Book on Chicago housing case a primer for Baltimore

Urban Chronicle

March 23, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL

With the second phase of Baltimore's public housing desegregation case set to begin Monday, I spent part of last weekend reading Alexander Polikoff's recently published book, Waiting for Gautreaux.

The book, whose title is a play on words on Samuel Beckett's existential play Waiting for Godot, is an account of Chicago's Gautreaux housing case, the granddaddy of housing desegregation cases. Polikoff was the principal lawyer for public housing residents.

The Gautreaux case looms in the background of the Baltimore case, in which U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis ruled last year that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development violated fair-housing laws by failing to take a regional approach to the desegregation of public housing in the city and is now holding a bench trial to decide what to do about it.

Filed in 1966, Gautreaux took until 1998 to reach its eventually agreed-upon goal of helping 7,100 Chicago public housing families move to economically and racially integrated areas of the Chicago metropolitan area.

It's not just that Gautreaux led to a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said metropolitan solutions were permissible in housing discrimination cases.

Lawyers for Baltimore's black public housing residents and for HUD have invoked the Chicago case in their pretrial briefs -- though to different ends.

Public housing residents' lawyers -- who are calling for 6,750 "housing opportunities" to be created over 10 years, mostly in well-off suburban areas -- write: "In straining to argue that no vestiges of prior violations exist, HUD pretends that Gautreaux was never decided."

HUD's lawyers contend that the remedy proposed by the plaintiffs, which include a requirement that half of federal funds go toward the creation of such housing, "far exceed the permissible scope of any remedy contemplated under ... Gautreaux."

Like Gautreaux, the Baltimore public housing case, Carmen Thompson et al v. United States Department of Housing and Urban Development et al, raises policy and legal questions. To wit: Is it better to spend more money housing fewer poor people but dispersing them more widely through more affluent communities where access to better schools and jobs give them a better chance for success? Or is it better to house more people in less expensive areas, thereby perpetuating the concentration of poverty and its attendant ills with which we are all too familiar?

Polikoff's book, which is published by Northwestern University Press and subtitled A Story of Segregation, Housing and the Black Ghetto, provides some insights and answers.

Written from the perspective of a staunch advocate -- he concludes with a call for a nationwide mobility program modeled after that adopted in Gautreaux -- Polikoff's book is hardly a polemic.

Whatever your views on the cases, or the results they seek to achieve, Waiting for Gautreaux works as a memoir of a litigator involved in a high-profile, complex lawsuit and a history of federal housing policy through the prism of a landmark legal case.

Polikoff offers behind-the-scenes accounts of his team's legal strategy over the course of the lawsuit. They range from items as seemingly mundane as the decision to put tenant leader Dorothy Gautreaux's name first on the list of plaintiffs ("a case usually becomes known by the first name on the list of plaintiffs, and we were attracted by the unusual Gautreaux name") to ones as monumental as midcourse adjustments in arguments that needed to be made after the Supreme Court's 1974 ruling that regional approaches could not be used in school desegregation cases. Especially interesting is the rush to craft a final settlement with HUD in the waning days of the Carter administration.

Most fascinating is the narrative of how the case unfolded against the backdrop of changing federal housing policy. It began at the height of the civil rights movement, during the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s push for "open housing," and achieved its goal amid the HOPE VI redevelopments that turned public housing high-rises into mixed-income communities. Included is a recounting of the strident opposition of some eastern Baltimore County politicians and residents to the aborted Moving to Opportunity program in 1994 --which has become an infamous footnote to federal housing history.

There are ample lessons for Baltimore in the book. One example: The assistance to Chicago's public housing families came mostly from persuading landlords to accept special vouchers provided by HUD and not the construction of permanent housing units.

Also telling is Polikoff's assessment that the Gautreaux program "could be viewed as a glass half-full or half-empty." He observes that a "non-negligible number" of families were helped to move to better areas, but notes that the number amounted to only a fifth of Chicago's public housing families.

But the most important lesson may be that Gautreaux eventually succeeded in achieving its goal -- though it took 32 years from the time the suit was filed.

Baltimore's Thompson case has been going on for 11 years.

By the measure of Gautreaux, the Baltimore case could have a long way to go.

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