Saving Lathrop – an addendum

Alex Polikoff and staff at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest in 1994

Today, the Chicago Reader published my story called Saving Lathrop, a many-months-long reporting, writing and editorial effort. I couldn’t think of a publication more perfect for this piece and am extremely glad they took it on.

However, as all publications, the Reader had only so much room and there are elements to this story that inevitably did not make the final cut. I’d like to provide an addendum for anyone interested in getting a fuller understanding of the issues underpinning the civil rights case at the center of my article.

It is important to acknowledge that the Gautreaux case led to two concrete remedies for housing segregation in Chicago: scattered site public housing and a voucher mobility program. Originally, Alex Polikoff and his team launched two class action suits simultaneously on behalf of tens of thousands of African-American public housing residents and families still on the waiting list.

After ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in Gautreaux v. CHA, the judge ordered the housing authority to build public housing on a 3:1 basis, that is three units in white neighborhoods for every one built in a black neighborhood. They were to proceed in this way until the city had a balance of public housing in black and white areas.

Getting the CHA to carry out the order became a decades-long battle. An important break came in 1987, when the Gautreax court appointed a receiver, the Habitat Company, to do the work of the obstinate CHA. Habitant managed to deliver some 2,700 scattered site units over the next 20 years, but due to the scarcity of available and affordable land and fierce opposition in white neighborhoods on the northwest and southwest sides, the units largely ended up in low-income minority neighborhoods.  Altogether, these 2,700 units were a drop in the bucket compared to the over 30,000 public housing units the CHA had built in poor, black neighborhoods on the south and west sides between the late-30s and early 70s.

Gautreaux v. HUD spawned a more successful program to help African-American families in public housing leave their segregated environments. After the Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor of the residents, Section 8 vouchers became the remedy. The vouchers gave recipients assistance to pay rent in the private housing market. The court decided that the plaintiffs’ case against HUD would end once 7,100 interested families were moved to white neighborhoods in the city and suburbs through the voucher program.

The last Gautreaux family moved in 1998. The outcomes for these families were tracked in a longitudinal study by Northwestern University Professor James Rosenbaum and Northwestern University School of Law Professor Len Rubinowitz. They concluded that for most families, especially those who moved to the suburbs, quality of life, educational and employment attainment were significantly improved.

As I write in the Reader piece, the advent of the mixed-income housing model and the eventual groundswell of change that arrived with the Plan for Transformation, created a new playing field for Gautreuax remedies. Because the balance of public housing in black and white (now “opportunity” and non-opportunity neighborhoods defined by socioeconomics rather than race) has still not been reached after 45 years, Gautreuax v. CHA is still in remedial stages.

Impatience with the role of the Gautreuax lawyers at BPI has intensified in recent years due to their support of the housing authority’s transition to policies that have effectively limited the availability of public housing in the highest opportunity neighborhoods. Lathrop is a prime example, as are the Cabrini Rowhouses in Near North, about which I will be writing more in the coming days.

Discontent with BPI has ranged in intensity. Leaders at the Central Advisory Council (a city-wide board of resident association presidents from every public housing development) and at various Local Advisory Councils (resident associations) frequently expressed deep resentment toward the group of lawyers who have a say in what happens to their homes but are in no way accountable to them. As members of the Gautreuax plaintiff class, these leaders find the fact that they can’t get rid of “their own” lawyers particularly infuriating.

When I asked CAC president Francine Washington about Polikoff she fired back: “He ain’t my damn lawyer. I didn’t pick him. BPI have different interests than we do. Everything they do is about them.”

This sentiment was shared by Carol Steele, the LAC president at the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses. “We no longer need Gautreaux because we’re planning for ourselves,” she told me. One of her biggest objections to the mixed-income redevelopment of public housing as it is happening in Chicago is the fact that residents lose their legal right to organize in such communities. Resident associations are federally recognized entities in traditional public housing projects but, as I’ve written elsewhere, they disappear once public housing is privately financed, owned and operated in the context of market-rate developments.

The folks at BPI are far from oblivious to this issue. They tend to downplay the voices of resident leaders who most vocally oppose them, cynically chalking up their calls to maintain and rehabilitate traditional public housing to a thirst for power. Julie Brown, co-counsel on the Gautreaux case told me in an interview: “The LAC leadership has a vested interest in keeping the LAC which they lose with mixed income. There will not be an LAC. So someone whose life is built around LAC leadership loses that position when mixed income comes. So there’s another self-interested position there. Not to say that it isn’t important that residents have leaders, but the structure changes.”

Perhaps this argument would be more persuasive if the resident leaders weren’t part of a large chorus of voices who say BPI is on the wrong track these days, and if the organization itself wasn’t subject to the same criticism. In one of my most memorable interviews, Janet Smith, Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago said: “I used to think that Alex Polikoff was the coolest guy because of the Gautreaux case and [his defense of] public housing residents.”

When she was in graduate school in the 1980s, Smith said she saw the remedies from the case as milestones in the fight against the the injustices done to poor black families. “As the Gautreaux case evolved in its role in the redevelopment of public housing under the second Mayor Daley, what concerned me was that it seemed to me that [it] was working against the people it was supposed to represent in the first place,” Smith went on.

Brad Hunt, professor of Social Science and History, and a dean at Roosevelt University also thought that Polikoff’s fight against Chicago’s botched take on public housing embodied by high-rises like the Robert Taylor Homes was on the right side of history. But Hunt said that the attorney’s personal feelings about public housing may impede him from seeing the  possibility of a better policy. “He never liked the whole aesthetics of projects. He doesn’t like projects,” Hunt emphasized. “There’s a tinge of condescension there to say that what poor black people need is to live next to an affluent white person, that that will somehow change them, that that’s what they’re missing in their lives.”

Smith, Hunt, and other scholars in the field like MIT’s Lawrence Vale, University of Minnesota’s Ed Goetz, Columbia’s Sudhir Venkatesh, Northwestern’s Mary Pattillo and Len Rubinowitz, DePaul’s Larry Bennett, and Molly Metzger at Washington University in St. Louis have all written about how mixed-income redevelopment as it is being practiced in Chicago is often harmful to the most vulnerable families and reduces affordable housing city-wide. They have also pointed out that in the case of a unique community like Lathrop, the transition to a mixed-income model is particularly tragic.

To this chorus of BPI’s critics we can also add the numerous attorneys and low-income housing advocates who have worked with CHA residents as their chosen representatives, but this issue I will save for a separate post as well.

What I would like to add here is that despite all the criticism, it would be a mistake to simply see Polikoff and his colleagues as “the bad guys.” For many years the Gautreuax case was a pro bono job for Polikoff. Even though today BPI does collect attorneys’ fees paid by the CHA for their representation of the plaintiffs (according to their own, freely available annual reports $3,097,000 since 2001), a look around the homey atmosphere and aging decor of their offices leaves the distinct impression that it is a place where people have long worked for some cause other than personal enrichment. It is also a place where people seem to have comfortably settled into the idea of a never-ending process.

A better way to understand the situation is to consider the nature of civil rights litigation and how this type of class action lawsuit is a unique incubator for attorneys on a personal mission.

For as loud as they are when they begin, civil rights lawsuits like Gautreaux or Brown v. Board of Education can have surprisingly lackluster ends. On one hand it is because, as in Gautreaux v. CHA, there is often no precise end point in the judgment order. Justice is served when the judge decides it is. And if the judge dies, retires or gets promoted, the case gets passed on to a new one, who has to start from scratch to try to catch up on the history (relying heavily on the attorneys and their experts of choice) and put him or herself in a position to rule. Gautreaux has slugged through three judges and a magistrate since 1966. Currently the case is overseen by Marvin Aspen.

Civil rights suits also tend to fizzle out because judicial remedies for systematic offenses like racial discrimination in schools and housing, which engage a complex array of institutions, individuals and procedures, are usually ineffective. Battling racism on an institutional level through the courts is like trying to render a net inoperable by cutting through one section. The bigger the net, the more resilient it will be.

What’s more, the process of dismantling a discriminatory system through legal means restricts one to proceed only on the most spelled out, specific level.  The system evolves and responds to new legal strictures at lightning speed. Discontent neighborhoods can quickly elect aldermen that will keep a discriminatory zoning agenda alive, agencies can defer responsibilities to others or change their staff, budgets can be slashed in a heartbeat. The court is always left ambling to readjust and find a new target.

Add to this the fact that civil rights suits tend to be ideological efforts carried out by progressive institutions on behalf of gigantic groups of people, and conditions are perfect for a total separation of attorneys’ minds from and clients’ needs. As early as 1976, Derrick Bell, writing about this problem in school desegregation cases says:

The class action provides the vehicle for bringing about a major advance toward an idealistic goal. At the same time, prosecuting and winning the big case provides strong reinforcement for the attorney’s sense of his or her abilities and professionalism. Dr. Andrew Young has suggested that ‘[c]lass actions…have the capacity to provide large sources of narcissistic gratification and this may be one of the reasons why they are such a popular form of litigation in legal aid and poverty law clinics.’ The psychological motivations which influence the lawyer in taking on a ‘fiercer dragon’ through the class action may also underlie the tendency to direct the suit toward the goals of the lawyer rather than the client.

Polikoff’s tenacity to pursue Gautreuax remedies for almost half a century has unsurprisingly raised questions about his motivations. But the impression I got from closely reading his writings and two extensive interviews is that he has been guided by am unbending commitment to his ideas about integration, deriving a sense of professional accomplishment from modest gains like the Gautreuax mobility program and BPI’s more successful legal endeavors. He is also, self-admittedly, not the most creative of men. A 1994 profile in the Chicago Tribune described him thusly:

Polikoff is what you might call steady. He has had only two jobs in his life, at Schiff Hardin, where he remained 17 years, and BPI, where he has stayed 24. He eats the same lunch almost every day, a tuna sandwich on an onion roll from Dunkin’ Donuts, goes in for nondescript, off-the-rack clothing, and has lived in the same house for 40 years. He and his wife go to the same places on vacation year after year, usually the Yellowstone region of Wyoming.

“The stability gene is prominent in my family,” he observes. “But the imagination gene got short shrift. A creative person wouldn’t be content to do this job forever like I have.”

It is Polikoff’s rigidity of thought about the meaning of integration in the context of a specific community like Lathrop and BPI’s consensus with the CHA at a time when the agency has repeatedly broken promises that prompts other advocates to no longer see this stability gene as an asset.

After the Sisyphean struggle to make progress toward disestablishing segregation for almost 50 years, one can imagine why BPI prefers to support policies that seem to get the ball rolling in any direction at all. They are emboldened by ever more social science data showing the treacherous effects of persistent poverty, even though there are alternative proposals for remedies besides New Urbanist mixed-income housing. It is also hardly surprising that BPI feels threatened by the idea of engaging parties with potentially diverging priorities, for example tenant groups that no longer have the same views on integration as the original Gautreuax plaintiffs.

Additionally, continuing the case in its current rhythm has given steady employment to a group of lawyers for decades, and the collection of attorneys’ fees  has allowed BPI to establish a fellowship fund to provide training to a recent law school graduate through work on the case every year. The lawyers are only accountable to the judge, who has himself spent the better part of his career litigating this case. He is the only one who can decide when public housing segregation in Chicago (the most segregated city in America today) has been remedied.

The possibility of that happening seems unlikely wile Polikoff, 87, is still active. In my interviews with BPI staff, on two occasions, I attempted to delicately ask what would happen when the inevitable happened. All I got in response was cordial laughter and the assurance that Polikoff is as sharp and active as ever. He himself refused to entertain the notion that the case is winding down.

If Chicago’s public housing residents want to get BPI out of the picture, they could find recourse only in time and the judge. Which is more likely to be on their side 48 years after Dorothy Gautreaux put her name on this lawsuit seems to be an even gamble.

Dorothy Gautreaux



One response to “Saving Lathrop – an addendum

  1. Pingback: Lathrop Homes loses community activist | Brit on the Block·

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