Earlier this year, reporters from Governing Magazine laid down a mammoth investigative report showing that some midsized cities in Illinois are among the most segregated in the nation.
The causes are many. The cures are difficult. Change would take generations even if communities pull together to address the issue.
Minorities make up a disproportionate share of the lower income population in most cities. Cheryll Boswell of Peoria is a past board member of Housing Action in Illinois. Boswell said to get at segregation, cities such as Peoria and Bloomington-Normal should require new multi-unit developments to have an affordable housing component.
"How do we move the needle forward with policy that would help when policies come in place for housing that there are some set asides or some requirements in the development that so many of those units will have to be for low-income residents?"
Boswell grew up being bused from the south side of Peoria to school in an effort to desegregate schools. A generation later, Peoria schools are still very black or white depending on where they are. Boswell said city infrastructure decisions affect that.
"One of the worst things I believe happened in the city of Peoria was the urban renewal that came through here in the late 60s, early 70s," Boswell said. "It broke cultures, it tore up neighborhoods, it totally changed communities that were on the south side of Peoria."
She said revitalization to develop blighted areas must build communities and not just talk about how old the housing stock is in Peoria. To do that Boswell said Peoria must invest in infrastructure, like streets and sewers, and make it easier to develop housing. That in turn creates property tax base.
"When you look at the migration of the population out of the city," Boswell said, "those are revenue dollars that the city lost. Somehow we have to get revenue back into the city and I think housing is a way to do that."
She thinks the city should find ways in addition to tax credits to make development easier.
There is a larger issue that encourages segregation in Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, and any other traditionally structured city. It's zoning.
Ann Houghtaling directs Hope-Fair Housing, which serves 30 counties in northern and north-central Illinois. She said zoning came about in the 1920s and its origins are racist.
"(Zoning) started to segregate people," Houghtaling said. "It was designed to have these single-family areas that would be exclusionary and exclude people of color from the communities."
Houghtaling said cities can counter this now by being more inclusive in rental housing requirements to promote mixed income areas.
But she said there is an economic case for broader use of the tool as well. For instance, when a municipality considers a moribund commercially zoned strip mall for redevelopment, Houghtaling said rezoning for mixed use helps in a number of ways.
"If you reimagine that as retail and commercial on the bottom—restaurants, the dry clearner, the cell phone repair store—and housing above, then you have the housing but you also have a built in market for the stores below. You're retaining the income in that neighborhood and also helping to integrate it at the same time."
In fact, that's the way many cities and towns looked in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Houghtaling said they could look that way again.
As cities approach redevelopment, they have to decide where to put their markers—everywhere at once, or in specific areas. This is a political issue for any representative council: how to divvy scarce assets.
But City of Urbana Grants Manager Shiela Dodd said there is a case for using redevelopment incentives and funds in a concentrated area until you get results. One of her previous jobs was director of Habitat for Humanity in Champaign-Urbana. Dodd said they used money from the housing foreclosure lawsuit settlement and an Illinois Housing Development Authority grant to tear down 10 homes in a blighted eight-block square area in Urbana and build new ones.
She said results happened fast.
"In a four-year time period," Dodd said, "we saw assessments go up $2,000 at a minimum and some even more than that. And in that older housing stock neighborhood that's huge. To see that investment go back in, families start to move back in. It's a nice mix of seniors and younger families and they kind of help each other out."
She said not only did the neighborhood stabilize, diversity increased as well. And with people moving in, Dodd said it's now worth additional city resources to improve infrastructure.
"They have taken a look at that neighborhood and are going to be putting in sidewalk ramps and investing in new street overlays and sidewalk repairs that need to be done."
And Dodd pointed out better streets and sidewalks will improve housing values over time as well.
Another reason to concentrate a city's redevelopment efforts, Dodd said, is pure public perception as available federal and city dollars shrink.
"Really to help people feel like the city of Urbana cares and they really are investing in their community; we need to have that more concentrated area of focus as much as we can." Dodd said.
By focusing on a single tight geographic redevelopment area, Dodd said, it's easier for other agencies and arms of the city to coordinate efforts in that same territory such as rehabs, social service funding, and leveraging grants.
On a smaller scale, affordable housing tends to be in clusters. Those clusters can perpetuate segregation.
Some people qualify for housing choice vouchers to help with rent. Those are supposed to be portable anywhere in a city. Landlords are not supposed to turn down people with vouchers because they are low income. Studies show property owners often discriminate anyway.
Napterville and some other entities such as Champaign and Cook County have fair housing ordinances on top of federal rules.
Ann Houghtaling of Hope-Fair Housing said the number of people inside and outside Naperville city government came together to take on the issue.
"We at Hope-Fair Housing Center were receiving complaints for people, veterans with disabilities who were turned down from renting because they had a housing choice voucher and we're getting a response from the city that they weren't sure that their source of income ordinance included housing choice vouchers. So there was a groundswell of people not being able to access housing in Naperville."
In many communities, Houghtaling and other housing experts say community organizing is something of a lost art. She said there is plenty of anger and motivation, but less of the careful education, coalition building, and stakeholder involvement that can effect real change. It's not easy or quick work. Houghtaling said in Naperville, the group pushing voucher anti-discrimination provisions did that work and even found landlords in the upscale community to lobby for the measure because they came to see vouchers as desirable.
"If somebody loses their job," Houghtaling said, "the housing authority picks up the rest until they get another job and are able to contribute to the housing. So it's a guarenteed stream of rent for the landlord."
A second reason property owners should like housing choice vouchers, Houghtaling said, is that the tenants tend to be more predictable than the general public.
"People wait for years and years, there's not enough assistance to go around for these housing choice vouchers," Houghtaling said. "People wait and then they finally get them and they treat it like a winning lottery ticket. They are very good tenants who follow the rules and maintain the property because they want to make sure they can have the housing assistance as long as they need it."
She said any community needs someone to herd the cats and keep the conversations going until policy measures emerge. Bloomington-Normal and Peoria do not have such voucher choice anti-discrimination measures in place.
Houghtaling said segregation and discrimination happens at all economic levels. And while housing voucher choice anti-discrimination measures might move the needle on segregation, she said residents also have to be aware of their own tendencies to self-segregate. When people go to find a house, condo, or apartment, they look partly based on the job, the commute, and the quality of the area.
But Houghtaling said people tend to seek out advice from people they know to help shape the search.
"Because we are segregated, our social networks are segregated. And so when you tap your social network for where you're going to live, you're already tapping into segregation and the cycle continues."
Houghtaling said changing policy at the top is important, but as individuals we can also choose to integrate our own social networks. She said if cooking, biking, knitting, or a book group is your thing, you can work to integrate those groups so that when housing decisions come up, your social network will be as diverse as the city in which you want to live.
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