A Five-Decade Fight to Improve Housing Choices for the Poor

Originally published in CityLab on April 12, 2018.

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, and in Chicago, there’s a man who has spent all 50 of those years fighting to preserve and expand the vision behind it. His name is Alexander Polikoff. He’s 91 years old, and although he’s virtually unknown to most Americans, he’s been almost single-handedly shepherding one of the nation’s most consequential civil-rights lawsuits for more than half his life.

Polikoff was the lead attorney on a landmark case in the 1960s, Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority. It was the first major desegregation case concerning public housing. The lawsuit charged the Chicago Housing Authority and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) with violating the Constitution’s equal protection clause and the 1964 Civil Rights Act by concentrating thousands of public housing units in segregated black neighborhoods. It was named for Dorothy Gautreaux, an African-American public housing resident, community organizer, and activist.

Polikoff’s case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, and in the decades since he has overseen its settlement. That included a novel remedy: giving low-income Chicago residents vouchers to move into the suburbs. The nation’s first “housing mobility” program was born as a result of Gautreaux.

The results of these “mobility vouchers” were so unexpectedly positive that in the early 1990s, Congress decided to pilot an experiment dubbed “Moving to Opportunity,” which gave poor families in five cities similar opportunities to relocate to the suburbs.
Maryland’s Senator Barbara Mikulski ended up killing efforts to expand the pilot nationally when homeowners in suburban Baltimore County rebelled, but the debate over the promise and pitfalls of housing mobility has continued to this day.

The actual Gautreaux vouchers have ended (they ran from 1976 to 1998), but there is still an existing Chicago mobility program as a result of the case. And the Gautraeux lawyers, including Polikoff, are overseeing it in other ways—for example, by ensuring that new scattered-site developments of public housing aren’t racially concentrated.

Polikoff, a resident of the Highland Park suburb just outside of Chicago, works as a senior attorney at BPI, a public interest law firm. (Previously, he served as BPI’s executive director for nearly 30 years.) CityLab sat down with him to learn more about his life’s work—Gautreaux—and the mobility movement he helped to build.

I really enjoyed your book Waiting for Gautreauxwhich traces the history of your lawsuit from the early 1960s up to 2006. Looking back now, has anything changed, or do you wish you did anything differently?

There’s some things I wish I made clearer in the book. For example, we always run into people who say, “You know, this mobility voucher business. It’s not going to deal with very many people, so what are you pushing that for? We’ve got to do something about the communities they already live in.”

And you also run into people who say, “Your mobility efforts are interfering with choice.” Those two points of view come up all the time, and one thing I wish I had done differently was respond more clearly to those objections in the book, because they’re both thoughtless.

How so?

With respect to the choice issue, housing mobility proponents are not proposing it as the solution. They’re not proposing it as right for everybody. What we are saying is that while we continue—for God knows how long—attempting to deal with what the high-poverty communities need, and while we’ve worked to death for 50 years and we still don’t have a way to address it effectively, while we’re doing that, should we be denying families the opportunity to get out?

The answer is obviously no. We should be offering mobility as a piece of the solution for those people who want it.

Mobility is purely voluntary, and what they don’t understand is that we’re not pushing it as the answer, but as a humane necessity for the people who want it.

So I understand that housing mobility advocates stress that they’re not forcing mobility, that they recognize it’s a voluntary option that’s not right for everyone. But don’t you and others also say we need to dismantle the segregated ghettos?

Of course! My whole book talks about using that word—dismantling. And nobody is arguing that mobility is going to dismantle the ghetto. You’ve got to dismantle the ghetto even if no one ever thought of the idea of mobility. The two are on different planets.

You’ve been doing this work for a long time. Does anything surprise you any more?

Yes, I actually got a call out of the blue two weeks ago from a woman who is a member of the Vermont legislature. Why was she calling me? To thank me. She [grew up in] one of the first families who moved in the 1970s through the Gautreaux housing program.

She and her sisters and her mother all moved from inner-city Chicago to the suburbs. They moved out there and lived for, I don’t remember exactly how long, four years maybe, and then they moved back because her mother felt she needed to spend her teenage years in an African-American community. But, she told me, those years out of Chicago made all the difference, and that’s why she says she’s the first African-American woman in the Vermont legislature.

How can we not provide something like that when we have the opportunity and the wherewithal to do so?

I see housing mobility as part fair housing, even though I know they began somewhat independently. Do you see those as part of the same movement today?

I do, but mobility is a small part of a much bigger picture. We could have a great housing mobility program, but if that’s all we had, it wouldn’t be anywhere near enough. And it’s partly because it isn’t right for large numbers of people, and partly because of the resource constraints. We’ll never have enough vouchers to make a difference, even if far more wanted to try it than I think will ever be the case. So it’s going to be a small, but vitally important, piece.

Why vitally important?

One, because of what I said before, about it being the right thing to give people who want it.

And two, because of the effect it can have on people’s psyches when they see poor African-American families having improved life chances and taking advantage of those improved life chances in opportunity—meaning white, affluent neighborhoods—and not bringing those neighborhoods down. Having a lot of examples of that is potentially significant.

It’s what Gunnar Myrdal called the “vicious cycle.” If all black people are kept in ghettos, where there’s high crime and high unemployment, and then we say, “Well, there’s someone committing crimes, not trying to work, and he’s black,” it paints a picture that that’s the way all black people are. It’s toxic, and it feeds on itself.

What is the state of housing mobility? Gautreaux was the first, but how much has it expanded? Are all housing authorities trying to do this now?

No, 99 percent are not. As of 2015 there were 15 mobility programs in the country, with seven of them coming from court-ordered settlements.

The two largest programs are in Baltimore and Dallas. Chicago’s is doing better than almost anywhere else except those two places, but it’s still very limited.

Why are there so few?

It’s because of the way HUD regulations are set up and administered. There is really a positive disincentive for housing authorities to do mobility right now.

HUD pays housing authorities administrative fees based on how many people they lease up. Well, it takes longer to lease up in an opportunity area, doesn’t it? It’s harder to do. So the more they spend money on trying to do mobility, the fewer lease-ups they’ll get for which they’d get paid administrative fees.

They really get hit twice—they need to spend more to try to do mobility, because the opportunity vouchers cost more, and then they’re also getting less back from HUD.

We could make it easier for housing authorities to do it, right?

Yes, HUD could.

What’s your relationship to the Gautreaux case now?

I’m still involved, and Gautreaux is a surprisingly active case. They tore down all the public housing high-rises and they’re replacing the high-rises slowly but steadily with mixed-income communities. But we’re seeing to it through Gautreaux that the public housing in the mixed-income communities is dispersed, and visually indistinguishable from the non-public housing. And that’s a lot of work.

Every two years we file complaints, because each one of these things must have a court order. Most of the time we work with the Chicago Housing Authority to reach an agreement, but occasionally we have a fight with them and go to the judge.

How are you feeling about everything after working on things for all this time?

I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful. I think the long arc of justice is a good metaphor, and I think post-Trump, maybe we’ll have an emerged progressive community. We’re moving so slowly, but in the right direction. This Trump period is a terrible setback, but I think history is going to view it as a big bump in the road.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s