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Cheap House on the Prairie

Who pays for Springfield’s low-priced housing?

Illinois Times

February 3, 2011

At first glance, the compulsion to buy a bigger house than they can afford to own seems universal among Illinoisans. However, when price is no object, our elites choose to buy a house because of its location—in the best school districts when they are parents, near a golf course when they aren’t. But most Illinoisans shop for price and aren’t picky about where the bargains leave them on the landscape. They’ll trade an hour in the car twice a day for an extra bedroom any day. Very strange.


This is the finished version of a column whose unedited draft appeared by mistake in the Illinois Times of February 3, 2011, under the same title.


Each year for nearly 20 years now, the National Association of Home Builders and the Wells Fargo Bank have boiled down national real estate data into an easy-to-digest housing affordability index. Local housing markets are judged “affordable” according to how many families earning the national median income of $64,400 can buy an average-priced house. By that measure, houses were cheaper in Springfield in the fall of 2010 than they were in all but 29 of the more than 200 U.S. cities surveyed.

Like most such indexes, this one is only a crude measure of housing affordability. (Don’t ask.) Still, houses are undeniably cheap compared to many other parts of the country. Indeed, they are cheaper than in many other parts of Illinois. The median house price in the capital in 2010 was a bit more than $100,000, while one in Naperville cost $330,000, and one along Illinois’s Riviera—the Lake Michigan shore north of Chicago—will set you back about twice that, give or take the cost of a sauna.  

The wag in me is tempted to say that low housing prices are a product of supply and demand. Since the supply of charm in Springfield is limited, demand for houses here is low. (Scenery? There are geezers around who believe that there has been nothing much to look at since Cindy Klose left WCIA for Headline News.) The fact is, however, that low local house prices reflect high supply.

Cheap housing is a centerpiece of Springfield’s economic development strategy. New house construction generates its own demand, up to a point. Building, selling, financing, and furnishing a house means more jobs, which attract more people to Springfield, which creates demand for more houses. Lower housing costs also mean that even low-paid local workers can still live in a house, and well-paid local workers can live in a big house. That’s a recruiting plus for local employers. On its website, software firm LRS, states, “LRS headquarters remain in our hometown of Springfield—a community with an upbeat atmosphere, affordable housing and a low cost of living.”

Harvard economics professor Edward L. Glaeser recently speculated why so many people moved to California, Florida, Georgia and Texas in the 2000s—they are the four states that added the most people in that decade—and to Arizona and Nevada, which had the fastest rates of population growth. Climate is the popular explanation, and like most popular explanations for complex phenomena, this one is wrong. Sure, it’s warm in Texas—too warm; during some months, Houston will leave you pining for a balmy central Illinois August. Glaeser also ruled out economic productivity and state unionization laws as factors. The one thing that high-growth regions do have in common is housing that is inexpensive both in absolute terms and relative to those areas’ incomes.

While cheap housing would appear to be a key to prosperity on this evidence, an economic development strategy building cheap houses and selling them to ourselves is as flimsy as a two-by-six rafter. In Nevada, even people of modest means were able to engage in real estate speculation like their betters, and the state (especially Las Vegas) boomed in the 2000s, but people are now leaving as fast their U-Hauls can carry them, and many of them are leaving their houses behind like so much broken lawn furniture.

There are costs to building houses that the buyer doesn’t pay. A house of a given size was cheaper to build in places like Nevada compared to, say, Massachusetts, thanks to lax regulations concerning land use, building and energy use, developer exactions, and environmental mitigation. For example, the poshest houses in New Springfield are identical to their kin in Lake County on Chicago’s North Shore. What’s different is the setting. The Springfield houses are going up on the kind of terrain that would be bought and set aside as a forest preserve or park in Lake County, pushing up the price of like lots nearby.

To the extent that real estate taxes are based on the market value of houses, low prices mean a low tax haul for local governments, which almost virtually guarantees minimal public services for all the buyer’s non-house-buying neighbors. Making new houses cheap to buy also removes the incentive to fix up and reuse old ones—a significant factor in the wholesale abandonment of Old Springfield.  

Yes, building on existing lots means clearing the land, sometimes decontaminating it, often building upwards to achieve the square footage the market demands. Tougher energy efficiency building codes would help forestall the construction of new generating capacity at the city’s power plant, but are also likely to drive new residential development outside the city borders so that people will drive even farther to Springfield jobs.

So, everything good has a price. The important question about housing is not, “How much does it cost,” but “Who does it cost?” An economic development policy that focuses too much on the former is not a good deal. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

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to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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