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The Gautreaux Case May 29, 2014

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Public Housing: Hills v. Gautreaux


The future of public housing in the United States changed after the Supreme Court’s April 20, 1976 ruling, Hills v. Gautreaux. This case’s legacy included the decentralization of the housing of the urban poor and increased reliance on solutions that included the private sector. Between 1954 and 1967, the Chicago Housing Authority had built more than 10,300 units of public housing, yet only sixty-three of these units were located outside of poor and racially segregated areas. In 1969, the lower court case known as Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority found that Illinois must locate public housing in scattered site and low rise projects inside predominantly white neighborhoods. But this was not the end of the matter, and elements of the case moved on to the Supreme Court. The class action legal case included the complaint of community organizer Dorothy Gautreaux. Gautreax had filed a 1966 complaint of unlawful discrimination by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and by HUD, which supported the CHA. Assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Gautreaux became the public face of the suit that challenged the practices of public housing authorities, although Gautreaux died before the ruling in 1976. Separate complaints were filed by others in similar circumstances, and these complaints later joined the case under Gautreaux’s name. Carla Anderson Hills served as the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development at the time; it was Hills who appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

The CHA was accused of placing African American applicants in housing within segregated neighborhoods in violation of the Fifth Amendment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 1976 legal decision in the case, finding fault with both the CHA and HUD, allowed for the placement of urban residents outside of the city limits but inside the metropolitan region. The intricacies of the plan were developed through a 1981 ruling by Judge John P. Crowley of the area district court. The CHA had to build seventy five percent of its new housing within majority white areas. Due to earlier aspects of the case, the CHA was also barred from building any more high-rise public housing facilities and was prohibited from building high concentrations of public housing in any single neighborhood—the newly required style of housing was referred to as “scattered site” public housing.
Gautreaux led to greater reliance on Section 8 vouchers for housing the
urban poor.

Section 8, established by the 1974 Housing and Community Development Act, gave HUD the right to contract with private developers for the housing of the neediest Americans. Vouchers were extended to those determined eligible, who usually paid just thirty percent of their income towards the rent, and the rest of the rent was paid for by the federal government. Due to great demand for housing, many cities maintained waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers; applicants had to wait for years for a chance to take part. Many cities have had to close their waiting lists, given the high numbers of applicants.

Soon after the Gautreaux ruling, the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program extended Section 8 vouchers to African American families in Chicago who would be relocated to subsidized housing in the suburbs. The new suburban neighborhoods were to be categorized as thirty percent or less African American in population. Between 1976 and 1998, more than 25,000 individuals (in 7,500 families) utilized the program. Recipients were given little choice of where to move, and given the dearth of Section 8 properties, had to move to the next available unit offered to them. The success of this effort proved mixed. Given the low visibility of the program, few social services were extended to these new suburbanites. Workers often found themselves unable to find work in these areas, as the suburbs featured few jobs that were suitable for their skills. Yet longitudinal studies revealed that children did better in terms of college placement than they would have had they stayed in their former neighborhoods.

By the mid-1970s, single, unemployed parents headed the majority of families in public housing. This trend was due to changes in the public housing screening process, an evolving economy, the high rates of divorce, and the growing numbers of children born to single mothers. The way forward for the poor did not seem to lay in public housing, which had become a warehouse for the poorest Americans rather than a stepping stone to a better life. The federal program, known as Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere (HOPE) launched in 1989 under President George H.W. Bush, attempted to provide a broader array of solutions to the under-housed and long-term homeless. It also provided tax incentives for businesses to locate within struggling urban and rural communities. HOPE I assisted low-income people with the purchase of a public housing unit, thus both ending the failed public housing system and strengthening the numbers of homeowners in an area. HOPE I ceased funding applicants in 1994. HOPE II provided support for multi-family housing projects. HOPE III assisted low-income, first time home buyers. HOPE VI provided Section 8 vouchers to people sixty-two years of age or older with incomes of less than fifty percent of the median for the area. Community Development Corporations, started in the 1960s under Community Action Programs and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, furthered the support for getting the urban poor into better housing.