Gautreaux at 40 conference

CenterPiece cover

The legacy and future of landmark public housing decisions Centerpiece, Spring 2006, Volume5/Number 3, Northwestern University

Forty years ago, Dorothy Gautreaux and three other public housing residents filed two class-action lawsuits in Chicago, one of which would make its way to the Supreme Court. The Court’s unanimous Hills v. Gautreaux decision resulted in a 1976 settlement that set in motion an attempt to end decades of racially discriminatory practices in Chicago public housing—and eventually the nation. IPR faculty participating in the Gautreaux conference with Alexander Polikoff. From left: Fay Lomax Cook, Leonard Rubinowitz, Polikoff, Mary Pattillo, James Rosenbaum, and Greg Duncan.

Thanks to the Gautreaux program that grew out of the settlement, more than 6,000 poor, black Chicago families moved out of their blighted, inner-city housing projects into low-poverty, mostly white suburban neighborhoods. Faculty from Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR) were among the first to measure and document the successes and failures of residential mobility programs since the 1976 launch of Gautreaux. The conference “Gautreaux at 40: Race, Class, Housing Mobility, and Neighborhood Revitalization,” organized by Leonard S. Rubinowitz, law, brought together on March 3 more than 400 academics, activists, developers, officials, and public housing residents to discuss and debate the legacy and ongoing impact of these landmark decisions. The School of Law and IPR cosponsored the conference. In tracing the public housing issue from 1966, when it was joined in the courts and the streets through Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march in Chicago for open housing, Rubinowitz marveled, “Who could have imagined that 40 years later several hundred of us would gather to discuss and debate these issues that seem to have no end.”

IPR faculty studies on Gautreaux

James Rosenbaum, human development and social policy, conducted the first studies on Gautreaux I, which helped to lay the foundation for the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) Program implemented by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1994.

Rubinowitz and Rosenbaum also documented a truly unusual circumstance—moving poor black families into predominantly middle-class white suburbs. They recounted the Gautreaux pioneers’ complex experiences resulting from racism and harrassment to improved life outcomes in their book Crossing the Class and Color Lines: From Public Housing to White Suburbs (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Currently, Greg Duncan, human development and social policy, is leading an evaluation of Gautreaux II families. This second-wave study will provide important qualitative data that could not be gathered from the original Gautreaux research due to limitations in the original program’s design.

Gautreaux’s legacy: What have we learned?

In Duncan’s review of Gautreaux I and II and MTO programs, he found mixed results. Gautreaux I families relocated between 1976 and 1998, with the bulk of moves occurring in the mid-1980s. Once admitted to the program, participants were given Section 8-type vouchers, which subsidize rents for private, marketrate housing based on income. Participants were required to move into neighborhoods with a census tract population that was no more than 30 percent African American.

Duncan found that 15 years after Gautreaux I’s implementation, 67 percent of the mothers placed in the suburbs were still residing in the suburbs. Neighborhood poverty rates were as low as they had been in their placement neighborhoods. More important, children who moved with their mothers and had since become adults were nearly as likely as their mothers to live in the suburbs and in low-poverty neighborhoods. Duncan called it a true story of “intergenerational success.”

Earlier studies by Rosenbaum and others showed that children’s attitudes toward school improved and their grades did not drop if they were placed in suburban rather than city neighborhoods. These studies also found the children were more likely to graduate high school, enter college, and enroll in better colleges (four-year versus two-year colleges). They were also more likely to get jobs and to be employed at higher paying jobs.

Unfortunately, preliminary results for Gautreaux II families, who moved between 2002 and 2003, have not been as promising. Families who moved a second time ended up in neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty and percentages of African Americans than Gautreaux I families. These moves seem to be undoing the benefits of the initial move in Gautreaux II, Duncan noted, but the jury is still out on the longer term fortunes of these families.

James Rosenbaum and Xavier de Souza Briggs
James Rosenbaum discusses
housing issues with Xavier de
Souza Briggs

In between Gautreaux I and II came MTO. Buoyed by Rosenbaum’s Gautreaux documentation and seeking more complete answers to the public housing puzzle, HUD implemented the MTO program in five cities—Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York—between 1994 and 1998. MTO was designed to fill a research gap in the Gautreaux I program—the absence of control groups. Thus, MTO was a random-assignment program that studied two major groups: a treatment group offered assistance to move to more affluent neighborhoods and a control group that was not offered such assistance. The MTO mandated destination neighborhoods with poverty rates of 10 percent or less, while Gautreaux I only targeted race and Gautreaux II set criteria for both race and poverty.

According to Duncan, MTO’s most striking success has been a sharp improvement in the mental health of the mothers who moved, with cases of depression being cut in half. Mothers cited getting away from gang- and drug ridden neighborhoods as their number one reason for moving.

However, evaluators found that although children of MTO participants attended somewhat higher-achieving schools, these were still under performing schools, scoring below state achievement levels. Participants also did not experience higher employment, nor less welfare receipt when compared with the control group—though the late 1990s was a time when the control group doubled its employment rate, posing a high standard for the treatment group to exceed.

Rosenbaum explained this might also be due to the fact that when MTO families changed neighborhoods, most of the moves were less than 10 miles away—compared with an average of 25miles for the Gautreaux participants. This permitted MTO families to move to highly segregated neighborhoods and even allowed their children to remain in the same schools.

Public housing: Where do we go from here?

Highlighting the stigma of subsidized housing that attaches itself to families who move, Xavier de Souza Briggs, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke about how the “politics of property” shapes housing opportunities. There is no evidence to show that Section 8 vouchers or other subsidies “typically” decrease housing values, he noted. In fact, the opposite can be true: Investments in affordable housing can help to revitalize neighborhoods. To improve next-generation housing policies serving the poorest families, including those in public housing, he called for improved mobility counseling and targeting, the use of performance management frameworks, and programs to promote stability and adaptation by relocated families.

Susan Popkin
Susan Popkin, senior
research associate at the
Urban Institute addresses
the conference

Susan J. Popkin (PhD, Northwestern University) of the Urban Institute, a former IPR research associate, underlined the urgent need for a dedicated effort to house the remaining “hard-to house” families. She spoke about “war-zone” conditions that have damaged some residents to the point where they cannot function in a normal community. “We owe these families, especially the children, a serious effort to try to stabilize their situations and help them to move to better, safer neighborhoods,” she said.

Duncan proposed that residential mobility programs should be examined in the wider context of programs that might help low-income families. He gave the example of Milwaukee’s successful New Hope work-support program. New Hope offers a cafeteria-style program of benefits, including child-care and income supports, providing the working poor with the same opportunity as the middleclass to balance the demands of work and family, Duncan said.

Alexander Polikoff
Alexander Polikoff
receives a framed print of
the cover of his recently
released book,
for Gautreaux: a Story of
Segregation, Housing,
and the Black Ghetto

(Northwestern University Press, 2006)

Perhaps the most radical proposal for “dismantling the black ghetto” came from Alexander Polikoff, lead counsel in the Gautreaux lawsuits. He presented his idea for a national Gautreaux program under which a portion of existing housing vouchers would be “recycled” and offered to 50,000 black families each year. Polikoff explained why he thought such a program would be fiscally and programmatically feasible and, in a decade, would enable half of the resident black families to leave their ghettos. Polikoff believes this would trigger redevelopment that would end black ghettos as we know them.

The public housing debate has gained new strength and relevance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But it involves a complex set of issues, actors, and competing interests, compounded by too little understanding of what public housing residents want themselves. While some evidence indicates that by moving, such residents can do better, the conference also showed that poorly designed interventions and insufficient resources mean they can also do the same or worse. A group of public housing residents who attended the conference made it perfectly clear that they are not happy about being forced to leave their communities and social networks behind. “These are our homes you are talking about,” one argued.

Conference papers will be published online this summer in the newly launched Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy. The complete conference program can be viewed at