Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing and the Black Ghetto, by Alexander Polikoff (Northwestern University Press, 422 pp., $29.95)

Not all liberals mugged by reality become neoconservatives. Reality keeps mugging Alexander Polikoff, for example, but he never seems to notice, remaining entrenched in his liberalism despite all evidence to the contrary. Polikoff was the attorney in one of the most important housing law cases of the past quarter-century, Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority, and subsequently became the person most closely associated with a key idea that arose out of the case: uplifting the residents of black ghettos by relocating them to subsidized housing in white neighborhoods (either in existing buildings or in new “scattered-site” housing built specifically for them). In their new surroundings, the relocated poor would find themselves surrounded by working families, whose social capital would rub off on them. Their kids could attend better schools, brightening their horizons. In response to the Gautreaux lawsuit, federal courts ordered the CHA to offer the relocations and build the new housing.

This scattered-site housing idea is not implausible on its face. A Democratic administration could embrace it enthusiastically, as the Clinton administration came close to doing. Conservative columnist David Brooks, worried about the persistence of a distinct African-American underclass, also proposed a version of it for the poor families displaced by Hurricane Katrina. But the Gautreaux “metropolitan desegregation” approach suffers from serious problems. In this candid, if confused, memoir, Polikoff describes those problems, though he doesn’t heed their lesson.

The Gautreaux program—named after Chicago public housing tenant Dorothy Gautreaux—grew out of Polikoff’s 1966 class-action lawsuit, which charged that the Chicago Public Housing Authority in effect had helped create, or at least perpetuate, Chicago’s bleak South and West Side black ghettoes by confining construction of its infamous, crime-ridden high-rise projects to predominantly black residential areas and by denying black tenants the chance to live in public housing that might exist elsewhere.

There’s no doubt that this discrimination occurred, reflecting a virulent racial politics that played out in the 1950s and 1960s, when construction of public housing was ongoing. In moving to undo the damage that the CHA had caused, however, Polikoff overlooked from the outset the possibility that government-owned or -subsidized housing might itself be harmful for its tenants, by encouraging dependency. He logically could have concluded that government should confine itself to enforcing building codes and policing the housing market against discrimination, tasks it is well suited to perform, while the private market would provide ample affordable housing. Instead, Polikoff determined—and persuaded the federal courts—that it was the location and concentration of public housing that was the problem, and the CHA should be the institution charged with “dismantling” the ghetto and relocating its residents.

Evidence of the flaws of the Gautreaux scheme emerged almost immediately and has been overwhelming. Polikoff narrates the evidence yet time and again ignores its implications. It’s hard to fathom how he can continue to support relocation, given the terrible tenant problems that he describes and the sober criticisms that he hears.

When the CHA built 2,500 “scattered-site” units in non-ghetto areas, for instance, building managers “acknowledged that a majority of families appeared unmotivated or unable to significantly change their life patterns”—despite no longer living in the ghetto. Polikoff reports that “easily 50 percent” of the subsidized tenants were involved with drugs, and gang activity was rampant. “When a family moves in, it’s not just the family,” a building manager tells him. “It’s the friends and relations who come to visit and hang around. If they’re into drugs, you’re involved. And in the gang stuff that goes along with it. I would have to say that drugs and gangs seem to be tolerated more by scattered-site residents than by the general community.”

This destructive behavior has ignited fierce political opposition to the Gautreaux program among blue-collar Chicago whites, who believe—rightly—that non-ghetto public housing is most likely to go up in their neighborhoods (in part because land costs are too high in wealthier areas). But Polikoff has only contempt for the blue-collar whites who come to his house to voice their concerns, and he is dismissive of a homeowners group that asserts, plausibly, that public housing tenants had “a lower commitment toward hard work and a disregard for property maintenance.” He’s equally unmoved when an unnamed “local professor” from Baltimore criticizes a Clinton administration proposal to start a Gautreaux-style program in that city by arguing that “if people are paid by the government to act as if they have achieved economic success, why should they bother to achieve the real thing?”

Even the opposition of lower middle-class blacks and Latinos doesn’t faze Polikoff. He tells the story of a developer of scattered-site housing who, while dining out, runs into an opponent of one of his projects, working as a waiter. The waiter, Polikoff notes without a trace of sympathy, says “he was working more than 60 hours a week at multiple jobs. He believed passionately that even a few scattered sites threatened the value of his home, the one asset upon which his family’s well-being depended.” He adds that, among black South Side homeowners, “resident opposition to proposed scattered sites was as vitriolic as anything in white ethnic neighborhoods.” Yet using the fig leaf of a small group of discriminated-against tenants—some no longer living as the court case wound on for decades, in Jarndyce and Jarndyce fashion—Polikoff thumbs his nose at such complaints. Such is the confidence of liberal elites that they know what’s best for others.

Polikoff pins his trust in the deconcentrating-the-ghetto approach on a study from Northwestern sociologist James Rosenbaum, which led to a Clinton-era national demonstration project, “Moving to Opportunity,” modeled on the Chicago Gautreaux initiative. Children of Chicago’s “suburban movers,” Rosenbaum found, were four times more likely than their inner-city counterparts to finish high school and twice as likely to attend college. Their mothers proved more likely to find jobs. But a closer look should prompt skepticism. The study’s sample size was tiny—just 68 families followed over time. More damningly, the organization that placed tenants in the suburbs screened out families “with serious housekeeping and credit problems.”

Evaluations of the Clinton administration’s 28-city demonstration program have shown few if any gains. The rate of property-crime arrests for boys in the program actually rose, for instance. As Polikoff admits, the study “disclosed only small effects on education and none on employment or welfare receipt.” If only the government had implemented the program differently, Polikoff predictably laments, it would have succeeded.

The federal Section 8 housing voucher program—which now serves 2.1 million households, twice as many as live in public housing projects—has in practice operated like the Gautreaux plan, introducing tenants-behaving-badly to formerly good neighborhoods all across the country. Because of my City Journal article criticizing Section 8 (see “The Housing Reform That Backfired,” Summer 2004), I often get heartbreaking reports about exactly this phenomenon. Here’s a typical e-mail, from a homeowner in Lancaster, California:

. . . our neighborhood was overrun by Section 8 housing when the housing market dropped after 9/11 and . . . landlords [started] seeking easy rent paid directly to them from the government. Most of the houses that are currently being rented in our neighborhood are on a Section 8 voucher system. Tenants who profess to be single mothers in reality have live in boyfriends AKA fathers and continue to have more children. I am very concerned for my property values, no one will even want to buy my home for what the other properties in the Antelope Valley are going for due to this stigma our city has allowed. How can we get them to clean up the trash overflowing in the front yard, turn off the loud music after 10 PM, as well we have seen them drinking and smoking pot in their front yard, and children running in the streets after 11 PM or 12 PM! We cannot stay up until 1 or 2 AM listening to their music since we have jobs and have to pay our rent and utilities, why do they not have to work? The neighbors have all but given up on the police, after calling many times they last stated to one of our neighbors they would not come out to our neighborhood any longer unless it is an emergency. We are middle-class hard-working first-time home buyers who purchased our house 18 years ago in 1989 and never have seen such a deterioration of property since the Section 8 have moved into our neighborhood. Lancaster residents need to be asking is there any law or ordinance on the books that states how many rentals of this kind can be on one block? Is there any recourse for us homeowners who have paid top dollar for our houses? I feel cheated by our government leaders and overrun by corruption.

Polikoff dreams of extending urban relocation programs to thousands more communities across the country. One wonders when or if liberals will recognize that no magic government-housing scheme can solve the real quandary at the heart of Waiting for Gautreaux: the dysfunctional life habits of the underclass. There’s simply no alternative to encouraging marriage and intact families and pressuring the poor to adhere to middle-class norms—and, yes, providing counseling, mentoring, and training to help. One wishes that Polikoff, who seems like a caring person, would take notice of the facts he reports in the pages of his own book.


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