A photo of Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing high-rise in 2003.
A mixed-income housing development rises in front of Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing high-rise in 2003. Frank Polich/Reuters

Over 50 years after the “Gautreaux” case began, the city’s neighborhoods remain divided along racial lines.

In January, after more than five decades of litigation, the nation’s first major public-housing desegregation lawsuit, Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority, reached its final settlement. Forty-three years after the Supreme Court determined that the CHA had engaged in systemic racial discrimination in its housing policy, a federal judge has ruled the Authority will be relieved of its court-ordered duty to “offset the impacts of racial segregation,” as long as, for the next five years, it continues to develop mixed-income housing, strengthen its voucher program, and create several early childhood development programs at existing public-housing developments.

But with rising housing costs continuing to cause massive displacement of Chicago’s black population, questions remain about the CHA’s decades-old solutions to the problem of housing segregation. As the landmark case comes to a close—and with it, one of the last vestiges of the United States’s brief experiment with large-scale public housing—it’s clear that the remedies to the problem of housing segregation that followed from the case never effectively took hold.

The Gautreaux case began in 1966, the year Martin Luther King Jr. moved into a North Lawndale tenement to help lead the Chicago Freedom Movement and demanded an end to housing discrimination in the city. Over the previous decade, the CHA had been on a segregationist building spree, erecting high-rises in the city’s predominately black outer reaches, as far from white neighborhoods as possible. Helmed by activist and Altgeld Garden Homes resident Dorothy Gautreaux, a group of public-housing residents charged that the CHA and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had violated the Fourteenth Amendment by concentrating over 10,000 public-housing units in isolated black neighborhoods. A federal judge agreed three years later, and, in 1976, the Supreme Court did too.

“Everyone was saying that [Gautreaux] wouldn’t get anywhere, with [the city’s] powerful political machine,” recalls Aurie Pennick, former president of the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, a fair-housing organization. “The filing itself was considered a win, and then to get SCOTUS to hear it and for them to determine that it was segregation—it was a monumental feat.”

As a result of the Court’s ruling, the CHA was prohibited from constructing new public housing in predominately African-American neighborhoods and was instead required to build and renovate housing in various neighborhoods throughout the city—called “scattered-site” housing. The agency was also required to issue housing vouchers that helped low-income families to afford rental units, many in majority white suburbs outside of Chicago.

Following the Gautreaux decision, things did improve for many families who had lived in Chicago’s public housing: Two decades after the Supreme Court’s ruling, a survey of 332 participants found that those who used housing vouchers to move to the suburbs were more likely to have a job than those who remained in the city, and children were more likely to finish high school and attend college. It’s these outcomes, and similar ones across the country from subsequent programs, that policy experts and members of Congress have cited as justification for mobility—providing vouchers to move people out of poor areas, rather than investing in poor areas—as the answer to housing segregation.

The remedies designed by the Gautreaux court, with the help of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, also quickly became the norm nationwide. As massive public-housing projects were demolished from Atlanta to St. Louis, HUD began relying heavily on subsidizing rents—vouchering people out of, rather than investing in, buildings.

While these programs have been widely hailed as a success across the U.S., the Gautreaux legacy is more complicated for housing advocates in Chicago. In a housing-discrimination complaint in November, nearly a dozen local housing groups stated that the map of black-white racial segregation has “remained virtually unchanged since the 1980 Census.” According to a Fair Housing and Equity Assessment from 2013, there are still municipalities in the greater Chicago area where African Americans make up 1 percent of the population. And African-American renters are far more likely to be cost-burdened than white renters.

According to Eve Lee, a former colleague of Pennick’s at the Leadership Council, which served Gautreaux residents, “What happened was a grand plan that was only partially executed.”

As housing units were demolished throughout Chicago, not enough new units were built. In the decade following the filing of Gautreaux, the CHA constructed only about a hundred new apartments. Alex Polikoff, who has served as lead prosecuting counsel in the case since its inception, says he regrets that the CHA didn’t build scattered-site units more quickly; the Authority eventually built 2,000 more units, but only after it was placed under an independent court-appointed private-property manager in 1987. But he, and his firm, Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, believes it was worth it. ‘Sometimes when you pull a tooth it causes pain," Polikoff says.*”

However, many Chicago housing advocates call this tradeoff into question: Even the units promised would have been a mere drop in the bucket compared with the overall reduction in affordable units ignited by Gautreaux and the CHA’s subsequent plan. The perceived success of Gautreaux inspired the city to embark in 1999 on its massive “Plan for Transformation” to replace the city’s crumbling public high-rises, including the infamous Cabrini-Green Homes, with a combination of mixed-income housing, subsidized rentals, and revitalized public housing.

Eighteen-thousand demolished units later, only 56 percent of the former public-housing residents remained in the system, according to a 2011 report by the CHA. The number of units created to replace the demolished ones simply was not enough: Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side, for example, was once home to 27,000 residents, but was replaced with just 2,300 mixed-income units, only a fraction of which were reserved for low-income people.

“What the CHA has done is hide behind this perceived, and in some cases real, sense that communities don’t want public housing,” explains Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, which serves low-income families on Chicago’s South Side. “They don’t do anything to push.”

Malone and others have pressured the city for several years to adopt a policy for one-to-one replacement of public-housing units, but it’s met consistent resistance from the CHA and the city’s top political leadership.

The expanded vouchers promised in 1976 haven’t made up for the demolished housing either: Restrictions on voucher eligibility were far stricter than those for the public-housing projects they replaced, removing countless people with a criminal record or history of eviction from the list. “What were the expectations of losses of vouchers from that?” Lee asks. “Was it in the city’s best interest to exclude these people from that opportunity and hope that they would disappear?”

The combined result of lost affordable units and voucher limitations has been clear: massive displacement. The black population of Cook County, home to Chicago, has declined for seven years straight. According to Census estimates, the County has lost 61,000 black residents since 2010, while gaining 16,000 residents across all demographics during that period.

For housing advocates, the close of this chapter in Chicago’s housing history is a call to action. Daniel Cooper, director of research at the Metropolitan Planning Council, which has done extensive work on housing issues in Chicago, says that the lesson of Gautreaux is that there is no single solution to segregation.

“There are certainly positives with providing people access to higher opportunity areas, but we aren’t going to be able to move everyone to high-opportunity areas,” Cooper says. “We need to be investing in neighborhoods that have long been disinvested and disadvantaged. There’s a real danger in looking at Gautreaux and saying, ‘We’re done here.’”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the number of units the court order the CHA to construct in the decade following the filing of Gautreaux.

This story originally appeared on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine in print and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.

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