The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Gautreaux Housing Case Lawyer Calls for End to Black Ghettos

Feature Story by Tyler Lewis - 2/23/2006

America's housing problem, "the hardest issue in America relating to race relations," is the subject of a new book about the landmark Gautreaux public housing desegregation case.

"Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing, and the Black Ghetto" tells the story of Gautreaux, et al. v. Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), the housing discrimination case that desegregated Chicago's infamous housing projects in the late 60s and early 70s.

It was written by Alexander Polikoff, the Gautreaux lead attorney who was involved with the case all the way through victory in the Supreme Court in 1976.

Chicago built more than 10,300 public housing units between 1954 and 1967, most of them in poor, racially segregated areas of the city.

In 1966, Dorothy Gautreaux, a local community organizer, and others brought a class-action suit against CHA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, claiming their practices violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws racial discrimination in all programs that receive federal funding--and the courts agreed.

The restrictions on public housing construction developed through the Gautreaux litigation continue to govern where and how public housing can be built in Chicago today.

The Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program was established soon after the Supreme Court decision in 1976. Through the program, families that were eligible for public housing could obtain Section 8 certificates that could be used to pay rent in neighborhoods where no more than 30% of the residents were African-American.

"Alex Polikoff's saga of his effort in the court over four decades to obtain decent housing for low income African Americans in Chicago is a story everyone should know. Polikoff was David facing Goliath in the form of Richard Daley and a huge apparatus of discrimination. But he persisted and won important gains," said William Taylor, chair of Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights.

"He also established a model for other communities to follow in providing opportunities and services for those worst off. His book is an essential part of our current agenda," Taylor said.

At a book signing event on February 15, Polikoff explained that one of the goals of his book is to highlight the "harm" black ghettoes are causing the nation.

According to Polikoff, black ghettoes are worse then they were in the 1970s when Gautreaux decentralized housing projects in Chicago, mostly due to the arrival of crack cocaine and the departure of low-skilled jobs.

But for the last 40 years, the black ghetto, America's great housing problem, is the one problem that Polikoff says "we have chosen not to focus on."

The book lays out a proposal, based partly on the Gautreaux program, for eliminating the black ghetto. Despite the success of the Gautreaux lawsuit and program, Polikoff argues that "housing as a civil right never got much traction" and that the nation must do something about the black ghetto now.