the Gautreaux case. For example, whether those
who have been displaced from Chicago's now-demolished Cabrini-Green
towers will end up in better housing and not in racially segregated
neighborhoods remains an issue, especially since some former residents
have already been relocated to new housing built on the Cabrini-Green
Polikoff's argument that adopting a national housing-mobility policy
will help poor minorities by ending the black ghetto and its many problems
has been criticized by some housing policy analysts. Some of his critics
believe that a race-based approach might be attacked as illegal, given
recent and pending affirmative-action decisions by the U.S. Supreme
Court, which is currently considering the issue of desegregation as
it applies to voluntary racial balancing policies in the public schools
in Seattle and Louisville.
Of course, the more immediate issue is the politics surrounding the
introduction of poor, minority tenants on a large scale into many U.S.
suburbs. Contrary to the Kerner Commission's call, there have been very
few policies that mandate opening up the suburbs. The contested history
of the Mount Laurel decisions by the New Jersey Supreme Court
in 1975 and 1983 (Southern Burlington County N.A.A.C.P. vs. Township
of Mount Laurel), which required New Jersey's suburbs to accept
their fair share of regional affordable-housing allocations, certainly
gives pause to Mount Laurel advocates. The compromise reluctantly fashioned
by the New Jersey Legislature allowed the suburbs to buy their way out
of up to half of their allocations and produced much less housing than
the plaintiffs originally sought.
Unlike Polikoff's proposal for a race-based approach, the Mount
Laurel case and the court-ordered remedy did not explicitly factor
in race, allowing suburban opposition to focus instead on the unsuitability
of subsidized housing rather than on the potential race of its occupants.
If the New Jersey Supreme Court had ordered a race-conscious regional
housing allocation remedy, it is likely that resistance among many suburban
jurisdictions would have been even greater.
Thinking back on his experience over the 40-year history of Gautreaux,
Polikoff sees race as a central focus in addressing inequality. He writes:
"For the larger story of the black Americans, the question is
what learning can be gleaned from all the years devoted to scattered
sites, then to housing mobility, and now to mixed-income replacement
for the demolished high-rises
But isn't there a bigger story here?
My reflections have brought me to Alexis de Tocqueville who, some 170
years ago, called racial inequality the "most formidable evil threatening
the future of the United States." He went on to prophesy that the
evil of racial inequality would not be resolved and that it would eventually
bring America to disaster.
Today we might insert "domestic" before "evil." But with that insertion made, I believe that de Tocqueville's observation remains accurate, and that his prophesy is given current urgency by today's black ghettos-that the black ghetto is a wellspring of our racial inequality evil that, if we are to avoid the fate Tocqueville prophesied, must be dismantled. A further conclusion is that Gautreaux tells us how best to go about the dismantling."
Given the nation's continuing racial divide and growing income inequality,
Polikoff's reflections on his role in the effort to redress racial discrimination
in public housing and the segregation of the African-American poor in
many inner-city neighborhoods are well worth pondering.
Dennis Keating is chair of the Department of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University, where he teaches courses on housing, neighborhood development, urban planning and land-use law. He has recently researched diverse suburban communities and the long-term impact of CDCs on urban neighborhoods.
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