It’s taken 26 years of courtroom and political battles, but Dorothy Gautreaux’ dream is slowly starting to come true.

That dream, first enunciated in Gautreaux’ landmark 1966 lawsuit against the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Chicago Housing Authority, was to scatter low-rise, low-income housing throughout the city. In the last few years about 600 units of scattered-site housing have been built in integrated neighborhoods on the north and near west sides. The residents are mostly black and Hispanic.

“My new home is beautiful–as good as anything I could ever imagine,” says Lizzette Sepulveda, who with her three children moved into a three-bedroom unit in West Town earlier this year. “I wish other people could be as fortunate. I have to believe that this is the way to go for low-income housing.”

And, unlike in the past, the new housing has stirred little resistance from surrounding residents. “As far as we can tell, the new units fit right in with the neighborhoods,” says Alexander Polikoff, executive director of the Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a not-for-profit advocacy group. “We’re finally getting a chance to show what we have said for years: this kind of housing can work.”

Back in 1966, when the Urban League and a group of black west-side activists initiated their protests against the CHA and HUD, Polikoff was a lawyer for a private law firm and the city was at the tail end of an influx of southern blacks. The CHA and HUD had responded to the mass immigration by building new low- income housing in poor and already overcrowded black communities.

Most of this new housing consisted of high-rise projects, opposed in the early 50s by civil rights activists and public interest liberals such as former CHA executive director Elizabeth Wood. The liberals argued that concentrating large numbers of poor families in poorly built high rises would only breed more poverty and crime. Better, they said, to build low-rise units throughout the entire city and suburbs. That way you break up the concentration of poor people–thus giving many low-income residents access to better schools, parks, and libraries in other parts of the city and improving the quality of life in the inner city as well.

The reaction to such proposals was violent opposition, particularly in the city’s outlying white neighborhoods. Politicians who did not adamantly denounce the scattered-site proposals were swept from office. Wood herself was ousted. And in the late 50s and early 60s the CHA, following the dictates of City Hall, spearheaded the construction of such notorious high-rise complexes as the Henry Horner Homes and the Robert Taylor Homes.

On behalf of Gautreaux and other activists, Polikoff sued HUD and the CHA, alleging that both agencies discriminated against black residents by denying them a right to live in nonblack neighborhoods. (Gautreaux, who lived in a low-income housing complex on the far south side, died in 1968.)

In 1969 a federal judge ruled in favor of the activists, ordering the CHA to build low-income housing in white neighborhoods, but the city appealed. Finally, in 1974, the city ran out of legal options when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. “After that, the city and the CHA found every reason they could to move slowly on new construction,” says Polikoff. “It was a combination of not wanting to do the job right and the incredible delays caused by having two bureaucracies–HUD and the CHA–approve all plans.”

In 1980 Jane Byrne, then mayor, agreed to build the units. But she backed away from her pledge in the face of heated protest. Next Harold Washington vowed to build the units, and by the mid-1980s the CHA had acquired almost 100 buildings that it intended to rehab. But the task proved tougher than Washington or his housing chiefs thought: few of the buildings were developed, and most of them eventually became dilapidated beyond repair.

On three occasions Polikoff went to court asking that a private receiver be hired to oversee the scattered-site program. Each time he backed off after CHA officials pleaded that they only needed a few more months to get their program together. Finally, in 1987, the CHA agreed to have a receiver appointed. After a yearlong search, the job was awarded to the Habitat Corporation, a private developer and real estate management firm.

Habitat’s goal was to rehab the buildings the CHA had acquired and to build about 1,600 new units. The project would cost about $140 million.

“We inherited 85 buildings all over the city and many of them were in horrible shape,” says Philip Hickman, Habitat’s senior vice president in charge of the scattered-site program. “A lot of these buildings were a blight to the community. The first thing we did was to rehab 42 of these 85 sites. The rest we either tore down or sold off.”

One of the greatest problems, says Hickman, was dealing with HUD regulations.

“The HUD handbook we have to deal with is eight or ten inches thick,” says Hickman. “It’s a maze. They have a highly regimented series of regulations that we are obligated to go by, few of which fit the real world. Their cost guidelines for new construction are unrealistically low. It took us six extra months to get them to lift those caps.”

Habitat also had to win over local opinion.

“We had a good reception in neighborhoods where there were abandoned buildings,” says Hickman. “We were practically welcomed with open arms, even by elected officials. The aldermen were delighted that these buildings were getting rehabbed. It was when we actually started new construction that there was some apprehension. I think it had to do with the memories of how the program had been run.”

Habitat settled on a drab but unobtrusive design for the new units, and with the approval of the CHA and Polikoff it arranged to have the sites managed by community-based not-for-profit groups. Partly in an effort to calm neighbors worried about influxes of poor, the three parties also agreed to change the way tenants for the new housing would be selected. In the past they’d come from long waiting lists on a first-come, first-served basis, mostly from low-income housing in other parts of the city. Now the organizers agreed that at least half of the new vacancies would be filled by local residents.

“There was some protest, but not a lot,” says Hickman. “I remember speaking in the basement of a church before 250 angry residents. But they listened to us. In all cases, we’d meet with residents. We’d show them our designs. When they heard that the units would be privately managed they were reassured. So much opposition is based on negative attitudes about the CHA and HUD. The program has changed.”

So far Habitat has stayed clear of those southwest- and northwest-side neighborhoods that so fiercely resisted scattered-site units in the past. Instead, they’ve concentrated their efforts on integrated and predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods on the north and near west sides, where the demand for new housing is strong. The program mandates that residents pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent; the average rent is $180 a month.

“The tenants appreciate this new housing opportunity,” says Carol Dushkin, associate director of housing for the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, which manages several scattered-site units in West Town. “People would see their new home and start crying. I had tears in my eyes.”

Dushkin says a rigorous screening process is key to the program. “We do a home visit, we interview the family,” says Dushkin. “We do screening as far as evictions, credit checks, criminal background. We want to avoid drug or gang problems. We bring the whole family to our site offices for interviews and orientation.”

“I was living in a two-bedroom not far from here that was getting a little uncomfortable for me and my children,” says Sepulveda. “I had been there for four years and was paying $325 a month. The owner didn’t keep it up that nice. I really wanted to get out. Now I’m paying $158 a month and I have three bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. Sometimes I feel this is a miracle.”

So far Habitat has completed about 400 units. It hopes to add another 1,200 in the next several years.

“I think we have to look at this program as a model for the future,” says Polikoff. “The big issue will be what to do about the many high-rise buildings that were built in the 50s and 60s. A lot of them are wearing out with the years. We’re going to face a critical decision: do we rebuild them or do we replace them with low-rise units? As a society we are programmed to re-build, not replace. I think that would be disastrous in this case. I’d like to see us build on the success of the scattered-site program and make the high rises things of the past.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.