Last May the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities marked its 25th anniversary with a celebration in the Grand Ballroom of the Palmer House; the party drew 1,300 guests who marveled at the progress Chicago’s made in integrated housing during the past quarter century. Those achievements, noted Kale Williams, director of the council, are “truly astounding,” “unmatched anywhere in the nation.” Others, like Barry Sullivan, chairman of First Chicago Corporation, toasted the dedicated professionals and volunteers, who took to heart the words spoken here by Martin Luther King in 1966: “We’re going to make this an open city because it’s right, because it’s practical, and because it’s sound economics.”
On the surface, a celebration of Chicago’s racial openness may seem a cruel joke–like honoring ethnic diversity in Iraq or religious tolerance in Northern Ireland. The Chicago metropolitan area is the most racially segregated population center in the United States–and not only segregated, but “hypersegregated.” That was the term coined in 1989 by University of Chicago sociologist Douglas Massey after poring over the 1980 census figures. And the news from the 1990 census is hardly encouraging. In the metropolitan Chicago region, 71 percent of all black citizens live in communities with populations that are more than 90 percent black. That makes Chicago easily number one among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan regions. Only metropolitan Saint Louis, Cleveland, and Detroit even come close, with more than 60 percent of their black residents in racially isolated areas.
Yet the festivities at the Palmer House were not without foundation. The Chicago area has been the scene of historic developments in the struggle to end separate and unequal residential patterns–developments so decisive and precedent-setting that they’ve had a substantial ripple effect in other areas of the country. That these stories are not better known may be due to their legal complexity and the large gaps of time between first steps and final results. That they haven’t reversed Chicago’s top-ranking position in the segregation standings only indicates the immensity of the problem, the perversity of human nature, and people’s uncanny ability to find loopholes when their way of life is threatened. Here are some of those stories.
The Altgeld-Murray housing project on Chicago’s far southeast side looks very much like it did 25 years ago, when Dorothy Gautreaux was living here: 225 two-story brown-brick buildings scattered over 141 acres–the widest spread by far of any Chicago Housing Authority development. Though it is commonly known as Altgeld Gardens, one looks in vain for anything like a garden. The modest lawns and backyards are entirely overgrown with weeds; only a smattering of trees and wild bushes provide shelter from the summer sun. Teenage residents with no apparent destination meander the streets in groups of five or six. The streets themselves seem to meander in aimless circles and curves, the potholes interspersed with an occasional speed bump.
The crime rate at Altgeld is high, the local high school dropout rate higher, and the walls of many buildings are scarred with gang graffiti that look like they’ve been there for years. There is no escaping the Sowetolike atmosphere, bespeaking poverty and isolation. Yet the Gardens, home to some 5,700 black Chicagoans, has one of the lowest vacancy rates among all CHA projects: 2.3 percent, compared to an overall 23.6 percent vacancy rate. Altgeld is after all a low rise, and as one resident observed, “It’s out in the country and away from all that gangbangin’.”
In 1966 the 39-year-old Dorothy Gautreaux lived here with her husband and five children. Despite her economic difficulties, Gautreaux was by all accounts a powerhouse activist long before the civil rights movement got into full swing. Resenting the indignities of life in the projects, she pulled together her Altgeld neighbors to demand improved maintenance, less crowded conditions in the local schools, and a voice for tenants in CHA decisions. Harold Baron, former research director for the Chicago Urban League, wrote in What Is Gautreaux? (a pamphlet prepared by Business and Professional People for the Public Interest) that the woman was “tireless . . . demanding both of herself and others. She produced results because her demands were tempered by patience and understanding.” When Dr. King arrived in Chicago that summer of ’66, Gautreaux was spokesperson for CHA residents and got him to Altgeld for a rally.
At that time the CHA was finalizing plans for several more housing projects that would exacerbate overcrowding and segregation: of nine new sites, four were high rises and six were adjacent to large existing projects. Under the direction of the Urban League, the West Side Federation, and the American Civil Liberties Union, a class action suit was filed in federal court claiming that the plan violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination in any federally funded project. Public housing, the suit argued, should be spread throughout the city, not crammed into already overcrowded and poverty-stricken communities. An eager participant in this legal assault and the first-named plaintiff in the suit was Dorothy Gautreaux.
Few gave the suit any chance of surviving past infancy. After all, the Chicago City Council had approved the location of the new buildings, and the judge appointed to the case, Richard B. Austin, showed the suit little sympathy initially. When asked about the sites of CHA projects, Austin–a short, cranky man whose white, crew-cut hair made him look like he was wearing an acrylic rug on his head, as one reporter observed–snapped “Where do you want them to put ’em? On Lake Shore Drive?”
CHA lawyers argued that the complaint was frivolous; they produced bundles of application forms showing that prospective tenants wanted to live in the ghetto; overwhelmingly, blacks had specifically requested CHA apartments in solidly black neighborhoods, ignoring the handful of sites in white or integrated areas. Months of arguing and foot-dragging stretched into years, the suit narrowly dodging a battery of CHA legal maneuvers aimed at its demise.
But Judge Austin could not ignore the battery of affidavits from black tenants claiming that they had been forcefully steered to the ghetto projects; those who showed any contrary inclinations were informed that the wait would be very, very long. Most public-housing applicants were in no position to wait. Gautreaux testified that she and her family had occupied one bedroom in her uncle’s house before finally getting into Altgeld. Nor could Austin overlook the deposition of a former CHA supervisor who described the steering practices in detail and acknowledged that only whites were ever considered eligible for the white projects. Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence was the agreement signed in the 1950s by which the CHA gave the City Council absolute veto power over the location of all its sites. Although CHA chairman Charles Swibel was no friend of the suit, he admitted the aldermen had him “over a barrel.” There was no point in looking for sites in white areas, he said, because the Council would not tolerate it.
While the legal battle raged, Gautreaux managed to extricate herself from Altgeld and move her family into a private south-side apartment. But just as her own material prospects improved and evidence of the CHA’s discrimination was piling up, her health collapsed. A serious kidney ailment led to several hospitalizations. She died in 1968, at the age of 41. Baron recalled in What Is Gautreaux? that the night before her final admission to the hospital she had been on the phone organizing a block club in her new neighborhood.
She was present, therefore, only in name and spirit in February 1969 when Judge Austin ruled that a trial would not be necessary: the CHA’s own policies established a clear pattern of racial discrimination. Swibel and Mayor Daley protested bitterly, but decided not to appeal the Gautreaux ruling (as it came to be known) because they saw no chance of winning. Another four months passed before the parties agreed to a partial settlement: 75 percent of future public-housing sites would be designated for white areas, and no new project would be a high rise. But Austin had cleared the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development of any guilt in the case, and the plaintiffs appealed his decision on this point.
In September 1971, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed Austin and said HUD was indeed part of the conspiracy to keep blacks in the ghetto. That ruling opened the door for the Gautreaux lawyers, led by Alexander Polikoff, to seek a remedy involving both city and suburbs to alleviate the CHA’s tradition of racial isolation. A five-year game of legal Ping-Pong resulted: Austin said no to the metropolitan solution; the U. S. Court of Appeals reversed him again; HUD appealed; then in April 1976, the U. S. Supreme Court declared (by an 8-0 vote) that the “relevant housing market” included both city and suburbs and ordered the exhausted Austin to work out the details with the CHA and the Gautreaux lawyers.
The eventual settlement called for HUD to fund a rent-subsidy program enabling public-housing tenants to move into privately owned apartments, mostly in suburban areas. Implementation of the program was assigned to the Leadership Council, which has overseen the operation ever since. Since 1976, some 4,300 families have quietly moved into private housing, more than half of it in 113 different Chicago suburbs, the rest in nonghetto areas of the city. Though the exodus from the CHA has not changed the look or life-style of the projects, those 4,300 families amount to nearly 15 percent of the 28,000 family units of public housing in the city.
Families who register for the program and are found eligible receive a certificate stating that HUD (under Section 8 of the 1974 Fair Housing Act) will pay the difference between 30 percent of the family’s monthly income and the going rent at the residence they wish to move into. On the average, HUD pays about $5,000 a year in subsidy for a family in the program. Since the Gautreaux operation began, the Leadership Council has been overwhelmed with registrations during the one day in January when residents can apply. In the first years, families applied in person at the council office near State and Van Buren. But in 1984 an estimated 15,000 people arrived on the designated day, filling the building, tying up the elevators, and overflowing so far onto the streets that downtown traffic was blocked. Since then, registration has been handled exclusively by phone. This year, more than 10,000 calls were logged on the designated day. Given available HUD funds and the size of its staff, the Leadership Council accepts a maximum of 2,000 would-be escapee families a year. Then a winnowing-down process occurs: some applicants are found not to be living currently in a CHA building; some don’t follow through on the initial interviews; some do but simply can’t find a landlord willing to accept them. “We are limited,” said council director Williams, “by what the market will absorb each year, by the number of available units, the number of willing landlords.” When the interviews, the paperwork, and the home hunting are finished, between 250 and 400 families move out of CHA buildings each year.
A recent follow-up study of these families by sociologists at Northwestern University produced what the researchers called striking and unexpected results. While some former CHA-ers “had unpleasant experiences with a few neighbors,” said the report (summarized in What Is Gautreaux?), “they also made friends with many white neighbors and were generally . . . well integrated in their new neighborhood.” The study also found that among those adults who had never before been employed, 30 percent who had found private housing in the city were working, and 45 percent who went into suburban housing had jobs. Concluded the Northwestern researchers: “The Gautreaux Program has begun to show us what happens when people of different races and classes live together. The results indicate that these low-income blacks and their white suburban neighbors have overcome many of the social, economic, and racial barriers that separate them.”
The program, says Dr. Gary Orfield, University of Chicago political-science professor and specialist on race relations, has proven to be a kind of “glass slipper” for people determined to break out of a limiting environment. “It could have an immense impact everywhere if the United States decided to go that way,” he adds. In fact, Gautreauxlike programs have already been started in Cincinnati, Memphis, and Dallas, and others are under development in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Cleveland. The appeal of the program is not just the opportunity for a better life, notes Williams; it’s the fact that the program saves millions of tax dollars–money that would otherwise go for chronic welfare, law enforcement, and the warehousing of criminals. “Saving dollars,” says Williams, “may be the strongest appeal of Gautreaux among market-driven conservatives.”
One other aspect of the original court settlement has borne more meager fruit. The CHA agreed to build or rehab future public-housing units on scattered sites in white or integrated Chicago areas, and that has largely been a story of bureaucratic obstruction. Like their predecessors in the 50s and early 60s, Chicago aldermen and the city administration set up so many roadblocks that fewer than 40 scattered-site units were developed between 1969 and 1987, an average of about two a year. In 1987 the federal court turned the responsibility over to a private developer, the Habitat Company, which is moving with greater dispatch. So far the firm has rehabbed 40 buildings that the CHA purchased but never finished, and is completing 100 new town-house units spread through ten wards. Funds for the work came from the $100 million designated for it that had been sitting unused in the CHA’s account; many more millions had been squandered because the CHA repeatedly started jobs then quit work halfway through, letting the buildings deteriorate before starting–and stopping–again.
Throughout CHA projects today, the Gautreaux name is familiar even to those who know nothing of the woman or the lawsuit–it’s a code word for escape. The name also lives on in Altgeld’s Dorothy Gautreaux Child-Parent Center, constructed five years after her death and named in her honor (after a considerable hassle with city officials) because local residents insisted that her name would be a symbol of hope in that desolate setting.
The distance from Altgeld Gardens to Hunter Trails is about 15 miles, but this exclusive subdivision in the affluent village of Oak Brook might as well exist in another universe. To enter Hunter Trails, one must show proper credentials to the uniformed attendant occupying the guardhouse at the main gate. Unauthorized people are politely but quickly turned away. The single-family homes dotting the landscape within are so lavish, even pretentious, they make the most elegant sections of Winnetka and Lake Forest look mediocre. Surrounded by acres of manicured lawns and set amidst flowering gardens and decorative ponds, these tributes to wealth and status seem to be in competition only with one another for sheer size and ornamentation. Multiple garrets and chimneys jut from immense tiled rooftops, huge picture windows glisten in the sun, and building adjuncts wander off main houses in several directions. Some of the attached multicar garages are larger than the freestanding buildings at Altgeld that house four families each. The biggest mansions, some with large white statues along the driveways, have been dubbed “Mafia castles” by less prosperous Oak Brookers.
The residents’ penchant for privacy was rudely threatened in 1980 by a set of circumstances so bizarre they could well be the subject of a made-for-TV movie. Those circumstances have made “Hunter Trails” a name more familiar to lawyers than to lovers of ostentatious architecture. On January 21 of that year Dennis Broderick, a local contractor, listed his Hunter Trails home for sale. Other home owners assumed he was building it for himself and his family, but for reasons never made clear he was eager to part with it before work was even completed. The house certainly filled the typical Hunter Trails profile: three levels of 4,000 square feet each. The top level, with enough bedrooms to accommodate three families, was finished; so was the second level, with living room, kitchen, family room, library, a bedroom suite, and several large utility rooms. The first level had yet to be divided into rooms.
Broderick told the realtor he was willing to take an astonishingly low $600,000 to $700,000 for the place, but she persuaded him to start at $850,000. Between January and May, only ten potential buyers viewed the house, and none showed serious interest, possibly because of the unfinished ground floor. One of these viewers was Jorie Ford Butler, daughter of the fabulously wealthy Paul Butler (who had developed Hunter Trails) and sister of Michael Butler. Jorie, it seems, was looking for shelter since her own Oak Brook home was about to be sold. Broderick’s realtor quoted the asking price but said she was sure a deal could be arranged for well under $700,000. Jorie decided, however, that the house was too big, too hard to heat, and too much in need of further construction.
In late May, James Phillips, a businessman from Homewood who owned a string of car washes on the south side, viewed the property and was immediately smitten. He brought his wife, then his two teenage children to look the place over. Phillips offered $600,000. Broderick countered with $700,000. During face-to-face negotiations at the Darien Country Club (owned by Broderick), they agreed on a figure of $675,000 and signed a contract. Phillips put up $75,000 in earnest money and went about selling his own home. A July 21 closing date was set. Everything went smoothly, and no one seemed to notice or care that James Phillips and his family were black.
Then, on June 13, just four days after the contract had been signed, things started to fall apart. Among those at a gala eighth-grade graduation party Broderick threw for one of his children was Robert Steinbock-Sinclair, general counsel for the Hunter Trails Community Association. When he heard that the new neighbors were black, he conferred hurriedly with several Hunter Trails residents. A series of frantic phone calls took place over the next few days, including several threatening ones to Broderick and the realtor who had arranged the deal.
Subdivision residents were not without recourse. Perhaps anticipating such a development, Paul Butler and the other founding fathers had enacted a fortress of restrictive covenants. The community association retained the authority to approve or disapprove any change in Hunter Trails occupancy or the sale, lease, or sublease of any property. If the association vetoed a sale, it had an option to purchase the property itself on the same terms agreed to by the would-be buyer. On June 18, Marvin Mitchell, president of the Hunter Trails Community Association, chaired an emergency early-morning meeting of the organization at the offices of the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company (of which he was president). Steinbock-Sinclair was present along with about 15 others, mostly Hunter Trails home owners. Jorie Ford Butler was not present, though her lawyer was–and without any official reason to attend. Conspicuously absent (he had not been invited) was Dennis Broderick, whose home sale was the exclusive subject of discussion.
In court Mitchell recalled the meeting as “undisciplined” and “unruly.” Phillips’s race and his business clearly concerned those in attendance; Mitchell said someone even suggested that Phillips’s real source of income was dope peddling. In any event, it was quickly agreed that the association should overrule Broderick and exercise its option to buy the home. The alleged reason: $675,000 was just too low a price and could lead to a “depreciation of local property values.” The next day, Steinbock-Sinclair was still in an unruly state of mind. An insurance consultant with whom he met on an unrelated matter said in court that Steinbock-Sinclair told him Hunter Trails was an exclusive community for professionals and executives and had no room for “niggers” or car-wash operators.
Blissfully unaware of all this turmoil, James Phillips had sold his Homewood residence, obtained a first mortgage from the Seaway Bank (for $325,000), and submitted his application, with references, for membership in the Hunter Trails association. He assumed all was going well. No one told him otherwise.
Meanwhile, the Hunter Trails cabal had run into some technical difficulties in their efforts to buy the property. So they turned to Jorie Ford Butler, who was on a business trip to London. Following frantic transatlantic negotiations, she agreed on July 14 to buy an option on the Broderick home (for $10,000), take the home itself for $675,000, and pull the rug out from under Phillips. The papers of transfer were signed and duly notarized on July 16. On July 17, just four days before his anticipated closing date, Phillips learned his contract had been torpedoed. Jorie Ford Butler wrote him a polite letter. It began:
“Dear Mr. Phillips, Knowing that we both have an interest in purchasing the Broderick house in Hunter Trails, I thought I should let you know the particular circumstances which make my need so pressing.” She had been looking for a “suitable personal residence” in Oak Brook for some time, she explained, and had “despaired of finding” what she wanted. Because Broderick had “reduced the asking price” and because the house was near that of her father, she and the association had decided to overrule Phillips’s purchase. She concluded, “Although I know you and your family will be somewhat disappointed, I feel sure that you will be able to find another equally suitable residence very quickly.”
Phillips hit the ceiling. He filed a federal discrimination suit against Butler and the association, obtaining (through Leadership Council attorneys) a court-ordered delay on any final sale until the issues were reviewed. That review took place in October 1980, at a trial before U.S. District Judge Prentice Marshall, whose ruling and award in the case set precedents. The decision by the Hunter Trails association to block Phillips’s purchase of the house was motivated by out-and-out racism, he declared, and Butler was a knowing accomplice in the conspiracy. The association’s contention that it took action because the selling price was too low was contradicted, said Marshall, by the fact that the home was offered to Butler at the same price agreed to by Phillips. “The difference between Ms. Butler and Mr. Phillips was her race,” he ruled, “not the price at which she would purchase the property.”
Marshall then awarded the Phillips family a whopping $288,691, including $200,000 in punitive damages alone. The 1968 Fair Housing Act set a $1,000 limit on punitive damages, but Marshall said that no such limit applies under the old Civil Rights Act of 1866. Among those he held personally liable were Steinbock-Sinclair, Butler, the officers of the Hunter Trails Community Association, and every member of the association–that is, every home owner in the subdivision. Although an appellate court later reduced the compensatory-damage award, it retained heavy punitive damages, establishing Phillips v. Hunter Trails as a trendsetter in housing-discrimination law. After that courts began assigning larger and larger fines, especially in egregious cases of discrimination, and taking into account the prestige, wealth, malicious intent, and other characteristics of the guilty.
In recent years courts have given awards of $327,000 in a Washington, D.C., discrimination case; $375,000 in a Long Island case; and $450,000 in a Los Angeles decision. Experts predict $1 million awards in the near future. Earlier this year a Chicago realtor was hit with a $102,000 penalty in a fairly routine racial-steering affair; 15 years ago a plaintiff would have been fortunate to collect $1,000. In all these cases, the judges’ reasoning was fully consistent with Marshall’s recommendation: “The court should appraise the degree of culpability of a defendant’s conduct; the defendant’s motivation, knowledge and intent; the power, influence or prestige which the defendant enjoys in the community . . . and the defendant’s ability to pay . . . an amount calculated to deter others similarly situated.”
James Phillips collected the award, bought the Broderick home, and moved in, only to sell the place a few years later when he encountered tax problems. The Hunter Trails Community Association does not make public the present racial makeup of the subdivision.
The old 20-story high rise on Lake Shore Drive near Belmont was once just one among hundreds of others spanning the shoreline from North Avenue to Hollywood. Many cropped up almost overnight after World War II, like an inundation of dandelions on a spring lawn. Some have since been weeded out, replaced by more modern, sprawling condominium complexes or deluxe senior-citizen apartments. This one, dwarfed by its newer neighbors, shows signs of age: a grimy yellow-brick exterior and clunky old air conditioners grinding away in the windows. Still, it provides fairly affordable housing and a nice view of Lincoln Park and the lake, at least on its east side.
It was affordable housing that drew two young career women to the building in February 1972. Valerie Williamson and Joyce Tucker, both single, wanted to share a one-bedroom apartment, and they responded to an ad put in the paper by one of the building’s residents, Bonita Nichols. Nichols, whose lease ran for another six months, was seeking to sublet her apartment; Williamson and Tucker, both black, filled out an application and gave Nichols a security deposit, and she assured them they could move in quickly. But when Jewel Valerio, the desk clerk employed by the building’s agent, Hampton Management Company, learned of the arrangement, she told Nichols that her apartment had been promised to a couple already living in the building who wanted a room with a better view. Nichols was upset because she discovered that the couple didn’t intend to move in until May; Nichols would thus be stuck with two months’ rent for the apartment. More to the point, she and the two applicants believed racial bias was at the root of the reaction.
Officials for Hampton insisted nothing could be further from the truth. They produced a hitherto-unknown and unenforced policy, dated 1971, that stated “At no time in the future are we to rent to two girls living in one apartment or two men together or to anybody on welfare. Such renting reduces the credibility of the building.”
This only stirred the suspicions of Williamson and Tucker, since there had been no mention of the ban in their earlier negotiations. In fact, Nichols had lived in her apartment with a woman friend and the policy was never mentioned. Still, there seemed no way to prove discrimination.
Williamson and Tucker contacted the Leadership Council, which had recently been pioneering the technique known as “testing”: they sent white and black persons claiming similar credentials at different times to available homes and apartments to determine if they were treated differently. Soon after the incident at the Lake Shore Drive building, Karen Murphy, a white employee of the Leadership Council, went there and said she and a single girlfriend were looking for a one-bedroom apartment. Valerio, the same desk clerk, dutifully showed them one that was soon to be vacated, gave Murphy application forms for herself and her nonexistent friend, and asked for a security deposit. She did not mention any exclusionary policy.
Based on that evidence, Williamson, Tucker, and Nichols sued Hampton in federal court. What gave the case special interest was the use of the tester. Like other defendants before them, Hampton argued that the testimony of someone like Murphy should be inadmissible in court: She was a tester, not a sincere home seeker–in fact, she was a liar who fabricated qualifications and interests for the sole purpose of entrapping the renter. In several earlier cases, the courts had accepted that defense, so the future of test- ing stood on somewhat precarious grounds when the trial took place, later in 1972, before U.S. District Judge Philip Tone.
He found Hampton guilty of racial discrimination, ordered the company to provide Williamson and Tucker with an apartment at the rent they would have had to pay for Nichols’s apartment, and fined Hampton $500 plus attorneys’ fees. The long-range effects came from Tone’s admission of Murphy’s testimony and his clear declaration that “The fact that Karen Murphy was an employee of the Leadership Council and visited the defendants for investigative and evidence-gathering purposes does not impair her credibility as a witness. The only reasonable inference from the evidence . . . is that race and not the supposed policy against renting to two single women was the reason for the refusal to rent.”
So Williamson v. Hampton entered the annals of law as a foundation for the legitimacy of testing and a launching pad for further testing developments, many of them in the Chicago area. In 1979 the U.S. Supreme Court provided a boost for testing when it declared that in some instances testers themselves could sue realtors who discriminate against them. The case involved the undistinguished little village of Bellwood, nestled west of Chicago. In 1975 the village itself and a group of testers (two blacks and four whites) sued Gladstone Realtors, charging the firm with steering black home seekers into a 12-square-block area on the east side of the village and white home seekers into the more affluent (and white) west side. Gladstone defended itself by claiming no real injury had been done to the testers–even if steering did occur–because as testers they weren’t actually looking for homes.
The high court, however, accepted the arguments of the testers and the Leadership Council. Since all six testers lived either in Bellwood or in a bordering suburb, they were “indirect victims” of Gladstone’s practices; the transformation of Bellwood’s east side from an integrated area into an all-black community deprived tester-residents of the “social and professional benefits of living in an integrated community.” The fact that they weren’t genuine house hunters was regarded as irrelevant. As a result, testing (or “auditing,” as the practice is often called when conducted on a broad basis) is now widely used by fair-housing groups nationwide. Courts have ruled in later decisions that virtually anyone, including organizations like the Leadership Council, can be plaintiffs in housing-discrimination cases.
In 1983, testing was raised almost to the level of a civic virtue when the U.S. Court of Appeals overruled a federal judge in Chicago who had disregarded testimony from a professional tester. The case involved a black home seeker who was told no rental units were available at the Ridge Terrace Apartments in Chicago Ridge and a white tester who was told soon after that units were available. In reversing the lower court, the appellate judges said, “It is surely regrettable that testers must mislead commercial landlords and home owners as to their real intentions to rent or buy housing. Nonetheless, we have long recognized that this requirement of deception was a relatively small price to pay to defeat racial discrimination. The evidence provided by testers both benefits unbiased landlords, by quickly dispelling false claims of discrimination, and is a major resource in society’s continuing struggle to eliminate the subtle but deadly poison of racial discrimination.”
To the nonprofessional, discussions about testers’ credentials may seem nit-picking. After all, Section 804 of the 1968 Fair Housing Act says, “It shall be unlawful . . . to discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or . . . to represent to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin that any dwelling is not available for inspection, sale or rental when such dwelling is in fact so available.” “Any person” would seem to mean any person. But the element of deception tends to create a kind of shadow on the practice of testing.
That, however, has not deterred the Leadership Council from testing in the Chicago area on an ever-greater scale. Last year 348 teams were sent out, the largest number ever. And there have been results that go far beyond apprehending individual steerers. Perhaps the most significant was a formal agreement, signed in 1987, between the Leadership Council and the South Suburban Association of Realtors. The Leadership Council now provides training to the association members, conducts regular audits of its practices, and turns over its findings to the association’s professional standards committee, which is empowered to take punitive action, including expulsion, against offenders. This self-policing arrangement, with cooperation between a watchdog group and a large band of realtors, is working “very satisfactorily” so far, said David Schucker, the Leadership Council’s liaison with the realtors. Agreements involving other Chicago-area realtors are under development, and the idea has spread to other cities. Everyone, including veteran realtors, agrees that such reforms would never have occurred without the bombardment of testing and the costly discrimination suits that resulted.
The two women who set the stage for all this, Williamson and Tucker, long ago moved out of their Lake Shore Drive apartment. Tucker, inspired by the suit she helped trigger, went to law school, earned her degree, and eventually became a commissioner with the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
There have been many other success stories in the Chicago area. In the 1970s an Arlington Heights case, which stayed in the news for seven years, established that discrimination in housing, even without malicious intent, is still discrimination. Officials in that northwest suburb strove mightily to prevent a Catholic religious order from selling 15 acres for the construction of low- and moderate-income private housing. The officials succeeded in blocking the original effort, but eventually had to accept 200 units of rent-subsidized housing in another section of the village. Various courts that considered the matter did not find compelling evidence that Arlington Heights intended to discriminate. Nevertheless, they said, the net result of the village action was to frustrate the intent of the Fair Housing Act. Said the U.S. Court of Appeals, “Conduct that has the necessary and foreseeable consequence of perpetuating segregation can be as deleterious as purposefully discriminatory conduct in frustrating the national commitment to replace the ghettos by truly integrated and balanced living patterns.” In that case the court set up criteria for determining when fair-housing objectives are being subverted, even in the absence of malicious intent, that have become the national standards in such cases.
As recently as last June, a potential landmark case was decided. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago approved special efforts made by a Park Forest realtor to sell three rehabilitated homes in a predominantly black area to white families. Called generally “affirmative marketing,” this tactic was supported by the South Suburban Housing Center and eight suburban governments in addition to Park Forest’s. It was opposed by the Greater South Suburban Board of Realtors as another form of steering. Not so, said the court, opening the way for similar attempts at creating or maintaining integration.
The Leadership Council has had a hand in virtually all these developments. It is the quiet persistence of the council and of similar fair-housing bodies, like the South Suburban Housing Center and the Oak Park Housing Center, that has “raised the stakes” in the housing game, says political scientist Orfield. In the old days, he noted, even if a realtor lost a discrimination case, he didn’t suffer much: perhaps a small fine, a slap on the wrist. Besides, the odds against getting caught were small. “Now it’s different,” says Orfield. “The odds have narrowed, the penalties are greater, the laws clearer.” Still, he admits, this progress has hardly produced a golden age of integration in the Chicago area.
Of course, there’s also the gloomy side.
While the minority population of suburban Cook County has risen to more than 20 percent, blacks tend to be clustered in pockets south and west of the city; some of those areas are turning over racially as fast as south-side Chicago neighborhoods did in the 1960s. Dolton, 2 percent black in 1980, was 67 percent black in the 1990 census. Country Club Hills and Hazel Crest, both less than 12 percent black in 1980, were more than 50 percent black by 1990. Park Forest went from 12 percent to 24 percent black, Matteson from 12 percent to 44 percent. Bellwood, where testing was employed in the 1970s to maintain integration, went from 35 percent to 70 percent black during the 1980s.
Significantly, the areas where the black population is large and growing fastest are those where the job market is tightest. Chicago, now with a 62 percent minority population, has lost more than 134,000 jobs in the past 20 years. The major job-growth regions in the metropolitan area include northwest Cook County, which has a 1.3 percent black population, and Du Page County, with 2 percent. Arlington Heights, famous now in open-housing law, has a black population of a little over one-half of 1 percent; Oak Brook, site of the Hunter Trails affair, is just a tad better, with an eight-tenths of 1 percent black population. The bottom line: blacks still tend to live in tightly segregated areas of Chicago or in increasingly black suburban enclaves that are distant from the best job markets.
Also distressing are the sporadic efforts of realtors and realtor groups to throw off the traces and deregulate, restoring the old free market. Consider the Matchmaker Real Estate Sales Center, a southwest Chicago realtor found guilty of steering practices last April in U.S. District Court. Five teams of testers, under the direction of the Leadership Council, testified that Matchmaker agents treated white and black home seekers very differently. Whites were typically directed to homes in all-white areas west of Kedzie Avenue, while blacks were shown homes in black or integrated neighborhoods with price tags well below the range they had indicated to the agents. Federal Magistrate Joan Lefkow found the agents and the owner and chief executive of Matchmaker, Erwin Ernst, equally guilty.
Owners and managers, even of realty firms, are often held responsible in court for the discriminatory actions of employees. But the Matchmaker conviction has sparked a fire storm of indignation in the realty world: the National Association of Realtors, the North Side Real Estate Board, and the Illinois Association of Realtors are among the organizations that have contributed up to $10,000 each to appeal the ruling. Ironically, the campaign to exonerate Matchmaker is being led by Frank J. Williams, former president of the Chicago Board of Realtors and former president of the south-side chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Williams, who is black, argues that Ernst’s agents are not his employees in the strict sense of the word but independent contractors operating under his license. Holding realtors rigidly responsible for agents’ actions, he insists, will undermine the entire real estate industry.
Leadership Council director Kale Williams said he is baffled by this reaction, since realtor organizations have been increasingly insistent that their members comply with the law. And clearly even more insistence is needed. A HUD study last year showed that despite all the new safeguards, a black house hunter faces a better than 50 percent chance of encountering discrimination.
Another vexing matter is the ground swell of feeling among blacks that integration, in housing or anywhere else, is not only unlikely but undesirable. This position attacks the very premise on which the civil rights and fair-housing laws are based: that it is beneficial for members of different races to live and work together. The notion of black separateness, once espoused by such radicals as Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, has recently been echoed by more than a few establishment blacks. Clarence Thomas, the current Supreme Court nominee, speaks of “thriving” black communities and school districts disrupted by integration. Discussions of affirmative action and other “artificial” methods of bringing about equality, Thomas has said, are “no longer relevant.” He practiced what he preached as EEOC chairman under President Reagan, and it’s a safe bet that if he’d been a Supreme Court justice over the past 20 years, he’d have cast a negative vote on most of the prointegration decisions rendered.
Kale Williams–slightly built, scholarly-looking, 66 years old–rejects pessimism as a matter of principle. Looking back 25 years, to the time when the Leadership Council was born out of the civil rights turmoil, he sees astounding achievements: thousands of CHA residents leaving the projects, vast numbers of middle-class blacks finding suburban homes, victims of bias willing to take on the system, judges cracking down on offenders, collaborative programs between fair-housing centers and the housing industry. Williams was on the original board of the Leadership Council and joined the staff in 1972, so he has followed the circuitous turns of the national psyche and refuses to panic over ominous trends. Perhaps influenced by his Quaker roots, he still believes that peace and justice will prevail and the lion will lie down with the lamb–but not without an ongoing struggle. As he told the audience at the Leadership Council’s anniversary luncheon, segregation is “an unnatural disaster . . . a disease of the spirit” that requires strong medicine. “We want victories, not anniversaries,” he said.
“You couldn’t change Kale Williams’s direction in a century,” says Orfield. “He is a grounded moral force.” Because of determined people like Williams, Dorothy Gautreaux, attorney Alex Polikoff, and other open-housing proponents, Orfield adds, integration has made real though modest strides in the Chicago area. “What’s happened here is impressive,” he says, “really quite unique–because if integration can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner; photos/Al Kawano.