A New Housing Program to Fight Poverty has an Unexpected History | Retro Report on PBS


[ Indistinct conversations ] [ Horns blaring ] 1966. Martin Luther King Jr.
and other civil rights leaders took their fight
for equality north, to one of the most
segregated cities in America: Chicago. -Clean your face the next time
before ya come here! -On top of their agenda? Improving housing conditions and ending
housing discrimination. -Back to the jungle, you guys!
Back to the jungle! Go, will you?!
-They’re all awful. They’re all Black bastards.
-Don’t ever come back! -I have never seen,
even in Mississippi and Alabama, a mob as hostile
and as hate-filled as I have seen here in Chicago. ♪♪ -Many Black residents
were concentrated in the worst neighborhoods, with the poorest in vast
government housing projects. -The world of the people
who live here bears very little resemblance
to the American dream. -Valencia Morris
and her three daughters would eventually live
in one of them. -There was garbage, junk, on the
outside of the buildings. Even in kindergarten,
first grade, my daughters would get beat up
on the way home from school. They were becoming,
not violent, but, on the defense. -She said, “Listen. Either you’re gonna learn
how to fight back or you’re gonna keep
getting beat up. I can’t help you.” My mom was starting to see how the environment was
beginning to change us and so she was desperately
looking to leave. -A group of public
housing residents who wanted to live
in better neighborhoods with more resources
turned to Alex Polikoff, a volunteer lawyer
for the ACLU. -You had virtually no options. We’d had some 18,000
public housing apartments built almost exclusively
in Black neighborhoods. There was pervasive
housing discrimination in the private market. Realtors would not show you
white neighborhoods. If you got to a white
neighborhood, a landlord wouldn’t rent to you. -Polikoff filed one
of the country’s first public housing
segregation lawsuits, named Gautreaux. -The suit asks the court
to order that public housing be built in white neighborhoods,
like this one. -I was pessimistic
about the chances. Everybody knew why the projects were being built
in the Black neighborhoods, but very few people
would say so. This was the way things were. -The mere suggestion that residents of these
buildings be dispersed has been bitterly resisted
by white neighborhoods. -Well, it’s gonna bring
down the value of everybody’s property. -Why do you think that? -Well, [laughing] I don’t know why. -Yeah.
-I just, um — You see those other
projects they have and they don’t
take care of ’em. -But the lawsuit came at a time when the problems and inequality
in the inner cities were becoming
national priorities. And then… -Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence
in the Civil Rights Movement, has been shot to death
in Memphis, Tennessee.-One hundred cities rage
with riot.Thirty-nine die.Twenty thousand are arrested.-Seven days after King’s
assassination, the government banned racial
discrimination in housing and, when the
Supreme Court ruled in Polikoff’s favor
eight years later, the government
would have to start providing public housing in white Chicago neighborhoods, including the suburbs. -The effect of the case
will be far-reaching, even beyond busing,
perhaps even changing the structure of America
as we know it. [ Ring ]
[ Indistinct conversations ] -Leadership council. -One part of the solution
was an experiment in integration that had never been
tried before: giving vouchers
to a few thousand families from the Chicago projects and helping them rent
apartments in the suburbs. -You had to use
your voucher to move to a predominantly white,
middle-class community and such communities
have good schools. They have low crime. They’re close to job
opportunities. This was a hopeful moment because a new doorway
had opened up, in terms of how to deal
with segregated neighborhoods. -The Morrises were one of the
first families to move. -I immediately called and asked them to put
my name on the list. ♪♪ I couldn’t believe how beautiful
it was, how quiet it was. When I saw the apartments,
it was unbelievable because I had never
seen a dishwasher before. -But life as one of the
town’s only Black families wasn’t always easy. -I would go out in the morning
to get in my car and there would be rotten eggs thrown on the windshield
and all over the car. The girls would tell me that
people would call them names. They would call them
nigger, baboon. -My mom’s advice was,
“You have to win, period. Keep your head up, keep your mouth shut, and win. -My mom would insist
that we had the top grades. Whatever we did, she would talk to us
as if we were going to succeed. -There was so much
that we were able to do. Our high school had a full-size
professional stage. We had a music program. We had all
of the state-of-the-art sports equipment
you could ever want. -By the time Kiah Morris
was a teenager in the 1990s, the media was taking notice of how new neighborhoods
could help families succeed and the Morrises were profiled on national television. -Are you glad your mother did
what your mother did? -Yes.
-Oh, yes. -On the American agenda tonight,
the power of new surroundings. -The Gautreaux program
was designed to promote racial integration, but it also breaking
the welfare cycle. -The social science
research was startling. Mothers got jobs. Children who went to school
went on to college. -The residents deserve
decent housing. -Henry Cisneros,
the new secretary of Housing
and Urban Development, hoped programs like Gautreaux could replace government-owned
housing across the country, especially the
high-rise projects. -It was as segregated as you could define the word
segregation in America: dilapidated buildings, unlivable places. Some of them were
national stories. -Gang snipers and drug dealers, broken elevators,
leaky ceilings, and squalid living conditions. -And we made people live there. The juxtaposition
of that reality and a solution like Gautreaux
made it very clear to me we needed to work at this,
precisely at this point. -Cisneros promoted a pilot
program in five cities. Unlike Gautreaux,
it was primarily designed to target poverty,
not segregation, but it shared the same concept: moving public housing families
to wealthier neighborhoods. -We’re gonna provide you help
finding an apartment, getting your children
placed in school. -Soon, moving families from the
projects to the suburbs created another public backlash. -Twice this week,
parts of East Baltimore County have gathered to try to stop
MTO, Move to Opportunity. -Let’s put a stop to it, folks! -The people
who would be sent out would be those who needed
serious counseling, would need to be taught
to take baths and not to steal. -And, 10 years later, when Lawrence Katz studied
the nearly 5,000 families in Moving to Opportunity
who did move, the results were disappointing. -We’re seeing very little
in terms of the economic outcomes
for the parents and very little in terms of things like
test scores for the kids. -The early success
of Chicago’s Gautreaux program looked like a fluke
and both Gautreaux and Moving to Opportunity
came to an end. No new families would be moved. -The conventional wisdom
became “Mobility doesn’t work.” Government was not willing
to consider it as a policy. -By then, the Morris family
had already left the suburbs and moved to a middle-class
neighborhood in Chicago. -I needed to just be around
a diverse community. I wasn’t necessarily accepted by all of the white
friends that I had and I was too white,
on some levels, for the Black kids
that had moved into the community since then. -She grew up in the suburbs, so, as far as knowing
African Americans, she didn’t really know
how we are, so I said, “I need to get back into Chicago
before she loses her identity.” ♪♪ [ Explosions ] -Since then, many of the
high-rises have come down and vouchers have became
the largest part of the country’s
public housing program, but the vouchers often
don’t come with enough money or assistance to help families
live in better neighborhoods and, in many cities, racial,
and economic, segregation remain a problem. -All of the other forms
of segregation that exist in our society
begin with, “Where do you live? Where do you stay?” And the effects
of that segregation may be harsher than ever. -In some places, poverty got
even more concentrated. -People don’t feel that
they have full access to what most Americans
and what people here would call the American dream. ♪♪ -In 2014, Lawrence Katz
saw new research on the importance
of neighborhoods and decided to find out
what happened to the children
from Moving to Opportunity and, now that the youngest
children had grown up, he discovered something
policymakers hadn’t predicted. -We’re seeing them
earning 30% more than a kid who didn’t
get the opportunity to move to a better
neighborhood. We’re seeing college-going
rates increase dramatically. We couldn’t see that when
the kids weren’t old enough. -It turned out the program
wasn’t a failure at all. -Neighborhoods
and childhood development are long investments and one
has to have some patience. Most things that are investments
take a while to pay off. -I am publisher and editor
of The Brooklyn Reader. My middle sister, Jamillah, is a professor
in Central Illinois. -And, in 2014,
her youngest sister, Kiah, became the second Black woman to be elected
to the Vermont legislature. -I’m proud and honored to be
the first person of color, ever, to come out
of Bennington County. I’m the first Black woman
to be elected into the House in 25 years. If we were not given
this opportunity, would I be here today? And there were
specific requirements. There’s someone that deserves
that chance, to have the energy to do the hard work
that it takes to get ahead, and you can’t do that
when you’re under the weight and the
oppression of poverty. You just cannot. ♪♪ -There are a lot of things
that I can feel proud about and I know,
in the back of my mind, that it has nothing to do
with me, necessarily. It had to do
with my circumstances. When my mother gave me
the license to start fighting, that was gonna
probably be my life. I would’ve been someone
completely different. It would’ve been
a big waste of a person. ♪♪ -But, Kiah Morris says,
it’ll take more than new neighborhoods
to create change. In late 2018, she resigned
from the Vermont legislature after more than a year
of racial harassment by a reported white nationalist. -For two years, [crying] we lived in my
husband’s childhood home, feeling unsafe. -She says not enough has been
done to fight the problems that led to the Gautreaux
housing program, in the first place. -There’s no way that we can look at what’s happening
in our country right now and say that we’ve dealt
with the issues of racism. We didn’t do the work
in the Civil Rights Movement. That work did not get completed. We never dealt
with the underlying racism that established segregation,
to begin with. -Nobody picks where they’re born or chooses where they’re
raised as a child. You play the cards
that you’re dealt with. I just think it’s unfortunate
that the cards in our hands are, after 30 [scoffing] years,
still…unequal. -Today, it’s the potential
economic benefit of new neighborhoods
that’s getting attention. Lawrence Katz is working
with cities trying new experiments in moving
public housing families, using detailed data on income
and incarceration rates to find the neighborhoods
most likely to help children escape poverty. We’re losing people
who could inovators We’re losing people
who could be artists and we could have a much
more vibrant society, if we had less concentration
of poverty and social problems.

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