Twenty-five years ago U.S. District Judge Richard Austin struck what seemed like a mighty blow against segregation. Ruling in the case Dorothy Gautreaux et al. v. the Chicago Housing Authority, he ordered the CHA to build 700 public-housing apartments on scattered sites in predominantly white neighborhoods.

It hasn’t happened yet. It probably never will. What new public housing there is in Chicago is still being built mostly in minority neighborhoods, sometimes over the protests of the residents.

But from downtown things look rosier. In June, at a series of seminars called “Solutions: Reinventing Public Housing” that was sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, local housing luminaries congratulated each other on the scattered-site program. “The results are better than we ever imagined . . . a small miracle,” exulted Alexander Polikoff, executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) and the prime mover in nearly 30 years of Gautreaux litigation. “Hundreds of scattered-site townhomes in more than 30 community areas have been constructed and occupied without anything like the degree of rancor and fear that had previously characterized the development of public housing in Chicago.”

Susan Mayer, University of Chicago professor of public policy studies, went further, writing that the scattered-site program might even lead to “a lasting solution to the problems of concentrated poverty in our inner cities.”

They do have a point. After a generation of stalling, new public housing is being built, and Chicago is sometimes even talked of as a national model. The new stuff doesn’t look like the stereotype of public housing. It’s being planned, designed, located, and managed by private outfits with more energy and organization than the CHA has shown in generations. (See sidebars.)

But according to its critics, the scattered-site program still isn’t different enough. The apartments are still too clustered, the private agencies too secretive, and the funding not enough to keep the buildings in repair, let alone offer social services to their residents. Some even think that the Gautreaux judge tried to do too much by himself, without public support or understanding–in the words of one researcher, effectively “guiding much of the housing along the line of least resistance to a few socially vulnerable neighborhoods.”

Before Gautreaux, the last time the Chicago Housing Authority tried to integrate public housing throughout the city was in 1946-’47. Black World War II veterans and their families moved into Airport Homes (60th and Karlov, near Midway) and Fernwood Homes (106th and Halsted)–at least they tried to. White rioters from the two neighborhoods threw debris and dirt at the families, attacked police, and terrorized passing African American motorists for good measure.

Believe it or not, back then the CHA was an idealistic reform agency free of patronage. It was run by Elizabeth Wood, who’d come from the good-government Metropolitan Housing Council (now the Metropolitan Planning Council). And public housing was then transitional housing for people working their way up, not permanent residences for the poorest of the poor.

The postwar white riots didn’t alter Wood’s commitment to integration, but they nonetheless led directly to today’s high-rise ghettos. First, in 1947 and 1949, the state legislature gave city aldermen veto power over where CHA could build. (Housing authorities are technically state agencies; Chicago’s was the only one in Illinois placed under aldermanic veto.) Then in 1954–after she had taken to describing the CHA as an agency in “captivity”–Wood herself was ousted in a transparent exercise of clout.

The results were exactly what the rioters would have ordered. Between 1954 and 1967 the CHA built 10,256 apartments. Virtually all were high-rise, and all but 63 were in black neighborhoods. Never had “institutional racism” been less of a metaphor. At the same time, the CHA gradually turned into the housing provider of last resort, a role that the agency and its buildings were ill equipped to play.

Local critics of high rises like architect Stanley Tigerman and Daily News reporter M.W. Newman were visionary but powerless. Martin Luther King Jr. came to town in the summer of 1966 and couldn’t accomplish much for fair housing either. But on August 9 of that year, seven public housing residents and Polikoff, a volunteer ACLU attorney from Highland Park, took on the job. On behalf of all CHA residents, Dorothy Gautreaux, Odell Jones, Dorothea Crenchaw, Eva Rodgers, James Rodgers, Robert Fairfax, and Jimmie Jones filed a suit that charged the CHA with illegally perpetuating segregation. They also sued the CHA’s federal funding agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for funding the CHA’s activities.

Polikoff recalls that Judge Austin’s first informal response was to snap, “Where do you want to put ’em? On Lake Shore Drive?” The case against HUD was put off for the time being. But the evidence against the housing authority was overwhelming, and in 1969 Austin found the CHA guilty of intentional racial discrimination.

The judge did not just order an end to discrimination, which could mean anything and in practice would have meant nothing. Following Polikoff’s suggestions, he ordered the CHA to make things right “as rapidly as possible”: build its next 700 housing units in census tracts less than 30 percent black, and after that build three of every four units outside the ghetto.

Gautreaux language doesn’t include such imprecise terms as “ghetto,” though. In court documents, census tracts over 30 percent black are called the “Limited Area” and the rest of the city is the “General Area.” The actual boundaries between the two shift every ten years when a new census comes out. What doesn’t shift is the implied black-and-white view of the city. Gautreaux takes no official notice of Chicago’s increasingly multicultural population; in the census Judge Austin had to work with, 97 percent of the city’s nonwhites were black. His precise legal language has been overtaken by events, as has the assumption (easier to make in 1966 than now) that everyone in the CHA wants to live in integrated neighborhoods.

Judge Austin knew perfectly well that public housing’s new neighbors wouldn’t welcome his order, so he added three provisos to help the medicine go down:

First, the CHA could house no more than 120 people (240 in a pinch) in any one new “project”–i.e., no more high rises.

Second, it couldn’t build in any census tract whose proportion of family public housing would be pushed over 15 percent.

And last, in a true concession to Chicago localism, Austin diluted the medicine 50 percent. CHA residents would get to move into only half of the new scattered-site housing units. The other half would go to poor people already living in the neighborhood–who, in theory, would be white.

Richard J. Daley’s CHA read the judge’s order as you might expect, even after the court did away with the aldermanic veto in 1974. Gautreaux did stop the construction of segregrated high rises, but only by stopping everything else too. Between 1969 and 1979 the CHA built a total of 117 new apartments, about 1 percent of its production in the previous 15 years.

In desperation, Polikoff agreed to a deal with CHA head Charles Swibel and mayor Jane Byrne in 1982. “In exchange for their promise to push scattered-site housing, we gave up on the first 700 units, and we switched to 50-50 [units in black versus white neighborhoods, instead of 25-75 as ordered before]. But they still didn’t do the job.”

Sure, it was a federal court case and the accused was guilty as hell. But the point was to get a remedy, not just a verdict. Putting Swibel in jail would have had its charms, but it wouldn’t have gotten anyone a better place to live. Polikoff–a modest and courtly gentleman who discouraged me from reading a recent fawning Tribune profile of him–is one of the few social-justice activists who came out of the 1960s with a real lever for change, not just a symbol. To make it work he had to practice the art of the possible. And so the case has evolved from a simple assertion of justice to a series of arcane deals, with Polikoff searching for a formula by which the unrepentant offender would somehow make good.

The Gautreaux story seems even more labyrinthine than it is because we persist in thinking of it as a court case. A court case has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and we expect at least the judge and the attorneys to understand the whole thing. Gautreaux had a beginning but there is no end in sight after 28 years. And Alexander Polikoff, the only person who’s been through it all, doesn’t have a photographic memory. He does have a 14-foot-long shelf of court documents (affectionately known as “the bible”) going back to 1966, and room for plenty more. Gautreaux makes more sense if you think of it as a government agency, one in which a federal judge makes the decisions, HUD supplies the money, the CHA (or, today, a receiver) does the building, and Polikoff has clout both as the court-designated representative of the “plaintiff class” (40,000 CHA families) and as Chicago’s preeminent public-interest lawyer.

In 1981 Polikoff’s plaintiffs won again. HUD agreed to atone for its part in high-rise segregation: it would set aside money, year by year, until it had helped 7,100 CHA families move out of the Limited Area. HUD’s set-aside money has gone both to scattered-site construction and to a Section 8 rent-certificate program. Arguably the certificate program has worked better than scattered sites. Run by the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities and known as the “Gautreaux program,” to date it has helped more than 5,500 CHA families move, most of them to the suburbs.

HUD also agreed to let the CHA build scattered-site units in some black census tracts, ones the court guessed might be “revitalizing.” Not surprisingly, that’s where most of them went. Insofar as agency records can be deciphered, up through 1987 the CHA built (or rehabbed) four or five public-housing apartments in the Limited Area for every one it did in the General Area–hardly the kind of desegregation Judge Austin had in mind. “I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now,” Polikoff told the Chicago Reporter’s Scott Burnham last spring. “Of course these areas were never revitalized.” The concept was dropped in 1990.

The Gautreaux government added yet another layer in 1987. Exasperated by the CHA’s passive resistance, in 1979 and 1983 Polikoff had tried to get Judge Austin’s successors to treat it like a bankrupt company. By 1987, with the scattered-site program “something between a disaster and a catastrophe,” he persuaded Judge Marvin Aspen to place the CHA in receivership. The judge appointed Chicago developer Daniel Levin and his Habitat Company to do what the city’s public housing agency should have done on its own 18 years before: build new scattered-site housing units “as rapidly as possible.”

Over the years the Habitat Company has had its share of controversy, but no one has accused it of lacking energy; in 30 years it has built more than 14,000 apartments. As of May its scattered-site director, Philip Hickman, has put 1,608 units either on the ground or on the drawing boards. And he’s not done. In December 1993 Judge Aspen ordered Habitat to build the housing that will replace buildings to be demolished at Washington Park and Cabrini-Green. “I don’t plan to retire doing this job,” says Hickman (who just turned 50) with a characteristic chuckle, but the end is not in sight.

The Gautreaux government is rarely in the news. It has a kind of hidden history in Chicago. (Relatively well informed people still speak of the “CHA” building scattered-site housing, even though Habitat has done it all for seven years now.) This history involves decades of trial and error, shifting goals, juggling seemingly arbitrary numbers, and meetings closed to the public. Few people know about this government, and few of them understand it. Community groups can petition the court to be admitted to the case, but it’s not easy. Several say that it’s hard even to find a lawyer willing to represent them.

But what else is there? Gautreaux is the only antidote anyone has suggested to the lawless behavior of those white mobs and the Chicago machine that first shaped the CHA into a bricks-and-mortar bulwark of segregation.

One of the few outsiders to examine Gautreaux critically, Chicago-Kent law professor A. Dan Tarlock, has described it as an example of how hard it is for judges to make political deals and make them stick. It’s one thing to assert a matter of principle (no segregation in public housing). But “when the issue is more complex than the declaration of a fundamental right, decisions about how to share power and resources among different constituencies must come through the political process. A community’s political institutions, no matter how imperfect and corrupt they may be, have the primary responsibility to support the commands of the Constitution with action and resources.” But Tarlock acknowledges that he doesn’t see how this could have been done in the late 1960s when Gautreaux came about–with the transcendentally imperfect Richard J. Daley at the height of his power. “I was describing a catch-22 situation. By the time the court got to it, racial segregation and high-rise ghettos were too entrenched.”

Polikoff, however, will not take catch-22 for an answer. “Though courts may preserve respect by not undertaking what they are ill-fitted to do, they may lose respect by appearing to be powerless,” he wrote in the Chicago-Kent Law Review. “Democracy cannot thrive in a bed of cynicism.”

Habitat has acquired or built in 38 of the city’s 77 community areas. But about two-thirds of its units are in just six of them: West Town (451 apartments), Uptown (128), South Shore (120), Logan Square (119), South Chicago (118), and Humboldt Park (105). In several of these neighborhoods the neighbors are not happy. “Why shouldn’t each community take its share?” asks Carlos Villafane, a community organizer for Youth Service Project, Inc., on North Avenue and himself a new Humboldt Park home owner. “If they built in all 52 [nonblack] communities, there’d be about 30 in each one.”

Habitat has 60 percent of its units slated for Latino areas, and roughly 7 percent in mostly white neighborhoods, leading Uptown’s Terry Elliott to say that the segregationists have won the quarter-century war of attrition after all: “It’s just fine with the other aldermen to have most scattered-site units in Uptown and Humboldt Park. They’ve manipulated Gautreaux.”

But the problem now is not race. It’s economics. “Hickman and Habitat have to go where they can find affordable land,” says Polikoff. “Unfortunately it’s the 90s and not the 60s. In a sense we’re 25 years too late.” The north lakefront, the northwest side, and the southwest side have few vacant lots on which to build, and those few are prohibitively expensive.

“I have maps and files and PIN [property identification] numbers on every piece of vacant property zoned residential in those areas,” says Hickman. “I had interns drive by every single vacant lot in every white census tract. There’s not much. Then we did a zoning overlay. Then we had half a dozen appraised: $60 to $110 thousand a lot, way outside any reasonable budget.

“People say, “Why don’t you build in Lincoln Park?’ Well, the answer should be obvious. Our average cost for land is less than $10,000 per unit. At the Pointe up on Lincoln, they’re paying $80,000 a unit for land alone.”

So how can Hickman do his court-ordered job of producing scattered-site housing “as rapidly as possible”? Talk about catch-22: He can’t build in the suburbs. Old commercial sites have too many environmental headaches. “We did that at the senior building at 925 N. California,” he says. “It turned out to have underground storage tanks that cost about a quarter of a million to deal with.”

There are a few stopgaps. Hickman has managed to buy some lots by persuading HUD to allow an “accordion cap” under which Habitat can spend up to $20,000 apiece for lots in more expensive neighborhoods. And HUD secretary Henry Cisneros’s local representative, Edwin Eisendrath, has expressed some willingness to bend on federal noise regulations that keep scattered sites away from el tracks and Midway Airport.

One last stopgap: fix up existing bad buildings instead of building new. Every protesting neighborhood group claims to love this idea, but Habitat’s experience with the half-done rehab jobs it inherited from the CHA in 1987 was not good. Hickman says, and has convinced HUD, that rehabbing apartment buildings costs Habitat around $150,000 a unit total, far more than the allowed budget of $101,000. (Eisendrath says HUD may eventually allow some extra money for rehabs.)

What makes Habitat’s CHA rehabs so much more expensive than other rehab jobs? According to Hickman, buildings in the General Area cost more to buy; the larger-than-average units Habitat needs (three and four bedrooms) cost more to fix up; and Habitat must pay to relocate any current residents. Worst of all, he says, HUD rules in the scattered-site program forbid him to negotiate deals with rehab contractors; he has to put each job up for public bid which he says limits flexibility.

How about abandoned buildings? “It’s nothing but a nosebleed, but we are looking at it.” Such buildings aren’t free; they come with outstanding tax and utility and mortgage bills. And sometimes they’re worse than expensive: “There’s a four-flat in a very stable neighborhood. The owner was agreeable but told us it was in foreclosure to one of the big downtown banks–which turned out to be selling its bad loans in a package of 150 to some investor in Texas. It’s been six months, we’ve exchanged paper, we’ve got a lot of time invested in it. But as far as the program goes, it doesn’t exist.”

Experience eventually made it clear to Hickman that none of these stopgaps was going to enable him to build the 1,608 units Judge Aspen had ordered. With Polikoff’s help, he explained to HUD that he needed lots for 600 more units, and he thought he could find them in ten largely Latino neighborhoods of the city. Gautreaux allowed him to go there, but HUD’s own rules against concentrating public housing in minority neighborhoods didn’t. He asked the department to waive its regulation on grounds of “overriding need.”

In 1992 HUD did so, and Habitat bought heavily all around Humboldt Park. Members of the Block Club Federation there discovered the purchases by accident, while researching property titles on behalf of New Homes for Chicago, a low-cost home-ownership program. The news took local political powerhouse Luis Gutierrez by surprise. “I really feel people [at Habitat] were less than honest and candid with me,” the U.S. representative says. “How could they do this to someone who was their friend, who supported them [in an earlier purchase of city-owned lots in his ward when he was an alderman]?” The fracas became an issue in this spring’s Fourth Congressional District Democratic primary. (Backers of Gutierrez opponent Juan Soliz claim that Gutierrez knew of Habitat’s purchases in advance, a charge he laughingly denies.) Twenty-sixth Ward alderman Billy Ocasio, a Gutierrez ally, proposed rezoning the area to keep Habitat out, a variation on the old aldermanic veto not likely to survive a court test.

Several months of noisy meetings and quiet negotiations produced several compromises:

Habitat agreed to build fewer units overall, and fewer units on some sites. One 22-square-block census tract just west of the park had been slated for 128 units. Now it’s 77, although BCF would prefer 50. (But those extra units still have to go somewhere.)

People from the individual census tract will have priority for the 50 percent neighborhood share. (In Humboldt Park this is likely to further reduce the number of black tenants in the new buildings.)

And in Logan Square, just north of the park, a few single-family scattered-site units will eventually be available for residents to buy (perhaps strengthening the neighborhood but subtracting from the stock of public housing for future comers).

These last two compromises will be part of a proposed order that Judge Aspen will be asked to issue, thus putting a judicial seal of approval on the work of a de facto political process in Humboldt Park. Uptown objectors, lacking a supportive congressman and alderman, have been unable to get to the table.

Hickman says he listened hard to community concerns in Humboldt Park and met them partway. But Habitat’s policy of buying property quietly (to keep it from being taken off the market or run up in price) still rubs community groups the wrong way. “I really think they could generate support from community organizations by consulting with them first,” says Judith Tietyen, executive director and lead organizer of the Near Northwest Neighborhood Network. “After the fact, they get put in an adversarial position and it seems like everybody’s their enemy.” And that is how it sounds.

“We’re not helping anybody by putting poor people on top of poor people,” says Jose Sepulveda, who chairs the Block Club Federation’s housing committee and lives just west of Humboldt Park. “People still get shot around here for walking down the street. My kids don’t play in the front yard. We are not saying no to scattered-site housing. I think it’s a great idea, but they’ve misused it. Scattered sites are becoming almost the same problem as high rises.” Kathy Phelps of the West Humboldt Park Fair Housing Coalition adds, “I think it’s a cynical attempt to concentrate low-income housing in an area that’s already changing.”

Latinos United has sued the CHA for inadequately serving Latinos, and Polikoff frequently mentions this suit in defending the move into these neighborhoods. But executive director Carlos DeJesus says his group agrees with the neighborhood objectors. “We’re suing for increased access, not this kind of hyperconcentration.”

“They are reconcentrating and resegregating the poor,” intones scattered-site resident Willie Burrell from Uptown, where census tract 317 (aka Sheridan Park), already loaded with single-room-occupancy buildings and subsidized housing, now contains 93 Habitat-built units–more than in all nine census tracts of Rogers Park combined.

“Where did Polikoff lose sight of what he was doing?” asked Burrell’s neighbor, apartment house owner Terry Elliott of Magnolia-Malden Neighbors. “When did it become OK to pack these units into Hispanic and poor neighborhoods? Everybody is so interested in getting this done and getting their names down in history, they’re not doing it right.”

Their concerns are not just self-interest. Sue Brady of Hull House’s Housing Resource Center is by far the most experienced private manager of public housing in Chicago, and she doesn’t take sides on siting. But as a manager she prefers low densities: “The more stable the neighborhood, the better our [resident] families are going to do. And the smaller the building, the better our families are going to do. Three-flats are more successful than six-flats, and those in stable middle-class blocks are more successful than those in troubled blocks.” Earlier this year, when the CHA’s chairman, Vince Lane, tried to convince suburban mayors to accept refugees from CHA high rises, he proposed a “caps by block” deal: “If homeowners knew that only 2 to 5 percent of any block would be assisted housing, there would be no flight.” Lane says that’s what he would do inside the city limits, too–if he, not Habitat, were in charge.

Polikoff and Hickman think the neighborhood complaints are much ado about very little. In Humboldt Park, they point out, Habitat will add just 105 housing units to a community of over 20,000 units. Habitat’s scattered-site units now average just 2.9 apartments per site (up to 30 is legal under Gautreaux) and have never exceeded 9 percent of the housing in any census tract (up to 15 percent is legal). Uptown neighbors say that’s a false comparison, because their neighborhood already has many other kinds of subsidized housing, and that cumulatively the concentration is hurting the neighborhood. Hickman doubts it: “There are two single-family homes for sale at $349 to $359 thousand, right where those people live who are most vocal.” (Kenwood’s Southeast Residents for Justice took the same argument to Judge Aspen without success in 1990 when Habitat planned 15 apartments on Lake Park.)

Obviously both sides are right. Polikoff compares Habitat’s work with the 99 percent segregation of the high rises, and it looks pretty good. Protesting neighbors compare it with an ideal (in which every public-housing unit is perfectly constructed and located by itself in a solidly middle-class block), and it doesn’t look good. But as one scattered-site resident who complains of poorly installed banisters and inadequate lighting adds, “It’s better than before.”

Some of those ideals don’t even belong in the discussion, Polikoff claims. “Gautreaux was a race case, not a poverty case. They’re complaining about people moving to neighborhoods with halfway houses and crime. I’m sympathetic to that view. I don’t want people to move to places that aren’t good for families. But as long as those drug-rehab houses and criminals are white, it’s accomplishing what it was meant to do. How much baggage can they load on Gautreaux?” The answer, of course, is whatever baggage is necessary to get something done. The Latino need for public housing was no part of Gautreaux until Hickman and Polikoff had to seek out cheap land in those neighborhoods.

In any case, Polikoff adds, the very modesty of the scattered-site program helps. “Even if we’re making terrible mistakes, they aren’t comparable to the high rises in scale. If what you’re doing is designedly building anonymously in neighborhoods, if management is local and not huge, then these are safety factors.”

Community critics of scattered sites often complain that they’re being built “contrary to the spirit of Gautreaux.” But that’s a moving target. Over the years, in order to get action, Polikoff has had to deal. Some compromises he would have preferred to avoid; few were made in a public forum that would have helped educate Chicagoans on the issues at stake.

Sophisticated critics of scattered sites say judges do better asserting clear-cut rights than managing political deals by remote control. Enormous effort and endless messing around is usually what you get when you use the wrong tool; unfortunately, no one has suggested a better one.

Regardless of when Judge Aspen bows out–and it’s not likely to be soon–one unexpected legacy of Gautreaux may well be privatization of public housing. Habitat has accomplished more in 7 years than the CHA itself did in 18, and private managers now oversee all scattered-site housing (see sidebar). And CHA chairman Lane talks like a born-again libertarian: “There are two housing systems in the United States–one for most of us and one for the poor and minorities, which doesn’t work. The solution seems simple to me: get rid of the one that doesn’t work and merge it with the one that does.”

But without enough money and good CHA supervision, privatization is no panacea either. Senior planner Joel Werth of the Metropolitan Planning Council points out that the CHA has yet to evaluate comprehensively what works and what doesn’t. Nor should the agency expect more money from Congress, says Polikoff: “I don’t mean to be unkind, but there is great reluctance to give more money to entities that aren’t managed well. Even under Vince Lane, the CHA is not perfect. I’m not referring to the scandals. The day-to-day management is inadequate.”

Gautreaux’s lasting legacy may be something much simpler and more elusive. A recent unscientific poll suggests that neighbors of scattered sites don’t interact much with the residents. “The gulf between public-housing residents and everyone else in America is as big as anything in the Middle East,” says HUD’s Eisendrath. “Many people view fair housing as an issue to be solved by programs and policies, legislation and regulation. We’ve relied on these for many years, with marginal results at best.

“What’s more important are the kinds of conversations we have around the table with friends and neighbors and colleagues. I don’t sense there’s a lot of discussion about these things in America, and when there is it’s in the talk-radio mode.” If the apartments Habitat is building could generate those productive conversations, they might be a lot more than just a place to live.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner, courtesy Heidrich-Blessing.