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Landmark discrimination suit against CHA coming to a close after half-century

Children run along the Cabrini-Green campus six months after Mayor Jane Byrne briefly moved in there in 1981 to bring attention to Cabrini's troubles. Cabrini was knocked down in part because of the Gautreaux lawsuit. | Sun-Times/John H. White.

Children run along the Cabrini-Green campus six months after Mayor Jane Byrne briefly moved in there in 1981 to bring attention to Cabrini's troubles. Cabrini was knocked down in part because of the Gautreaux lawsuit. | Sun-Times/John H. White.

In 1966, Dorothy Gautreaux was a fiery community organizer who lived in the Altgeld-Murray public-housing complex on the South Side.

With help from the American Civil Liberties Union, she became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the way public housing was located in Chicago.

In the decade leading up to her lawsuit, more than 10,000 public-housing units had been built in the city — and fewer than 100 were located outside poor, racially segregated areas, the plaintiffs said.

Eventually, the Gautreaux case played a key role in the redevelopment of the Henry Horner Homes, ABLA, Cabrini Green, Stateway Gardens and other public-housing complexes notorious for their violence and substandard living conditions.

On Friday, parties in the landmark litigation — including the Chicago Housing Authority and Business and Professional People in the Public Interest, which represents the plaintiffs and is commonly referred to as BPI — announced a proposed settlement of the 52-year-old case.

According to a news release, CHA and BPI have a come up with a “detailed road map” to complete the requirements for CHA to “offset the impacts of racial segregation caused by its historic building and tenant assignment practices.”

Their goal is to close the Gautreaux case by July 31, 2024.

The view in 2016 of the property near Halsted and Division where the demolished Cabrini-Green housing complex stood. | James Foster / For the Sun-Times

In 1966, Gautreaux and the ACLU were taking advantage of the newly created Civil Rights Act of 1964 in their quest to transform the city’s public housing. But Gautreaux would not live to see their legal victory. She died of cancer months before a federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 1969 and ordered the CHA to build public housing on sites scattered in predominately white areas across the city.

The court appointed an administrator to carry out the plan — and over the past five decades, CHA developments have remained under court-ordered oversight.

The lawsuit led to the Gautreaux program, which helped thousands of families relocate from public housing high-rises to mixed-income communities across the city and in the suburbs.

HUD used the program as a model for its five-year, five-city experiment called “Moving to Opportunity” in 1994. The program gave 4,600 mostly black and Latino families the chance to move out of high-poverty neighborhoods into lower-poverty areas.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a statement on the proposed settlement: “Today represents a major step forward in our mission to create fair and equitable affordable housing for all Chicagoans.”

Alexander Polikoff, a BPI attorney who worked on the Gautreaux case for years, called the proposal a “victory for public housing residents.”

The settlement would require CHA to abide by the “Plan for Transformation” schedule for developing mixed-income communities. One of those plans is to build almost 900 mixed-income residences on the site of the demolished Harold Ickes public housing complex in the South Loop.

The CHA has promised to rebuild or rehabilitate 25,000 apartments by the end of the Plan for Transformation. Eugene Jones Jr., chief executive officer of the CHA, told the Sun-Times a year ago the program was near completion.

“At the end of 2017, we’ll reach that count,” he said.

But Jones’ prediction failed to materialize. The CHA has been criticized for destroying more units than its rebuilt or rehabbed under the plan. By 2017, the CHA had 17,000 fewer apartments for families than it had 20 years earlier.

Under the settlement, CHA also would have to continue to boost the number of “non-mixed-income family units” in so-called “opportunity areas” in the city and create early-learning programs at four public housing complexes based on the program already in place at Altgeld Gardens.

U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen is being asked to hold a hearing on Jan. 17 where CHA residents and people on CHA waiting lists can sound off on the proposed settlement.

Kate Walz, vice president of advocacy for the Shriver Center, which has studied the lack of affordable housing in Chicago, said that might not be enough time for other parties to way in on the proposal.

“There are thousands of class members and per the order they only have 16 days to object upon notice being issued,” she said. “If Gautreaux wants to give public housing residents a full and fair opportunity to have their voices heard about how this settlement will impact their communities and homes, they should give them more time. We are hopeful that the Court will see that justice can only be served by allowing class members enough time to voice their opinions.”

South Side public-housing activist Dorothy Gautreaux filed a landmark lawsuit that changed Chicago’s public-housing landscape. | Business and Professional People in the Public Interest

Anne Houghtaling, executive director of HOPE Fair Housing Center, which helps families secure affordable housing across northern and central Illinois, celebrated the settlement as a step in the right direction. But she also cautioned many of the issues brought forth in the Gautreaux case remain prevalent, especially outside Cook County.

“Chicago and Cook County has protections against discrimination of people with housing vouchers, and so does Naperville and Urbana, but most other counties across the state don’t,” she said. “Without those protections, landlords are free to discriminate against people with housing vouchers, which makes it hard for people to find a landlord willing to accept their vouchers.”

And, despite the efforts of the lawsuit, income disparity in the city’s neighborhoods continues — with the largest found in the area around where the Cabrini-Green public-housing complex once stood, Bloomberg News reported this week.

Over the past 20 years, that area’s concentration of households with income greater than $200,000 has skyrocketed from zero to 39 percent. That’s the fastest growing concentration of such households in the U.S., Bloomberg noted.