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A Five-Decade Fight to Improve Housing Choices for the Poor

The 91-year-old Chicago lawyer Alexander Polikoff, who argued the landmark Gautreaux case, is still working to increase housing mobility and desegregate urban areas.
Arletta Bronaugh, her husband Dwight Jackson, and her son Jason pose in front of their home in Hoffman Estates, Ill., in 1992. A program resulting from the Gautreaux case enabled the family to move from public housing in Chicago into an apartment in a predominantly white suburb.
Arletta Bronaugh, her husband Dwight Jackson, and her son Jason pose in front of their home in Hoffman Estates, Ill., in 1992. A program resulting from the Gautreaux case enabled the family to move from public housing in Chicago into an apartment in a predominantly white suburb.Doug Atkins/AP

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, and in Chicago, there’s a man who has spent all 50 of those years fighting to preserve and expand the vision behind it. His name is Alexander Polikoff. He’s 91 years old, and although he’s virtually unknown to most Americans, he’s been almost single-handedly shepherding one of the nation’s most consequential civil-rights lawsuits for more than half his life.

Polikoff was the lead attorney on a landmark case in the 1960s, Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority. It was the first major desegregation case concerning public housing. The lawsuit charged the Chicago Housing Authority and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) with violating the Constitution’s equal protection clause and the 1964 Civil Rights Act by concentrating thousands of public housing units in segregated black neighborhoods. It was named for Dorothy Gautreaux, an African-American public housing resident, community organizer, and activist.

Polikoff’s case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, and in the decades since he has overseen its settlement. That included a novel remedy: giving low-income Chicago residents vouchers to move into the suburbs. The nation’s first “housing mobility” program was born as a result of Gautreaux.

The results of these “mobility vouchers” were so unexpectedly positive that in the early 1990s, Congress decided to pilot an experiment dubbed “Moving to Opportunity,” which gave poor families in five cities similar opportunities to relocate to the suburbs.
Maryland’s Senator Barbara Mikulski ended up killing efforts to expand the pilot nationally when homeowners in suburban Baltimore County rebelled, but the debate over the promise and pitfalls of housing mobility has continued to this day.

The actual Gautreaux vouchers have ended (they ran from 1976 to 1998), but there is still an existing Chicago mobility program as a result of the case. And the Gautraeux lawyers, including Polikoff, are overseeing it in other ways—for example, by ensuring that new scattered-site developments of public housing aren’t racially concentrated.

Polikoff, a resident of the Highland Park suburb just outside of Chicago, works as a senior attorney at BPI, a public interest law firm. (Previously, he served as BPI’s executive director for nearly 30 years.) CityLab sat down with him to learn more about his life’s work—Gautreaux—and the mobility movement he helped to build.

I really enjoyed your book Waiting for Gautreaux, which traces the history of your lawsuit from the early 1960s up to 2006. Looking back now, has anything changed, or do you wish you did anything differently?

There’s some things I wish I made clearer in the book. For example, we always run into people who say, “You know, this mobility voucher business. It’s not going to deal with very many people, so what are you pushing that for? We’ve got to do something about the communities they already live in.”