Gautreaux v. Urban Renewal: Documenting a key legal case in the history of public housing

 Gautreaux v. Urban Renewal (Damon Rich, Celina Su and Prem Krishnamurthy, 2003) was a twenty-foot information mural providing a timeline for a landmark class-action lawsuit about race and public housing in Chicago. It was exhibited in 2004 at Mess Hall as part of the exhibition The City Without a Ghetto: Housing Systems. The Gautreaux case puts Chicago at the center of the history of public housing in the US and its complex legacy continues to shape how public housing operates in Chicago today.

The 30-year Chicago legal saga known as the Gautreaux case paved the way for the large-scale use of housing vouchers in the United States. In 1966, Dorothy Gautreaux and 43,000 other Chicago public housing tenants sued the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for discrimination. They claimed that CHA deliberately located public housing in minority neighborhoods and that HUD cooperated by funding CHA. Gautreaux’s goal was to prove that these large bureaucracies are racist. At stake were questions of intention and its importance. How does a large bureaucracy have a motive? Did CHA have a racist motive? If the effects of CHA’s actions led to racist outcomes, do their motivations even matter? These abstract questions become central to Gautreaux’s legal argument and CHA’s defense.

In 1969, the District Court made a first attempt to design a way to grant relief to the plaintiffs, commanding CHA to drastically change how it does business. The idea was to spatially deconcentrate poverty by creating lots of small public housing that blends into regular blocks in regular neighborhoods, instead of large and dense public housing towers. This approach is called “scattered-site” housing. However, it proved difficult to get the CHA to build housing according to the court’s order, and eventually Chicago’s Mayor and City Council of Chicago were named as additional defendants in the action to get action.

By the mid-1970s, white flight transformed Chicago’s residential patterns, creating mostly white suburbs and a mostly minority “inner-city.” Once HUD was found guilty of discrimination, the plaintiffs pushed for a metropolitan-wide antisegregation remedy. Instead of new public housing being built within Chicago city limits, Gautreaux wanted the remedy to include the suburbs as well. This proposal went to the  Supreme Court before being approved, leading to one of the most important experiments in residential desegregation, the  Gautreaux Demonstration Project, where people were given vouchers to move from inner-city public housing to private housing all over the Chicago metropolitan area, city and suburbs. Meanwhile, CHA continued to drag its feet and built almost no public housing.

The CHA and HUD scattered-site and placement programs continued into the 1990s. In the end, most of the scattered-site housing was built not in white neighborhoods but in Latino ones, obeying the letter of the court’s order but perhaps violating its spirit. In 1992, HUD created Moving to Opportunity, a program to help very low-income families with children move from public and assisted housing in high-poverty inner-city neighborhoods to low-poverty neighborhoods throughout a metropolitan area. In 2003, a new case was filed claiming that the voucherbased programs designed to relocate families from demolished high-rise public housing have steered the displaced tenants to mostly black, high-crime, impoverished neighborhoods, leading to new segregation. ◊