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“I’m stubborn,” says Alexander Polikoff about his 40 years as a civil rights lawyer in Chicago. “When I get hold of something, I don’t let it go.” Indeed, his entire public interest career arose from a pro bono case he got hold of in 1966 and has not yet let go. Gautreaux et al. v. Chicago Housing Authoritybegan as a claim by Polikoff’s clients, thousands of public housing tenants, that the city violated antidiscrimination laws by building high-rise projects that segregated low-income blacks in an already black ghetto. In 1969 Judge Richard Austin of the U.S. District Court in Chicago ruled that program was discriminatory. But the remedy-helping black tenants get housing in white neighborhoods-encountered powerful resistance. The plaintiffs endured seven more years of litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in their favor in 1976. The decision said that housing is a metropolitan issue and that integration policies can extend beyond city limits. In Chicago, that meant allowing black public housing tenants to use federal rent vouchers in white suburbs. When Gautreauxbegan, Polikoff, now 79, was a corporate securities partner at Chicago’s Schiff Hardin. Polikoff calls his 17 years there “a happy stay,” but in 1970, he jumped at the chance to join the year-old public interest law firm Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) as executive director. “That was what I wanted my life to be about,” he says. Polikoff led BPI for the next 29 years, winning dozens of battles. But no project occupied Polikoff more than turning the Gautreaux decision into reality. Under Polikoff’s stewardship, the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program helped 25,000 blacks escape slums between 1976 and 1998. “Housing was thought of before as just providing shelter,” says Northwestern University professor James Rosenbaum, who spent two decades tracking the Gautreaux families. “But Polikoff was saying that housing is more, that it can save lives.” Gautreaux mothers were employed at much higher rates than those who stayed behind, and their children were more likely to enter professions. For Polikoff, that is the case’s most important legacy. But the power of the Gautreaux experiment as a model is a close second. Similar integration programs have been tried on a limited basis elsewhere, but none with the scope Polikoff advocates: He would use vouchers to move 500,000 black families out of failing neighborhoods, halving the current population in ghettos. “If we were ever willing to try a national mobility program, it would have a chance to succeed,” Polikoff says. ” Gautreauxis the bedrock to make that argument.” Polikoff stepped down as BPI’s executive director in 1999, but still works there four days a week as a staff lawyer. In January he published Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing, and the Black Ghetto. “If you are an optimist and think America is going to survive its current travails,” he says, “then the kind of America that will survive depends on our answer to the black ghetto.” Back to Main Story

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