Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

Housing Bias and the Roots of Segregation

From The New York Times:

Should your ZIP code determine your future? Not according to American ideals of social mobility. American realities, however, tell a different story: Where people grow up goes a long way toward shaping how well they will be educated, how stable their families will be, how high their dreams can soar.

Perhaps no group knows this better than impoverished African-Americans often trapped in soul-deadening public housing, the segregated “projects” that have dotted many an urban landscape. Breaking entrenched patterns of racial separation has been a decades-long challenge for the government. Now the Obama administration, in its final months, is pursuing a fresh solution: a plan that puts ZIP codes front and center.

But to see where we may be headed, it is important to know where we have been. That is the mission of Retro Report, a series of video documentaries examining major news stories of the past and their continued resonance. This episode harks back 50 years, to a federal lawsuit in Chicago that sought to put a dent in enforced segregation by offering black families a path out of unsafe, unhealthy and unsparing inner-city projects.

The case came to be known as Gautreaux, named for its lead plaintiff, Dorothy Gautreaux. She and others accused the Chicago Housing Authority of discrimination in its stewardship of public housing that methodically steered low-income minorities toward ghettos. The lawsuit led 10 years later to an 8-to-0 Supreme Court ruling that declared this segregation unacceptable and said the courts could compel cities to create housing for the poor in wealthier — read: whiter — suburbs.

What evolved in Chicago was a system of vouchers for poor black families that subsidized moves to more prosperous neighborhoods. Ms. Gautreaux did not live long enough to reap the benefits, but her name endured: The initiative was called the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program.

To keep whites from fleeing en masse — hardly an unknown response to a sudden influx of minorities — the program kept the number of voucher families low for any single suburban town. From 1976 to 1996, more than 7,000 households were resettled, including Valencia Morris and her three daughters, whose experiences are highlighted in the video. The selection process sought to minimize the possibilities of failure. Certain higher-risk families were excluded, like those with more than four children or with bad credit ratings.

Read this article in its entirety at The New York Times