A New Housing Program to Fight Poverty Has an Unexpected History

Some cities are trying to help poor children succeed by having their families move to middle-income, so-called “opportunity areas” – an idea that was once politically impossible.

What role does housing, and where you call “home,” play in upward mobility and the American Dream? In this story we meet the Morris family, an African-American mother with three daughters, who discuss the impact moving from inner city Chicago to the mostly-white suburbs had on their lives.

In the 1970s, a landmark Supreme Court case named Gautreaux officially brought an end to segregated government housing in Chicago. But it also created a new challenge: how to undo decades of segregation. One part the solution was a relocation program that moved families from the city’s housing ‘projects’ to the mostly-white suburbs.

The Gautreaux program showed surprising promise not just in ending segregation but also in creating upward mobility and helping children escape poverty. But when the federal government tried to replicate a similar program in other cities, the results were disappointing.

Now, forty years later, new researchers are taking a second look at the initial results – and calling attention again to the importance of where children grow up on their future success.

A disappointing footnote to this story: After two years of harassment by white supremacists, Kiah Morris resigned as Vermont’s only black female representative. The man who targeted her most insistently won’t face any charges due to freedom of speech.

Related: Housing Bias and the Roots of Segregation by Clyde Haberman

Previous versions
At Retro Report, we update our journalism as news unfolds. Here are the previous published versions of this story.
For teachers
  • Producer: Scott Michels
  • Associate Producer: Meral Agish
  • Editor: Anne Alvergue
  • Editor: Anne Checler
  • Additional Editor: Anne Checler
  • Update Producer: Sandra McDaniel
  • Update Producer: Sianne Garlick
  • Update Editor: Heru Muharrar

For Educators


This 12-minute video shows students how racism has affected the built landscape and physical infrastructure of American cities, and how experimental voucher programs have been used to relocate Black families from poor neighborhoods to more prosperous ones. Using data to explore how geography can become destiny for many young people, the video helps students see the intersection of racism and urban planning in American cities. Useful for lessons focused on how values and culture become embedded in the landscape of urban areas, the video shows how geographic data can be used to inform policy decisions.

Background reading

In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took his fight for civil rights to Chicago in hope of ending housing discrimination.

He failed, but his example encouraged Dorothy Gautreaux and other plaintiffs to file suit against the Chicago Housing Authority, charging it with racial discrimination.

The city had some 18,000 public housing apartments, almost exclusively in Black neighborhoods.

The plaintiffs argued that the city had deliberately pursued that policy to prevent Black people from moving into white neighborhoods. They sought a court order that ordered public housing be built in white neighborhoods.

After a protracted court fight, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 in favor of the plaintiffs.

To comply with the order, the government tapped a relatively new voucher plan that relocated a few thousand families from Chicago public housing to predominantly white middle-class suburbs with better housing, schools and job opportunities.

By the 1990s, social researchers found that the voucher program had dramatized the impact of geography on opportunity. Families who moved to the suburbs were distinctly better off than their inner-city counterparts.

Parents found better paying jobs, better housing, and a better quality of life. Their children were more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and obtain better paying jobs than their inner-city counterparts.

That lesson – that a better environment can provide better opportunities – continues to inform public housing programs today. But the inequality bred of geography that gave rise to Gautreaux more than 50 years ago remains, and often makes zip code a determinant of destiny.

Lesson Plan 1: The Geography of Racism: Housing Policy

Students will learn how racism became ingrained in the geography of American cities, and how innovative housing policies and data science are being used to counteract this.


Students will learn:

  • How racism is ingrained in the infrastructure and built landscape of American cities.
  • How inequalities in urban geography affect the lives of city’s residents.
  • How experimental housing programs have sought to counteract the effects of racism.
Essential questions
  • What was the Gautreaux lawsuit filed by Alexander Polikoff in U.S. District Court? What was the suit asking the Court to decide? Which side eventually won?
  • What landmark legislation was signed by President Lyndon Johnson following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death?
  • Why did Valencia Morris want to leave her public housing project and use a Gautreaux Program voucher to relocate to an apartment in an all-white suburban neighborhood? What opportunities did her children have in her new neighborhood that weren’t available in the old neighborhood?
  • What did Lawrence Katz discover in 2014 about the long-term results of voucher programs that allowed families to relocate to more prosperous neighborhoods?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 8.10: The African American Civil Rights Movement

      Skill 5.B: Explain how a historical process relates to another historical process.

      Theme 8: Social Structures (SOC).