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Women’s History Month: 8 Houston Leaders making a difference today

From protecting green spaces to fighting for gender equality and beyond, these are the women creating a better future for our region

Every March, the United Nations sets a theme for Women’s History Month, and the theme for 2021 is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. This theme celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equitable future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and highlights the gaps that remain. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had major impacts on the entire world, but has been particularly hard on women, who tend to be overrepresented in service industry jobs that were lost at disproportionately high rates due to stay-at-home orders. Women are exiting the workforce at higher rates than men due to historically unequal childcare between moms and dads, in addition to pre-existing gender pay gaps and overrepresentation in low-paying jobs.

For Women’s History Month, we are highlighting some of the incredible Houston-area women who are working every day to fight inequalities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Building a more vibrant Houston with opportunity for all, these women spend countless hours improving our community through teaching and research, creating accessible green spaces, advocating for human rights and providing resources to some of the most vulnerable in our community.

We recognize that there are many women doing incredible work in the Houston area and that this list is far from exhaustive. If you know of a leader or organization that we should highlight, please let us know!

Shellye Arnold, President and Chief Executive Officer at Memorial Park Conservancy

Daily, physical activity can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even some cancers. Research has found that  increases in park and recreation space are associated with increases in physical activity. The Houston three-county area boasts a number of beautiful parks, and nearly 82% of residents live within one mile of a park. However, that figure could change. Between 2001 and 2018, all three counties experienced at least an 18% increase in developed land. During the same period, these counties saw a considerable decline in the percentage of wetland, which comes with increased risk of flooding from heavy rainfall. 

Shellye Arnold is working with her team to conserve our region’s green space, create a more resilient and connected Memorial Park, and improve public access to the Park. With the Conservancy’s project partners, she is leading the execution of the Park’s Master Plan – and it’s associated Ten-Year Plan – that is currently underway. She seeks to advance the Conservancy’s mission to restore, preserve, and enhance Memorial Park for all Houstonians both today and for generations to come. 

“We have parks and green spaces of national significance and are continuing to grow and improve them with the public and private sectors working closely together. Innovating and investing in infrastructure for managing the storm water that regularly ravages our city is necessary. Houston has the opportunity to embrace lessons learned from cities that have tackled this problem successfully, including the creation of sustainable green infrastructure.” Shellye envisions a Houston that “will be known more as a green city, and less as a grey (concrete) city.”

Charity Carter, Founder and Executive Director at Edison Arts Foundation

Houston boasts a vibrant arts scene that is an essential part of our region’s quality of life. In fact, access to the arts has been shown to promote inclusion, community improvement, academic achievement and even improved mental health for residents. However, access to the arts in our region is not equal. Only 29% of Harris County residents who have a household income below $37,500 reported they have attended a live arts performance, compared to 58% of respondents with a household income of more than $100,000. 

Charity Carter sees how interconnected the arts are with other quality of life indicators, and dreams of a Houston area where there is better quality of life for all residents that includes long term and lasting investments in communities with few resources. Through her organization,, she works tirelessly to make the arts in Houston more accessible by developing cultural and performing arts programs for children, adults and families throughout the community. Currently, they are working on a project in East Fort Bend County “that will blend arts and cultural programming, affordable housing, early literacy education, health care, entrepreneurship, jobs creation, outdoor green space and public arts into one community, creating necessary elements for an economically thriving community.”

Charity is inspired by women such as her mother, Bertha Edison, and Lauren Anderson, who was the first Black principal ballerina for a major ballet company, “because of her commitment to stay in Houston and give back to the children in Houston.” Her advice to other women is to remember that “the race isn’t given to the swift nor to the strong but to the one who endures to the end!”

Dr. Stacie Craft DeFreitas, Associate Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at University of Houston Downtown

Quality education for all students is vital for a prosperous region and a thriving workforce and economy. However, educational attainment and success in the Houston three-county area vary significantly by race and socioeconomic status. Only 48% of economically disadvantaged students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in math compared to 71% of their non-economically disadvantaged peers, and only 14.4% of Hispanic and 26.1% of Black adults in the region hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 46.5% of white residents. 

Dr. Stacie DeFreitas’ research explores what can be done to improve the academic success of youth, particularly urban, minority youth by examining mentoring relationships, faculty-student interactions and the influence of the educational environment on students. “My main concern with K12 education is the inequity across ethnic/racial groups and socioeconomic status. I have concerns that many of the public schools have been abandoned by those of higher socioeconomic status and many who identify as European American or white. This has resulted in schools that are less well funded and supported as the needs of the students are not priorities due to low rates of advocacy.”

In her career, Dr. DeFreitas felt unconfident at times and had difficulty speaking up in meetings with more senior colleagues. “I felt like I had to have everything worded perfectly and was unsure of how to take a risk.” Over time, she received mentorship and support from others, which helped her build that confidence in her knowledge and abilities. Her recommendation to other women is to “build a network of individuals to support them and that they can support. Make sure that you are giving back and not just taking. This network should be broad and cover the personal and professional arenas.”

She has been inspired by individuals such as Dr. Ernie Wade, a clinical psychologist and director of Minority Affairs at Wake Forest University, whose mentorship and impactful work inspired her to pursue clinical psychology; as well as Dr. Jennifer Montgomery, whom she describes as “a selfless person who strives to take care of others and lead a life of happiness and peace.”

Secunda Joseph, Co-Founder of ImagiNoir/BLMHTX & Director of Community Organizing and Smart Media

Houston leads most cities in racial, economic, and poverty disparities. It is also one of the worst for minorities when it comes to racial segregation as well as education and poverty gaps, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute. In the Houston three-county area, the median income gap between white and Black households is $38,605. That racial wealth gap will only be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the onset of the pandemic, Black Houstonians have been affected by COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates, and Black households in the Houston metropolitan area are experiencing higher rates of income loss and more difficulties paying for usual household expenses due to COVID-19 compared to white households. 

Secunda, also known  as “For The People BAE” to her peers and colleagues, imagines a better Houston area in the future as a city where all community members have equitable access to resources. “I imagine a Houston where people have access, no matter where they live, to quality health care, quality education, and safety. And not safety in terms of police and punishment, but safety in terms of, I have the income I need and my neighbors have what they need. When folks have what they need crime, particularly survival crime, goes down.” 

Through her organization, Secunda is coordinating and collaborating with others to effect positive change in the Greater Houston area through “trusting the people we are in the community with and using the resources that we have to highlight their voices and acknowledge the power, creativity, and wisdom that comes from these communities finding themselves needing help because of systemic oppression. Currently, that is happening through our mutual aid work.”

Secunda is inspired by many women. One women, in particular, being BLMHTX co-founder, Brandi Holmes. She admires her can-do attitude and problem solving approach to her work, as well as her perseverance to do what’s right and get the important work done even in the face of adversity and limited resources. “She inspires me because she never gives up.”

Going forward, Secunda will be working day in and day out, little by little to reimagine and recreate our current systems through an Ella Baker model of community organizing, which brings people together for sustained and coordinated strategic action for social justice. 

“I would say, trust the people that we’re serving and encourage them to lead.”

Rachna Khare, Executive Director at Daya Houston

In May 2020, Houston saw a 15% increase in domestic violence offenses compared to the previous year, and a 48% increase in calls related to family violence involving aggravated assault.

Rachna Khare works with survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, her organization has seen an increase in the severity and frequency of domestic abuse, as well as the impact on clients who have recently fled an abusive relationship becoming unemployed due to the pandemic or having to cut their hours to take care of children who are at home. 

“Across the county, we’re seeing women exiting the workforce. With domestic violence survivors, there is an added risk because these individuals typically experience some sort of financial control as part of their abuse. These women are exiting the workforce out of necessity which creates risks of them going back to their abusive partner due to financial need.”

Rachna is working hard to ensure these survivors have access to the resources they need to continue thriving and surviving during the pandemic. “We are meeting a moment that is so uncertain with a ton of flexibility and malleability. Meeting people where they are, not being in a box, because these challenges are not in a box.”

Going forward, Daya Houston will be focused on intentional outreach to a broader group of domestic violence survivors and reexamining the structures they have in place to be more innovative and responsive to what the community needs. 

Rachna has hope in the Houston Strong commitment that she has seen from her neighbors during Hurricane Harvey, throughout this pandemic, and, most recently, in the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri where “people give philanthropically, give their time, and open their homes. I think that in a crisis we’re amazing as a city, and I would love to see that same mentality of community shifting over to the day-to-day as well.”

Anandrea Molina, Founder and Executive Director at Organización Latina de Trans en Texas

In Houston, the number of hate crime offenses rose 191% between 2017 and 2018; 75% of which were either motivated by race/ethnicity/ancestry, sexual orientation or gender/gender identity. 

Ana envisions a Houston that is more accepting and inclusive. Through her organization, she supports, defends the rights of and creates survival networks for the trans latinx community. 

“To create a better Houston, we need to change the systems placed here before us that we have grown to accept, and learn from our history to not repeat the same mistakes. These systems cause oppression and division within communities, and we hope to overcome all of these obstacles. Especially in the trans sector.”

In her work, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Ana has seen the disproportionate impact on transgender women who already face so many barriers. “Transwomen often feel not included in any communities and lack support systems causing a disproportion of unemployment and the situation is even worse for those who are undocumented.”

Ana is inspired by Harris County Judge Hidalgo for her strength and courage. “She fights for immigrants, the most vulnerable, and many communities have benefited from her hard work and dedication.” She also finds inspiration in the Houston immigrant community who are and always have been essential to the framework that makes Houston a robust and diverse region.

“We each have our own story and struggle we deal with. We should be proud of everything we have accomplished and survived.”*

Linda Toyota, VP Community Engagement and Development at LiftFund

Small businesses are a major driver of employment, and the entrepreneurs who run them are more beneficial to our economy and stimulate more growth than larger businesses — helping to lower poverty and improve low-income areas. The U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy report indicates that women represent 44% of the U.S. economic activity. Despite the female demographic launching the most startups, they are underfunded.

Through her leadership role at LiftFund, a nonprofit community lender, Linda Toyota not only recognizes the importance of loans to small business to create a more prosperous region, but also the impact these microloans can have “to promote diversity of wealth, business ownership, equity in funding opportunities, availability of business and financial education, and information to help individuals break through the systemic barriers that have disproportionately impacted women and people of color.”

Linda looks forward to a Houston area where the potential of women entrepreneurs is fully realized and where “they could impact their livelihood and the economic growth of our community. I envision a Houston that is more inclusive and equitable.”

The importance of diversity in Linda’s work and throughout her life comes from the history of her family and it aligns with LiftFund’s vision of a world where everyone has opportunity and access to education, just and equitable economies, the freedom to be fully engaged in the world, and are empowered to reach their dreams. Her parents were U.S. born Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite this, her father enlisted in the U.S. Army and her mother was able to leave the camp when a family sponsored her. The exclusion experienced by her parents played a substantial role in making diversity and inclusion an important pillar throughout her life. She firmly believes that “one person can make a difference.”

Elena White, Executive Director and Founder of Connective

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has declared a disaster in Fort Bend, Harris, or Montgomery counties 26 times in the past 41 years. Despite the frequency of natural disasters in the Greater Houston area, many of which involved flooding, a majority of residents do not believe the local government is successful in protecting their homes from flooding. Six months after Hurricane Harvey, about 40% of people in the three-county area rated efforts by the local government to protect homes from flooding as “poor.” However, even with assistance, the impacts of disasters can last more than several years for those with the fewest resources. About 41% of Black residents who were affected by Hurricane Harvey reported that their lives were still “somewhat” or “very” disrupted one year later, compared to 26% of white residents.

Elena White is working to improve Houston’s preparedness system in the event of a natural disaster and to ensure resources are distributed to the most vulnerable in our community when a disaster does strike. 

“I believe that Houston should face the hard truths of climate change head on — leading the nation in proactive implementation of solutions to make our community more resilient, rather than facing disasters reactively.”

Through the COVID-19 pandemic recovery work and human-centered research her organization is leading, Elena has seen first-hand the disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations like single, immigrant mothers, and their stories have stuck with her.

“I think of Clara, a recently divorced mother of three, originally from Honduras, who gets her family food these days from the Food Bank and says that she often feels viewed as less than human by the staff at her apartment complex, And, Raquel, a hairstylist who lost 70% of her wages since the start of the pandemic. When asked what she’ll do if she cannot pay her rent next month, Raquel says, ‘I don’t have a plan. I don’t have a plan. The plan is day to day.’”

“My organization’s vision is to transform social services to become human-centered. I personally want to live in this city without being constantly in survival mode, and I hope to continue to push for a city where no one is constantly in survival mode.”

*Some portions of this interview were translated to English from Spanish.

The pandemic turns one: 6 ways COVID-19 has impacted Greater Houston

March 4, 2020: A Fort Bend County area man became the Houston area’s first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 after traveling on a Nile River cruise. From there, the situation worsened rapidly. Just one week later, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was cancelled for the first time in 88 years after evidence of community spread was confirmed through a case in Montgomery County. Businesses began to close their doors and store shelves were quickly emptied as people across the region and the nation scrambled for answers. What will happen to me if I get the virus? How can I get tested? Will I keep my job? Will there be enough food? How long will this last? 

One year later: we know much more than we did during those chaotic first weeks. With multiple vaccines receiving emergency use authorization, accessible testing and more treatment options, we’ve made some remarkable strides in our battle against the health effects of the pandemic. However, we also know more about the incredible toll the pandemic has taken on our region, and the impact it has had on the lives of millions of Houstonians. The data are irrefutable. Latino and Black communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic. They have paid the highest price: lost jobs, lost businesses, lost homes, lost loved ones and lost lives.

While relief may be in sight for many, the toll of COVID-19 still looms large — both for the families of people who have lost loved ones and those who have lost livelihoods. Understanding what lies ahead for our region starts with understanding where we stand today, and in a year as catastrophic as any in recent memory, it behooves us to look back and reflect on what COVID-19 has meant for Houstonians and Houston to date.

1. Nearly 465,000 Houstonians infected and 6,300 dead

Despite some early hopes that the virus would be limited in its severity and short in its duration, the grim figures one year later tell a much different tale. In the three-county area alone, nearly 465,000 people have been infected as of March 7, 2021. More than 6,300 of those infected did not survive, and residents of color and low-income communities have been hit disproportionately hard throughout the region. 

As the most populous county in the region by far, Harris County has seen both the highest number of cases and the highest number of deaths in the three-county region. However, each county has had roughly the same infection rate per 100,000 residents, ranging between 7,305 out of 100,000 residents in Montgomery County to just over 7,600 out of 100,000 residents in Fort Bend and Harris counties.

Erica’s two adult brothers passed away due to COVID, only three weeks apart. As a result, Erica became the guardian for her young nephews. This has caused a great amount of stress for Erica and her husband, as they now have a family of five children to care for. When her application to the Lost Loved One Fund was accepted, she exclaimed, “Oh my God, thank you so much…you are a blessing. My family and I really appreciate it. God bless you.”

– Client story from COVID-19 Lost Loved One Fund administered by Memorial Assistance Ministries (MAM), a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund nonprofit partner

While COVID-19 may have spread through the three counties at similar rates, it has not affected everyone equally. In all three counties, Hispanic and/or Black Houston-area residents represent a higher share of COVID-19 deaths than they do the overall population. 

A recent study estimated that nine family members are affected by one person who dies of the coronavirus, which means nearly 60,000 people are grieving in our region. As Dr. Julie Kaplow wrote in a recent Understanding Houston blog, “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.” Compounding layers of devastation is the fact that the communities experiencing the majority of infections and deaths from the novel coronavirus are the same ones who have been most affected by employment and income loss. 

2. Houstonians have unequal and inequitable access to vaccines

In a year filled with difficult questions, one of the most pressing continues to be unanswered. To those who’ve spent the past year wondering when will the COVID-19 vaccine be ready? the answer is “it depends.”

According to official vaccination data tracked by the Houston Chronicle, 18% of Fort Bend County’s population has received at least one vaccine, with 12% being fully vaccinated, as of the first week in March 2021. Vaccination rates in Harris and Montgomery counties are lower in comparison, with 14% and 12% of the population vaccinated, respectively.

However, not all residents have equal access to the vaccine. The least likely to die from the pandemic are the first to become inoculated. This trend is already clear in the national data and in Texas where Hispanics/Latinos have suffered 43% of all COVID-19 cases, yet have received only 16% of vaccinations. Black Texans comprise 19% of all cases but only 7% of vaccine recipients, while Asian-American residents represent 9% of all cases but only 1% of vaccine recipients.

An analysis by the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston found that “vaccination sites are glaringly sparse in neighborhoods where the pandemic has been most severely felt, and instead are overwhelmingly located in the same westside neighborhoods as the rest of Houston’s resources.”

Source: Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Urban Edge: Mapping inequity in Houston’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout

While race/ethnicity data on who has been vaccinated in Greater Houston is not publicly available, ZIP code-level data confirms that the highest vaccination rates are in communities with fewer COVID-19 cases. We can also use survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau to understand general vaccination trends by demographic characteristics — it is important to note the data presented below are not official vaccination rates.

Vaccination rate estimates correlate with income level, as residents from higher income households are more likely to have already received a vaccination against COVID-19. On the high end, 43% of residents in households earning $200,000 or more per year have received the vaccine, compared to about 17% of residents in households with annual incomes below $25,000. 

3. Houstonians have lost 141,000 jobs

Rebecca is a single mom of three who found herself in a scary situation during March 2020. She contracted COVID-19 and could not go to work. As the sole provider of support for her children, the family’s livelihood depended upon her ability to work. When she was able to return to work in April, her employer had to close due to the impacts of the shutdown, leaving her unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. Rebecca received an eviction notice and had nowhere to turn. Helping her with gaining employment was essential to assisting her to get back on her feet in order to sustain herself beyond the COVID-19 funding that paid her rent. She joined our Financial Opportunity Center and enrolled in healthcare training. Rebecca now has a part time job at Texas Children’s Hospital, and will go full time earning $14/hr after gaining valuable credentials.

– Client story from Volunteers of America Texas, a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund nonprofit partner

Between lockdown orders and massive shifts in demand, COVID-19 was a destructive force throughout the global economy, and Greater Houston was no exception to this trend. In addition to the pandemic’s well-documented effect on employment in Houston’s oil and gas industry, COVID-19 had devastating effects on construction workers, service industry professionals and arts professionals throughout the region, as unemployment skyrocketed throughout Greater Houston.

By April 2020, unemployment rates had more than tripled from their previous average, soaring to 13.0% in Fort Bend, 14.6% in Harris, and 13.2% in Montgomery counties — setting new records for the region as more than 909,800 Greater Houston residents filed for unemployment between March 7, 2020 and February 13, 2021. While the Houston region has lost 141,000 official jobs in 2020 (the countless number of workers who were employed without official record — like in domestic work — will never be known), employment is slowly bouncing back. Though unemployment rates were down to 7.5–8.3% as of January 2021, the wide-ranging economic impacts continue to disproportionately impact lower-income workers.

Those who were already vulnerable prior to the pandemic were also those hit the hardest by the pandemic’s economic fallout. According to Pulse survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, residents in lower income households prior to the pandemic were more likely to have lost income a year later. 

As of February 2021, 76% of residents who earn less than $25,000 per year had experienced a loss of income since March 13, 2020. Similarly, 60% of residents with annual earnings between $25,000 and $34,999 reported lost income. Conversely, those with higher incomes reported lost income at nearly half the rate of lower-income individuals, with 26% of those earning $150,000 to $199,999 annually and 33% of those earning $200,000 or more per year reporting lost income.

Similarly, racial trends in pandemic-related job losses largely track with existing data on poverty in the Greater Houston region. In the three-county area, 53.4–81.4% of residents living in poverty are Black or Hispanic, and residents of both groups experienced higher rates of employment income loss during the pandemic. 

As of February 2021, more than half of Greater Houston residents still report employment income loss. However, Black and Hispanic residents have lost income at the highest rates. In the Houston metropolitan area, nearly two-thirds of Black and Hispanic residents have lost income since mid-March 2020 compared to 41% of white residents. And while signs of recovery are beginning to emerge, the long-term effects of these disparities will have additional ramifications for our region in the years to come. A recent study from consulting firm McKinsey estimates that it could take two years longer for women and people of color to recover jobs lost during the pandemic.

4. Hundreds of thousands of Houstonians are going hungry and worried about losing their homes

Of the many questions that arose early in the pandemic, two concerns loomed especially large: How will I be able to feed my family? and How will I be able to pay my rent? As various levels of income loss swept the region, these questions became all too urgent for many, as the financial resources needed to cover life’s basic necessities became less and less assured with each passing day. 

Approximately one-third of families receiving financial assistance and groceries had never visited [our agency for help] prior to the COVID-19 crisis. 

– Mission Northeast, a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund nonprofit partner

Food insecurity in Houston during COVID-19

Throughout the pandemic, The U.S. Census Bureau has been conducting Pulse surveys to assess the needs and status of major metropolitan areas throughout the country. In 10 of the 25 Pulse surveys issued, the Houston Metro Area reported the highest levels of food insecurity of any major metropolitan area in the country

Since mid-April 2020, about 700,000, or 15%, Greater Houston households have “often” or “sometimes” not had enough to eat. Among households with children, that rate has climbed to an average of 20%. While rates have lowered as of February 2021, complications from Winter Storm Uri could see those rates continue to increase.

There was a family that ran out of gas while in the [food distribution] line. It was a family of seven inside, (mom, dad and five children). The children were crying because they were hungry and hot. So, I went to get gas and took it to them. When they arrived for their turn in line, the mom instantly got out to get the groceries to see what she could immediately give to the children. As I watched them, I could see they must not have eaten much in days. I asked if they would like to come inside to eat more. The mom nodded her head yes and started crying. She asked her daughter to translate that it had been five days since they last ate. That they had gone to two other places in the last couple of days, but their electricity is off so they can’t cook the food. They could not pay their rent, nor electricity. Leveraging funds from GHCRF, we were able to help them with both their electric and rent.

– Client story from My Brother’s Keeper Outreach Center, a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund nonprofit partner

Evictions and housing in Houston during COVID-19

Even in normal circumstances, housing costs are the number one expense for Houston householders. And when lost incomes and uncertain financial futures became a fact of life for half of Greater Houston residents, the consequences were swift and severe. Greater Houston quickly found itself facing an eviction crisis that persists for many to this day, despite official moratorium orders. In fact, Houston has ranked among the top three cities in the nation for evictions filed during the pandemic.

While early rent deferral programs protected some through the early days of the pandemic, the lasting effects of lost wages/employment caused many Houston residents to struggle with rent and mortgage payments as the pandemic wore on.

Houston-area renters are typically more cost-burdened than homeowners, and the pandemic was no exception. Renters’ ability to pay rent largely decreased as the pandemic wore on. In early May 2020, just under 20% of renters reported missing the previous month’s mortgage payment. But as deferment programs and unemployment benefits ran out, missed rent checks increased, as the percentage of Houston-area renters who missed the previous month’s rent spiked to 35% in early February 2021.  

Amanda lost her job shortly before the pandemic and was unable to find new employment as the pandemic struck the United States. She also struggled to obtain unemployment benefits. Then Amanda’s landlord filed for eviction. By searching through the property records, a Lone Star Legal Aid attorney discovered that Amanda’s apartment complex was backed by a loan through Freddie Mac. This meant it was subject to the CARES Act, which prevented landlords from filing evictions against tenants of federally-backed properties between March 27 and July 25, 2020 during the pandemic. The lawyer requested that the landlord dismiss the case immediately. Just a few hours later, the property manager filed a Motion to Dismiss the cases against Amanda and four other tenants in Amanda’s complex.

– Client story from Lone Star Legal Aid, a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund nonprofit partner

Homeowners faced a similar experience, with missed mortgage payments spiking to nearly 24% in late December 2020 before gradually declining back down to 18% as of February 2021. Heading into March 2021, 41% of renters reported low confidence in their ability to make next month’s payment compared to 14% of homeowners. 

As with other trends related to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased difficulty paying for housing has disproportionately impacted Black and Hispanic residents, who are also more likely to be renters than white residents. As of late February 2021, 42% of Black renters said they were behind on housing payments. Without further action and assistance, the housing crisis facing Houston-area renters is likely to last well into the vaccination phase of the pandemic — and possibly beyond.

5. Learning has been disrupted for more than a million students in Houston

Just over a week after Houston’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, Houston Independent School District closed down all campuses. What began as a one week closure turned into months of at-home learning as the pandemic showed no signs of stopping, forcing educators across the state to adapt and develop online learning models fast as this unprecedented crisis took hold.

Despite valiant efforts from teachers and school districts, the impact on most students has been significant

By the end of the 2019-2020 school year, 35% of students had gone without formal schooling due to outright cancellation of learning. As hard as teachers worked to make these programs effective, parents increasingly took on a significant share of the burden.

In the early days of remote learning, Houston-area students spent an average of 15.5 hours per week learning from members of their household, compared to just 3.7 hours per week of formal education between teachers and students. While the transition from the 2019-20 school year to the 2020-21 school year saw improvements, many students are still learning less than they would under normal circumstances.

As recently as late February, 37% of students in the Houston Metro Area reported spending less time on learning activities than they had prior to the pandemic. While most Houston-area students say they are spending as much or more time on learning activities than they did prior to the pandemic, one-third of Hispanic students — who currently represent more than half of Houston-area students — report less time spent on learning. The consequences of lost learning can be particularly pronounced for English language learners whose parents may not know or speak English at home and do not have full access to the resources needed for full online education. 

For more information about COVID-19 and education in Houston, click here.

6. Three out of four Houstonians are suffering from worse mental health

Before COVID-19, Xochitl was already having a hard time providing for her family, which consisted of her partner and three children, because she was unemployed. COVID-19 has only exacerbated her financial problems. Since schools have closed she now has to balance taking care of her children, helping them with their school work, and providing them with meals — an unforeseen expense that increased her financial stress, in turn affecting her mental health. The financial assistance program has allowed Xochitl a little bit of reprieve to pay her bills.”

– Client story from BakerRipley, a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund nonprofit partner

Between the stresses listed above and myriad others including prolonged isolation and feelings of uncertainty, COVID-19 has had a severe impact on the mental health of adults and children alike. As of late February 2021, nearly 3-in-10 Houston-area adults have reported feeling anxious or on edge for at least more than half the days of a week. 

At its peak, during the week of July 21, 2020, 74% of Houston-area adults reported feeling anxious, nervous or on edge — 23% of whom reported feeling anxious every day that week. And while the most severe levels of anxiety have been in slight decline, the mental effects of the pandemic will continue to impact many in our region.  

Looking back to prepare for what’s ahead

Understanding Houston has worked with experts across disciplines to keep Houston connected with the insight and data it needs to make sense of the ongoing pandemic, and that mission will outlive the virus’s spread in our community. As we look toward recovery, we’ll continue to monitor our region’s progress, sharing valuable perspectives and new data as it becomes available. 

But the road to recovery is far from over. The Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund has already helped thousands of Houston-area residents attain much-needed relief, but the need has not gone away. In fact, in the aftermath of the severe winter storm the region experienced in mid-February, the need is even greater. Please consider making a donation to the Houston Harris County Winter Storm Relief Fund to help our most vulnerable communities recover as we look toward brighter days ahead. 

We also invite you to follow Understanding Houston on social media and subscribe to our newsletter to stay informed and help us do what matters for all residents of Greater Houston. 

*Note, all names changed to protect clients’ privacy. 



The Human Cost of Cash Bail in Texas

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many pre-existing disparities in access to healthcare, housing, and other life-dependent measures. These disparities often intersect with more severe outcomes in our criminal justice system, and are then met with a broken cash bail system. The outcomes dictated by these disparities can be dire. A study by the University of Texas found that of the 297 incarcerated individuals in Texas correctional facilities who died of COVID-19 between May and September 2020, 80% had not yet been convicted of a crime.1 This crisis within a crisis has further reinforced calls for pretrial justice reform in Texas and around the country.

In most of the state, pretrial justice programs are entirely dependent on cash bail, which favors wealthier defendants over poorer ones, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.2 This system not only detains non-violent offenders simply because they cannot afford bail, but also allows violent offenders the chance of release if they can afford it. This unconstitutional system transfers approximately $15 billion in the United States each year from the poorest, most vulnerable communities to privately-held bail bond corporations in the process.3

What pretrial reforms have taken place across the country?

Proponents of cash bail systems argue that releasing or offering bond assistance to pretrial offenders increases the likelihood of bail jumping, repeat offenses and crime in general.4 But a recent study conducted by researchers at Loyola University found that 2017 Cook County bail reform measures increased the number of people released pretrial without causing significant changes in the level of new criminal activity. The reforms also saved the Chicago-area community approximately $31.4 million that would have been used on bail funds in only the first six months after initiating the program. This program even included alleged felony defendants.

Data-driven insights gleaned from studies such as this have assisted lawmakers across the country in crafting evidence-based policymaking in regards to cash-based pretrial reform. On February 22, 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Pretrial Fairness Act (HB 3653 SFA2) into law, making Illinois the first state in the U.S. to effectively eliminate cash bail. While the bill eliminates cash bail for many defendants, it still permits judges to detain individuals if they’ve been charged with felonies such as murder or domestic battery. The only misdemeanor charges that permit the use of pre-trial detention are domestic or family violence, in order to ensure the safety of the victims. In addition to reforming cash bail practices, the 764 page bill also includes provisions for the creation of a Pretrial Practices Data Oversight Board, a Domestic Violence Pretrial Practices Working Group, establishes a “civil right of action,”5 bans outright chokeholds, and even creates a confidential mental health program for law enforcement officers. While this is the most progressive pretrial justice program passed in the United States to date, even conservative thinkers find value in certain aspects of bail reform efforts such as this.

What is Harris County doing to mitigate harm caused by cash bail?

While Illinois is leading the country in progressive pretrial reforms, lawyers and policy makers in Harris County have also been working to eliminate wealth-based descrimination in pre-trial populations. In 2016, defendants in Harris County filed a class action lawsuit arguing the unconstitutionality of bail practices, resulting in the creation of the ODonnell v. Harris County Consent Decree. The resultant measures allow Class A and B misdemeanor arrestees the chance to apply for swift release or to receive bail assistance in the form of personal or general order bonds.6 Those who are not eligible for swift release or personal bonds include those arrested:

  • and charged with domestic violence, violating a protective order in a domestic violence case, or making a terroristic threat against a family or household member;
  • and charged with assault;
  • and charged with a second or subsequent driving-under-the-influence (DUI) offence;
  • and charged with a new offense while on pretrial release;
  • on a warrant issued after a bond revocation or bond forfeiture7; or
  • individuals arrested while on any type of community supervision for a Class A or B misdemeanor or a felony.8

Led by Brandon Garrett of Duke University, Sandra Guerra Thompson of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center, and Dr. Dottie Carmichael of the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M, the Independent Monitor for the ODonnell v. Harris County Consent Decree recently released their first six-month report, showing promising signs of progress. “Gone are the days when a poor person would be locked up solely due to an inability to pay,” Garrett said in response to the findings.

Some key metrics featured in the report include a large increase in releases of misdemeanor arrestees, a large reduction in the use of cash bail in misdemeanor cases, a reduction in race disparities in the use of cash bail and an overall decline in pretrial jail days (from an average of five days or more to two days or fewer) without resulting in an increase of reoffenders. In fact, the report found a slight decline in the number of reoffenders (shown below).9

How much money is the Consent Decree saving the Harris County community?

In the Independent Monitor’s second six month report (published March 3, 2021), Dr. Carmichael and researchers at Texas A&M University found significant decreases in the cost of bail incurred by Harris County communities. In 2016, the actual cost of bonds to individuals and their families in Harris County totaled $4.4 million. Just three years later, the actual cost of bonds incurred by local communities was just over $500,000, an 89% decrease from 2016.10

89% decrease in bail spend

In the three years since enacting bail reform, annual costs to the community dropped from $4.4 million in 2016 to $500,000 in 2019.

What other improvements can be attributed to the Consent Decree?

The Consent Decree has also vastly improved the quality and administration of due process for those awaiting trial. A few key improvements detailed in the Decree are that every defendant must now receive a bail hearing within 48 hours of their arrest, defendants must be represented by a lawyer in bail hearings, forms are now translated in the defendant’s native language, and translators are available at all hearings.11 Email and phone reminders are also now in place, which helps increase the likelihood that defendants show up to trial. In a recent Understanding Houston webinar, Sybil Sybille, a Fellow at Pure Justice and member of the Community Working Group for the independent monitor of the Consent Decree, shared her thoughts regarding the efficacy of the program saying, “It’s working. People have access to bonds … as long as you haven’t violated a bond in the past.”

“An important part of the success of the Consent Decree is due to our team’s ‘Community Working Group,’” said deputy monitor Sandra Guerra Thompson. “The group is comprised of community leaders with experience in providing services for the homeless, survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking, foster kids, immigrants and others.”12 The inclusion of independent, community-led oversight in Harris County’s recent bail reforms has set the county apart from other bail reform measures across the country, but still fails to address the population of felony defendants.

According to Dr. Howard Henderson of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, pretrial justice reforms must be accompanied by programs that address the underlying “societal pre-existing conditions” that prevent equitable access to mental healthcare, quality education and economic opportunity. The truth of this wisdom can be seen in the aforementioned research conducted by Loyola University in response to Cook County’s recent bail reforms. The researchers found that the most common new charge for alleged reoffenders was misdemeanor drug possession, followed by retail theft and drug dealing. The impetus of each of these offenses could be suppressed if historically neglected communities were given greater access to quality employment, mental healthcare and substance abuse counseling. Taking a glimpse at the mental health breakdown of the Harris County Jail population further supports these claims.

Has the Consent Decree improved outcomes for those with mental health indicators?

According to the continuously updated Harris County Jail dashboard, nearly three quarters of the Harris County Jail population have mental health indicators. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, mental health indicators are defined as “serious psychological distress in the 30 days prior to the interview or having a history of a mental health problem.”13

In the second six-month report created by the Independent Monitor for the Consent Decree, the data show that misdemeanor defendants with mental health problems are being arrested at roughly the same rate as prior to the Consent Decree (30% of all misdemeanor arrestees have mental health issues). However, the Independent Monitor team did find that recidivism rates in those with mental health indicators have decreased slightly in recent years, from about 45% in 2015 to about 38% in 2019. These data illustrate that while the Consent Decree has resulted in slight improvements in outcomes for those with mental health needs, additional diversion and affordable mental health care programs are needed. Local organizations such as the Harris Center for Mental Health, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities are working to fill this gap in equal access to mental health services.

Has the Consent Decree minimized the COVID risk in Harris County Jail?

Despite Harris County’s proactive measures in enacting the Consent Decree prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large share of people who died of COVID-19 in Harris County correctional facilities had not been convicted of a crime. According to the Texas Justice Initiative’s dataset on COVID-19 fatalities in Texas correctional facilities, all ten people who died (with Custodial Death Reports14 available) from COVID-19 in Harris County Jail had been awaiting trial.

100% of people who died from COVID in Harris County Jail had not been convicted of a crime.

Of the ten who died while awaiting trial, five were charged with a violent crime against persons, likely making them  ineligible for swift release. Two were charged with Possession of a Controlled Substance, and at least two individuals who were on staff in Harris County correctional facilities have also died from COVID-19.

While one may be quick to equate these deaths as failures of the Consent Decree, the avoidable tragedy of these deaths cannot be attributed to the program, because most of these people were not eligible for swift release under current requirements. Instead, their deaths can be attributed to the lack of a program that addresses felony defendants.

What does Harris County Jail look like now, without a pretrial diversion program that addresses felony defendants?

As of January 28, 2021, Harris County Jail was at 97% capacity, with 87% of the population awaiting trial.15 Despite efforts of local nonprofits like the collaborative leading the Community Bail Fund, Harris County Jail is reaching a breaking point. “Almost all of these individuals have bail that is set at amounts that are beyond their or their families’ financial means,” Amrutha Jindal, an attorney with Restoring Justice, stated to CBS. “As a result, they are stuck in jail – where the virus is rampant, social distancing is impossible and PPE is limited — merely due to their poverty.”

These data show that while the Consent Decree has vastly improved the efficacy of the pretrial process, the program can only do so much. As you can see in the figure below, a vast majority of those in Harris County Jail are alleged felony offenders, and therefore are not eligible for swift release or general order bonds.

This means they are forced to stay in jail for an indefinite period of time, subjecting them to life-threatening and torturous conditions, often without being convicted of a crime due to the COVID-caused delays in the courts. In an interview with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, one incarcerated man described his experience in quarantine saying, “We had to go to the single-man cells (solitary confinement) for fifteen days, eating bologna sandwiches for lunch and dinner.” Another incarcerated person described his experience, “Sometimes, we didn’t even come out for like 30, 40 hours. We’d just be locked in the cell, the one-man cell, for like 40 hours… It’s not fair. It’s not right.”

While the Harris County Consent Decree has made great progress in reducing wealth-based discrimination and upholding due process in pretrial misdemeaner populations, additional reforms that address alleged felony offenders and the inhumane treatment that incarcerated people are being subjected to are needed. The story of Preston Chaney illustrates the urgent need for such reforms. Chaney was arrested for allegedly stealing lawn equipment and frozen meat. Despite the pettiness of these charges, burglary is a felony offense in Harris County, making him ineligible for swift release under the current Consent Decree requirements. A judge set a relatively modest $100 bail but Chaney was unable to pay. After spending three months awaiting trial in Harris County Jail, Chaney contracted COVID-19 and tragically died shortly thereafter. This entirely avoidable death was purely due to Chaney’s inability to pay bail, undoubtedly caused by “societal pre-existing conditions” alluded to by Dr. Henderson earlier.

While the Consent Decree has vastly improved the efficacy of the pretrial process, the program can only do so much.”

What can be done to improve the pretrial process?

Although Harris County is leading Texas in amending unconstitutional bail practices, there is clearly much work to be done. Engaged citizens who would like to take part in building a more equitable pretrial justice system can do so by educating themselves and/or providing material assistance to the organizations mentioned in the piece and supplied below. If you would like to stay updated on the research into the efficacy of the Consent Decree, the Independent Monitor team released their second six-month report on March 3, 2021, which provides clearer insights into the efficacy of the program. Future reports and updates can be found here. Future pretrial reforms that address alleged felony defendants may be on the horizon. According to the Civil Rights Corps, an additional lawsuit against felony cash bail practices is ongoing.

End Notes:

1Data used in this study were collected from early March 22, 2020 to October 4, 2020.

2Wydra, E.B. (October, 2017) When cash bail violates the Constitution. Constitutional Accountability Center

3ACLU (2017) Selling Off Our Freedom: How insurance corporations have taken over our bail system. Report can be found here: https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/059_bail_report_2_1.pdf

4Bail jumping is the defined as the act of failing to appear to a court-mandated trial for a crime.

5A civil right of action can be defined as an individual’s legal right to sue.

6General order bonds are judicial release orders, pre-approved by Presiding Judges, that require the release of the arrestee. (Source)

7This can occur when a defendant fails to show up to court for previous offense, forfeiting their opportunity to receive bonds for future offenses. 

8United States District Court For the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division. Full decree can be found here: http://www2.harriscountytx.gov/cmpdocuments/caoimages/Ex1ConsentDecree.pdf

9Monitoring Pretrial Reform in Harris County: Second Report of the Court-Appointed Monitor (March 3, 2021)

10Garrett, B.L. , Thompson, S.G. (September 2020) Monitoring Pretrial Reform in Harris County. Report can be found here: https://www.scribd.com/document/474748071/ODonnell-Monitor-Report-Six-Months-Final#fullscreen&from_embed

 11Docket Entry No. 701-2 at 17–18, citing sections of the Texas Penal Code

12Garrett, B.L. , Thompson, S.G. (September, 2020) Monitoring Pretrial Reform in Harris County. Report can be found here: https://www.scribd.com/document/474748071/ODonnell-Monitor-Report-Six-Months-Final#fullscreen&from_embed

13Berzofsky, M., Bronson, J. (June, 2017) Indicators Of Mental Health Problems Reported By Prisoners And Jail Inmates, 2011-2012. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

14Custodial Death Reports are created for every person that dies while in custody of a Texas correctional facility. These reports include information pertaining to the individual’s cause of death, detention charges, and location. 

15“The largest jail in Texas is nearing capacity. Experts warn it could become a hotbed for COVID-19.” CBS News, 2021. Accessed online.

Additional Resources

Local Organizations:

Regional Organizations:

The COVID-19 vaccine in Houston: What residents need to know

Accessibility issues and misinformation have created rollout challenges throughout the region. Here’s what you need to know. 

Where can I get the vaccine?

Vaccines are available at pharmacies, grocery stores and ad-hoc vaccination centers set up at major locations throughout the region, including NRG Stadium in Harris County.

Each county has different resources and distribution patterns for getting residents vaccinated. Check this map and this tool to explore your vaccination options throughout the state. 

Who can get the vaccine?

As of now, there are three categories of vaccine eligibility (1A, 1B and 1C), determined by various factors including age, occupation and underlying health conditions. 

1A) Front-line healthcare workers and residents at long-term care facilities

1B) People 65+ or people 16+ with a health condition that increases risk of severe COVID‑19 illness

1C) All residents age 50 and older

In some counties where there is a surplus of vaccine supply, individuals who do not meet the current criteria may still be able to obtain the vaccine. 

Who should get the vaccine?

It is essential that as many people as possible get the COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine has proven safe and effective through many clinical trials, and all currently available options are shown to safely protect recipients against severe effects from COVID-19 and reduce the likelihood of infection/transmission.

However, the vaccine may not be safe for some, including:

  • Children 16 and younger
  • People who have received a different vaccine within the last 14 days
  • People who are severely immunocompromised 
  • People who have allergies to vaccine components

A Black History For 2021-22

A reflection on the deeper significance of Black History Month

In the 12 months since we last celebrated Black History Month, we have witnessed the slaying of Houston native George Floyd, received the disturbing news about the tragic killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, and watched in shock and horror as a New York woman weaponized her white privilege in an attempt to endanger and indict a Black man who dared to ask her to follow the stated rules of a public park. Even more disturbing, just days before we were to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we witnessed a mob of largely white men and women storm Our Nation’s Capital, brandishing confederate flags, nooses and other white supremacist paraphernalia as they chanted with pride and passion, “take our country back.”

And in spite of all our vain attempts to ignore or dismiss the ever-present realities facing us in those moments, what we could not overlook was that these episodes were taking place during one of the most severe pandemics in our lifetime — one that has again revealed the disproportionate impacts race plays in the lives of Black and brown people. In fact, of the 1,934 COVID-19 deaths in the city of Houston, 21% (406) were Black and 54% (1,050) were Hispanic as of February 23, 2021. 

Reflecting on our past, inspiring our future

So, as we approach the dawn of this new season of Black History Month, wherein we will again highlight historic Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and W.E.B. DuBois, I am curious whether we will also connect their work to the current work of Black leaders such as William Barber, Sherrilyn Ifil, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. As we once again rightly recognize and honor Houston’s own Black leaders and achievers such as Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leland and William Lawson, I am interested to see if we will be intentional this time in our efforts to make strategic investments in Houston’s new and emerging Black political, social and educational leaders. More importantly, as we again fill up our calendars with 28 days of feasting off of Black excellence, I can’t help but wonder if something in the telling of Black history in 2021 will be significant enough that it will cause us to stop for a brief moment and ask ourselves individually and collectively how we can more fully honor and celebrate the meaning and intentions of Black History Month as it was imagined by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, author of the Mis-Education of the Negro and founder of Black History Month.

Dr. Woodson is heralded as the “father of Black History Month,” however, many don’t know that when he founded the annual observance in 1926 — initially called Negro History Week — he was attempting to do more than just educate future generations of Black people about their ancestors’ remarkable contributions to world history, particularly in the United States. Indeed, what is often undervalued was his attempt to build and bridge Black institutions to larger social, political and economic institutions that would serve, protect and advance Black life in the United States and abroad. Although the study of Black historical representation across the African diaspora was crucial, Dr. Woodson also knew that a true understanding of the history of Black life would inevitably inspire a movement for Black freedom and liberation. In fact, Dr. Woodson is often quoted for saying that “those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” This, in part, is why he helped found the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915. It is also why he collaborated with organizations such as his beloved fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Hampton Institute, now Hampton University. Dr. Woodson understood that Black institutional building was a necessary component for sustained liberation and freedom in a world wherein the value of Black life was not yet fully recognized.

Most significant to those Black institutions would be the rise of a Black Servant Leader Class, or what W.E.B. DuBois called the Talented Tenth. Dr. Woodson knew that within those movements Black figures would emerge from those institutions to signal not only to Black excellence, but also encourage Black allies. A recent example of that belief is manifested in the election of Kamala Harris, the first woman to be elected Vice President of the United States. Both a graduate of a historically Black university, Howard University, and a member of one of the Divine 9 organizations, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Vice President Harris embodies Dr. Woodson’s reasoning for and support of Black history.

As such, Dr. Woodson was deeply interested in the way that Black history might inform the construction of institutions that would motivate both Black and white allies to develop activities for the advancement of Black political, social and cultural wellbeing. In other words, Dr. Woodson knew that Black history could be the foundation on which future generations could learn from the wealth of a Black ancestral past in order to build onramps that would allow Black people the opportunity to intelligently participate in the affairs of the world, both domestically and abroad. And while he wasn’t sure if it would free white people from the missteps of white supremacist logic, he did believe that Black history could challenge the validity of that logic.

A reason to be hopeful 

Dr. Woodson knew that Black history could help to produce a well-informed, socially responsible citizenry that could work to build a better society than the one he was born into in 1875.

Therefore, in light of that mission and with the evidence for that cause standing before us, I am holding to the belief that in the next 365 days between Black history months, that maybe it will be possible to see Black history as more than just a review of past events interspersed with Black bodies. Maybe it will be possible to see it as a guide map to the unimaginable — our North Star toward a fuller democratic republic. Maybe this season, Black history might inspire us to invest in the work of Black institutional building and support for those Black leaders within them.

For this reason, I remain hopeful in this new season for Black history, in the same way that my great-grandmother’s grandmother, who was emancipated from slavery in Texas in June 1865, was hopeful. I hold on to that same hope as my grandmother, who survived through Jim Crow and obtained the legally protected right to vote in 1965.

To be clear, I am not hopeful because I believe that another Black body will never again become a headline as another senseless death. Nor am I hopeful because I believe Black inequality will be solved within the next 12 months. Neither am I hopeful because I believe that white supremacy will be abolished from the United States cultural psyche in the next year or even the next decade.

I am hopeful because I know in spite of all of those things, Black people will still be here! We will be here in spite of institutional barriers that will try to limit us or the diseases that will try and kill us. We will be here in spite of policies that will try to once again claim that we are not deserving of our full humanity. We will be here creating new spaces for our community in spite of the disinvestment in our schools, our neighborhoods and businesses. And in the process, we will add new narratives to the stories of Black history.

We will tell how we helped to elect the first Black woman to the office of Vice President. We will remind people how in Georgia we banded together to elect the first Black senator in the history of that state. 

And because Black history is a corrective history, we will also tell the names of those who stood with us.  

Written By:

Marlon A. Smith, Ph.D.

Principal Consultant, Marlon A. Smith Enterprise

Founder, Black Greeks Speak Social Justice and Human Rights Council

Lecturer of African American Studies, University of Houston

Author of Reshaping Beloved Community: The Experiences of Black Male Felons and Their Impact on Black Radical Traditions and Black Lives Houston: Voices of Our Generations

Exploring the Legacy of Redlining in Houston

In the Houston area, there are neighborhoods fewer than 15 miles apart in which the average life expectancy differs by 21 years and future income differs by $50,000 for low-income children. The disparities may exist in the present, but their roots run deep through our region’s history.

More than 90 years of discriminatory federal, state, and local policies aimed at maintaining racial segregation significantly harmed resident wealth, health and well-being across generations and, by extension, entire neighborhoods. Today, these communities often lack adequate access to healthcare, healthy foods, equitable transportation, other basic needs, and even experience higher temperatures as a result of public and private disinvestment, the denial of public services, and the presence of industrial and waste facilities — just some of the many consequences of a practice known as redlining.

Redlining maps were used by the federal government in the early-to-mid 20th century to legally prevent Black Americans from accessing homeownership — one of the most effective ways to build economic security, social mobility and wealth.

As a result, Black residents who live in these neighborhoods still tend to have lower homeownership rates,  higher levels of poverty, lower future earnings, worse health outcomes and lower average life expectancies. Though the practice of redlining was outlawed in 1968, its effects can still be seen and felt today through a staggering wealth gap in which Black Americans hold only 13% of the median net worth of white families

These problems are complex and run deep. Correcting these injustices will require, among other things, intentional, philanthropic investment to support organizations that work to improve the historic, long-term inequities Black residents face. As Understanding Houston observes Black History Month, we will do so with a holistic perspective that celebrates the heritage and contributions of Black communities, scrutinizes the past and present, and looks ahead to a brighter future. Here, we examine the legacy of redlining in Houston. 

A brief background of redlining in America

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression to protect homeowners from losing their homes. The agency purchased mortgages that were facing imminent foreclosure and issued new mortgages with longer repayment timelines and, for the first time, offered an amortized schedule so buyers could gain equity as they paid off the loan.

To depict the level of risk in making home loans in various communities, HOLC created a series of multi-colored residential maps for 239 cities across the nation, including major cities in Texas. HOLC assigned communities a rating from A through D to designate the level of “risk” in investment.

Neighborhoods that were all-white were given an “A” rating, colored green, and denoted as a “best” area for investment. Meanwhile, if a single Black family lived in an area (regardless of neighborhood income level), it was automatically assigned “D” to indicate a “hazardous” investment and colored in red — hence the term “redlining.” Neighborhoods assigned D and C (categorized as “definitely declining” in yellow) ratings were also communities where immigrants or their children lived, as detailed in the redlining maps from Dallas and El Paso below. Read the area descriptions that informed the ratings for Dallas and El Paso (warning: the area descriptions contain overtly racist comments).1

Residential Security Maps of El Paso and Dallas. 

Source: Mapping Inequality: Redlining In New Deal America

Shortly after, in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established to provide federally backed insurance for mortgage loans. The FHA dramatically changed mortgage lending and made homeownership much more attainable and affordable — for a very specific segment of the population.

To guide the work of private real estate agents who conducted most property appraisals, the FHA created an Underwriting Manual in 1938, which relied on HOLC’s maps. This manual explicitly outlined the requirement of creating and maintaining “racially homogenous” neighborhoods and identified eligibility criteria which automatically denied Black applicants.

Since FHA-backed loans bear less risk to the lender, banks would not provide mortgages that the FHA would not insure — meaning, mortgages to Black applicants. As a result, between 1930 and 1950, only 2% of FHA mortgages went to non-white families

The practice of redlining and other racist housing policies legally excluded Black families from receiving fair housing mortgages for over 30 years. Major government investments aimed at making homeownership more accessible to low- and middle-income families largely benefited white families only — the effects of this injustice were then compounded from generation to generation and persist to this day. 

Though redlining was deemed unconstitutional in 1968 with the passage of the Fair Housing Act, efforts to prevent Black homeownership and integration did not end there. The policies of these federal agencies provided the systemic infrastructure for the perpetuation of discriminatory housing practices. Even after 1968, the federal government did not enforce the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and regularly supported restrictive covenants that excluded Black families from homeownership and policies that continued to segregate Black residents.

“…much of today’s racial disparities in housing, health, and education can be traced to our legacy of redlining and segregationist policies. This is a foundational issue that set a course for wealth disparity and racial injustice. Correcting this imbalance requires more than just access to FHA mortgages – we need to be intentional in adopting comprehensive reparations in all sectors of the American economy.” 

– Luis Guajardo, Urban Policy Research Manager at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research

How racial discrimination unfolds in the modern housing market

Compounding historical injustices, Black families are still being discriminated against in the housing market today in countless ways:

  • A national study found that Black applicants are denied mortgages at disproportionately higher rates than whites. 
  • As recently as 2016, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Department of Justice have required lending institutions to pay out millions of dollars for illegal redlining and discriminatory mortgage lending practices.
  • Studies have found that racial discrimination is still widespread in the housing market through more covert means like racial steering, a practice in which real estate agents deliberately steer Black potential homebuyers to areas with larger concentrations of people of color, higher poverty levels and lower housing quality. 
  • Agents tend to show white homebuyers more homes than they do in the case of equally qualified Black homebuyers. 
  • Homes in neighborhoods where there is a large concentration of Black families are appraised at lower market values (an average of 23% less, or $48,000), even among households of similar size and condition.
  • Lenders disproportionately market risky loans to Black families. In 2000, Black homeowners were significantly more likely to hold subprime loans than white borrowers at each income level. Higher-income Black households held subprime mortgages at four times the rate of higher-income white households.2 Not surprisingly, Black homeowners were the most harmed in the 2008 housing crisis, and between 2010 and 2017, the homeownership rate among Black households in Houston’s three-county region declined by five percentage points while white homeownership rates remained flat.
“The biggest issues have been lending institutions and appraisers and realtors not wanting to show properties [to Black individuals] in certain areas.” 

– Shadrick Bogany, Past Chairman of Houston Association of Realtors and Columnist for the Houston Chronicle

The impact of discriminatory housing policies today on Black Houstonians and communities

The negative impact of discriminatory federal housing policies cannot be overstated. The practice of redlining, combined with other housing policies intent on racial exclusion, led to two major inequities we see today:

1) The systematic exclusion of Black households from homeownership, which limited their ability to build and grow wealth across generations, resulting in extreme racial wealth disparities.

2) The isolation and deterioration of predominantly Black neighborhoods which created concentrated areas of poverty characterized by greater environmental risks, poor health outcomes, reduced life expectancy and little-to-no access to essential resources such as safe and affordable housing, high-quality schools, equitable transportation, green space and fresh and affordable food options. 

How redlining affects homeownership in Houston

It is impossible to separate present-day homeownership rates from decades of racist, discriminatory housing policies that prevented Black families from owning homes in the past. Across the Houston three-county area, 72% of white residents are homeowners compared to 41% of Black residents and 52% of Hispanic residents. 

Source: Mapping Inequality; Understanding Houston analysis of U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2019 5-year estimates data

Communities that were rated either “D” or “C”  in the 1930s tend to have lower homeownership rates compared to communities that were given “A” HOLC grades. For example, 31.2% of residents in Fifth Ward (previously redlined) are homeowners compared to 48.1% of residents in the Museum District and 65.6% of residents in the Heights (rated “A”). These disparities show the persistent obstacles that families in Houston’s redlined neighborhoods face in accessing homeownership. 

How redlining affects wealth and poverty in Houston 

Homeownership is the most common pathway toward economic security, social mobility, and wealth creation and particularly critical to upward mobility for the majority of low-income and non-white households since that wealth can be passed to future generations, according to a study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. In 2019, the median net worth among homeowners was $255,000, while that of renters was $6,300, according to the Federal Reserve

However, the practice of redlining prevented Black Americans from accessing the same homeownership opportunities that were afforded to white families. This would negatively impact Black families for generations and is a significant factor in the extreme racial wealth gap that exists today. The median net worth of white families in 2019 was $188,200 compared to $24,100 among Black families — despite a 33% increase in wealth for Black families between 2016–19. 

The impact of that level of lost wealth cannot be underestimated — not only in net worth but also in the lost opportunities that wealth allows in terms of investments in education, businesses, and other revenue-generating endeavors.

– Tanweer Kaleemullah, Public Health Policy Analyst at Harris County Public Health

Source: Mapping Inequality; Understanding Houston analysis of U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2019 5-year estimates data

Therefore, it is not surprising that poverty rates are higher in redlined communities than in greenlined ones and higher among Black households than white ones. There is a cluster of communities around the east side of Houston (redlined) in which a higher percentage of individuals live in poverty compared to the west side (greenlined).  For example, the poverty rate in Fifth Ward is 32.6% compared to 7.3% in Montrose. And across Houston’s three-county region, 20% of Black residents live in poverty compared to 7% of white residents. 

How redlining affects future income and earnings in Houston

Where we grow up profoundly affects our future. Neighborhoods give us resources, networks and opportunities. Or, they don’t. The lack of wealth accumulation among families across generations, compounded with perpetual disinvestment, created concentrated areas of poverty. Notable ripple effects include low property values resulting in lost tax revenue for schools, limiting access to high quality education and little private sector investment, which stifles business growth and employment opportunities. This matters because children who are raised in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates, less measured discrimination and higher levels of educational attainment tend to have better outcomes as adults (e.g., lower incarceration rates, higher household incomes, higher educational attainment and higher levels of employment). And, places that produce good outcomes in the past tend to produce good outcomes in the future. Homeownership has been identified as an effective way to create that neighborhood stability

Opportunity Atlas, an interactive tool from the Census Bureau and researchers from Harvard and Brown University, measures the extent to which groups move up (or down) the economic ladder by looking at various outcomes of adults and back-mapping where they grew up (read more about the methods and peer-reviewed paper here). The data reveals staggering differences in earnings for adults who grew up in low-income households that were located in wealthier neighborhoods versus lower-income neighborhoods. Being in an environment with access to the resources typically available in higher-income neighborhoods allows a child from a low-income household a greater chance to prosper in the future. 

Source: Mapping Inequality; Opportunity Atlas

Neighborhoods that were previously redlined generally produce low future earnings for adults raised in low-income households. Among the neighborhoods rated by HOLC, only one community produced high future earnings for individuals who grew up in low-income households — the Museum District — which received an A rating by HOLC in the 1930s.

How redlining affects social vulnerability in Houston

Communities that were redlined 90 years ago are also more vulnerable to impacts from economic and environmental threats today, including being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Job and income loss from economic recessions are higher among residents who live in previously redlined neighborhoods that are currently distressed, residents tend to have worse health outcomes as redlined communities are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, and most residents lack savings which acts as a safety net during difficult times.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) ranks each census tract on 15 demographic and social factors, including poverty, unemployment, family structure, lack of vehicle access, non-white population, disability and housing. Used together, this index helps identify communities that are more vulnerable to being negatively affected by hazardous events such as natural disasters like hurricanes and disease outbreaks like COVID-19.

For more detailed information regarding the Social Vulnerability Index, please visit our Disaster Vulnerability subtopic page

Source: Not Even Past: Social Vulnerability and the Legacy of Redlining

Neighborhoods in Houston that were redlined — Sunnyside, Third Ward and Fifth Ward — are located on the east side of the city and have SVI ratings of 0.84 or higher, making them more vulnerable than upwards of 80% of communities across the U.S, according to Not Even Past: Social Vulnerability and the Legacy of Redlining, an interactive tool that compares communities from the redlining maps to their current SVI. Areas that were given a grade of “A” — the Heights, West University Place and Montrose — have SVI ratings of 0.24 or lower, making them more vulnerable than, at most, 24% of communities across the U.S. and tend to be located on the west side.

Environmental hazards, health outcomes and life expectancy

Industrial and toxic-waste facilities in Houston are disproportionately found in Black neighborhoods — or in neighborhoods with a high concentration of low-income and non-white residents — due in part to redlining. This has consequences because the environment is a major determinant of health. A recent report from the Texas Department of State Health Services found that children in Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens were diagnosed with leukemia at nearly five times the expected rate of the general population, and cancer rates for children who live in the 100 homes located above a “toxic plume” were even worse. This isn’t the first cancer cluster in the region.

Additionally, formerly redlined communities overwhelmingly experience hotter temperatures than communities that were given better HOLC grades. Some neighborhoods in the same city differed by nearly 13 degrees. 

We see this phenomenon in Houston. Neighborhoods that have the highest nighttime temperatures — the greatest driver of heat-related health issues — are concentrated in areas that were redlined, according to maps created by Houston Harris Heat Action Team.

These dramatic differences in temperature have dire health consequences. FEMA warns that extreme heat kills more Americans than other weather-related disasters, and the World Health Organization states that  temperature extremes can exacerbate chronic cardiovascular, respiratory and diabetes-related conditions. This is especially problematic since there is a higher prevalence of diseases and poor health conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, pulmonary disease and obesity in neighborhoods that were previously redlined — due, in part, to the unsafe environment in these communities.

Environmental conditions account for nearly 25% of all deaths and likely comprise 70-90% of the total risk in the development of chronic diseases, according to research from Harris County Public Health, which means the neighborhood we live in ultimately shapes how long we will live. 

Redlined communities on the east side of Houston overwhelmingly have lower average life expectancies than those on the west side. For example, the average life expectancy in previously-redlined Fifth Ward is 70 years compared to 80 years in Montrose, according to analysis from the Episcopal Health Foundation

…primary challenges as a result of redlining [include] an increased health risk as a result of toxic exposures and poverty-related stress that causes a large gap in life expectancy, [and] the inability to recover from climate crises on a neighborhood and household level” 

– Zoe Middleton, Houston and Southeast Texas Co-Director at Texas Housers

What we can do to support historically marginalized communities

The past never stays in the past. Without the acknowledgment and repair of historical injustices, the past will continue to haunt our present. The challenges many Black residents face in building homeownership, wealth and good health is inextricably linked to the discriminatory housing policies created and enforced by our federal government 90 years ago. And while we also see incredible resilience, perseverance and power in communities that have been historically marginalized in Houston, our region’s collective progress depends on our ability to better understand the root causes that have contributed to the disparities we see today. 

“Individuals should…advocate for earnest reckoning with previous wrongs…showing a willingness to sacrifice a modicum of the privilege and comfort they may have in order to see resources go to other communities than their own.” 

– Kyle Shelton, Deputy Director at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research

Here are some things we can do:

  • Engage with residents and community leaders: Meet with individuals and organizations in these communities and seek to understand their needs and challenges. Offer to volunteer with organizations and work with them to identify ways that you can support ongoing work. 
  • Support CDFIs in your community: Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) promote economic revitalization with financial assistance to under-resourced neighborhoods and populations.
  • Donate in these neighborhoods: Find Black-led Organizations through GHCF’s Giving Guide or, if you are a Greater Houston Community Foundation donor, talk to your relationship manager about how you can be most impactful with your grants in these areas. 
  • Support Houston’s Complete Communities Initiative: The City of Houston’s Complete Communities Initiative works in partnership with Houston’s historically most under-resourced neighborhoods so that all of Houston’s residents and business owners can have access to quality services and amenities. Watch our interview with Shannon Buggs, Director of Complete Communities, highlighting the need in our region and the opportunities they are providing.
  • Reach out: As Greater Houston Community Foundation explores what more it can do as a partner to address economic disparities in Houston, we are listening and learning from readers like you. Sign-up to receive our monthly newsletter and contact us to get involved. 
“I am hopeful with cautious optimism for seeing more evidence-based justice, promoting the general welfare, liberty, and posterity for all. I hope we see our lofty ideals in practice for the common good.”

Theophilus Herrington, Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum

Resources for Further Learning

1 “Still Desirable” neighborhoods were graded “B” and colored blue. “Definitely Declining” neighborhoods were graded “C” and colored yellow.
2 Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Reprint ed.). Liveright.

Janis Scott: A Powerful Voice for Transportation Equity

This Transit Equity Day, we would like to acknowledge and thank Janis Scott for her unceasing commitment to improving and preserving public transit access for all Houston-area residents. Janis truly embodies the values central to transit equity. 

Janis Scott, LINK Houston Board Member

A Rice University graduate and a native Houstonian, Janis has been riding the bus all her life. She knows the lines, the drivers and the riders; she also knows the board members and executives who keep them moving. And when some of those crucial lines faced cuts, Janis knew exactly where to go to help riders’ voices be heard. 

“We want comfortable, dignified waiting areas for our buses. We should not continuously have to ask and beg and plead for basic amenities,” said Janis of Houston’s underserved public transit users. “My vision is crossing ‘boundaries,’ not feeling like I’m imposing, taking a chance on rejection. Not answering if asked what part of town I live in, and if I live in a bad neighborhood.”

As Janis’ voice for Houston’s underserved transit users grew louder, her profile rose, eventually earning her the nickname “The Bus Lady” and a seat on the board of LINK Houston, where she fights for more equitable access to public transportation

Fewer than 5% of households in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties are located within a quarter mile of a public transit stop. In Harris County, that rate climbs to 38%. In LINK’s 2020 Equity in Transit report, the three high-demand areas for more equitable transit investments include east and southeast Houston, southwest Houston and the Greater Greenspoint area. These communities have higher levels of poverty and lower rates of vehicle ownership compared to the overall county. The report calls for four main recommendations: 1) Increase frequency of routes; 2) extend service hours; 3) improve reliability and on-time arrivals; and 4) pursue accessibility and other transit stop upgrades. 

As for the nickname “Bus Lady,” Janis is proud of the reputation she’s built: “The nickname ‘Bus Lady’ started as a quick way to identify me when my name could not be quickly recalled. There have been some METRO folks who have asked for my advice on what is being done, since I tend to have a non-conformist view on what ‘everybody else’ thinks and does. Some have in fact put their phones down and relied on me to be ‘their Google’ transit app! I am honored to be a go-to source when someone is stuck, confused, and needs assistance. I’m happy to help!”

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 every Houston-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.

End Notes:

1Source: Texas Secretary of State

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. 

COVID-19

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.