Magazine article Poverty & Race

Housing Mobility: Why Is It So Controversial?

Magazine article Poverty & Race

Housing Mobility: Why Is It So Controversial?

Article excerpt

Origins: A Desegregation Remedy

Housing mobility dates to the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision in BPI's Gautreaux litigation. Lower courts had found the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guilty of knowingly funding racial discrimination in Chicago. The discrimination was that to prevent African Americans from entering white neighborhoods via subsidized housing, the Chicago Housing Authority was building virtually all of its thousands of public housing apartments in black neighborhoods. A unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the remedy for HUD's wrongdoing could be metropolitan-wide and didn't have to be confined within Chicago's geographic boundaries.

In the wake of that ruling, rather than chance whatever remedial arrangement lower courts might order,

Alexander Polikoff (apolikoff@ served as Executive Director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), a Chicago law and policy center, from 1970-99, and continues on BPI's staff as lead counsel for the plaintiff class in BPI's ongoing Gautreaux public housing litigation.

Polikoff is the author of a number of articles and book chapters on housing, civil liberties and urban affairs, and of Housing the Poor: The Case for Heroism (1977), Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing, and the Black Ghetto (2006), and The Path Still Open: A Greater Chance for Peace Than Ever Before (2009). In 2006, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award of The American Lawyer magazine.

BPI and HUD agreed on a settlement. In 1974 Congress had enacted a new form of subsidized housing called Section 8 Certificates, later renamed Housing Choice Vouchers. Vouchers pay a portion of a tenant's rent in privately owned homes and apartments; instead of being confined to publicly owned housing, families with vouchers could-theoretically-move wherever they wished. For minority families in inner-city neighborhoods, however, a voucher by itself was not a ticket out of segregation. Under the Gautreaux settlement, HUD not only supplied vouchers to Gautreaux families but also paid for search assistance and counseling. The assistance was to make it realistically possible for inner-city families to move from segregated to integrated or predominantly white neighborhoods.

Which is what happened. During the next 22 years (the agreed life of the settlement), over 7,000 families, almost all African-American and very poor, were enabled to move out of segregated, inner-city Chicago. Some moved to outlying city neighborhoods, but most moved to suburbs that were predominantly white and had far lower poverty rates than inner-city Chicago. Housing mobility-vouchers plus counseling and search assistance-was born.

Moving to the suburbs appeared to be a good thing for most of the Gautreaux families who did it. Sociologists at Northwestern University, studying the experiences of both "suburban-movers" and families who remained in the city, came up with some startling conclusions. For example, children of suburban-movers were four times more likely than those of city-movers to finish high school, twice as likely to attend college, and far more likely to find jobs. Suburban-moving mothers were also more likely to be employed. A social scientist in the audience at one of the Northwestern presentations said that if by moving to suburbs inner-city black families could achieve the life-enhancing results being reported, policymakers should drop other initiatives and concentrate on housing mobility.

Why Didn't Housing Mobility "Take Off"?

Given the Gautreaux program's favorable results, why didn't housing mobility "take off"? Why wasn't the Gautreaux experience transformed into national policy? There are several reasons.

Moving to Opportunity. One was MTO-the letters stand for Moving to Opportunity-a ten-year (1994-2004) HUD demonstration designed to test Gautreaux results in which over 4,000 families in five different cities participated. …

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