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Fair Is Not Easy

Making fair housing fairer for the poor

Illinois Times

August 6, 1981

Discrimination in housing in Springfield, as nearly everywhere in this once-great nation, is usually assumed to mean discrimination against African American tenants. In fact, the really hard-to-house population comprises the lower class of all races.


I failed to mention it in this piece, but the City of Springfield and kindred municipalities does provide for housing for the poor, by making it cheap to build and buy new houses on the urban periphery for the middle class, who leave behind hand-me-down houses that get rented to the poor.


It is the opinion of the federal government that Springfield's fair housing programs are only fair at being fair. In May of last year the local League of Women Voters and an activist group, Access to Housing, complained to HUD that the city's federally-funded community development programs were being used to build housing for the elderly and the handicapped but not the poor. HUD ultimately agreed, and urged that the city develop an acceptable "fair housing strategy."


Thus stung by HUD's bad opinion, Mayor Mike Houston recently set up Springfield's very own New Horizons Fair Housing Task Force. People who know the problem credit the mayor with good intentions, and the rest of us have no reason to do otherwise. The problem is whether good intentions will be of any use against housing discrimination in Springfield. Housing for those denied access to the private housing market because of poverty (especially when poverty is aggravated by large numbers of children), race, or infirmity is hard to get and often not worth getting anyway. This is no surprise. But in Springfield, the public housing market has also failed. We have seen to it that no handicapped person lacks for a new apartment with a low-set sink, and we have stacked our old people in spanking new high rises like dishes in a cupboard. The poor, in contrast, join waiting lists for units which even with a subsidy are no bargain.


Why? Housing discrimination, like juvenile delinquency or shopping malls, is a symptom of underlying social maladies. These range from the maldistribution of wealth to racism and ignorance. Take, for example, the problem of poverty. It is one of the cherished conceits of the liberal middle class that poor people are pretty much like they are except that they don't have as much money. Sadly, this is true only sometimes. If it is a fault of bankers that they tend to assume that income and class always define each other, so it is a fault of liberal reformers that they assume that they never do. As Hemingway might have said if he hadn't grown up in Oak Park, "The very poor are different from you and me."


While being poor does not necessarily make one lower class, it is an unpleasant fact that most poor people tend to be lower class. In my own case, I have nothing against poor people—I have been poor myself most of my life—but I do not believe that a front yard is made more gracious by the addition of old washing machines. Nor do I believe that courtesy countenances the playing of stereos at 1 a.m. nor leaving children unbathed for long periods of time. I leave it to sociologists to decide whether people are lower class because they are poor, or whether they are poor because they are lower class. Either way, they make lousy neighbors and worse tenants.


If the popular confusion of income with class complicates thinking about fair housing, race muddles it even more. While most poor people are not black, many black people are poor; more to the point, many black people are lower-class poor, and thus are thrice damned in the eyes of the broader world. That blacks have been discriminated against in the Springfield housing market hardly needs to be said. As long ago as 1914 the Sage Foundation reported that the Springfield black person is "usually segregated . . . in one or more of the poorest parts of town. Being so confined he is more easily exploited by his landlord, who inclines to give less and charge more than he would in the case of white tenants."


But one of the questions the task force may want to consider is whether race is still the decisive factor in housing discrimination. Critics have tended to assume so, treating housing problems of the poor and of minorities as two separate, if related, issues. But while it was segregation clearly that limited housing opportunities for blacks in 1914, in 1981 it is not clear at all. The peaceful, almost unnoticed integration of the city's previously all-white neighborhoods in the 1970s would seem to be proof that class and not color is the key to the acceptance of minority newcomers. Speaking for myself, it doesn't matter whether a pick-up truck with a tattoo parlor bumper sticker on it pulls up with a U-haul next door, or whether it is a 1972 Cadillac with gangster whitewalls—I will reach for the real estate ads just as fast in either case.


Income discrimination remains the biggest bar to decent housing. It is significant that HUD has characterized its unhappiness with Springfield's fair housing efforts in terms of housing opportunities for low-income people rather than for minorities. (Oh, Euphemism!) The private housing market, like the political system which sustains it, was not designed to serve people who don't have money. (At least not directly; the building boom of the '70s which littered cornfields with condos made available to the poor the houses abandoned by the middle class.)


The mayor has said that the solution to fair housing for the poor in Springfield is to spend more federal money to build public housing—a remarkable stance for a free-market Reaganite Republican. But this absolves the city much too easily. Instead of seeking ways to build more public housing for the poor, the task force might inquire into why there is so little decent, affordable private housing in the city. How much of the rot that infects housing for the poor, for example, is spread by the city's failure to enforce its own building and health codes? Does the city do business with lenders who red-line? Who are the slumlords, and why is the city so helpless against them? Why hasn't the city started a tax abatement program in inner city neighborhoods which would help preserve them while transferring more of the local tax burden on the recreant middle class? How many of its development policies suck investment money away from low-cost housing and to speculative commercial development?


HUD's policy seems to be to not perpetuate ghettos, whether of race or income. As has been proved by mandatory school integration, such social theories lead to injustices in practice, usually in inverse proportion to the nobility of their intentions. In order to satisfy federal requirements that public housing tenants reflect an income mix typical of the city as a whole, the Springfield Housing Authority has actually had to turn down applicants for existing public housing because they don't make enough money. In the case of new housing, it is not sufficient that the poor be well-housed; it is also necessary that they be well-housed in un-poor neighborhoods.


Alas, public housing houses not only the poor but the lower class poor, and because of that, scattered-site public housing is likely to remain deservedly unpopular. Liberals (most of whom never have to sit beside their vegetable gardens in a lawn chair all summer to keep vandals from stealing tomatoes, as one public housing tenant I know had to do) tend to dismiss local opposition to public housing for the poor as racism or ignorance. But that does such opponents an insult, and does the rest of us the disservice of making the complicated politics of public housing seem much more simple than it is.


Perhaps it is asking too much of the task force to sort out these complications. For the moment, it would be good if the task force merely clarifies the terms of the debate, to make clear that income is not class, that class is not race—and that fair is not easy. ●




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

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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.

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The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

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Journal of Illinois HIstory

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

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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:
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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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