Polikoff Combats "Residential Apartheid" With Gautreaux, Sacrifices Inner City Shelter Needs For Open Housing Goal

Reprinted from the Chicago Reporter, March 1978

Alexander Polikoff is a man with a mission. He is spearheading a battle in metropolitan Chicago to abolish what he calls "residential apartheid," the forced separation of housing for poor black and middle class white families.

He conducts his campaign from the 13th floor of the New World Building, 109 N. Dearborn.

The 51-year-old Polikoff is probably the best known public interest lawyer in Chicago. As executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), he has fought against police spying and nuclear power plants, and for the right of citizens to sue government officials who accept bribes.

A slim man with an almost boyish face, Polikoff is often compared to another well-known public interest lawyer, Ralph Nader. Both received Honorary Fellowships from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and both wear unfashionable clothes.

"Whenever someone is cleaning out his wardrobe, he gives Al all the skinny ties. He has the best collection in town," says an associate at BPI.

Polikoff's reputation in Chicago places him somewhere between "the czar of housing" and the knight in armor of the BPI logo.

He holds considerable sway with the Chicago area office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as attorney for the plaintiffs in the lengthy and controversial Gautreaux case.

Milton I. Shadur, an attorney who has worked with him since the case was filed, says, "For Al Polikoff, Gautreaux turned into a career."

Gautreaux began as an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) class action suit against the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) in 1966. The suit charged CHA with racial discrimination in public housing tenant and site selection.

In 1969, the late Judge Richard B. Austin ruled CHA had discriminated and HUD entered the case as a defendant. Over the next seven years, CHA, HUD and Polikoff battled over a remedy.

In 1973, Austin ruled against metropolitan dispersal of low income families. Polikoff appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court. In April 1976, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in favor of Polikoff's contention that HUD had authority to proceed with a metropolitan dispersal remedy.

The case was remanded to district court to develop this remedy. Polikoff negotiated with the HUD area office to begin a 12-month demonstration project in 1976. The project places CHA residents and those on CHA's waiting list in the suburbs with the aid of HUD housing subsidies. In exchange, Polikoff promised not to return to court for a year.

In August 1977, he renegotiated to extend the project until this December. The negotiations also expanded it to include a federal new construction program. It already included a federal program for existing housing.

The agreement meant that HUD would fund 500 new units in metropolitan Chicago. Of the units built in the city, only two-fifths could be built in areas with 30 per cent or more black population.

The first agreement sought to place about 500 families of the estimated 200,000 people eligible. The second agreement added another 500 families. To date, just over 300 families have been placed.

As a lawyer, Polikoff recognizes the limitations of litigation in effecting social change. He says courtroom procedures alone will never effect the goal of metropolitan dispersal of low income families, but may force the government and the public to examine housing segregation.

His skills as a lawyer are acknowledged by friend and foe alike, who call him "one of the most brilliant lawyers" they know.

"He is one of the few people I know who worked his way up to a partner in a big law firm and then decided to go into the risky business of a public interest law operation," says longtime associate John L. McKnight, associate director of Northwestern University's Center for Urban Affairs.

Polikoff left Schiff Hardin & Waite in 1970 to become a full-time public interest lawyer and executive director of BPI. He says the "psychic income" he gets from handling issues of broad social impact compensates for the salary cut he took. Born in Chicago's West Rogers Park, Polikoff comes from a family of lawyers. His father, uncle and his uncle's two sons all became practicing attorneys.

After a stint in the Navy during World War II, he enrolled in 1946 at the University of Chicago. In the next seven years at the Hyde Park university he earned a B.A., an M.A. in literature and his law degree.

After graduating in 1953, he joined Schiff Hardin and worked his way up to associate and then general partner. He also became a cooperating attorney for the ACLU, and rose to co-counsel and a member of the board of directors.

"He is to some degree a product of his time," his brother Robert says. "He is old enough to remember the harassment and subjugation of people that existed in the 30's."

Polikoff and his wife Barbara moved to Highland Park in 1956, where they still live today. They have three children, Deborah, 22, Daniel, 20, and Joan, 16.

He responds to those who criticize him for living in that far northern suburb by saying, "The notion that because somebody lives in a suburb he is not legitimately concerned with the problems of the city is just as false as the notion that because a man is white, he has no legitimacy dealing with the problem of housing segregation."

He adds, "We are all in this together, white and black, in the metropolitan area which is one housing market."

As a pro bono lawyer at ACLU, Polikoff took on loyalty oath suits, obscenity cases and a school desegregation lawsuit in Waukegan which he won in the Illinois Supreme Court in 1965.

Then came Gautreaux in 1966, one of a series of racial discrimination suits the ACLU filed in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The case, Dorothy Gautreaux et al., vs. the Chicago Housing Authority, is now known as simply Gautreaux. Ms. Gautreaux was a CHA tenant whose name was the first listed of the seven plaintiffs. She died seven years ago still living in Altgeld Gardens, a CHA project on Chicago's far South Side. The lawsuit named after her still goes on, mainly because of Polikoff's persistence.

There is nothing Polikoff would rather do than change national housing policy to reflect his conviction that metropolitan solutions to housing discrimination should be tried.

He sees himself as a "catalyst, but also gadfly and prodder" in questions of housing policy.

"Essentially we are outsiders sniping at insiders who have power," he says, "sniping, we hope, in a way that produces constructive action by insiders."

Because of his abilities to effect changes in local HUD policies, some say he is not just an outsider, but "a separate branch of HUD."

For Polikoff, the Gautreaux demonstration project is just the beginning of an experiment aimed at dismantling residential apartheid. He hopes HUD will eventually make the experiment its own policy.

Although most people concerned with housing in Chicago agree with Gautreaux's original intent, Polikoff's handling of the demonstration project spurs sharp criticism from black leaders, mortgage bankers, a board member of BPI and the chairman of CHA.

William A. Thurston, national coordinator of Operation PUSH, says, "At this juncture, what difference does it make if housing is open or closed, if there is no housing at all?"

Polikoff admits he traded off the short term goal of providing badly needed new construction in the mainly black South and West Sides for the longer term goal of open housing in the city and suburbs.

Elzie Higginbottom, mortgage vice president of Baird and Warner, agrees with the principle of open housing, but asks, "Why is it that the minority and the poor are the only ones that have to make the sacrifices?"

Dempsey J. Travis, president of Sivart Mortgage Corp., lays the blame for no new construction in the inner city squarely on Polikoff's shoulders. "Any time one person, and I guess that would be Al Polikoff, decides the housing policy for all Chicago, then black folks are in real trouble."

One of Polikoff's supporters, Franklyn S. Haiman, who was ACLU president when Gautreaux began, admits there are some people with second thoughts about the wisdom of Gautreaux. "Although some of the side effects in terms of getting housing built for blacks were negative, I think in the longer run the broader principles involved have turned out very well," he says.

Shadur adds, "To lay that problem at the foot of Polikoff is a terrible mischaracterization."

According to Polikoff, HUD's regulations prohibit exclusive use of federal housing funds in areas of minority and poverty concentration. He also notes CHA has built very few new units, partly because of the moratorium President Richard M. Nixon placed on housing money and partly because of the city's resistance.

Even if these hurdles were eliminated, however, Polikoff makes no apologies for his stand.

"It's a tough public policy question as to whether the shorter term benefits of providing more shelter would outweigh the long term detriment of increasing the concentration of poor people in areas that are already over concentrated," he says.

"In my judgement, the answer is no. The whole Gautreaux case was fought to stop that continued over concentration. So to those people who say that you're shutting off the new construction in the inner city, I say that's right, and there's a legitimate reason for doing it," he adds.

Polikoff recognizes the housing plight of inner city residents, and recently agreed to drop the requirement that 60 per cent of rehabilitated housing units be located in essentially white areas of

the city. He did this to stimulate rehabilitation of the existing housing stock in the mainly black areas of the city.

He also agreed to lower the minimum share of Gautreaux families who must be placed in new CHA facilities from 50 per cent to 20 per cent.

J. S. Fuerst, associate director of Loyola University's graduate urban studies program and a board member of BPI, attacks Polikoff's stand from a different angle.

"Integrating the suburbs is a laudable thing to do, but you can't do it with public housing," he says. Fuerst adds middle class blacks should move to the suburbs first, before the outlying villages begin to stall, fearing what public assistance families will mean to their communities.

In February, Polikoff published a response to both local and national opponents of metropolitan-wide housing dispersal of low income black families.

Titled Housing the Poor: The Case For Heroism, the book is a 216 page argument for a federal initiative in breaking down the barrier between cities and suburbs to remedy housing segregation.

"I really mean the poor because increasingly the issue in this country is not racial, but economic discrimination. Middle class blacks can make it today," he says.

Polikoff calls for heroism to counter Nathan Glazer, a sociologist who argues that heroism in the form of a metropolitan housing dispersal policy is unnecessary because blacks are already integrating the suburbs.

"In the broader sense it (metropolitan housing dispersal) is a heroic undertaking not an easy thing for the country to do," he adds.

The book explicitly calls for presidential leadership to overcome the barriers of suburban zoning laws, insufficient federal money to build housing and lack of cooperation from HUD.

The book, which took two and a half years to write, follows the evolution Polikoff himself has made in Gautreaux. He says, "It was first to be a book about the Gautreaux case. Then it became a book about public housing. And then it became a book about residential apartheid."

Polikoff hopes the demonstration project will be extended in a similar form to other areas. HUD established a Gautreaux task force a year ago to study that possibility.

While there is a chance Polikoff's cherished experiment may be tried on a national level, now it is unique to Chicago, where there is increasing agitation to lift federal rent subsidy restrictions imposed by Gautreaux.

Edward Allen Jr., executive director of the Chicago West Side Development Corporation, says, "There are individuals in the minority areas who are upset with Polikoff. They talk in terms of some litigation that will hopefully reopen the lawsuit and get the thing overturned."

Polikoff acknowledges a challenge is legally possible, but he doubts it will have the effect of overturning Gautreaux.

"I don't see the Gautreaux case ending in a big court decision," he says. "I see it ending by its essential purposes being served."

He adds, "The quality of life will improve for all, both black and white, when housing is integrated, both racially and economically."

Until a president makes metropolitan housing desegregation a national priority, or the principles of Gautreaux are served, Polikoff says he will "continue to fight the good fight."

Events Calendar