This story is part of a series on segregation in Illinois that resulted from a six-month Governing investigation.
Lekiesha Hightower left Chicago for Springfield more than five years ago, hoping for a better life for herself and her child. Until this past May, she lived with a family friend in her new hometown, but this spring she moved into a place of her own, in the Poplar Place subdivision on Springfield’s East Side.
Now that she’s in her own apartment, though, she finds herself dealing with the day-to-day hassles of one of the city’s most notorious neighborhoods. As she stands on the steps outside her duplex apartment on a September afternoon, Hightower points to shutters dangling off a neighboring building as an example of the poor state of repair in the 23-acre complex. Cockroaches are common, she says, and basic repairs -- even a fresh coat of paint -- are desperately needed in many apartments. Crime, from shootings to break-ins, is common.
“The owners don’t care,” says Hightower, a 39-year-old city youth services worker who, like most residents in Poplar Place, is black. “This is not my natural habitat. I didn’t stay in a place this bad in Chicago.”
The fact that Hightower finds herself renting an apartment on the East Side of Springfield is no accident. A whole web of federal, state, local and even private regulations over housing and land use ensure that low-income residents live far away from wealthier ones; that apartment buildings are rarely situated next to single family housing; and, as a result, that black residents and white residents largely live in different neighborhoods.
As white residents moved out of central Springfield, many moved to new subdivisions on the West Side.
The system is so deeply ingrained, not just in Springfield, but in cities all over the country, that it is essentially taken for granted. It has deep roots in racial animus, going back to the days of redlining and racially restrictive covenants. The aftereffects of those policies linger on in the 21st century.
Today, the stated motivation for the existing arrangement is not race, but money. It’s why homeowners protest public housing projects or apartment buildings that could bring down their property values. It’s why subdivision developers sell homes with strings attached that keep neighborhoods homogeneous and unaffordable to lower-income residents. And it’s why Hightower’s rent, and the federal subsidies it generates, improve the bottom line for a multinational company headed by the owner of the Miami Dolphins.
Regardless of the motivation, the effect is largely the same: Cities and, indeed, entire metropolitan areas, remain largely segregated along racial lines.
Governing conducted a six-month study of black-white segregation in the mid-size cities of downstate Illinois, and why and how it has persisted so stubbornly there. We focused on Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, Springfield, Peoria and Rockford. Those cities are similar in size, separate from the major metropolitan areas of Chicago and St. Louis, and wholly contained in Illinois.
In each of these cities, as in the rest of the country, segregation means not just a physical divide between blacks and whites, but a huge disparity in resources.
Local governments help create those divides in several ways, but one of the most important is by regulating land use, especially residential development. The regulations include zoning restrictions, housing subsidies, tax incentives, public housing policy and restrictive covenants. None of them are necessarily discriminatory by themselves, but the way they are routinely used combines to create that effect.
“At the bottom of all that is that are whites trying to preserve opportunities for themselves,” says Domenico “Mimmo” Parisi, a sociology professor at Mississippi State University and the executive director of the National Strategic Planning and Analysis Research Center. “When a group tries to distance itself from others, it’s because they want to make sure their investment for themselves stays intact. That means there are limited opportunities for other groups.”
A History of Segregated Settlements
The Midwest and Northeast have some of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country. Much of their segregation traces back to when and how they were settled.
“Older industrial cities tend to have higher levels of segregation because they have denser housing and older housing in the core which filled up with black in-migrants from 1950-1970. [The city cores] then came to be surrounded by white suburbs covered by restrictive zoning policies,” explains Douglas Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton University.
“The most segregated metro areas include Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Flint and Milwaukee, but also Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Rochester and Syracuse -- all older industrial cities,” he adds.
Most of the cities in central and northern Illinois fit that pattern. Manufacturing and other heavy industries drew workers to the cities from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s. Caterpillar Inc., initially a maker of tractors, drew thousands of newcomers to its factories in and around Peoria. Decatur became known as the “soybean capital of the world” as it processed that crop, and many others, into consumer goods. Coal mining lured Irish and Eastern European immigrants, along with many blacks, to Springfield. Rockford brought in Swedish immigrants to build furniture, and the city became known for making screws and bolts, along with such inventions as the electric garage door opener. And almost all of these communities, because of Illinois’ manufacturing base and strategic location at the center of the country, attracted railroads to service them.
Manufacturing and other heavy industries drew workers to downstate Illinois cities.
By the 1970s, the industries that had fueled the growth of Illinois’ mid-sized cities were no longer booming. They faced increased competition from foreign companies, and many of their employers expanded to locations in the American South and West. The result is that population growth in the metro areas slowed, especially among whites.
The black population in those metro areas, though, continued to surge. Since 1970, the number of African-Americans in the Champaign-Urbana metro has nearly tripled. It has more than doubled in the Bloomington, Peoria, Rockford and Springfield metro areas. While the white population around Decatur was dropping by 27 percent, the black population was growing by more than 50 percent.
Both blacks and whites moved away from the traditional urban core in these cities but followed different patterns. Black residents tended to move into areas adjacent to traditional black neighborhoods (i.e. the places they had been confined to through redlining and other practices). Whites, on the other hand, leapfrogged out of the central city, often escaping city and school boundaries altogether. Wherever whites moved, commercial development and jobs followed. That type of investment was seldom seen in new or old black neighborhoods.
(SOURCE: 1980 Census, 2017 five-year U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey data for Census tracts. View larger map.)
The continued racial sorting was not merely the product of people wanting to live with people like themselves. It was driven by policies making it difficult for minorities to live in predominantly white communities, specifically by making it difficult to rent there. Today, 62 percent of black households in Illinois rent their homes, compared with 27 percent for whites.
The wide gap was caused, at least in part, by discriminatory federal housing policy that dates back to the years before the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, and in many cases to the period before World War II. During the Great Depression, Congress for the first time created federally guaranteed mortgages that were affordable to working-class homeowners. But the federal government, real estate agents and banks explicitly excluded blacks and black neighborhoods from those loans.
The loans helped whites build wealth by accumulating equity in their homes and taking advantage of the mortgage interest deduction for state and federal income taxes.
Black neighborhoods suffered because residents couldn’t get affordable loans to build, buy or renovate properties there. Existing houses fell into disrepair, and outside investors often bought them for rental units. And rent itself was a further barrier to minority residents who wanted to buy a home. That is still true. On the East Side of Springfield, the predominantly black part of town where Hightower lives, approximately half of renters spend at least 50 percent of their paychecks on rent and utilities.
While broad patterns of segregation hold true throughout the areas we studied, there are important differences among the metro areas. Specifically, the levels of segregation were less intense in Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana. Both metropolitan areas are home to centers of higher education: Illinois State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, respectively. The large universities upended some of the dynamics that had fueled segregation in similar-sized metropolitan areas. First, they provided a constant influx of newcomers into their cities, which forced landlords and local officials to respond more quickly to changing social values. Second, students and junior faculty overwhelmingly relied on rental housing, which made it harder for cities to constrain the growth of rental properties throughout the metropolitan area. This meant an expansion of the supply and served as a brake on housing cost increases.
How White Neighborhoods Keep Black Residents Out
In March 2014, the Peoria Housing Authority held a community meeting to get feedback on the idea of building a 30-unit project in a neighborhood in the northern part of the city, which is mostly white. It was a long way from the southwest side, the predominantly black area of the city, as well as from the Taft Homes, the Korean War-era barracks-style buildings along the riverfront near downtown that the new development would partially replace.
At the time of the meeting, the project was at a very preliminary stage. The basic idea was to build new housing on a two-acre lot at the end of a road that had once been the site of a mobile home park, which had been demolished. The site was one of several the housing authority was considering. About 300 people showed up at the meeting; at least 172 signed in. Most of them objected to the project, often vigorously. “Why don’t you invite all of Detroit here too? Peoria has been too benevolent,” wrote one attendee, who identified themselves only as “Taxpayer” on a comment card.
Most of the residents who gave out their name and address focused on more practical grounds. They raised objections about traffic on the two-lane road that led to the proposed site and mentioned the problem of children playing near a major highway. They worried that the new residents -- or their guests -- would bring more crime to the neighborhood. And, of course, they asked what would happen to their property values if the new development were built.
Throughout the tense meeting, there were comments about whether the residents near the proposed site were simply racist, a notion that offended many of them. At one point, a woman introduced herself as a resident of Taft Homes. “I do not sell drugs,” she said. “What I see here is hatred. What I see here are people who feel that we need to be in one category. It is a shame that you all are being evil. You are pointing fingers and saying, ‘We don’t want you here.’ Well, we don’t want to be by you.”
The audience applauded at the last sentence.
Residents at a similar meeting about a different northern Peoria site complained about the prospect of the housing development because they wanted to preserve farmland in the area and worried about overcrowding in the booming Dunlap school system.
Facing enormous public opposition, the housing authority quietly backed off the idea of using the northern Peoria sites. Before too long, the whole effort to find new homes for the Taft residents stalled as well, and most of the housing authority staff who led the effort left the agency.
Looking back at the controversy, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis says residents near the proposed site likely didn’t appreciate how much they had in common with the Taft residents who were interested in moving there. Most of the Taft residents, according to the housing authority, were gainfully employed and had been living in public housing for less than five years.
“I don't think it was necessarily prejudice or anything else,” the mayor says. “People are concerned about their home values. It doesn't matter who it is, what business it is, or what type of development that's going to come in that could potentially have a negative impact on the value of a home, they just get really worried. And they did.”
Indeed, it’s not just public housing that homeowners worry about when it comes to preserving their property values. They worry about siting industrial facilities and other less desirable businesses near homes and schools. That’s one reason why cities have put into place zoning ordinances to regulate land use. But, especially in smaller jurisdictions, apartment complexes and other multifamily housing are among the “undesirable” uses that homeowners want to keep at bay. The practical effect is often that predominantly white communities make it very difficult for black families, who are predominantly renters, to move in.
Take the Springfield area. The city of Springfield is not a solid mass sprawling out from the state capitol complex downtown. It’s more like swiss cheese. There are dozens of holes in its jurisdiction. Many of them are simply unincorporated areas of the county where residents never opted to join the city. There are also four villages entirely surrounded by the city: Grandview, Jerome, Leland Grove and Southern View. They also all happen to be significantly whiter than the Springfield neighborhoods that border them.
How did that happen? The short answer is that local ordinances basically prohibited any apartment complexes bigger than a duplex.
Three of the four villages were on the outskirts of Springfield in the 1930s. They incorporated in 1939 so they could sell bonds to connect their homes to Springfield’s new water system. The fourth village, Leland Grove, was created in 1951, so that residents of its hilly neighborhoods could build better roads.
But by incorporating, the villages also gained the authority to control land use, particularly through zoning. All came into being at a time when blacks were largely relegated to the East Side of Springfield through redlining and, in some cases, racially restrictive covenants on deeds. When officials in those villages decided to “lock in” their existing character through zoning and other restrictions, they preserved for decades the land-use patterns of nearly all-white communities.
That effect is visible even today. The Village of Jerome, for example, is a collection of modest houses and strip malls just off Wabash Ave., a main corridor between downtown Springfield and the city’s West Side. The housing stock is mostly 1950s-era ranch homes along quiet two-lane roads with no sidewalks. Houses in Jerome these days go for around $100,000, making it a relatively affordable neighborhood.
Jerome’s zoning code, first drafted in 1963, puts severe restrictions on multifamily dwellings. It requires them to have 6,000 square feet for every dwelling unit, and it limits apartment buildings to two stories or 35 feet in height. Just two properties in the village have the necessary zoning to build a duplex or multifamily dwelling.
Jerome has kept itself apart from Springfield in other ways over the years. Jerome police frequently set speed traps along Wabash Ave., the main artery in the village, which is traveled by many Springfield residents. Many of Jerome’s residential streets end in cul-de-sacs instead of connecting to the Springfield street grid.
As of the 2010 Census, the village of 1,600 people was 89 percent white and just 4 percent black. Jerome’s racial breakdown is especially striking when compared to the area of Springfield directly to the south of the village, which is lined with apartment complexes. In 2010, that neighborhood was 60 percent white and 28 percent black.
“It is more restrictive density zoning in suburbs that makes the difference” in racial makeup between cities and their suburbs, says Massey, the Princeton sociology professor. “The lower the density allowed, the fewer housing units get built, and the higher the home prices. High home prices keep the poor out, of course, and because blacks and Latinos have higher poverty rates than whites, restrictive density zoning drives up racial as well as class segregation.”
Kent Gray, a Springfield resident who worked as a lawyer for several of the villages until recently, says the fact that the small municipalities allowed themselves to be surrounded by Springfield also served to keep them frozen in time. “The physical boundaries of all of these places have been settled for decades. The housing stock is set. There’s no open land that any of these places have had for decades,” he says. “There’s no reason to build anything.”
But some things in Jerome may be changing, including its racial composition. Shirley Johnson, who is black, moved to the village four years ago. She said she fell in love with the craftsmanship of the woodwork in the house she now owns. She thought the new houses being built in Springfield were generically bland, and the touches on her house in Jerome reminded her of the houses she knew growing up in Chicago.
Johnson became a village trustee for Jerome two years after moving in. She says the village is going through significant turnover, as the owners who lived in the houses for decades either die or retire. “Now we’re seeing younger families and more transient families,” Johnson says. “We are seeing more African-American families, because these are great starter homes…My reception in the community has been great. I love how much it feels like a community. It’s like you’re in the country, but then you go back to Wabash and you’re back in the city.”
Springfield itself has used zoning to keep apartment complexes out of certain parts of the city, particularly on the far West Side. Most of the land there is zoned for single-family housing. That designation can be self-reinforcing, since the city’s zoning ordinance requires the zoning commission to consider nearby land use and zoning when deciding whether to change a property’s zoning. In 2012, a group of West Side homeowners moved to prevent the construction of apartment buildings near them by blocking the necessary zoning change. “There is no multifamily development for miles around,” they noted in their challenge. The homeowners lost that battle, and the apartments were built. But they are still the only apartments for miles around.
That’s a big reason why there aren’t many opportunities for low-income families to move to the West Side. There are no two-bedroom properties that accept Section 8 housing vouchers west of MacArthur Boulevard, no public housing projects and only a handful of affordable housing units backed by state tax credits.
Zoning, though, is only one way to control development. Increasingly, areas on the West Side of Springfield and in nearby bedroom communities are erecting new barriers to prevent those neighborhoods from becoming more diverse.
Small villages surrounded by Springfield have higher percentages of white residents than nearby neighborhoods. Leland Grove, for example, is 95 percent white and 1 percent black.
The Growing Power of Homeowners’ Associations
The city of Springfield instituted its first zoning ordinance in 1966, and the rules for single-family homes remain largely the same today. They require lots to be 60 feet wide, with a minimum overall lot size of 7,200 square feet. Those lot sizes are small by today’s standards; nearby Chatham requires its residential lots to be 80 feet wide, with a minimum lot size of 12,000 square feet. The different standards help explain why Chatham (whose motto is “Family. Community. Prosperity.”) attracts richer residents than Springfield. But it doesn’t explain why homes on the West Side of Springfield are so much more expensive than those on the East Side. The same zoning rules for single-family homes apply throughout the city.
Those differences in housing costs are partially the result of another phenomenon: the resurgence of the restrictive covenant.
Restrictive covenants on land are infamous for their role in keeping cities segregated. The covenants forbade landowners in an area from selling their property to non-white buyers and set up neighborhood organizations with the power to enforce the prohibition. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that those arrangements were unconstitutional, although it took several decades before the practice was completely outlawed.
But the covenants themselves never really went away, and indeed are making a comeback, minus the racial language. Sixty-five percent of all new, single-family homes built for sale in the Midwest in 2017 were part of a homeowners’ association, up from 55 percent a decade prior to that. The numbers are even higher nationally: In 2017, 73 percent of new homes for sale in the U.S. were subject to the rules of homeowners’ associations.
Nearly all the recently constructed subdivisions in the Springfield area have a covenant attached to them. The Sangamon County recorder’s office shows at least 198 of them on record. Three-quarters of them were put in place in the last 20 years. They cover everything from moderate family homes in Cobblestone Estates to the elite homes near the Panther Creek golf course.
The agreements vary in their scope, but they generally prohibit the land from being used for anything but single-family residences. Various covenants in Springfield and nearby towns, for example, set minimum floor sizes for homes, regulate fences, specify what building materials can be used, ban above-ground swimming pools, require uniform mailboxes, specify that utility lines must be buried, forbid solar panels, prohibit vehicles or boats from being left in driveways, ban exotic pets and subject just about any major change in a house to review by an architectural control committee. The arrangements typically last 25 years and automatically renew unless a supermajority of residents vote to change them.
All of that is self-enforcing, without any involvement from the city or municipality, because homeowners’ associations oversee the whole process. It’s an “extra level of amateur government,” says Evan McKenzie, the head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of two books about homeowners’ associations. “This gives people power as private individuals to do things that are exclusionary. The arrangements lend themselves to racial and economic segregation.” All of the extra restrictions add costs to homes, which can put them out of reach for prospective black buyers.
Why do local officials approve developments that have so many restrictions attached? McKenzie argues that local officials look at the arrangements as a way to expand their cities and tax bases without bearing the full brunt of the costs of common amenities like parks, golf courses and swimming pools that developers usually include in their subdivisions. The members of the homeowners’ associations then pay for their upkeep with annual dues.
Still, restrictive covenants only partially explain the disparities among Springfield’s neighborhoods. The racial makeup of certain areas of the city can be self-reinforcing. As long as white people largely avoid moving to the East Side, the East Side and its residents will inevitably lag behind in resources compared to their West Side counterparts.
Consider Eastview Estates, a neat subdivision of houses built on the East Side in the early 2000s. Its homes are covered by a restrictive covenant that’s enforced by a homeowners association. With its broad green lawns and minivans parked in two-car garages, the development looks like it could just as well be on the West Side. Locals nicknamed it “Black Panther Creek” when it opened, a comparison to the swanky golf course subdivision out west and a nod to the fact that many prominent black residents of Springfield moved in. But the development ran into financial troubles, in large part because white homeowners weren’t interested in living there. The lack of interest is reflected in property values. This summer, a house with four bedrooms, 4.5 bathrooms and 2,400 square feet there sold in Eastview Estates for $124,500. A slightly smaller house, with four bedrooms, three bathrooms and 2,000 square feet, went up for sale on the white West Side at roughly the same time. It had slightly nicer finishes, but it was located in a white neighborhood and included in a suburban --rather than the city’s -- school district. It sold for $282,000, twice as much as the East Side house.
With its broad green lawns and minivans, Eastview Estates looks like it could be on Springfield’s West Side. But because it is on the predominantly black East Side, its property values are significantly lower.
A New Way Forward?
Eastview Estates is separated from Poplar Place, the long-neglected apartment complex where Lekiesha Hightower lives, by a set of power lines and a chain-link fence. No roads connect the two neighborhoods, which embody the stark contrasts of possibilities for the East Side.
Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder sees potential for Poplar Place, but he’s had to go back and forth with The Related Companies, the owner of the development, just to get their attention.
The long-running fight shows how frustrating it can be for city officials to improve local neighborhoods, especially when dealing with out-of-town landlords or powerful property owners. But it also shows how local officials can make improvements in spite of them.
Poplar Place has been a sore spot for Springfield officials for decades. For a long time, the subdivision was called Evergreen Terrace, and it was owned by Bill Cellini, a former city commissioner who became a kingmaker in Illinois Republican politics. Cellini sold the property in 1998, because he was losing money on it. Shortly after he unloaded the property, though, Cellini convinced the state housing agency to fund exterior repairs, interior improvements, new windows and appliances for the property. Eventually, the development was bundled up and sold to The Related Companies as part of a package deal.
“Poplar Place is a nearly 50-year-old property that was acquired by a predecessor company and its partner 19 years ago,” a spokeswoman for The Related Companies said in an email. “We have been working closely with Mayor Langfelder and residents to find long-term sustainable solutions to both improve its conditions and preserve the property as affordable.”
The Related Companies touts itself as a multinational luxury real estate firm. The company’s website boasts of properties in Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Right now, it’s building Hudson Yards near Penn Station in New York City, the largest private real estate development in the country. Its principal owner, Stephen M. Ross, became the namesake of the University of Michigan’s business school after he donated $100 million to the school. He also owns the Miami Dolphins football team.
But affordable housing is big business for the privately held company. On its website, Related claims it has “developed or acquired over 55,000 affordable housing units with a total value of approximately $3.5 billion.” It’s involved in projects from Connecticut to California, many of them using tax credits or subsidies.
Still, Springfield couldn’t get the company’s attention about conditions at Poplar Place. The city sued Related. Nothing. Two years ago, the mayor had city crews fix some of the potholes in the subdivision and sent Related the bill. Still nothing.
So Langfelder says he decided to give Related officials a “reality check.” “They had shown us all the glossy pictures of their other developments throughout the country and how nice they look,” he says. “I said, ‘That’s how I want ours to look.’”
The city of Springfield had been repaving roads and installing new sidewalks all around Poplar Place, but it couldn’t touch the roads in Poplar Place -- “the worst streets in Springfield,” according to the mayor -- because the city didn’t own the roads there. Related did.
“People in Poplar Place are thinking, great, the city is going to help us out. No, we can’t, because … they own the roads,” Langfelder remembers telling the Related officials. “I said, ‘This is just like a potential for Ferguson. You have people who feel neglected, and they don’t understand the [public vs. private] dynamics.’ Hopefully, that was a wake-up call to them.”
If it wasn’t, the lawsuit and publicity could also create problems for Related, because so many of its projects depend on tax credits issued by states and other governmental agencies. “When they’re trying to get credits, they don’t want a problem property,” Langfelder says. “That gives them a black eye.”
Eventually, the city and Related agreed to a plan, although the details are still being worked out and the financing hasn’t been secured. The agreement calls for Related to remove some of the buildings in Poplar Place, remodel all of the duplexes there into single-family homes with one-car garages, install security cameras that police can monitor remotely and create a community center with a splash park for children or other water feature. The city, in turn, would assume ownership of the roads and repave them. The deadline for applying for the tax credits from the state is in February.
Related officials declined several interview requests, but they provided a short statement noting that they had already remodeled one of the buildings to give officials an idea of how the new units would look. The “single-family home with modern, state of the art finishes and designs … can serve as a model to improve the property,” the company said.
Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder wants the owners of Poplar Place to renovate the entire development. They upgraded one house as a model for the rest of the subdivision.
Langfelder and other city officials toured the new house. The mayor is enthusiastic about the design and what it could potentially mean for the neighborhood. “It looks great,” he says. “What that has done is calm things down over there, because the residents can see for themselves there is a house there, and they’re going to do something. It might not be tomorrow, but it is going to happen in the next year.”
Langfelder is looking at other means of improving the neighborhood, some of which are already underway. Five years ago, the school district opened a new elementary school a few blocks away. The city recently extended its tax-increment financing district for the area, which could potentially make more money available for infrastructure improvements.
The mayor thinks a major renovation could help the whole area around Poplar Place as well. The closest neighbors on either side of Poplar Place live in single-family homes, but much of the housing nearby is rental properties serving low-income residents. To the north a few blocks, there’s another project to renovate low-income housing in the works. A few blocks to the west sits a small public housing project. Near that, a nonprofit group called the Nehemiah Extension is building single-family homes for rent and eventually purchase by low-income residents. Several scattered-site homes owned by the housing authority are located nearby, too.
Individually, many of those efforts promise to improve conditions for residents in the area. But collectively, it’s hard not to notice that a lot of city, state and federal money is going to provide housing for poor and working-class people in the same small neighborhood, one that has the highest concentration of black residents on the East Side. All that money, though, is linked to residents’ income levels. So even the new investments would essentially lock in much of the current makeup of the neighborhood for decades.
Read more stories and see more data and maps from our series on segregation in Illinois.