A Look Back at Understanding Houston’s First Year

The Greater Houston region is filled with possibilities. Across Greater Houston’s 10,000+ square miles live more than 7 million people from all walks of life and more than 90 countries. They speak nearly 150 unique languages. They help their neighbors at higher rates than the national average. They create world class arts and cultural experiences. And, most importantly, they work together to create a more vibrant Houston region with opportunity for all. 

Whether you’re a philanthropist looking for guidance on where your dollars can make the most impact in Greater Houston, or you’re just a concerned community member hoping to understand and act on the issues that matter to you, Understanding Houston was created to measure what matters to our communities, so that people like you can do what matters in our communities.

It’s been one year since our official launch, and we’re amazed and inspired by the outpouring of support and engagement we’ve seen from our community on a near-daily basis. Through important conversations on social media, inspiring events and compelling guest perspectives, Understanding Houston has achieved remarkable growth in its first year, and our journey is only just beginning. 

These are just some of the highlights from year one. 

How people are using the website

As an expansive resource, Understanding Houston offers web visitors a number of ways to make the most of our data, including downloadable reports and charts, as well as a voting system that allows visitors to let us know the content we should expand on moving forward. 

Here’s how use of the Understanding Houston website has panned out over our first year: 

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  • 17,160 site users: More than 17,000 people have come to Understanding Houston through search engines, social media, or direct referrals since we launched last year, with an average of 1,430 monthly users.
  • 48,063 pageviews: These users have explored more than 48,000 collective pages of Understanding Houston content. 
  • 787 report downloads: Nearly 800 reports have been downloaded by users for later use and reference.
  • 218 chart exports: More than 200 charts have been exported by users to include in presentations, share on social media or feature on their website.
  • 265 topic votes: Users have voted for the topics that matter most to them 265 times. 

Understanding Houston has served to inform our work with easy access to explore the data across the topics and subtopics within the website. This has been a tremendous value to have one central location for information.”

Jessica Davison – Sr. Program Manager, United Way of Greater Houston

How our community has grown

Understanding Houston launched its social media presence and monthly newsletter in January 2020 to grow our community, inform our users on important issues affecting the region and share new in-depth blogs and events. 

To date, we’ve seen incredible support and engagement in our community, as our social platforms  and newsletter subscribers continue to grow month over month, reaching 40,000 people via social media on average each month. 

Here’s where we stand as of this month:

1,701 total email subscribers

Social media followers

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“Understanding Houston helps us stay relevant as we speak the same language of our top health partners who also use Understanding Houston’s data reports.”

Lharissa Jacobs – Vice President, Health Strategies, American Heart Association

How we’ve expanded our platform

From the very beginning, Understanding Houston has been a collaborative initiative between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and strategic research partner, Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Since our launch, Understanding Houston has partnered with a variety of leaders and organizations including the George Foundation, the Hackett Center for Mental Health, Houston Coalition Against Hate, Houston in Action, January Advisors, NAMI Greater Houston, and many others. 

These collaborations resulted in 17 in-depth blogs, including six guest-authored pieces that amplify voices from community leaders.

Expanding Understanding Houston hasn’t been limited to the written word; through an ongoing series of successful data briefings and webinars, we’ve briefed more than 700 donors, foundation, nonprofit and government partners on on key data insights across quality of life issues and topics such as criminal justice and housing inequities, with 97% of attendees reporting increased understanding of the Houston region after attending. 

How we’ve responded to 2020’s challenges

2020 has been an unpredictable year by any measure, as each new month seemed to bring with it new challenges. Between the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the renewed focus on racial justice and inequality in our region and beyond, the Understanding Houston team rose to the occasion, developing content that enhanced understanding and provided invaluable context to the issues affecting us all. 


When COVID-19 began to impact our region, we knew right away that our initial plans for the immediate future — including in-person events, blogs and social media posts — simply weren’t going to work as originally scheduled. Immediately, we shifted our focus on social media to helping our followers stay up to day with accurate, vetted information about COVID-19 in our region.

Since the initial outbreak, Understanding Houston has published six original blogs on the impacts of COVID-19, some of which have been among the most viewed blogs on Understanding Houston.

Racial inequality 

Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and several others at the hands of police, the nation’s attention turned en masse to issues surrounding racial injustice in our communities. Recognizing our platform’s ability to add invaluable context and depth to these conversations, we once again paused our previously scheduled content plans and shifted focus to help our community find answers to their most pressing questions. 

With cooperation from our partners, we worked diligently to develop an information campaign consisting of 16 unique social posts that presented a holistic picture of racial inequities and injustices in the Greater Houston area, including an inspiring guest blog by Marjorie Joseph of Houston Coalition Against Hate.

This content resonated with the community and helped hundreds of new followers discover Understanding Houston as we added 528 new followers to our four social media platforms over the course of the campaign.

How we’re planning for the future of Understanding Houston

A region as dynamic and ever-changing as Houston requires a resource that can keep up. Looking ahead to our second year, we are already planning two major updates to the existing platform: 

  1. A brand new Disaster topic with four subtopic pages crafted to help donors, government officials and community leaders understand the risks and effects associated with recent disasters in our region.
  2. Expanded content and engagement opportunities on economic opportunity that enables deeper learning and exploration of how we strengthen economic security for families across Houston.

With COVID-19 making in-person engagements a challenge for the foreseeable future, we will also continue to work with our community partners to host engaging online data briefings that will keep the conversation going until we are able to host in-person events again.

Thank you to everyone who has made this possible!

Whether looking ahead or looking back, we owe so much to the countless people who have helped Understanding Houston grow into the dynamic resource it is today. To all the donors, partners, guest bloggers, researchers, analysts, developers, designers, writers and followers who keep us moving forward, we are endlessly grateful.

A very special thank you to our founding partners and supporters, our advisory committee, our strategic research partners at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, and our communications partners at Baal + Spots and Deutser for their continued support of Understanding Houston.

We also couldn’t do what we do without the continued support of our donors. Your support keeps Understanding Houston evolving and accessible for all Houstonians, and we’re extremely grateful for the support we’ve received thus far. If you’d like to see Understanding Houston continue to grow and expand its reach in our communities, please consider making a donation. 

Here’s to many more years of keeping Houston connected to the things that matter.

3 facts every Houstonian should know about natural disasters

Unfortunately, natural disasters in Houston are nothing new. Whether you’re a lifelong Houstonian or a recent transplant, chances are you’ve either experienced a natural disaster firsthand or experienced some extremely close calls like those from the very busy 2020 storm season. And as the data has made clear, these disruptive events aren’t expected to let up any time soon. 

Whatever your experience may be, the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters in Houston isn’t something our region can afford to overlook. In our recently published Disaster topic and subtopic pages, we examine the ongoing risks, vulnerabilities and response patterns affecting natural disasters in Houston across more than 50 unique data points. Below are the core points that everyHouston-area resident should be aware of. 

1) Houston’s flooding risk is high (and getting higher)

When it comes to natural disasters like hurricanes, extreme precipitation and resultant flooding, Houston’s risk level has always been high and is only projected to grow. As of January 2021, Greater Houston has been the site of 25 federally declared disasters in just 40 years, nearly one-third of which have occured since 2015. All but one of these seven recent disasters (the COVID-19 pandemic) have involved flooding and/or hurricanes. 

While much of Houston’s elevated natural disaster risk level can be attributed to its geography and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, the ongoing effects of climate change and decades of ill-informed planning also play a significant role. When developing properties and planning communities, builders and developers consult FEMA Flood Zone maps in order to avoid building properties in areas at significant risk of flooding. However, these maps have been imperfect; about 75% of Houston-area flood damage between 1999 and 2009 occurred on properties built outside of FEMA-designated flood plains. Similarly, around 75% of homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey were outside flood zones, as were 55% of the homes flooded during 2016’s Tax Day flood. 

“Seven federally declared disasters have occurred in Houston since 2015.”

All-in-all, 322,000 residential properties in Houston’s three-county area are at some risk of flooding. That’s more than one-in-five. While the issue of increased flood risk may be widespread in Greater Houston, the severity of risk disproportionately impacts Black, Hispanic and low-income residents. Decades of discriminatory housing policies have seen many low-income communities placed in low-lying lands that subsequently receive insufficient investment toward flood mitigation.

With the dangers posed by extreme rain events projected to increase in coming decades, the number of Houston properties at substantial risk of flooding is also poised to grow. 

By 2050, one in seven properties (286,036) in the three-county area will be at substantial risk of flooding. By pure volume, Harris County is projected to bear most of the burden. Fort Bend County is projected to have the highest proportion of properties at substantial risk of flooding at nearly 20%. 

Click here for a deeper exploration of Houston’s natural disaster risk factors

2) Houston’s population is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of natural disasters

Houstons’ geographic placement is one of the driving factors behind Houston’s high natural disaster risk levels, but the extent to which these disasters impact our region is a different story. Beyond our inherent risk levels, socioeconomic inequalities and man-made environmental factors increase our region’s vulnerability to negative effects of natural disasters — impacting our ability to withstand and recover from natural disasters when they happen. 

Socioeconomic vulnerabilities 

One of the most valuable tools we have in evaluating vulnerability is The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). SVI measures the social vulnerability of counties and census tracts on a scale from 0 (indicating the lowest vulnerability) to 1 (highest vulnerability). Counties and census tracts with high SVI scores often face higher levels of human and economic suffering/loss in the wake of natural disasters. Factors that contribute to higher rates of social vulnerability include lower income levels, higher proportions of non-Whites, language barriers, housing segregation and other elements of discrimination and inequality. 

Harris County has an SVI of 0.72, meaning Harris County is more vulnerable to the negative effects of disasters than 72% of counties in the country

Communities with an SVI of 0.5 or higher are deemed to have medium-high vulnerability to the negative shocks disasters cause. In total, 3.4 million residents in Houston’s three-county region live in a medium-high risk census tract — that’s 58% of the region’s population

“58% of Greater Houston residents live in a census tract with medium-high vulnerability to the negative effects of disasters.”

As established earlier, Black, Hispanic and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted when disasters strike. These vulnerable populations are more likely to experience food insecurity, job/income loss, housing insecurity, transportation challenges, reduced access to healthcare, and more. Compounding these issues, many in Houston’s most vulnerable communities never receive the federal assistance they need to properly recover. About 50% of FEMA claims made in the three-county region since 2005 have been declined, and renters — who are more likely to be in a highly vulnerable group — were less likely to be approved for assistance than homeowners in seven of the last nine disasters. 

Environmental impacts

Greater Houston also faces environmental vulnerabilities that impact public health on a large scale following natural disasters. During flooding events, sewage, debris and chemicals mix with flood waters, and as waters rise, they can carry pollutants into water bodies, residential homes and our drinking water supply. Because many refineries and chemical plants are located in low-lying areas, this added vulnerability is largely carried by already-vulnerable communities of color. These plants also contribute to lower air quality during natural disasters. Industrial facilities in Greater Houston generated an additional 340 tons of toxic air pollution during Hurricane Harvey, at minimum. 

All-in-all, these and other environmental factors negatively impact our physical health. After Hurricane Harvey, 63% of respondents to the Texas Flood Registry reported experiencing at least one negative health symptom such as runny nose, headaches/migraines, problems concentrating, shortness of breath, or skin rash. 

Click here for a deeper exploration of Houston’s natural disaster vulnerabilities

3) Houston’s ability to recover from natural disasters is highly uneven

On their own, natural disasters do not discriminate. They can affect anyone in their path, and the immediate consequences of a hurricane or flood can ripple throughout all corners of the region, even if some groups bear more risk and vulnerability than others. The long-term effects of these disasters are ultimately determined by our region’s ability to recover, and the response we receive from the public and private sector. And while Greater Houston is often recognized for its generosity  — especially in the wake of Hurricane Harvey — the response often leaves Houston’s more vulnerable populations without the assistance they need to fully recover.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) addresses urgent basic needs after disasters through the Individual and Household Program (IHP). When federally declared disasters strike, residents may apply for financial assistance from FEMA to help with essentials. However, those who may need the most financial assistance don’t always get it.

With the exception of Hurricane Rita, homeowners have consistently received more federal assistance than renters, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Following Hurricane Harvey, renters received an average of $2,018 in IHP assistance compared to an average of $6,586 for homeowners. While homeowners are liable for more costs associated with storm damage, nearly half of Houston-area renters are significantly cost-burdened which limits their ability to pay for damages out-of-pocket. This disparity in financial relief can contribute to slower recovery times and the exacerbation of pre-existing wealth and income inequalities

Federal programs aren’t the only resource available to aid natural disaster mitigation and recovery. Local government also plays an important role, although many are dissatisfied with their performance. 

In the three-county area, 74% of residents rate local government efforts to protect Houston homes from flooding as poor-to-fair, with only 5% of surveyed residents rating protection efforts as “excellent.” 

All-in-all, these barriers to recovery ultimately burden economically vulnerable and disadvantaged residents the most, and widen pre-existing inequities and wealth gaps. A recent study found that the wealth gap between Black and White residents in Harris County grew by $87,000 as a result of  impacts from natural disasters. Similarly, 31% of Black Houston-area residents surveyed reported worse quality of life one year after Hurricane Harvey compared to 18% of White residents.

Click here for a deeper exploration of Houston’s natural disaster response and recovery. 

Understanding disasters in Houston can strengthen us for the future

The existence of natural disasters may be beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean that we are powerless against them. By taking the time to understand their risk to and impact on our region, we can be better equipped to prepare for and address the consequences of disasters before they strike, ultimately enabling a smoother recovery toward an opportunity-rich region for all. 

This new Disaster content is just the first stage in an ongoing expansion of the Understanding Houston platform. As a community-driven nonprofit, our mission to connect Houston leaders with the data they need to make informed decisions relies on the action and generosity of people like you. Consider exploring how you can get involved with Understanding Houston, and stay tuned to our social media for new data, insights and program updates. 

Join us February 25th for an in-depth virtual discussion of disasters in Houston! Click here to register

The Year in Review: A Data-Driven Look at Houston’s 2020

In no uncertain terms, 2020 has been one of the most memorable years in our country’s history. And while this year brought challenges that many of us would rather soon forget, we can’t dismiss 2020 in Houston without acknowledging some of the galvanizing moments that both defined our region’s year and served as indicators of its future  — both good and bad. 

In 2020, Greater Houston was at the center of a historic call for racial justice in America; it was a potential target in a record-setting hurricane season; it broke other records in a closely watched election; it continued to evolve and develop new resources for residents, all amidst the terrifying uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Before we all move on to our plans and ambitions for a (hopefully) brighter 2021, let’s take stock of what 2020 meant to Greater Houston.

How COVID-19 impacted Houston, by the numbers

For many, the year 2020 is and always will be inextricably linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like every city across the globe, the Greater Houston region has had to contend with this deadly virus in its own ways, as myriad consequences continue to impact our region as the year draws to a close.  

COVID-19’s spread in Greater Houston

Despite early signs of success in battling the spread of COVID-19, the Greater Houston region emerged as a virus hotspot as the year went on. While mask wearing and social distancing efforts have helped us avoid some worst case scenarios, the virus has still taken an unmistakable toll on our region in the form of deaths, business closures,  job losses, worsened mental health, evictions, and much more. 

Here’s how the virus has hit our region: 

Measuring COVID-19’s impact on Greater Houston

While the many effects of the pandemic will likely take years to fully make themselves known, Greater Houston has already felt severe impacts throughout the region. Between changes in consumer habits, stay-home orders, and shifts in demand, many residents in Greater Houston have lost their jobs, with those who work in restaurants,bars and construction hit hardest. After six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 45% of surveyed Harris County residents reported losing income/employment, according to the Episcopal Health Foundation. As with infections, Black and Hispanic residents in Harris County have been disproportionately impacted by job losses in the wake of COVID-19.

Despite eviction moratoriums enacted early in the pandemic, many Houstonians are still facing eviction. There have been 17,414 eviction filings in Houston between March 15 and December 9, according to data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. That places the fourth-largest city third in the nation for evictions filed during the pandemic, behind New York City and Phoenix. 

Unsurprisingly, all of this has had a negative impact on residents’ mental health, young and old alike. About 44% of surveyed Harris County residents reported worse mental health six months after the pandemic began.

While multiple vaccines are currently on their way to market, the ramifications of these impacts — in addition to consequences that have yet to emerge — will likely be felt throughout our region well into 2021 and beyond. 

A historic partnership to enable quick response

In the face of this public health and economic crisis, we have seen leaders, partners and individuals from all walks of life step up to assist. For the first time, the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston joined forces in March 2020 to establish the Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund, raising $17 million, to help support those in our community impacted by COVID-19 and the resulting economic conditions, with a focus on disproportionately impacted communities and vulnerable populations. 

$17 million to 87 unique nonprofit partners, serving more than 240,000 people so far. 

As of October, nonprofit partners reported serving more than 84,576 households and 245,339 individuals in need with access to food, emergency financial assistance for basic needs and housing, services to prevent homelessness due to evictions and foreclosures, financial and housing counseling, legal assistance, and services for the homeless to help fill public funding gaps. The data show that 87% of households served are very low-income, earning 60% of Area Median Income or less.

The renewed movement for racial justice

No social movement brought more attention to the region or inspired more activism in 2020 than the renewed calls for racial justice. Following the death of native Houstonian George Floyd, in police custody and the similarly unjust deaths of Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, people across the nation joined arms, hosted demonstrations and called for our nation to address racist policies and practices in our police and criminal justice systems. More broadly, this renewed movement inspired a broader call to action to move toward racial justice in all aspects of life to right wrongs past and present.

But it wasn’t the death of George Floyd and others alone that inspired residents to take action. Despite its reputation for diversity, the Greater Houston region has many long-standing issues that contribute to racial injustice and inequality in our own communities.

The following disparities illustrate  only some of the inequalities Black Houstonians have had to contend with in Greater Houston: 

Inspired by these long-standing inequities and the brutal deaths by police that laid them bare this year, Houstonians took to the streets in a moment of collective awakening to speak out against the legacy of racial injustice in our communities.

60,000 people gathered in Houston to demonstrate against racial injustice.

People throughout Houston including politicians, rappers, athletes and police officers gathered in Houston’s downtown to march in honor of George Floyd and to shine a light on the lingering problems of racial inequity, garnering national media attention in the process. And while much work remains to be done, Houston has no shortage of activists, advocates and nonprofit organizations working to ensure a brighter future for Houston’s communities of color

The need for progress doesn’t end with 2020; consider giving to a Black-led organization by visiting Greater Houston Community Foundation’s Giving Guide of Houston’s Black-led Organizations to deepen your commitment to racial justice and support in our community.  

A record-breaking storm season

For many Houston-area residents, flooding and hurricanes have become an unfortunate fact of life. In the past five years alone, our region has faced six federal natural disasters, with 100-year flood events becoming a near annual occurrence. The frequency of these extreme weather events isn’t the only cause for concern — the costs they inspire can be devastating financially, environmentally and psychologically. 

Unfortunately, these storms don’t seem to have been an aberration as the number of extreme precipitation days is projected to increase throughout the Greater Houston area over the next few decades. And if 2020’s record-breaking hurricane season was any indication, these projections are all-too-likely to bear out in the coming years. 

2020 Saw 10 named storms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Houston dodged more than a few proverbial bullets in 2020, to put it lightly. While the 2020 hurricane season was predicted to be busier than usual as early as April, many Houstonians still neglect preparations. In 2018 — just one year after Hurricane Harvey rocked our region — 72% of residents surveyed said they had not done anything to prepare for hurricane season. While it’s too early to say exactly what the 2021 storm season will bring, weathering future storms will require action, planning and awareness from residents and local leaders alike. 

Making history during the 2020 election

Against a backdrop of challenge and uncertainty was one more historic event: the 2020 Presidential Election. While the pandemic presented new questions and challenges related to the safety of voting, Texans and Houstonians were not daunted. Ahead of the election, Texas shattered previous voter registration records by adding more than 1.5 million citizens to voter rolls for a total of 16.6 million registered voters. That early enthusiasm translated into record-breaking turnout, as more Harris County residents participated in early voting than voted in the entire 2016 presidential election. 

1.4 million votes were cast during early voting in Harris County1

Harris County wasn’t the only place where early voter turnout exceeded total turnout in 2016. In Fort Bend County, more than 329,000 people cast their ballots prior to election day, surpassing the total number of votes cast during the 2016 election. Similarly, Montgomery County set a new early voting record with nearly 237,000 votes cast prior to election day, surpassing the total number of votes cast in 2016.  

New sites to visit in Greater Houston

Believe it or not, 2020 in Houston wasn’t all about galvanizing moments. Even with so much uncertainty in the air, Houston’s region became a more vibrant place to live, work and play with three exciting new projects: The Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The Houston Botanic Garden and a massive expansion of Houston favorite Discovery Green.

Let’s break them down by the numbers.

The Nancy and Rich Kinder Building

Long in the making, this new addition to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is the culmination of more than a decade of planning and construction and features a variety of classic and contemporary art. 

The details

  • The nation’s largest cultural construction project in a decade
  • The result of more than 15 years of planning and construction
  • 237,000 Sq. Feet of art from around the world

The Houston Botanic Garden

Houston is known for many things; nature and plant life aren’t exactly chief among them. But with the new Houston Botanic Garden, that may all change. Somewhere in between a public park, an outdoor museum and a community garden, the Botanic Garden hosts a variety of plants and vegetation, including species that have never grown in Houston before.

The details: 

  • Six unique zones spread across 132 acres of land
  • 350 species of plants, all of which can flourish in the Houston climate.
  • 2.5 miles of walking trails 
  • Two natural ecosystem areas, the Coastal Prairie and Stormweather Wetlands

Discovery Green Expansion

While much of Houston stays inside to aid social distancing efforts, the team at Discovery Green Conservancy is hard at work making sure Houstonians will have plenty to do in the years to come. Thanks to a $12 million upgrade, one of Houston’s favorite parks will have even more to offer visitors in the years to come.

The details

  • A brand new “house of cards” made up of 126 lighted playing cards
  • A five-year public art program
  • A brand new public playground

Here to help Houston understand what lies ahead

Projections and predictions aside, no one can truly say what 2021 holds for Houston. But whatever trends impact our region in the coming year, Understanding Houston is here to add data-driven insights and context to the issues that matter in our communities. 

We invite you to join us for the year ahead — follow us on social media, subscribe to or share our newsletter and find out how you can get involved for the year ahead.

1Source: Texas Secretary of State

Houstonians’ Experiences with Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Analyzing major challenges facing vulnerable populations

For many residents in the greater Houston area, two recent disasters have had lasting impact on their lives — Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 pandemic. The former dumped up to 60 inches of unrelenting rain that devastated neighborhood after neighborhood. COVID-19, of course, has hit the entire world and filled hospitals and unemployment rolls, including in our region.

Although a hurricane and a pandemic are very different crises, the lives they upend are often the same. The many negative economic, environmental and public health impacts of disasters exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities in these areas. In other words, those who are vulnerable before a catastrophic event are much more impacted during the disaster event and will likely continue to suffer long after it is over.

To provide policymakers, funders and stakeholders with reliable information about the impact of these disasters on Texans and inform their relief and recovery efforts, the Episcopal Health Foundation, in partnership with several research and funding collaborators, conducted public opinion surveys of Texans in 24 affected counties (for Hurricane Harvey) and the state (for the pandemic).1 Both surveys explored the disaster’s effects on income/employment, healthcare and mental health among various populations. Consistent with established research, findings from both surveys reveal that lower-income, non-white and undocumented communities are disproportionately impacted by these disasters.2

How Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19 impact income and employment 

Beyond the collateral damage disasters leave in their wake, the myriad disruptions to infrastructure, economic/market activity, access to resources and more can cause substantial job loss — either temporarily or more long-term. In the months following Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19, many residents throughout Harris County and the state lost income and/or employment. (Loss includes someone in their household lost a job, lost their business, had hours/wages cut back at work, or experienced some other loss of income, including furloughed, as a result of disaster.)

Nearly half of Texas Gulf Coast residents affected by Hurricane Harvey reported income and/or employment losses three months after the event. Meanwhile, nearly four in 10 Texans reported similar effects six months after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Effects in Harris County appear more pronounced as a higher percentage of respondents reported income and/or employment losses over these two time periods. 

While a direct comparison between surveys of income/job loss by household income is difficult due to the questions’ wording, the Hurricane Harvey report found that respondents with lower incomes were much more likely to experience income/employment loss than those with higher incomes. Across the 24 affected counties, 59% of respondents with incomes at or below the federal poverty level (FPL) reported income or job loss compared to 50% of those between 100%-200% FPL, 48% of those 200%-400% FPL, and 29% of those more than four times the FPL. Data from the Census Bureau finds that low-income adults are among those hit hardest financially by COVID-19.

Both surveys also reveal consistent disparities across race/ethnicity. Following existing trends in poverty and income inequality, Hispanics consistently bore the largest economic impact during these disasters, followed by Black Texans. In Harris County, a staggering 82% of Hispanic respondents reported income and employment loss three months after Hurricane Harvey and 43% reported similar losses six months after the pandemic began. 

In both the Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19 reports, we paid special attention to the experiences of those who are potentially undocumented immigrants. For our purposes, Texans who were not born in the U.S., did not have permanent resident status when they moved to the U.S., or who have not had their status changed since, were considered potentially undocumented immigrants. This population has lower job security and typically does not qualify for or access many governmental benefits which increases their vulnerability to economic shocks from a disaster.

About nine in 10 potentially undocumented residents affected by Hurricane Harvey in the region had experienced job/income loss three months after the storm. About half of potentially undocumented residents reported job/income loss six months after the pandemic began. In the Hurricane Harvey report, six in 10 potentially undocumented immigrants worried that they will draw attention to their or their family’s immigration status if they seek assistance. 

How Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19 impact health care in Texas

Lost income and strained resources often force people to make difficult decisions regarding their expenses, which can cause people to delay or forego health care in the period following a crisis — especially if they have lost health insurance. Not surprising given the income/employment losses, many Houston and Texas residents chose to skip or delay health care in the months that followed both Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19.

Texans skipped or delayed health care at a higher rate during COVID-19 than in the first three months after Hurricane Harvey. These differences are consistent across both the state/region and Harris County, and may be explained by personal health and safety concerns associated with visiting doctor offices during a pandemic. 

The COVID-19 report finds that 44% of Texans with incomes above $75,000 a year skipped or delayed health care compared to 31% of respondents with incomes below $75,000. This  is  likely  because higher-income households tend to have higher rates of health insurance  coverage, allowing for greater access to health care that preceded the pandemic.

The mental health impacts of Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19

Disasters in any form take a toll on our individual and collective health. The fear and worry of potential or actual financial and personal loss from a disaster can have serious emotional impacts — including PTSD, anxiety, depression and others. The impacts on our mental health can be as severe and long-lasting as the more visible physical and economic damage, and in some cases more so. 

The pandemic appears to have had worse effects on mental health than Hurricane Harvey. Close to half of Texans and Harris County residents said the worry or stress related to COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health. Three months after Hurricane Harvey, 13% of Texans and 12% of Harris County residents reported that their mental health worsened as a result of the storm. This difference is likely due to the time-limited nature of Hurricane Harvey and that some neighborhoods were more affected than others.

Key takeaways and what comes next

Aside from the obvious differences between these two major crises, the findings from both surveys reinforce the fact that lower-income, non-white and undocumented populations are more likely to experience financial hardships and have a harder time coping with both disasters than their peers.

These findings signal that public- and private-sector leaders need to do more to address economic, health and mental health needs related to the pandemic, particularly for our region’s most vulnerable residents. We must pay attention to the needs of a group that is critical to our region’s local economy, workforce, and social fabric — undocumented immigrants. As both surveys show, they are suffering even more than their peers during COVID-19. Policymakers and philanthropy should devise long-term assistance, relief and rebuilding strategies to assist these vulnerable populations.

1. See An Early Assessment of Hurricane Harvey’s Impact on Vulnerable Texans in the Gulf Coast Region, Texans’ Views on the COVID Pandemic and Texans’ Views on the COVID-19 Pandemic in Harris County.

2. In discussing some common threads of these reports, we should note that Hurricane Harvey is a one-time natural disaster event that impacted 41 counties in Southeast Texas while the COVID-19 pandemic is both a global and national public health emergency that continues to impact the entire state. Nonetheless, it is useful to compare the data relating to how these events have impacted the vulnerable populations in Texas and Harris County. 

Children’s Mental Health in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Understanding and supporting our most vulnerable youth

The impact of COVID-19 on the Greater Houston community has been, and continues to be, unpredictable. However, there is one thing we know with certainty — the pandemic is affecting children’s mental health. Adults and children alike feel the psychological impact of the pandemic, which often includes anxiety about the possibility of becoming infected and/or infecting others, the significant economic toll on families who have lost jobs, and decisions regarding whether and how to send children back to school. Social distancing can also make us feel more socially isolated, depressed, and lonely. In fact, we know that social support is a major protective factor when facing adversity — one that is now missing for many children and families.1

It is also important to recognize that most of these reactions are completely normative in the context of the pandemic. And in fact, small amounts of anxiety can actually be adaptive and protective. To some degree, this is what helps us to feel compelled to wash our hands and practice social distancing. Too much anxiety, on the other hand, can cause significant distress and lead to further psychological issues. 

COVID-19’s psychological effects on children

Children may be at particularly high risk for longer term anxiety and depression as a result of the pandemic. They are often highly attuned to their parents’ own reactions; however, they may lack the cognitive ability, insight, or support to effectively express and process their feelings. In addition, the return to school, either virtually or in person, can have its own set of psychological consequences. For example, we have heard children who recently returned to in-person learning worry, “What if I get sick? What if I end up getting mom or dad sick, how will they take care of me?” We have also heard children participating in remote learning say, “Sometimes I feel invisible. I’m not sure if anyone remembers that I’m even there.” 

Increased anxiety and depression 

Although there have been few rigorous research studies examining the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health, we know from a recent review of studies from other countries that children and adolescents appear to be experiencing high rates of anxiety and depression.2 

How children manifest these symptoms can vary widely depending on the child’s age and developmental stage. For example, preschool-aged children may appear to be “clingy” with caregivers and become distressed at even brief separations. They may also show developmental regressions (e.g., eating, speech/language delays, toileting), increased oppositional behavior, and increased tearfulness. School-aged children may develop new fears or worries, such as fear of the dark, being alone or loud noises. They may also have difficulties sleeping, nightmares, increased irritability, and somatic complaints (headaches, stomach aches). Adolescents may exhibit similar problems, and are also likely to demonstrate lethargy or apathy, social withdrawal (isolating themselves in their room), increased moodiness or hopelessness about the future.

Worsened outcomes for children with pre-existing risks 

The psychological impact of the pandemic on children is closely intertwined with other preexisting risks and protective factors. For example, children may be more at risk for psychological and behavioral problems, including school-related outcomes, if they had preexisting mental health issues and/or had experienced prior traumas or losses. One of our studies conducted prior to the pandemic showed that bereavement was the strongest predictor of poor school outcomes (e.g., poor school grades, increased school drop-out, lack of school connectedness) among adolescents above and beyond any other form of trauma, including physical abuse, sexual abuse and/or witnessing domestic violence.3 This is particularly relevant for children in our underserved Black and Latino communities where we are seeing higher rates of pandemic-related deaths.4 

For children with histories of trauma or loss, certain aspects of the pandemic can serve as trauma reminders (people, places or situations that remind the child of a prior traumatic event), leading to symptoms of post-traumatic stress. For example, seeing or hearing about individuals dying from COVID-19 can bring back disturbing thoughts or images of how other loved ones may have suffered or died. A twelve-year old girl who experienced the death of her mother to cancer began to complain of heart palpitations and nausea every time she saw a news story that involved COVID-19 patients in the hospital. “It makes me feel like her death is happening all over again. Just seeing the hospital gowns and doctors rushing into the room — I start to feel sick to my stomach.”

Children’s grief in the context of the pandemic

Over 215,000 Americans have died as a result of COVID-19 at the time of publication. A recent study estimated that nine family members are affected by one person who dies of the coronavirus.5 This means that nearly two million individuals (including children) are grieving. Unfortunately, these numbers are growing, even within our own Greater Houston community, and even more rapidly among our Black and Latino families. The context in which the deaths are occurring (e.g., social distancing that prevents in-person, ongoing support and collective mourning) makes the grief-related impact even more pronounced, particularly for children and adolescents.

After a death, concerned parents and caregivers often ask, what should I expect from my child? What is considered a “normal” grief reaction? This is a difficult question to answer given that grief is influenced by a host of factors including the child’s age/developmental stage, prior traumas/losses, culture, religious/spiritual beliefs, family environment, and circumstances of the death, just to name a few. Our work with bereaved youth has shown us that children tend to grapple with three primary bereavement-related challenges: separation distress, existential/identity distress, and circumstance-related distress.6,7

Separation distress can take the form of really missing the person who died and yearning and longing to have them back. Existential or identity distress includes feeling lost without the person or unsure of how life will go on without the person’s physical presence. Circumstance-related distress involves excessive worries or concerns about the way the person died, such as guilt or shame or anger about what caused the person to die. 

At the same time, it is helpful to recognize that there is such thing as “good grief”, in that children and adolescents can and do find healthy ways of coping with each of these bereavement-related challenges.6 For example, when facing separation distress, children often engage in behaviors or activities that help them to feel connected to the person who died either by doing the same things that they used to enjoy doing with the person, memorializing them or identifying personality traits or interests that they had in common. 

When facing existential/identity distress, youth can often find ways to carry on the legacy of the person who died or ensure that they’re living the kind of life that the person would have wanted for them. 

And when facing circumstance-related distress, children naturally gravitate toward finding ways to transform the circumstances of the death into something meaningful so that people can avoid suffering in the same way.8 For example, a ten year-old boy who lost his mother to breast cancer said, “I try to raise money every year for the breast cancer walk so that other kids don’t have to go through what I went through.” Or a fourteen year-old girl who lost her sibling in a car accident said, “I want to become an ER doctor so that I can save kids’ lives. I don’t want other kids to die like my brother did.”

What can we do to help children during COVID-19?

Although the pandemic may feel out of control, there are things that we, as adults and caregivers, can do to help children who may be struggling with strong emotions.

Addressing anxiety

Help children to recognize what they CAN and DO control.
While we may not be able to control what’s happening in our environment, we can control our own proactive efforts to stop the spread of the virus through physical distancing, wearing a mask and hand washing. Help children to feel empowered by “choosing” the ways in which they are helping themselves and their family to stay safe. We can also help to monitor and control children’s exposure to graphic news stories about the pandemic.

  • Encourage emotional awareness.
    Children have an easier time coping with their own emotions when they are encouraged to observe and identify them, as opposed to trying to push them away or hide them. This often requires the help and support of a caring adult to label feelings and normalize their reactions. For example, a parent might say, “It looks like you might be feeling nervous about going back to school. That’s totally normal and understandable, and sometimes it can help to talk about it. What can you tell me about how you’re feeling right now?”
  • Teach breathing exercises
    Breathing exercises can help to reduce the physiological aspects of anxiety by helping to reduce heart rate and blood pressure. Children and adolescents can easily implement these exercises when they’re feeling stressed. This is very effective for adults as well.
    • Breathe in through the nose for a count of 4 seconds.
    • Hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds.
    • Exhale through the mouth for the count of 8 seconds.
    • Repeat the cycle 4-8 times as needed.
  • Embrace enjoyable activities
    Sometimes a little distraction can go a long way to reduce anxiety or stress. Caregivers can help children by identifying activities that they might enjoy, whether it’s going for a walk, watching a favorite tv show, or calling a friend or family member.

Addressing sadness or depressive symptoms

  • Shift focus to a better future: Help children recognize that the pandemic is temporary (even though it may seem like it’s going to last forever) and it will eventually come to an end.
  • Emphasize gratitude: Introduce the idea of practicing gratitude by helping children write in a journal or on paper three things that they’re grateful for each day. This can also become an end-of-day activity that the whole family participates in together.
  • Find a support network: For adolescents who may be less comfortable confiding in their parents, help them to identify at least one person who they can check in with each day – someone who can be a listening ear and offer comfort or support.

Addressing Grief

Caregivers often shy away from discussing the death of a loved one with children, as they tend to worry that they’re somehow “planting a seed” or raising concerns where there aren’t any. On the contrary, what we’ve learned is that children feel understood and validated when caregivers openly discuss the person’s death.9 It is helpful to use simple, developmentally appropriate language and let the child guide the conversation whenever possible. For example, a parent might say “I know Grandma’s death can feel confusing or upsetting, especially since we couldn’t be there to say goodbye to her. What kinds of questions or worries do you have? I would really like to hear how you’re feeling.”

To address separation distress (yearning or longing for the person who died):

  • Help children find ways to feel connected to the person who died, which can include looking at photos or videos of the person together, memorializing the person by lighting a candle or planting flowers in their honor, or engaging in activities that the person really enjoyed.
  • If children were not able to say goodbye prior to the person’s death, it can help to write a letter to the person that includes everything they would have wanted to say to them.
  • If at all possible, give children an opportunity to hold onto something tangible that reminds them of the person, like a necklace or a photo.
  • Talk about the person who died – say their name often, talk about positive memories, encourage the child to share stories about the person.

To address existential or identity distress, (when we feel like our lives are permanently altered or we don’t know who we are anymore):

  • Help children identify all of the positive traits or characteristics they have in common with the person who died and discuss how they can carry on the legacy of the person by focusing on those traits and behaviors.
  • Help children think about what the person would have wanted for them. How can they live their life in a way that honors the person’s memory?

To address circumstance-related distress, (being very preoccupied with unhelpful thoughts about the circumstances of the death):

  • If the death is due to COVID-19, help children identify the ways in which we are coming together as a society to try to tackle this problem and things they are already doing to prevent the spread of the virus.
  • Often the circumstance-related distress stems from unanswered questions or concerns that children have about the way the person died (e.g., Did they suffer? Were they sad or scared?). . It can be helpful for children to ask the questions they have, or if it’s too difficult to express them out loud, they can write questions on a sheet of paper. Use simple and straightforward language to answer the questions without going into excessive detail. For more complicated questions, it can be helpful to have children speak to a physician who can provide information in developmentally appropriate terms that they will understand.

Know When to Seek Additional Help 

  • Although most children will be resilient and even grow and learn from this pandemic, we also know that a number of youth will require more than just parental support. Below are what we would consider “red flags” that may indicate that a child requires a more thorough evaluation and possibly therapy:
  • Functional impairment: For younger children this can look like behavioral regressions or significant changes in behavior like extreme aggression or extreme fear to the point where a child refuses to leave a caregiver’s side. For older children, this can involve trouble getting out of bed in the morning, constant tearfulness or extreme withdrawal.
  • Dangerous behaviors: Excessive risk-taking behaviors, alcohol use, or drug use in adolescents should also be considered concerning.
  • Obsessive behaviors: Hand washing is encouraged, but if children reach a point where they become visibly distressed when they are not washing their hands or if it feels excessive, this is something to explore further.
  • Self-harm or suicidal tendencies: Any expression of a wish to die or hurt themselves likely requires an evaluation with a therapist.

There are now plenty of telehealth options across the U.S. where children can be seen virtually by a therapist. You can either call your pediatrician or a mental health provider in your area to see what might be available, and there is good evidence to suggest that teletherapy is just as effective in reducing distress as in-person therapy.10

In addition, Texas Health and Human Services has launched a 24/7 statewide mental health support line operated by the Harris Center. Individuals who are experiencing distress due to COVID-19 can call 833-986-1919 at any hour of the day to speak with a mental health professional.

Although the pandemic has, in many ways, created more social isolation, it has also helped to raise awareness about the importance of mental health and well-being for our youth. Collectively, we have the ability to help children identify and address difficult emotions and come through the pandemic with even more skills to cope with whatever life throws their way.

Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP, is executive director of The Trauma and Grief Center (TAG) Center at The Hackett Center for Mental Health. The TAG Center raises the standard of care and increases access to best practice care among youth who have experienced trauma and bereavement.


  1. Hostinar, C. E., Sullivan, R. M., & Gunnar, M. R. (2014). Psychobiological mechanisms underlying the social buffering of the HPA axis: A review of animal models and human studies across development. Psychological Bulletin, 140(1), 256-82. doi: 10.1037/a0032671.
  2. Wagner, K. D. (October, 2020). New findings about children’s mental health during COVID-19. Psychiatric Times.
  3.  Oosterhoff, B., Kaplow, J. B., & Layne, C. (2018). Links between bereavement due to sudden death and academic functioning: Results from a nationally representative sample of adolescents. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(3), 372–380.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020). COVID-19 hospitalization and death by race/ethnicity. Report can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/investigations-discovery/hospitalization-death-by-race-ethnicity.html
  5. Verdery, A.M., Smith-Greenaway, E., Margolis, R., & Daw, J. (2020). Tracking the reach of COVID-19 loss with a bereavement multiplier applied to the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117 (30), 17695-17701.
  6. Kaplow, J.B., Layne, C.M., Saltzman, W.R., Cozza, S.J., & Pynoos, R.S. (2013). Using Multidimensional Grief Theory to explore effects of deployment, reintegration, and death on military youth and families. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 16, 322-340.
  7. Layne, C.M., Kaplow, J.B., Oosterhoff, B., Hill, R., & Pynoos, R. (2017). The interplay of trauma and bereavement in adolescence: Integrating pioneering work and recent advancements. Adolescent Psychiatry, 7(4), 266-285.
  8. Kaplow, J.B., Layne, C.M., & Pynoos, R.S. (2019). Treatment of Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder in children and adolescents. In M. Prinstein, E. Youngstrom, E. Mash, & R. Barkley (Eds), Treatment of disorders in childhood and adolescence (4th ed., pp. 560-590) New York, NY: Guilford Publications, Inc.
  9. Shapiro, D., Howell, K., & Kaplow, J. (2014). Associations among mother-child communication quality, childhood maladaptive grief, and depressive symptoms. Death Studies, 38(3), 172-178.
  10. Boydell, K.M., Hodgins, M., Pignatiello, A., Teshima, J., Edwards, H., & Willis, D. (2014). Using technology to deliver mental health services to children and youth: A scoping review. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 23(2), 87-99.

Additional Resources:

Key insights from our webinar on housing inequities

Housing in Houston has become less affordable, and low-income households bear the greatest burden

In partnership with Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the Greater Houston Community Foundation hosted a Housing Inequities program on October 20 to educate and engage donors and community partners on inequities in housing affordability, supply, and vulnerability in greater Houston. 

The webinar featured Maria Aguirre-Borrero, Avenue; Jonathan Brooks, LINK Houston; Paul Charles, Neighborhood Recovery CDC; Anne Gatling Hayne, Houston Land Bank; Zoe Middleton, Texas Housers; and Kyle Shelton, Kinder Institute.

During this informative session, we explored a variety of crucial data and valuable perspectives; these are the three core insights driving the conversation on Housing in Greater Houston. 

We invite you to watch the full presentation here.

Houston housing is not as affordable as we’ve been told

Houston’s “legendary” reputation for affordability has fueled the region’s record-setting population growth over the past few decades. However, Greater Houston has become more expensive in recent years, primarily because of housing costs. Home prices and rent have grown much faster than wages and income, and there is a lack of affordable and healthy housing for low- and moderate-income families.

Home values in each of Greater Houston’s three most populous counties have increased at a faster rate than in the nation overall. Between 2010 and 2017, median home values rose 33% in Fort Bend County, 31% in Montgomery County and 17% in Harris County, compared to 7% nationally. 

Rent is rising for renters, too. Median rents climbed faster in both Fort Bend and Montgomery counties than in Harris County, Texas, and the nation in that same time period.

Renters and homeowners in Greater Houston have been facing increased housing costs for the last several years. 

The housing affordability gap measures the difference between the price of an affordable home for a median-income household (i.e., no more than 30% of income) and the median sales price for a home in the area. The affordability gap in Harris County widened between 2011 and 2018, according to the 2020 State of Housing in Harris County and Houston from the Kinder Institute. 

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2011 and 2018, and Houston Association of Realtors

In 2018, a household with median income of $60,146 could afford a $186,300 home in Harris County. But the median home price was $220,000. This $33,700 gap is the difference between what households at the middle income level can afford and what is available. Among renters, the affordability gap stretches to $93,500.

Zoe Middleton from Texas Housers illustrated how low-income households are constrained by both rising rents and stagnant wages. Citing data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Zoe explained that a person earning minimum wage would need to work 96 hours per week to afford a fair market rate (FMR) one-bedroom apartment in Harris County, 116 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom, and 156 hours per week for a three-bedroom.

As home prices push more families out of the market, the number of renters in the region has grown. This trend has significant implications because renters are more likely to be cost burdened than homeowners due to their lower median incomes compared to homeowners. In the three-county Houston area, 46% of renters spend at least 30% of their income on housing compared to 21% of homeowners. Renters are three times as likely to spend at least half their income on housing as homeowners. 

Cost-Burdened Renter Households by Income Level, Harris County, 2018

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2010 and 2018

The burden weighs heavier for those with low incomes. Households with incomes less than $50,000 in Harris County are significantly cost burdened. This disparity is most striking for households that earn less than $30,000. The overwhelming majority (93%) of households that earn between $10,000 and $20,000 in Harris County spend at least 30% of their income on housing compared to 18% of households with incomes between $50,000 and $75,000.

“In the three-county Houston area, renters are three times more likely than homeowners to spend at least half their income on housing.”

Lack of affordable and safe housing in Houston is costly

Houston, like many other large metros, does not have sufficient supply of affordable, safe and healthy housing — particularly for households with low incomes — but even for median-income earners. “The stock is skewed towards single family or very large multifamily,” Kyle Shelton from the Kinder Institute explains. “Houston struggles to provide the missing middle — smaller multifamily units that are typically more affordable.” 

New housing construction trends indicate a growing supply of future multi-family units, but those tend to be higher-priced. Meanwhile, existing affordable units are in decline.

Renter-occupied Housing Units by Gross Rent, Harris County, 2010 and 2018

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2010 and 2018

In 2010 in Harris County, there was more availability among units with lower rent. However, in 2018, the supply of units with lower rent fell while units with rent above $1,500 per month surged. 

Houston struggles to provide the missing middle — smaller multifamily units that are typically more affordable.” 

Greater Houston’s housing crisis “has been going on for a while, but has hit an inflection point,” Anne Gatling Hayne from the Texas Land Bank states. 

We already see the consequences. 

About 3,600 individuals experienced homelessness in 2019, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. While that number is half of what it was in 2011, progress has plateaued recently.

Harris County has led the nation in evictions over the past two decades, and the number of evictions in the region remains higher compared to other metros since COVID-19’s onset — another consequence of the region’s housing crisis.  “[Evictions] destabilize households and the overall housing system in the region,” Shelton warns.

Homeownership is still the most significant way to build wealth — the kind that can be transferred to future generations and compounded. Barriers to homeownership not only rob families of current and future wealth, but also they weaken communities through decades of disinvestment. 

The fact that the majority of predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods in the region are located in areas characterized by older, lower-quality housing is the legacy of racial segregation in Houston. Twentieth century legal federal housing policies and banks denied mortgage and maintenance loans for homes located in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods. This trend of devaluing Black property continues today, Paul Charles from Neighborhood Recovery CDC clarified, which accelerates disrepair, sharing a powerful story and concluding: “So does redlining still exist?… Yes. Redlining still occurs. Redlining shows up in mortgage loans, appraisals, and insurance…which leads to devaluation of personal and community wealth.”

For these reasons and more, combined with slower recovery after the Great Recession and recent natural disasters, Black homeownership rates are the lowest in the region, and fell to 41% in 2017 from 46% in 2010. For comparison, the homeownership rate for White households is 71%.

The intersection of rising home prices/rents and stagnant incomes for low-income households makes neighborhoods more vulnerable to gentrification. This can lead to the displacement of long-term residents and even threaten homeownership. Black communities in Harris County are among the most susceptible to gentrification, according to the State of Housing report.

Environmental and climate change is crucial to consider as insufficient healthy and safe housing negatively impacts resident health. Majority-Black neighborhoods report worse air and water quality, higher temperatures, and increased susceptibility to flooding.

Higher housing costs increase transportation costs

Jonathan Brooks from LINK Houston emphasizes that transportation is the ultimate “shared interest” of housing. It literally connects us to opportunities, people, and places, which is why transportation equity and affordability is crucial to housing. A community’s transportation infrastructure, or built environment, should include high quality, safe, accessible sidewalks, bikeways, streets, transit stops, and drainage.

Because housing is taking up a larger share of incomes, many “choose” to live farther from the traditional center of the region’s economic hub, the city of Houston proper in Harris County. Given Houston’s geographic reach, this results in substantial transportation costs.

Fort Bend residents spend 60% of their income on housing and transportation alone. That’s a larger chunk than what families in Los Angeles County — notorious for its expensive housing market and lengthy commutes — spend.

How we can work together to solve Houston’s housing issues 

It’s easy to get lost in the numbers. Maria Aguirre-Borrero from Avenue grounded the conversation in why housing matters. She shared a story about a 31-year old man whose greatest hope is to live in the same community in which he was raised. But, that dream seems intangible given his low income and college expenses. Reluctantly, he and his family are thinking of moving somewhere else more affordable or living together in overcrowded living conditions–another housing issue where the three-county region trends more poorly than Texas and the nation.

Housing is inherently about community. When diverse and rich communities are displaced, or when people have less money for essentials like education, food, healthcare or savings because housing and transportation costs cannibalize incomes, we will continue to see more housing vulnerability. The good news is, many smart and dedicated people and organizations are working to reverse negative trends.

Here are some of the steps we can all take to help improve access to housing in Greater Houston: 

Continue to learn and explore housing in Houston and how it intersects with other issues like transportation. Our panelists recommend the following (not exhaustive or in any particular order):

Celebrating Houston’s Hispanic Heritage: 11 Latino Community Leaders Making a Difference Today

Meet Latino community leaders who are forging a brighter path for Houston

Houston heritage is Hispanic heritage. The remarkable contributions of Houston’s Hispanic community can be felt in nearly every square inch of our sprawling region, forming a trajectory that aligns closely with our region’s future. 

Within the next ten years, Hispanic/Latino* residents are projected to make up over half of the Greater Houston-area population, and as their presence increases, so too does their impact in our communities. Latino leaders are making vital contributions in nearly every aspect of Houston life — from speaking out for human rights and immigrant protections, to advocating for educational equity, to contributing to our arts and culture, to empowering communities of color through organizing and entrepreneurship.

When it comes to making Houston a more vibrant, opportunity-rich region, these leaders are blazing new trails. An important note: We recognize that this list is far from exhaustive. If you know of a leader or organization that we should cover, please let us know

Celesté Arredondo-Peterson

Campaign Director at Texas Organizing Project – Houston

Celesté Arredondo-Peterson, Campaign Director at Texas Organizing Project – Houston

As our region continues to grow, access to quality housing remains an issue for new and established residents alike. More than one-third of Houston’s three-county area population does not live in adequate or affordable housing, and the problem is only getting worse — especially for Houston’s Black and Hispanic residents.

Fortunately, people like Celesté Arredondo-Peterson and the Housing Justice team at Texas Organizing Project are working tirelessly to ensure that Black and Latino communities have access to the safe housing conditions that can help residents achieve their dreams and reach their fullest potential. 

“Texas Organizing Project has been organizing with Black and Latino communities in Houston for 10 years. I like to think of community organizers as power paleontologists; it’s our job to unearth the power that exists in our communities…together we can demand the American dream we were sold.”

For Celesté, these dreams and ambitions are more than just vague notions. She takes the time to hear residents in underserved communities and sees the potential that lies inside each and every one of them. “I spend a lot of time on people’s porches … their living rooms, talking to people about the things they care about. Their hopes and dreams for their families and what they want out of life,” says Celesté of her work in Houston’s Black and Latino neighborhoods. “The people I talk to have often been kicked in the teeth by a hurricane or the criminal legal system… (But) they remain hopeful that things can be different, that people can change and that their community will be there for them — because history has shown that to be true.”

Moving forward, Celesté and TOP have their sights set toward Washington, D.C. as they continue the fight for better Houston-area housing. “In Houston, we are building a movement of tenants who can demand the kind of housing solutions that our families so desperately need. And on January 20, 2021 we will join a nationwide call to action for our nation’s leaders to do their job and take the necessary steps to ensure the working people of this country aren’t left behind during this economic disaster.”

Andy Canales

Executive Director of Greater Houston at Latinos for Education

Andy Canales, Executive Director of Greater Houston at Latinos for Education 

Hispanic/Latino students are the future of Houston schools. Today, more than half of Houston-area public school enrollees are Hispanic, and with nearly half of Houston-area children under the age of five being Hispanic, that trend isn’t likely to change any time soon. As such, it’s vital that Houston’s education leaders reflect their student bodies, and that Latinos are in positions of influence in the education sector. 

As the Executive Director of Greater Houston for Latinos for Education, Andy Canales is dedicated to ensuring that Houston’s world-famous diversity translates into world-leading opportunities for students of all backgrounds. 

“We, at Latinos for Education, deeply believe that representation matters and that our solutions in education can be even more effective if we incorporate the Latino voice in decision-making,” says Canales of his work in Houston. “We equip more Latino leaders to be at the forefront of education change by training and placing them on boards of education nonprofit organizations and helping those that work inside the education sector to increase their sphere of influence.”

Since beginning their work in Houston in 2018, Latinos for Education has helped to develop 70 Latino leaders in the education sector, as they aim to establish a stronger infrastructure for Latino voices in Houston-area education programs. But Andy’s ambitions for his work aren’t limited to the Hispanic community. “One of our core values at Latinos for Education is ‘Bridge Across Cultures.’ We see value in knowledge, relationships, and ideas that may be different than our own. We seek to learn, grow, and become more inclusive with others in a multicultural world.”

Raúl Orlando Edwards

Founder/Director at FLAMART

Raúl Orlando Edwards, Founder/Director at FLAMART

Community access to the arts is about more than just entertainment. The arts inspire community pride, spur economic activity, and can even improve education outcomes. And while Houston may be home to several world-class arts and culture organizations, not everyone is able to participate equally. While 75% of surveyed Hispanic Houstonians say they view the arts as important, only 40% report being able to attend an artistic performance in the last year. Similarly, Hispanics represent a small percentage of artistic professionals across our region’s creative sector.

It was in this gap between interest and engagement that Raúl Orlando Edwards founded FLAMART (Featuring Latin American Music and ART). FLAMART is dedicated to promoting Latin American voices in the arts through a variety of innovative programming, including dance, music, festivals and more. “I would like to see a city that honors the traditions and histories of its people,” says Edwards of his goals for FLAMART. “Our goal is to exemplify the cultures that make up Houston and find solutions to problems.” 

“The reason my organization came to be was because we saw that there was an incredible void in the way Latin American arts was being represented in Houston; there was very little recognition of the African part of Latin America and to the indigenous regions there as well. One of the things we noticed was how those groups were represented and so we decided to do something where all of these cultures were represented with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Despite the gulf in representation, Raúl has found in Houston a rich tapestry of multicultural exchange, and is inspired by Latino trailblazers like Alice Valdéz and Luz Mouton. Moving forward, Edwards and his fellow artists at FLAMART are working to expand their annual Latin Week Houston event, and hope to continue sharing these experiences in-person as soon as they can.

Marilu Garza

Chief Development Officer at The Center for Pursuit

Marilu Garza, Chief Development Officer at The Center for Pursuit

We often speak of Houston as a welcoming and inclusive region. Living up to that reputation means respecting the rights and needs of people with disabilities. Just one sign that we have work to do in our education system alone is a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Education, which found that the Texas Education Agency capped the statewide percentage of students who received special education services in order to control costs. Not only are there challenges, there are opportunities to support adults and children with disabilities on their journey of choice, growth, and independence.

That is where Marilu Garza and The Center for Pursuit continue to provide support. “With a brand new campus being built in the East End, we will bring together other groups in this area as collaborators who can work together to give these clients a true shot of choice, independence and growth, and serve as a voice for those who have a voice but whose voice is not always heard.”

“We want to help families continue to navigate through the difficult waters that lie ahead of them as they attempt to find services in the areas of health, education, employment, and living situations for their children,” says Marilu of her work with The Center for Pursuit.

Marilu had a granddaughter born this year on March 23, and her vision for her and all children and adults in the Houston area is that they continue to live in a city with increasing opportunity for all. She believes that Houston is a place that can continue down this path toward growth and inclusivity.

“I am always amazed by our resilience. We can be knocked down but rarely are we out. We respond by reaching out to help our neighbors. When COVID-19 became a reality, we made sure that our elderly were taken care of, that our homeless were safe, and that our front-line workers were honored for this service. I, like so many others, remain HOUSTON PROUD!”

Estella Gonzalez

Director of Education and Economic Opportunity at BakerRipley

Estella Gonzalez, Director of Education and Economic Opportunity at BakerRipley

Houston may struggle with economic inequality, but the Houstonian spirit of giving and the hard work of everyday residents supports our region’s rise above our challenges. It’s this spirit of giving that inspires Estella Gonzalez and her partners at BakerRipley to work tirelessly for a more opportunity-rich Houston. 

“BakerRipley inspires positive change by truly working side-by-side with community members… We believe that the most important assets in a community are the residents — they are capable and powerful enough to create meaningful change in their neighborhood, we simply give them a safe space to do it in, and support them along the way. Although the organization has been around for longer than a century, it hasn’t changed its mission of bringing resources, education, and connection to emerging neighborhoods.”

Most recently, Estella spearheaded a social enterprise project in Houston’s Aldine community, helping to develop small businesses in the area through the establishment of a commercial kitchen, a business incubator, and a co-working space. Though the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic requires flexibility in planning for the future, Estella is “…focusing on making sure we continue to provide quality programs that our community needs and that my staff are taking care of themselves at the same time” and remains inspired by her fellow Houstonians.

“The way Houstonians help each other is inspiring. Ask anyone about what it was like during Hurricane Harvey and you are sure to get stories about homes being destroyed and lives uprooted, but know what else you will hear about? Neighbors helping neighbors. It didn’t matter where you lived, there were Houstonians showing up in Fifth Ward and Kingwood to help clear out homes and just lend a helping hand.”

James Llamas

Principal at Traffic Engineers, Inc. and Board Member of LINK Houston

James Llamas, Principal at Traffic Engineers, Inc. and Board Member of LINK Houston

It’s no wonder that Houston has developed a reputation as a “car town.” Households in Greater Houston have higher rates of car ownership than the national rate, contributing to an annual congestion-associated cost of $1,490 per vehicle. While some have become complacent, James Llamas and his partners at LINK Houston and Traffic Engineers, Inc. are advocates for safer, equitable and more diverse transportation options for residents throughout the Greater Houston area. 

As a member of Houston Bike Share and the Midtown Management District Urban Planning Committee, James is inspired by Houston’s spirit of continuous improvement, and is taking an active role in making Houston’s urban areas more walkable, more bike-friendly and less reliant on cars. “I’d contend that more people have the ability to ride a bike than to drive a car. However, not everyone has the skills, desire, or budget to own and maintain their own bike … We offer 1,200 bikes available at 112 stations and counting for people to make short trips around the city. We’re expanding to more neighborhoods all the time with help from partners like Council Member Karla Cisneros and Commissioner Rodney Ellis and have launched a GO Pass program to ensure bike share is affordable to all,” says James of his work with Houston Bike Share.

In his work with LINK Houston, James is helping to stand up against the controversial I-45 expansion project (NHHIP), which opponents believe will disproportionately impact Houston’s communities of color. “Segregation, wealth disparities, and the persistence of poverty are the results of deliberate policy decisions over many decades. It will take a concerted and sustained effort to undo that legacy, and LINK is taking on this challenge in Houston.”

Felipe Lopez

Local Houston Artist

Felipe Lopez, Local Houston Artist

Over the past 25 years, the three-county area has seen an increase in the number of arts and cultural organizations. Along with that has come an increase in the diverse perspectives the arts community can utilize to shed light on issues such as health, education, environment, and more, which is exactly what local Houston artist Felipe Lopez has done.

“My work has progressed within themes of environmentalism with each piece highlighting our relationship to nature, the precious commodity of water, and how we choose to help (or oftentimes neglect) the natural world around us. I hope to inspire change within the arts to look and find more conscious choices to hopefully not just visually inspire people but give them a chance to reflect on our conservation opportunities as well.”

A few organizations that have inspired Felipe in his artistic endeavors include Fresh Arts, which “allows artists to step out of the studio and meet with colleagues who can give guided perspective and useful knowledge on topics that will reshape a creative’s thinking to propel their career forward in a more focused fashion.” Other inspirational organizations include Art League Houston, which “continues to expand their dedication and cultivation of local talent” and Houston Arts Alliance, where Felipe served on their Disaster Recovery Board and received an Individual Artist Grant in 2019.

He is currently working with others to reimagine, in the face of this pandemic, “the way business in the art world is completed that favors the livelihood and wealth of ideas from creative individuals and their families.” Felipe will also feature his visual art and set design in a collaboration with Emmanuel Outspoken Bean and Meghan Hendley of Chapel in the Sky through the Houston Artist Commissioning Project he was awarded by the Society for the Performing Arts. Additionally, he has a beautiful array of progressive work in the Texas A&M Corpus Christi Oso Bay Biennial XXI Group Exhibition.

Dr. Norma Olvera

Executive Director at BOUNCE and The Latino Health Disparities Lab at UH

Dr. Norma Olvera, Executive Director at BOUNCE and The Latino Health Disparities Lab at UH

On average, the three-county Houston area has a higher percentage of food-insecure households than the state or the nation with food insecurity being defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a lack of consistent access to adequate food for a healthy life. The Houston area also shows a higher percentage of obesity among Black, Hispanic and low-income adults. The opportunity for all residents to have a healthy lifestyle is essential for a thriving community as gaps in health behaviors such as lack of physical activity, obesity, and food insecurity account for 40% or more of health-related deaths in the United States. Through her Behavior Opportunities United Nutrition Counseling and Exercise (BOUNCE) program, Dr. Norma Olvera is educating community members on ways they can improve their health through physical activity and healthy eating, no matter their environment.

“Through my work, research, and other activities I’m very much an advocate for health equity and education equity. What that means is that every person has the same opportunity to be healthy and be educated.”

Dr. Olvera’s BOUNCE program empowers families to make healthy choices through a comprehensive program that promotes a healthy mind and body. “I believe in working to make the families agents of change. I work with schools and parents and teachers as well to some degree but I believe the best way to start a positive change is from the roots by starting with the individuals and families.”

Through her work, Dr. Olvera, is inspired by Pamela Quiroz, Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at UH, who “…always has the courage to stand up for what is right for the Hispanic community” and Daisy Morales, Vice President of Community Affairs at Community Health Choice, for “…her ability to have hard conversations when it comes to insurance and health access for the Hispanic community but being able to approach it with finesse.”

“These two women really go above and beyond and are really committed to improving the community.”

Angelica Razo

Texas State Director at Mi Familia Vota

Angelica Razo, Texas State Director at Mi Familia Vota

As Hispanic residents form an increasingly large portion of Greater Houston’s population, political participation and representation are and will continue to be of vital importance in ensuring that all residents are given fair opportunities in our communities. Unfortunately, Hispanic candidates remain underrepresented in local offices and elections, and Hispanic residents are registered to vote at a lower rate than other Houston-area ethnic groups.  

As the Texas State Director at Mi Familia Vota, Angelica Razo is committed to tackling these shortcomings at the root so that Latino Houstonians of all backgrounds and income levels can use the tools of civic engagement to better the world for those around them. 

“Our organization believes that democracy should be accessible to everyone, and in order to achieve positive change in Houston, community members really need to understand the issues impacting them and then advocate by voting and speaking to their elected officials in order to have ownership to improve their quality of life.”

Though much work remains to be done to create equitable Latino representation in our political process, Angelica knows that if any region can overcome such barriers, it’s ours. “There is a saying in Spanish, no te rajes (“Do not give up”). It’s a mantra that I see Houstonians live up to and it shows through their hard work ethic, perseverance, dedication, and kindness to their neighbors.”

Even with the 2020 election coming soon, Angelica and Mi Familia Vota are already looking ahead to 2021 for opportunities to advocate for better environmental justice, immigration, education and healthcare policies.

Daniana Trigoso-Kukulski

Executive Director at Fe y Justicia Worker Center

Daniana Trigoso-Kukulski, Executive Director at Fe y Justicia Worker Center

Prior to the pandemic, Houston experienced faster job growth and more industrial diversity compared to the nation and state, largely thanks to the contributions made by immigrants who strengthen our labor force and generate demand for goods and services within our local economy.

Not all Houstonians have prospered — even during boom times — with 40% of working families economically insecure. Some of these individuals are immigrants without a high school education and almost half (49%) of jobs accessible to workers without bachelor’s degrees are considered lower-wage.

Daniana Trigoso-Kukulski, at the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, remarks that, “The construction and service industries are particularly dependent on immigrant labor today, but other sectors such as domestic workers who have been on the front line in this tragic worldwide pandemic have been forgotten or erased out of the political and economic changes that have happened.”

Daniana has been working hard with the immigrant community to empower them with information on their rights as workers. “We have assisted with legal and advocacy help, but also provided a safe space where those who are discriminated against and rejected by the working community can receive education and empowerment to address their status.”

When it comes to Houston, Daniana greatly admires, “…the passion and driving spirit that the immigrant community brings to the economy, in areas that are so crucial to the national wealth such as medicine, construction, oil, and other important industries.”

But true to the spirit of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, Daniana knows there’s still more that can be done to improve Houston by “…helping authorities, organizations, and the general community understand what immigrants with drive, luck, talent, and creativity bring to… economic life…”

Ruth Lopez Turley

Founder/Director at Houston Education Research Consortium – A Program of The Kinder Institute for Urban Research

Ruth Lopez Turley, Founder/Director at Houston Education Research Consortium – A Program of The Kinder Institute for Urban Research

With Hispanic, Black, and economically-disadvantaged students in the Houston area being less likely to meet or exceed grade-level expectations on third-grade STAAR Reading Exams and eighth-grade STAAR Math Exams, it is likely we need to reexamine whether or not our public education system is distributing resources in an equitable manner.

As founder and director of the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC), a program of The Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Ruth Lopez Turley and her team produce research to improve education equity by race, ethnicity, economic status, and English language learner status through a research practice partnership between Rice University and 11 Houston-area school districts. Ruth envisions a Houston where these differences in backgrounds continue to add a positive impact to the culture and diversity of the Houston community and are no longer barriers to educational opportunities.

The conception of HERC was based on Ruth’s previous interest in and conversations with the UChicago Consortium on School Research. “I was really inspired by the way they were doing education research and their partnership with the Chicago Public Schools and saw that not a lot of academic researchers were doing research in that way in partnership with schools.”

“I’m interested in producing research that can be directly accessed and used by district leaders. Research is often considered a luxury item as it is expensive to do well, but I want HERC to provide the resource of our research capacity to our community and don’t want it to be just about learning in an academic sense. We are explicitly trying to have an impact on the educational opportunities that students in the Houston area have and are really trying to make sure the research we are producing is informing those efforts.”

Ruth sees Understanding Houston as a great step in the right direction to start pulling information together in one place and increasing collaboration and comments that, “There is still a lot to pull off but I think the Foundation’s efforts to help us be better coordinated is a great start.”

Going forward, Ruth would like to think even deeper about what can and should be done in order to make progress towards education equity by addressing the underlying structural barriers within the system.

*Racial and ethnic labels are by their very nature imperfect, and in many ways evolving. For simplicity here, we use Hispanic and Latino interchangeably in this blog, with most data on Understanding Houston utilizing the U.S. Census term “Hispanic” or Hispanic/Latino.

Five key insights from our webinar on Criminal Justice

While progress is being made in the criminal justice system, much work remains to be done in removing racial disparities and the life-long consequences of incarceration.

In partnership with Arnold Ventures, the Greater Houston Community Foundation held a Criminal Justice Reform program on September 24 to educate and engage donors on various aspects of the criminal justice system nationally and locally. The program featured Dr. Howard Henderson, Founding Director, Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University; Julie James, Director of Criminal Justice, Arnold Ventures; Sebastian Johnson, Advocacy Chief of Staff, Arnold Ventures; and Sybil Sybille, Pure Justice Fellow. We invite you to watch the full conversation here.

The informative conversation revealed five key insights about criminal justice and how we can improve the system for all.

1. The criminal justice system is expansive, has grown significantly in recent history, and affects everyone.

One out of 37 American adults is currently under control by the criminal justice system (i.e., imprisoned, parole, probation), or nearly seven million people, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data analyzed by Arnold Ventures. About two-thirds of those are under community supervision (otherwise known as probation or parole) which are “hidden” drivers of mass incarceration.

“It hasn’t always been this way,” Julie James from Arnold Ventures states. The number of people incarcerated or under community supervision nearly tripled from 1980 to the peak in 2008. “This is historically and internationally unprecedented. The United States has just 4% of the world’s population, yet about 25% of the world’s prisoners are in the U.S.,” James reports. Of course, incarceration is not felt in a vacuum — entire communities and families are disrupted when someone goes to jail, such as the more than 5 million children who have had a parent incarcerated.

“This [growth in people incarcerated or on community supervision] is historically and internationally unprecedented. The United States has just 4% of the world’s population, yet about 25% of the world’s prisoners are in the U.S.,” Julie James, Arnold Ventures

Locally, Harris County has the largest number of individuals on probation in the state; and Texas has the largest number in the country, according to Dr. Howard Henderson from the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University. “About 70,000 return to Texas from prisons, and one in five returns to the Houston area,” he explains. Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department supervises nearly 70,000 individuals throughout the year, the third largest probation department in the United States.

2. Black Americans, particularly males, are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system – and at every level.

While the criminal justice system affects everyone, some are more likely to feel these impacts than others, more frequently, and to a hasher degree. People of color, particularly Black Americans, are disproportionately impacted at each stage in the criminal justice system: arrest, bail, sentencing, release, and beyond.

A common myth is that Black and Brown people are arrested at higher rates because they are more likely to commit crimes. Research has established this just isn’t true, Sebastian Johnson with Arnold Ventures notes. What is happening, is that Black people are more likely to be associated with criminality, their communities are over-policed, and there is bias in the system that disadvantages Black people at every stage, including more severe punishments.

Nationally, incarceration rates have declined for Whites, Latinos, and Black Americans since 2000, however, Black adults are still incarcerated at nearly six times the rate Whites are incarcerated.

In Harris County, Blacks are overrepresented in arrests for each type of offense except Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). Despite making up 18.5% of the population, Black residents comprise between 43% and 50% of those arrested on drug, property, person, public order, serious, and violent charges, according to Dr. Henderson’s analysis.

Source: Harris County Sheriff’s Office

Consider the following:

  • Black people are four times as likely to be arrested in Harris County than Whites.
  • Blacks and Latinos are more likely to have a firearm discharged at them by a Houston Police officer than at their White counterparts.
  • Black residents represent 50% of all bookings into the Harris County Jail.
  • Half the people currently being held at Harris County Jail are Black.
  • Nearly 80% of the pretrial populations in Harris County Jail are Black or Latino.
  • Nationally, one in 13 adults is convicted of a felony compared to one out of three Black men.

3. Those within the criminal justice system incur major personal, professional, developmental, and financial costs that don’t end after time served.

Costs for the accused, imprisoned, and released are substantial, broad-ranging, and prolonged. They include direct financial costs, opportunity costs, and “collateral consequences” which includes barriers created by the system that don’t stop after incarceration.

Even limited contact with the criminal justice system can result in fines and fees, which most people can’t afford. Three out of every four people in the Harris County Jail have not been convicted of any crime (held in pretrial). They are there because they could not afford to get out while they wait for trial. Unpaid debt in turn prevents people from getting a driver’s license, voting, getting an occupational license, and more. One study found that on average, families paid about $13,600 in court-related costs.

The costs do not stop after one has served one’s sentence and been released. The formerly incarcerated face numerous and widespread systemic barriers that exacerbate challenges to re-entry, including the denial of the right to vote even after time served, denial of housing and employment, and ineligibility for federally-backed student loans, to name a few.

Again, these impacts are borne more by Blacks than other groups. For example, Johnson cited a study which found that white people with a criminal record are still more likely to get a job than a Black person without a criminal record.

Sybil Sybille, a Veteran and community activist focused on trauma-informed approaches in the criminal justice system, was also formerly incarcerated. She describes her experience this way: “I got out of jail in 1998 and off of parole in 2002, when I could finally vote again. I could not vote for four years even while paying into the system that imprisoned me.”

In describing her attempts to get housing and employment after her release, she has paid numerous application fees for apartments only to get rejected upon learning she was formerly incarcerated. Sybille doesn’t have many other housing options due to her record and faces challenges securing employment when she is required to check the box on an application that asks if she has ever been convicted of a crime.

Sybille is currently a Pure Justice Fellow and graduated from the inaugural Smart Justice Speakers Bureau class created by Anthony Graves in collaboration with the ACLU, URRC and Texas Southern University. She is also a member of the Community Working Group of the independent monitor for the ODonnell v. Harris County Consent Decree regarding misdemeanor bail practices. She continues, “It does not matter the accomplishments I’ve made since then…it [the impact of incarceration] does not go away. I’m still being punished. I’m still living a sentence.”

“It does not matter the accomplishments I’ve made since then…it [the impact of incarceration] does not go away. I’m still being punished. I’m still living a sentence.” – Sybil Sybille

4. It doesn’t have to be this way.

There are multiple forces at work that keep this unjust system going, but the data suggest that the growth in our criminal justice system cannot be attributed to an increase in crime — national property and violent crime rates have declined by half since the peak in the early 1990s. In fact, imprisonment can advance crime “by destabilizing families and people, and restricting economic opportunity when people get out,” James explains.

According to data collected from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the crime rate fell 21% between 2007 and 2016 in 36 states where imprisonment rates also decreased, compared to a 12% decline in crime rate in 12 states that increased imprisonment rates during the same time period.

Panelists spoke to many reasons we’ve seen explosive growth in the criminal justice system, including bias; a “tough-on-crime” narrative, policies and practices; over-policing, particularly in Black neighborhoods; and the cyclical nature of criminal justice — even serving between one and three days in jail or prison increases one’s likelihood of being arrested for another crime. The lack of resources and support the formerly incarcerated receive compounds systemic obstacles, reducing chances for success.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way. “Countries that have restructured criminal justice to focus on rehabilitation have enjoyed lower recidivism rates,” Arnold Venture’s Johnson cites. The Center for Justice Research has found that the more resources and access ex-offenders have, the less likely they are to re-offend, which prompted them to develop a dashboard of resources and support services for the formerly incarcerated.

Sybille uses her lived experiences to advocate for bail reform and trauma-informed training for judicial personnel, and has worked to change policies and laws to advocate for those under the criminal justice system. She believes that we must prioritize rehabilitation and trauma-informed care over incarceration, noting that programs that don’t address mental health challenges will never be a permanent solution. Johnson adds that so-called “diversion programs” should be evaluated so that they aren’t additional pathways into jail and are community-led.

5. We can make a difference.

Arnold Ventures estimates that if we continue at the current rate, it will take 72 years to cut the prison population in half. We can do better. “We can have much lower rates of incarceration and keep our communities safe,” Johnson from Arnold Ventures states.

There is broad bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms, Johnson continues. Here are some things you can do to educate yourself on this issue and advocate for positive change.

  • Funders can support policies and programs that prioritize rehabilitation over incarceration, particularly trauma-informed care. See a list of organizations below.
  • Be part of the conversation, particularly those who are most affected by the system. Dr. Henderson states “what we know about criminal justice is not coming from people who are most impacted by the system,” citing that 81% of faculty in doctoral criminal justice programs are White.
  • Employers can “ban the box” from their employment applications, signaling to those formerly incarcerated that they will be considered holistically as a candidate instead of dismissed outright for one aspect of their history.
  • Get involved. Attend local city council and commissioners court meetings. Sybille emphasized, “Show up. Don’t just sit on the sidelines. Be an active participant. Use your voice along with your money to make something known.”

Educate yourself. Use resources like ballotready.org and The Appeal: Political Report to learn where elected officials stand on criminal justice issues. You can find recommended reading and a list of organizations working on criminal justice reforms below.

Resources Recommended by the Panelists

The Challenge of Criminal Justice by The Square One Project

Incremental Change Is A Moral Failure by Mychal Denzel Smith, The Atlantic

We need to talk about an injustice, Ted Talk by Bryan Stevenson

The Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University

Arnold Ventures | Criminal Justice

Understanding Houston | Criminal Justice

Additional Resources

Local Organizations:

Regional Organizations:

Meet Alice Valdez: Musician, educator, advocate, and MECA founder

Alice Valdez: Musician—Educator—Advocate

Access to and participation in the arts is a vital part of any community; and in a region as diverse as Houston, the arts play a crucial role in helping us see and understand cultures other than our own. And while Houston may be home to several world-class arts and culture organizations, not everyone in our region is able to participate equally — particularly Black, Latinx and economically disadvantaged residents. Despite 75% of Hispanic/Latino Houstonians saying they believe the arts are important, only 40% reported being able to attend an artistic event within the year of the survey. Fortunately, Alice Valdez and her team at MECA Houston are working to bridge that gap. 

Alice’s advocacy work started in the 1960s with her initial brush with social justice reform, after her first public encounter with institutional racism. Her high school was selected to join the Texas Orchestra—part of the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA)—and invited to perform at the annual TMEA conference in Houston. A Black classmate of Alice’s was barred from sharing the same hotel and from eating at the same restaurants as the other students of the Texas Orchestra. Her orchestra teacher gave his students two options: attend the conference without the Black student or protest the TMEA and advocate for the student’s inclusion. Alice and her classmates chose to support their fellow musician and they succeeded in their efforts, allowing all students to attend the conference together. The incident left a lasting impact on Alice and taught her how the arts can bring people together, no matter their social circumstances. Alice went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Texas at El Paso and earned her certification to teach instrumental music at all grade levels in Texas.

When Alice moved to Houston in the early 1970s, many inner-city Houston schools did not offer music education; this was a stark contrast to her experience growing up in El Paso, where most schools had band or orchestra programs. After becoming familiar with arts education programs in Houston, Alice quickly realized that inner-city schools of color would only receive funding for arts education if they were part of magnet programs or arts-oriented schools like the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA). Recognizing this gap in art education services inspired and influenced Alice to get involved with community philanthropy at St. Joseph Catholic Church in the Old Sixth Ward.

To build upon the spirit of the community, Alice founded and organized, along with the Morin, Salinas, and Zermeno families, St. Joseph Fun ‘n Food Fest. Following on the success of the festival, Alice founded an after school arts program, St. Joseph Multi-Ethnic Cultural Arts. She described the incorporation process as “on-the-job training” and marked her first steps into nonprofit management. In 1991, the organization became Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA). The nonprofit remained at St. Joseph for nearly fifteen years, completing several public art projects, like the Resurrected Christ mural inside the parish, until settling in the historic Dow School building in 1993.

MECA fosters the growth and development of underserved youths and adults through arts and cultural programming, academic assistance, community building, and support services. The organization assists over 4,000 students and their families each year through their social support services, multicultural artistic performances and events, and arts education. The goal of MECA is to cultivate self-esteem, discipline, and cultural pride in their students. One of the unique offerings of MECA is that it is at the intersection of social services and arts education. With Alice’s guidance, MECA has provided participants and families with extensive counseling for alcoholism, drug addiction, and abuse as well as social service referrals. Alice recognized the need for such services early in her teaching career, as she faced many hardships balancing her family life and professional aspirations. MECA’s innovative approach to combine social services and arts education under one nonprofit is not typical for arts organizations, but Alice’s advocacy efforts have impacted thousands of Houstonians over the course of her remarkable career.

Under Alice’s leadership, MECA has received numerous awards and recognitions, including a Point of Light designation by President George H. W. Bush. Alice is also lauded for her contributions to the visual arts and community parks—namely, initiating the planning and directing the construction of the Old Sixth Ward Art Park in inner-city Houston, and has gone on to direct many major public sculpture and mural projects throughout the Houston area. Alice sees her nonprofit endeavors as a way of giving to her community.