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The Gautreaux Lawsuit

Dorothy Gautreaux, Altgeld Resident, Lead Plaintiff
Dorothy Gautreaux, Altgeld Resident, Lead Plaintiff


BPI's housing work began in 1970 when attorney Alexander Polikoff joined BPI and brought with him the Gautreaux litigation. Filed by Polikoff in 1966, against the background of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Chicago open housing marches, Gautreaux et al. v. Chicago Housing Authority was the nation's first major public housing desegregation lawsuit.

The Gautreaux lawsuit charged that by concentrating more than 10,000 public housing units in isolated African-American neighborhoods, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had violated both the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees all citizens equal protection of the laws, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlaws racial discrimination in programs that receive federal funding. Decisions at the district, appellate, and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court levels affirmed the Gautreaux plaintiffs' position, finding both CHA and HUD guilty of discriminatory housing practices.

The Gautreaux public housing desegregation lawsuit has helped to change the face of public housing in Chicago, reform national public housing law and policy, and inspire some of the nation's most innovative housing programs.

Gautreaux Litigation and Remedies

In 1969, a federal judge in Chicago issued a judgment order prohibiting CHA from constructing any new public housing in areas of the city that were predominantly African-American unless CHA also built public housing elsewhere. The 1969 order also placed other restrictions on CHA–most notably that the housing authority could no longer build high-rise public housing for families and could not build dense concentrations of public housing in any neighborhood. These restrictions continue to govern where and how public housing can be built in Chicago today.

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that HUD could be required to use the entire Chicago metropolitan area to remedy its past discriminatory conduct in Chicago.  This Supreme Court decision paved the way for the remedial program most often associated with the case–the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program–the nation’s first major housing mobility program.  Between 1976 and 1998, when it ended, pursuant to the terms of a consent decree with HUD, the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program helped more than 25,000 voluntary participants move to more than 100 communities throughout the metropolitan area, most to integrated suburbs and others to integrated neighborhoods in Chicago.

The Gautreaux decision also led to the creation of the "scattered site" public housing program, under which public housing was built on a small scale and dispersed in neighborhoods throughout the city, indistinguishable from surrounding buildings. The program had a long and difficult birth, and after nearly two decades of CHA intransigence, the court eventually concluded that an independent receiver should be appointed to carry out the program and do what CHA would or could not do. Beginning in 1987 the Receiver constructed or rehabilitated nearly 2,000 scattered-site public housing units in more than 57 Chicago communities. After 26 years the Receivership was terminated by the court and came to an end in 2010.

The Gautreaux Record

The Gautreaux public housing desegregation lawsuit helped change the face of public housing in Chicago, as well as public housing law and policy, and has been responsible for the development of some of the nation's more innovative housing programs.

  • An End to Racial Discrimination in Public Housing:  Gautreaux court orders forced CHA to abandon its discriminatory tenant assignment plan, which had sent black public housing residents to buildings in black neighborhoods and white residents to buildings in white neighborhoods.
  • An End to Public Housing High-Rises: Gautreaux orders forbid the construction of any more high-rise public housing buildings for non-elderly families. These buildings were difficult to maintain, nearly impossible to secure, and challenging places to raise children.
  • An End to Backroom Political Dealing in Public Housing:  Gautreaux put an end to the agreement between CHA and the City Council that gave aldermen veto power over the construction of public housing in their wards. Under that agreement, more than 99 percent of public housing for families in Chicago was built in poor black neighborhoods.
  • Expanded Housing Opportunities for Public Housing Families:  Through the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program, more than 25,000 people eligible for public housing moved to neighborhoods that offered them improved life opportunities. The program was the nation's first housing mobility program, helping families to move from poor, segregated neighborhoods to racially and economically diverse communities.  In 1994, inspired by the success of the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program, the U.S. Congress created the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration program.  MTO helped public housing families in five cities move to low-poverty neighborhoods.
  • Through the Gautreaux scattered site public housing program, nearly 2,000 public housing units were constructed in more than 57 diverse neighborhoods throughout the city.
  • Though Gautreaux generally restricts the construction of new public housing in segregated neighborhoods, during the mid-1990s, the Gautreaux Court authorized the redevelopment of CHA’s Henry Horner Homes and Lakefront Properties into mixed-income communities, declaring these communities to be “revitalizing…such that a responsible forecast of economic integration, with a longer term possibility of racial desegregation, could be made.”  These mixed-income communities and those more recently developed through CHA’s Plan for Transformation, provide public housing families the opportunity to live in more economically diverse communities that include affordable and market-rate housing.
  • Private Management for Public Housing:  In 1983, the Gautreaux plaintiffs' advocacy led CHA to experiment with professional private management of scattered-site public housing. Then, in 1991, CHA agreed to transfer management responsibility for all scattered-site housing to local private or nonprofit management companies. Today, based in part on the success of this pioneering effort in scattered site management, CHA has privatized management of all of its housing developments.

Gautreaux Today

Today Gautreaux plays an important role in the ongoing implementation of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, and CHA’s development plans continue to be subject to existing Gautreaux court orders. Gautreaux orders have authorized redevelopment for numerous Chicago public housing developments, including Henry Horner, ABLA, Cabrini Green, Lakefront Properties, Stateway Gardens, Lawndale Complex, and Madden Park/Wells. The court has also issued more limited orders authorizing development on the former sites of Rockwell Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes.  The court orders authorizing the development of this new public housing have been conditioned on a requirement that public housing be mixed with affordable and market-rate units and that the public housing be distributed throughout each development.

As BPI has advocated, planning for the new mixed-income developments goes well beyond housing in an effort to build sustainable, complete communities.  Planning discussions now address schools, youth programming, parks, public spaces, and economic development. As the CHA Transformation Plan moves forward, the Gautreaux court will review any new plans that involve rebuilding public housing. BPI lawyers, representing the Gautreaux plaintiff class, will continue to argue for appropriate conditions to ensure that new public housing built in mixed-income developments provides CHA residents with improved housing options. 

BPI also continues to advocate that CHA seek ways to provide increased housing in areas of higher opportunity in Chicago and beyond.  BPI recently worked with CHA to create a map of Opportunity Areas to guide CHA’s development and acquisition programs.  Opportunity Areas look beyond the racial restrictions of Gautreaux to address other factors as well, such as concentration of subsidized housing and poverty. 

CHA has developed new tools to provide housing to families beyond its traditional programs.  One such tool is CHA’s Property Rental Assistance Program.  BPI participates as an adviser to the Evaluation Committee for this program, which provides property-based subsidies for privately owned rental housing, including family, senior, and supportive housing properties.  While the program has generated new housing for very-low-income families in Gautreaux-authorized neighborhoods, BPI believes that this program has even greater potential to provide housing for families in Opportunity Areas. We continue to advocate for more targeted and effective use of the program.

"Gautreaux is a model of success for our nation.” -Henry Cisneros, Secretary of HUD, 1993-1997

Recipient of the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions

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