We all know that Houston is hot. How quickly is Houston getting hotter and why? And what — aside from making us sweat — are the implications of the region’s heat?
The rising heat foreshadows many distressing possibilities as it relates to climate change, as well as less obvious public health and economic impacts. Extreme heat in particular already kills more Americans every year than any other weather-related disaster.
With eight federally declared disasters in the last decade alone, a deadly winter storm in 2021, and consecutive record-setting summers, many of us feel we are already living with extreme weather. The region is currently experiencing its most severe early summer drought conditions in nearly a decade, and Houston is coming off of the hottest June in its history. The data surrounding the rising heat and the populations most affected by it can tell us a little more about both why Houston is hot and why it matters.
How hot is “hotter,” exactly?
Most long-time residents are acclimated to Houston’s summer heat as much as one can be, although the prospect of it getting hotter surely isn’t welcomed by anyone. To answer the important qualifier of how Houston is getting hotter, we look to climate normals.
Climate normals, provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (or NOAA), are 30-year averages for climate and weather variations like temperature and precipitation. Because of the 30-year period over which they are recorded, climate normals provide a more clear picture of how our weather changes than annual variances do.
The Climate Normals published by NOAA in May 2021 (with data representing 1991–2020) show that, compared to the previous 30-year average (1981–2010), average temperatures in the Houston region went up by between 0.6 to 1.0 degrees Fahrenheit, and annual rainfall increased by around two inches.
The region has already experienced a significant uptick in the number of days of extreme heat, which is defined by the CDC as days with temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter. In fact, Montgomery County experienced 231 more days of extreme heat in the 2010s than it did in the previous decade — that is almost two-thirds of a year of added extreme heat over the last decade. Additionally, Harris County saw the number of days of extreme heat almost double over the same period, from 233 to 436.
Montgomery County experienced 231 more days of extreme heat in the 2010s than it did in the previous decade.
How hot could it get?
According to data from the Office of the Texas State Climatologist, the projected average temperature in Texas in the year 2036 is 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 1991–2020 average, and 3.0 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 1950–1999 average. They also project that the number of days in which temperatures reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the year 2036, will be nearly double the average rate for 2001–2020 in concentrated urban areas.
Long-term projections predict a story of longer summers, longer heatwaves and less rainfall. While, according to the Resilience Science Information Network (RESIN), average annual precipitation amounts are not projected to change significantly, the season in which the precipitation occurs is. Essentially, when it does rain, it is expected to be more intense, but there is also the possibility of longer droughts. It is important to note that although the number of hurricanes the region will face is not expected to rise, the strength of the hurricanes that do make landfall is. RESIN warns that a decline in rainfall, combined with extended summers and heatwaves, could have a serious impact on social vulnerability, critical infrastructure and natural habitats.
Projecting what our weather could look like in the future can be tricky, and doubt has been cast about the ability of climate models to accurately predict changes in temperature and precipitation. Research tells us, however, that climate projections tend to be pretty accurate. For example, a 2020 NASA study compared 17 climate model projections of average global temperature that were developed between 1970 and 2007 with actual changes in global temperature. Ten of the 17 models were spot on while the other seven were off by about 0.1 degree Celsius per decade. The researchers found that there was no evidence that these climate models have historically over or underestimated the impact of rising temperatures. Given today’s advanced technology and climate models, researchers express confidence that current scientists are skillfully predicting the impact of global warming.
Some Houstonians are hotter than others
Heat in Houston’s three-county region doesn’t affect everyone equally. Temperatures often vary by neighborhoods within the same city, where built infrastructure like bridges, parking lots and buildings contribute to pockets of heat known as “heat islands.” Heat islands are most likely to occur in urban areas, where there is too much concrete and too few trees to alleviate the heat. Concrete and pavement retain heat during the day and radiates it back throughout the evening, which keeps the surrounding area hotter for longer. We can feel the difference between walking across a vast parking lot on a steamy July afternoon compared to walking down a street with trees that meet in the middle.
Houston ranks fourth in the nation in urban heat island intensity, and low-income communities and communities of color are most likely to have high nighttime temperatures.
Heat islands are the greatest driver of heat-related health issues according to Houston Harris Heat Action Team. These heat islands can result in daytime temperatures in urban areas 1–7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than temperatures in outlying areas, and nighttime temperatures 2–5 degrees higher.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), temperature extremes can worsen chronic cardiovascular, respiratory and diabetes-related conditions, and even small changes in seasonal average temperatures are associated with increases in illnesses and death. Extreme heat already kills more Americans every year than any other weather-related disaster, and WHO reports that extreme heat events are only increasing in frequency, duration and magnitude.
Extreme weather may hurt our economy
The greater Houston region has already witnessed how extreme weather can affect our local economy. Five years ago, when Hurricane Harvey inundated our region over several days, nearly all businesses were forced to shut down for a period of time because it was simply impossible to get anywhere. Much of the storm’s cost, estimated at $125 billion, is attributed to interruptions in business and employee displacement.
More recently, when Winter Storm Uri surprised the region in February 2021, power outages were rampant throughout the state and burst pipes damaged thousands of businesses and homes. The economic impacts are estimated at $130 billion.
Globally, researchers estimate that rising temperatures could reduce crop yields by 30–46% before the end of the century under the slowest (B1) climate warming scenario and 63–82% under the most rapid (A1B) scenario, which would threaten our global food supply. It isn’t just national crops and higher electricity bills; extreme weather puts incalculable stress on local communities.
Heat isn’t going away
Houstonians are already enduring the effects of extreme heat, but those risk factors will only become more acute as climate change continues to affect the region, and our region’s most vulnerable residents will bear the brunt of the harm.
A few reminders as we get through the hottest time of the year:
Houston is getting hotter, and we should prepare for heat and for a future of weather extremes that could repeatedly test the fabric of our region. Our continued ability to grow and prosper may depend on it.
Texas has seen three times the number of family violence deaths since 2017 with rates of family violence increasing across all three counties
Domestic violence, also known as domestic abuse or intimate partner violence (IPV), is a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. According to the 2010 CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner which equates to more than 10 million individuals every year in the U.S.1 And while this data is dated, local indicators point to an increase in domestic violence since 2010 – particularly during the pandemic.
20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner
Domestic violence not only impacts the individuals directly involved, but also is a substantial public health problem. The National Center for Injury Prevention estimates the cost of intimate partner rape, physical assault, and stalking exceeds $5.8 billion each year — nearly $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health care services.2
Domestic violence can occur in a number of intimate relationships such as parent-child, grandparent-grandchild, siblings, ex- or current spouses, individuals who live together, and current or former dating couples. The majority of individuals who report experiencing rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner experienced some form of intimate partner violence for the first time before they were 25.3
To be clear, there is no perfect study or data set that accurately illustrates the prevalence of domestic violence, as cases are often undercounted in official records — the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that only half of domestic violence cases are actually reported to the police.4
The 2021 Harris County Health and Relationship study conducted by the University of Texas Medical Branch and Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council found that of their survey participants impacted by domestic violence and who reached out for help, the majority sought help from a friend or family member.5
As Houstonians, we should seek to understand, as best we can, what domestic violence is, the many forms it can take, who it may be impacting in our community, and the barriers many individuals face when reporting abuse and seeking assistance. The more we understand about domestic violence in our region, the more we can do, together, to ensure the necessary support is provided to survivors.
A note about terminology
The words we use to describe an individual or situation have meaning and can be powerful.
When tracking the data for any issue area, using common language can be advantageous because it allows all individuals and organizations to be on the same page, creating a mutual understanding of the terms and what is being discussed. However, there is not one set of words that fits all individuals and circumstances.
When referring to an individual who has experienced domestic violence, the word “victim” is often used by members of law enforcement and within the context of courtroom proceedings, but nonprofits tend to use the term “survivor” to provide a sense of empowerment.
In this case, Understanding Houston used data from the Texas Department of Public Safety and matches the language they use when collecting and reporting data, which is the term “victim.”
Forms of Domestic Violence
Often, when people think about domestic violence, they think in terms of physical assault that results in visible injuries to the victim. However, this is only one type of abuse and there are several other categories of abusive behavior.
Control: This can include monitoring phone calls, not allowing freedom of choice, and invading someone’s privacy by not allowing them time and space of their own.
Physical Abuse: Which can include hitting, punching, slapping, biting, etc., but can also include strangulation, withholding of physical needs, injuring or threatening to injure others like children or pets, and hitting, kicking, or throwing inanimate objects during an argument.
Sexual Abuse: Such as exploiting an individual who is unable to make an informed decision about involvement in sexual activity, laughing or making fun of another’s sexuality or body, and making contact with the victim in any nonconsensual way.
Emotional Abuse & Intimidation: Continuous degradation, intimidation, manipulation, brainwashing, or control of another.
Isolation: By keeping the victim socially isolated the batterer is keeping the victim from contact with the world. By keeping the victim from seeing who they want to see, doing what they want to do, and controlling how the victim thinks and feels they are isolating the victim from the resources which may help them leave the relationship.
Verbal Abuse: Coercion, threats, and blame such as threatening to hurt or kill the victim their children, a family member or even themselves, name calling, yelling, screaming, rampaging, or terrorizing.
Economic Abuse: This can include controlling the family income, making them turn their paycheck over, or causing them to lose a job or preventing them from taking a job, which can make it even more difficult for an individual to leave an abusive relationship as the batterer keeps them from having the necessary financial resources to support themselves.
According to a report from the Texas Council on Family Violence, in 70% of cases, Texas domestic violence offenders abuse the same victim again, even after a warning from authorities or after a protective order was issued6 and many organizations who work in this area agree that the violence almost always escalates over time.
Rates of family violence increased across all three counties in 2020
The annual rate of reported family violence incidents was consistently higher in Harris County compared to Fort Bend and Montgomery counties between 2010 and 2021.
Across all three counties and the state, reported family violence incidents increased between 2019 and 2020 with Harris County seeing an over 28% increase.
Some of this increase was likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic which exacerbated stressors in violent households and/or relationships, thus increasing the frequency and/or severity of domestic violence.
Indeed, the 2021 Harris County Health and Relationship Study found that of their survey participants impacted by domestic violence, almost 52% reported an increase since the COVID-19 pandemic began and about 6% reported that physical violence began during COVID-19.7
Research has also shown that economic hardship can increase the rate of domestic violence incidents,8,9 with one study finding a 30% increased chance of male perpetrated violence linked to job loss, suggesting that the loss of income can create stress within the household and lead to more time at home, which increases a victim’s exposure to abusive behavior.10
The number of family violence related deaths has increased dramatically since 2017
In 2021, Texas saw the highest number of family violence related deaths in recent history. However, the number of deaths related to family violence had been increasing steadily across the state since 2017 which, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence, could be due to Hurricane Harvey, increased homicide rates overall, and/or a higher prevalence of firearms.
Compared to 2017, Texas experienced nearly three times the deaths in 2021, 529 deaths in 2021 compared to 186 deaths in 2017.
Hurricane Harvey: Studies show that rates of violence can increase in the wake of a natural disaster due to increased mental distress and anger as well as limited capacity of safe houses due to increased demands from the affected community or damage caused to the building by the disaster.11,12
Abusers with access to a firearm are more likely to take their partner’s life. Some studies say that owning a firearm makes an abuser five times more likely to take a partner’s life and that domestic violence incidents involving a gun are 12 times more likely to result in death compared to incidents involving other weapons or bodily force.13,14
Texas prohibits people convicted of some domestic violence misdemeanors from possessing firearms for five years following their release from confinement or community supervision. This penalty does not generally apply to people convicted of threatening a family or household member with imminent violent injury or to people convicted of violent assaults against a current or former dating partner, known as the “boyfriend loophole.” However, with the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act on June 25, 2022, people who are convicted of domestic violence (against a current or recent former dating partner) will now be prohibited from purchasing or possessing a firearm for at least five years.
The majority of reported family violence cases occur between “other family members”
Because domestic violence perpetrators are often close to their victims, it is difficult for the abused individual to reconcile that they are being harmed and, once they do, victims face a number of fears and stigmas when reporting the abuse and receiving assistance, which can deter many people from reporting their abuse. Some of the reasons domestic violence is frequently unreported include:
Fear of the abuser due to threats and ongoing violence
Custody issues, shared finances or financial instability
Judgment/disbelief/blame from friends, family, or community members
Across Texas in 2020, the largest share of family violence incidents reported to the police occurred between the victim and an offender marked as an “other family member,” which can include aunts, uncles, or cousins. The second most common type of relationship was spousal, which impacts not only the spouse suffering abuse but children in the household as well. A boy who sees his mother being abused is 10 times more likely to abuse his female partner as an adult and a girl is six times more likely to be sexually abused compared to a girl who grows up in a non-abusive home.15
However, the information being collected depends on the person collecting the data and their interaction with the individual making the report. For example, for this data set, information is collected by local law enforcement and then reported up to the Texas Department of Public Safety for analysis and publishing.
If an individual does not feel comfortable disclosing certain details about themselves, how they identify, and/or their relationship with the abuser to police, then the information reported is not completely accurate. In other instances, how the individual identifies or how the relationship is defined may not be a specific option that is collected on a form so those instances could fall under a broad “Other Family Member” category.
This data set shows that in 2020 across Texas there were 261 reported incidents of family violence where the individuals involved were in a same-sex relationship. However, this does not mean that domestic violence in same-sex relationships is less prevalent than in heterosexual relationships. In fact, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that within the LGBTQ+ community, intimate partner violence occurs at a rate equal to or even higher than that of the heterosexual community and that transgender individuals may suffer from an even greater burden of intimate partner violence than gay or lesbian individuals.
Domestic violence in the LGBTQ+ population is likely to be underreported due to unique barriers faced such as the dangers associated with “outing” oneself, potential homophobia from police and/or service providers, or the lack of, or survivors being unaware of, LGBTQ+-friendly assistance resources.
A boy who sees his mother being abused is 10 times more likely to abuse his female partner as an adult.
Nearly three-quarters of reported incidents of family violence had a female victim
It is estimated that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men in the U.S. experience severe intimate partner physical violence, contact sexual violence, and/or stalking.16
In Texas in 2020, there were over twice as many family violence incidents reported where women or girls were the victim than incidents where men or boys were the victim. However, the National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that there are likely many more men who do not report or seek help for their abuse due to many barriers including men being socialized not to express their feelings or see themselves as victims, pervading beliefs or stereotypes about men being abusers and women being victims, the abuse of men often being treated as less serious or a joke, and the belief that there are no resources or support available for male victims.
A disproportionate number of reported family violence incidents are for Black and white Texans
In 2020, the percentage of reported family violence cases for Black and white Texans was higher than those demographics percentages of the population across the state. White Texans in particular comprised 50% of all reported family violence cases. Black Texans make up about 12% of the population but compromise 21% of reported family violence incidents.
However, these numbers are not a perfect representation of family violence as they only represent incidents that are reported to authorities and certain populations are less likely to report.
In the United States, limited English proficiency is one of the obstacles individuals can face when reporting domestic violence. While all survivors and victims of domestic violence can encounter difficulties when reporting abuse, according to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, those with limited English proficiency face additional challenges such as: being seen as uneducated, helpless, or resistant to acculturation or learning English; not being provided adequate language services; and/or an abuser who speaks English deliberately misrepresenting or falsifying facts to first responders or law enforcement claiming that they were assaulted leading to the arrest of the real victim.
Moreover, across Houston’s immigrant communities, victims face barriers related to language access, cultural taboos, immigration status, cultural mismatches with mainstream agencies, violence from extended family systems, and a lack of knowledge of their legal rights and protective options. As a result, domestic and sexual violence is underreported and underestimated in these communities.
Along with language barriers, culture can also impact an individual’s likelihood of seeking assistance when experiencing abuse from someone they have a personal relationship with. The Urban Institute points to research shedding light on underreporting of domestic violence in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community which shows that deeply internalized patriarchal values could contribute to minimization and underreporting and cultural values of prioritizing family and community over individuals can lead this population avoiding talking about their domestic violence experiences. One study shows that one of the most common barriers to reporting violence Asian American and Pacific Islander women cite is fear of bringing shame on their family.
Additionally, the Women of Color Network reports within the context of a particular community of color, common factors and considerations exist which may account for underreporting of domestic violence by women of color. They include:
Cultural norms and/or religious beliefs that restrain the survivor from leaving the abusive relationship or involving outsiders.
Distrust of law enforcement, criminal justice systems, and social services.
Lack of service providers that look like the survivor or share common experiences.
Lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate services.
Lack of trust based on the history of racism and classism in the United States.
Fear that these experiences will reflect on, or confirm, the stereotypes placed on their ethnicity.
Attitudes and stereotypes about the prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault in communities of color.
Legal status in the US of the survivor and/or the batterer.
Oppression, including re-victimization, is intensified at the intersections of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, legal status, age and socioeconomic status.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, several resources are available to assist and answer any questions you may have, including but not limited to.
One of the biggest barriers survivors face to reporting, leaving, or recovering from an abusive relationship is the lack of means to support themselves and/or their children financially or lack of access to cash, bank accounts, or assets. Safe, secure, and affordable housing remains a critical need in order for survivors to flee. As we work to end domestic violence, it is imperative that housing programs and nonprofit organizations that serve survivors have access to flexible funds.
Consider donating to, or volunteering with, any one of these organizations who provide housing, financial assistance, legal representation, counseling, advocacy and a number of other services to domestic violence survivors in our community.
If you’d like to learn more, the following organizations provide educational resources.
1 National Center for Injury Prevention. “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf
15 Vargas, L. Cataldo, J., Dickson, S. (2005). Domestic Violence and Children . In G.R. Walz & R.K. Yep (Eds.), VISTAS: Compelling Perspectives on Counseling. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association; 67-69.
Greater Houston Community Foundation hosted a program on July 20, 2022, to convene experts, researchers and practitioners around the increasingly severe mental health crisis affecting children and adolescents.
The program began with a brief data presentation from Understanding Houston, to set the stage for the deeper dives from guest speakers that would follow. The convening featured presentations from the following experts:
We explored data and different approaches, which included ways to improve child resilience; treat children who are coping with trauma and grief; identify and serve children in both school and community settings; and the various policy and legislative issues that influence the workforce, funding and efficacy in the mental health space. We have provided a few critical insights below, and we invite you to watch the event here.
Concurrent and consecutive disasters and events have battered our mental health
The past couple of years have been tough on most of us, but research and studies have shown that this time has been especially difficult for children. Not only due to having to navigate an entirely new way of living caused by a pandemic but also because of several successive, traumatic events in recent years. These events, combined with 24/7 news cycles and social media, can contribute to increased feelings of anxiety and unhappiness. However, the data indicates that things weren’t so great even before 2020.
In roughly the last decade from 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from about a quarter to nearly half, which is the highest level of teenage sadness on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But kids are not only struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression brought on by traumatic events. They are also grieving — more than 215,000 children nationally have lost a parent or caregiver who died as a result of COVID-19. Dr. Julie Kaplow, Executive Director of the Trauma and Grief Center at The Hackett Center for Mental Health, calls this the “silent epidemic of childhood trauma and grief.” She emphasizes “silent” because trauma and grief symptoms in children can be disguised which reduces the likelihood of receiving treatment.
Community-based organizations that work to identify and treat mental and behavioral health challenges in children in school settings or otherwise, have been seeing this with their clients for a few years. As Shubhra Endley, Director of Mental Health and Wellness at Communities in Schools of Houston, noted, “We had barely wrapped up our mental health support we were doing in response to [Hurricane] Harvey, and we are now having to deal with housing instability, food instability — because of jobs that got cut during the pandemic — and it’s all impacting the well-being of our students.” Heads around the room nodded in agreement.
Jessica Cisneros, Chief Clinical Officer at Family Houston, noted that it is one thing to identify students in need and offer help, and it is another issue entirely for a family/child to accept support. She notes the historically lower uptake rates among Latinos. Similarly, a survey from Episcopal Health Foundation and Kaiser Family Foundation found that Latinos were the least likely to receive mental health treatment after experiencing negative effects on mental health from Hurricane Harvey compared with Black and white residents.
Aside from the typically lower insured rates among this demographic, cultural norms within the broader Hispanic community can stigmatize mental health treatment. But, that tendency could be reversing. Cisneros shared, “In the Latino community, we have seen a greater focus in reducing stigma by introducing psychotherapists on Spanish-speaking networks,” and she has seen positive results.
There is a clear need for mental and behavioral treatment and therapy. But even if everyone who needs and wants help seeks it out, how available and accessible is treatment?
A local mental and behavioral health provider workforce shortage is exacerbating treatment challenges
Texas ranks last among states in mental health care access according to Mental Health America’s 2022 State of Mental Health report. And, residents in our three-county region have even less access to mental health treatment than the state average. Fort Bend County has the least amount of access to mental health treatment with only one mental health provider for roughly every 1,200 residents.
These numbers cover mental health professionals for all ages, but if we look at the availability of child and adolescent clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, the numbers get worse. According to data from the American Psychological Association, out of the 100,000 U.S. clinical psychologists, only 4% are trained child and adolescent clinicians. Fort Bend, Harris and Montgomery counties all have a severe shortage of practicing child and adolescent psychiatrists.
A Houston Chronicle analysis of staffing at 1,200 school districts in Texas found that many school districts do not meet the recommended ratios for these positions.
4 districts met the recommendation for social workers
24 districts for counselors
25 districts for psychologists
398 districts for nursing staff
Andrea Usanga, Executive Director of Network of Behavioral Health Providers, works to increase the provider workforce through education and advocacy. She has been sounding the alarm for over a decade.
In 2009, Usanga testified before the Texas legislature on the mental and behavioral workforce shortage — at the time, about one-third of the counties in the state did not have the designation of partial or total Mental Health Care Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs). Now, only one county of the 254 does not have a shortage. She urges action, “If we don’t start getting people in [the mental and behavioral health workforce] pipeline to be able to address these issues down the line, we are going to be in even bigger trouble.” Jessica Cisneros shared that Family Houston has also lost a significant number of staff during the pandemic’s peak which has made it harder to treat anyone who seeks help.
We need to do more to prevent challenges from snowballing and giving kids the tools they need to build resilience
Usanga noted in her remarks, “At the exact time we are seeing increases…our available professional supply is going down.” So, how will everyone get the help they need? As Marcy Melvin, Deputy Director of The Hackett Center for Mental Health, implored at the beginning of her talk, we need to “… reimagine how we think about, talk about and define mental health treatment.”
Preventing mental health disorders and building resilience in children to cope with life challenges should be a priority now, Melvin declares. “We are never going to get to the point where we have enough practitioners to meet all of the needs of youth…We can’t stop bad things from happening, but what we can do is build the capacity so that when trauma, hard things happen, we have children and youth who have the capacity to be able to manage and get through those situations.”
Melvin encourages all of us to engage in conversation, lean into community and equip children and youth with the tools they will need to successfully navigate future challenges. The Hackett Center promotes early childhood education as instrumental in that effort. Since a child’s brain is still forming and developing rapidly at that stage, integrating these tools early will build solid brain formation to help children manage stressors effectively. This preventative and resilient approach, particularly when implemented in early years, potentially avoids worsened feelings of hopelessness that can feel insurmountable when we don’t know how to cope.
Why diversity and inclusion matter and what they truly mean in Greater Houston
It’s no secret that Houston is diverse. The region was recognized for its multiculturalism long before it was reported to be the most racially/ethnically diverse place in the nation. We typically measure diversity in terms of race or ethnicity, but it is also defined as diversity in backgrounds, perspectives, insights, and lived experiences, and Greater Houston is diverse in many ways that often go unnoticed.
But why does diversity matter? Research suggests that companies composed of people with diverse experiences — including gender identity, race, ethnicity, and other backgrounds — tend to financially outperform, make better decisions, and are generally more successful. There is a growing movement in pedagogy that children should experience different cultures, languages, and practices to succeed more in our interconnected world. Our exposure to different perspectives and mindsets makes for a richer, more empathetic, interesting world — it can also challenge stereotypes.
While our population may be diverse — in a variety of ways — we are not equally inclusive. The very groups which allow us to claim diversity as a strength are the same ones that have been historically marginalized and harmed. Racist policies and practices outlawed decades ago still affect large swathes of the population, who, despite living in the nation’s most diverse region, do not enjoy true equity. In many cases, some progress has been made for underserved groups, but for others, the damage has lingered with devastating impacts.
In this article, Understanding Houston is setting out to celebrate Houston’s diversity by taking a look at the ways in which it underpins our region and the ways in which certain populations remain underserved.
Over 30 years have passed since the establishment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and only one significant amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, has been made in accommodation of significant demographic shifts, and to further define what we understand as “disability.”
Disability status is often left out of the conversation about diversity. Nearly 10% of Houston’s three-county region is living with one or more disability, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That equates to more than half a million Houstonians, and researchers estimate that one out of five American households will have at least one member with a minimum of one disability by 2050 because of the aging Baby Boomer population.
While this segment of our population improves our diversity, they have not been fully included in our region’s economic prosperity. In 2020, the rate at which persons with disabilities lived below the poverty line was about double that of folks living without disabilities, according to data from the American Community Survey. People living with disabilities experience significantly lower employment rates, and those who are employed receive significantly lower pay. The National Disability Institute estimates that households containing an adult with a work disability require, on average, 28 percent more income — an additional $17,690 a year for a household at the median income level — to enjoy the same standard of living as a comparable household without a member with a disability. As this population ages and grows, these inequities will only become more acute unless significant changes are made to policy and planning.
Sexual orientation and gender identity
Sexual orientation and gender identity are other vital and under-discussed ways in which our region is diverse. While Pride and sexual/gender diversity have become more widely celebrated in recent years, there is still a long way to go. After all, what does it mean to celebrate diversity without equity and inclusion?
Obtaining reliable data on queer populations in Greater Houston is challenging, but we do know that as of 2021, Texas is the state with the second-largest number of LGBTQIA adult residents, estimated to be around 1.7 million people, though this may be an undercount. Attitudes toward the LGBTQIA community have evolved, and support is growing. Both acceptance of same-sex relations and support for same-sex marriage have doubled since the 1990s, jumping from 31% in 1993 to 64% in 2019, according to the Kinder Houston Area Survey.
LGBTQIA individuals make up our residents, our families, our workers, and our visitors. Houston scored above average on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2021 Municipal Equity Index, a report that measures how thoroughly LGBTQIA residents, workers and visitors are protected from discrimination across American cities. Houston scored perfectly for “offering equivalent benefits and protections to LGBTQIA employees, awarding contracts to fair-minded businesses, and taking steps to ensure an inclusive workplace,” and “city leadership’s commitment to fully include the LGBTQIA community and to advocate for full equality,” which led the city to a total score of 76, above the average of 67. While “above average” is a great start, there is still work to be done.
Texas, for instance, still lacks many basic protections against discrimination for LGBTQIA residents. As of 2020, Texas had no official protection for LGBTQIA population from discrimination in housing, public accommodations, credit and lending or anti-bullying for students. As of 2019, LGBTQIA folks in Texas live in poverty at a rate higher than that for cisgender straight people.
Racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity
Greater Houston’s reputation for diversity is often rooted in its extraordinary ethnic/racial diversity. Over two-thirds of Houston’s three-county region is comprised of people of color, who made up 95% of Texas’ population growth over the last decade. This trend toward increasing diversity will undoubtedly continue as the racial/ethnic composition of children under five in the three-county area is even more diverse than our overall population.
The region is made richer by multiculturalism in incalculable ways. Still, many of the diverse populations who contribute to the economy and vibrancy of the region continue to face disproportionate challenges and inequities. People of color, the majority of our region’s population, have on average poorer health, lower household incomes, lower access to quality housing, among other disparities. Why is this?
That question has many answers, often related to outdated, discriminatory public policy put in place with the intention of keeping American metros racially segregated. Policies that, despite being outlawed today, have done irreparable harm to the quality of life and access to opportunities for entire communities across generations. One of the many discriminatory practices employed in our nation’s history, including the Houston area, was called redlining. Redlining maps were used in the early-to-mid 20th century to determine which neighborhoods would receive public investment and access to home loans. The result of which legally prevented nearly all Black and Mexican Americans from being able to purchase homes.
Homeownership is the most common avenue to building generational wealth. The exclusion of the single most important American investment opportunity does not, however, scratch the surface of how damaging these policies really were to Black Americans.
Redlining maps and other discriminatory housing policies not only prevented Black families from building meaningful wealth, but also ensured that Black neighborhoods would be isolated from access to safe affordable housing, good jobs, and proper infrastructures like parks, roads or stormwater drainage. The result is what we see today — communities that have worse air quality, higher temperatures, limited fresh food options and lower rated schools.
Despite these disparities, segregation levels in the region have ticked down, according to the fractionalization index, which measures the likelihood that two random people in a given area will be of different races or ethnicities. A score of one on this index represents a 100% chance that two random people will be of different racial/ethnic backgrounds, with a score of zero representing that it would be impossible. Fort Bend County (0.75 in 2017) has the highest level of diversity among the three counties, although Harris is right behind it (0.69 in 2017). In Montgomery County, the odds are a little lower at 0.50.
Another way to measure diversity as it relates to segregation is the entropy index, which measures the degree to which racial/ethnic groups are concentrated in specific areas. An entropy index score of one would mean that only one ethnic group was represented in the area, indicating complete segregation, while a score of zero would indicate complete integration. This measure suggests Harris County is more segregated than Fort Bend or Montgomery counties. Although Montgomery County is less segregated than both Fort Bend and Harris counties, it is also the least diverse.
The greater Houston region is also home to exceptional linguistic diversity thanks to its residents who originate from all over the world. Of all three Houston-area counties, Fort Bend County has the greatest linguistic diversity, while Harris County has the most non-English speakers. About 28% of residents in Harris County are limited English speakers who either speak English “not well” or “not at all.” Spanish is the most common non-English language spoken in homes in the three-county region, followed by other Indo-European languages (such as Greek, Hindi, Italian and Persian), Vietnamese and Chinese.
Houston is enriched by diversity
Diversity enriches Greater Houston in innumerable ways, but the population groups that contribute to our diversity have historically faced a disproportionate number of barriers to economic stability, high-quality education, and environmentally safe and healthy neighborhoods. Specific neighborhoods in our region have long been intentionally segregated, resulting in disinvestment and poor quality infrastructure. For our entire region to thrive we need not just diversity or the championing of diversity, but economic inclusion, shared prosperity, and equitable distribution of resources for the very people who allow us to claim such a distinction.
Changing attitudes can only bring us so far, but local organizations work every day to both celebrate diversity and to ensure that all residents, regardless of ability, sexuality, gender identity or racial/ethnic background have access to the resources that enable them to thrive. Here are just a few:
DiverseWorks is a nonprofit arts program committed to inclusion and cultural equity, presenting art in all forms through collaborations that honor individual artistic vision. They foster civic participation and cross-cultural understanding by taking risks and showing work that might otherwise go unseen.
Houston Coalition Against Hate (HCAH) is a network of community-based organizations, institutions, and leaders who come together to reduce hate and encourage belonging. HCAH does this through education, research, relationship building and prevention initiatives, as well as partnering with organizations to host events that celebrate the diversity that makes Houston strong.
Diversity is less a characteristic of Greater Houston than it is the foundation on which it was built. Greater Houston’s diversity directly informs many other aspects of the region.
Understanding Houston has already paid service to its entrepreneurial spirit, resilience and vibrance — all of which are directly shaped by the diversity of Houston’s residents. The more we meaningfully engage with and work to include all members of our increasingly diverse region, the stronger that foundation — and our region — grows.
Houston has certainly earned its reputation for resilience. Since 1980 the region has been hit by 26 natural disasters, including five hurricanes, five tropical storms, two wildfires, a dozen rain/flood events and a winter storm, to name a few. Nearly a third of these disasters have occurred since 2015, and yet the population continues to rise, and the three-county area has added jobs at a rate faster than the nation.
You’ve likely seen the “Houston bounces back” or “Houston Strong” messaging, but in a region celebrated for its resilience, not everyone bounces back equally after disaster strikes. What factors contribute to our ability to recover from the many ways disasters wreak havoc on our lives? It is important that, while acknowledging Houstonians’ resilience, we discuss the wide-ranging impacts behind the disasters that are often hiding behind the resilience narrative. The human experiences behind these disasters and the data we gather in their wake can both tell us more about what it is that makes Houston resilient and how we can better prepare for the future.
Uneven recovery, ongoing risk
About one in five residential properties are at risk of flooding in Houston’s three-county area, and 286,000 properties are projected to have “substantial” risk of flooding by the year 2050. A figure made more disquieting by the fact that communities most vulnerable to flooding are the least likely to recover. Historically, these neighborhoods are on low-lying land, receive fewer public flood mitigation projects, and are characterized by decades of disinvestment, such as poor stormwater infrastructure.
On top of that, residents of these communities are overwhelmingly low-income, immigrants, and people of color, meaning they typically have the fewest resources available to prepare in advance of a storm and to help them recover from its effects once it passes.
One year after Hurricane Harvey, the Episcopal Health Foundation conducted a survey that found that Black, low-income and immigrant families were most likely to report that they did not receive financial aid after the storm or that the financial aid they did receive covered “very little” or “none” of their financial losses. They were also more likely to report that they weren’t getting the help they needed to recover. These sentiments are validated by established research that shows that federal disaster assistance policies place vulnerable groups at a disadvantage and reduce their ability to access resources and assistance for recovery. More specifically, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Rice University found that wealth inequality increased in counties hit by more disasters. In Harris County, the wealth gap between Black and white families increased by an average of $87,000 from the effects of disasters alone.
Hurricane Harvey is estimated to be the second-costliest storm in U.S. history, causing about $125 billion in damage, and displaced tens of thousands of people over its six days of landfall. The challenging nature of disaster relief is plain to see when staring down a number like $125 billion.
The federal response to Hurricane Harvey was historic. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) distributed $918.2 million in aid from its Individual and Household Program (IHP) directly to residents of the three-county area after Harvey, and the Small Business Administration (SBA) issued $1.5 billion in low-interest, long-term loans to homeowners.
Both local government and private philanthropic dollars also play a significant role in immediate relief after disasters. Local government provides for the basic necessities of those families waiting on applications to be approved and disbursements to be released, and dollars from the private sector often serve as emergency funds for the particularly vulnerable, particularly those who have not historically accessed public benefits. Collectively, philanthropic funds to support recovery from Hurricane Harvey reached about $971 million following the storm.
Still, nearly one in five (17%) Harris County residents reported that their quality of life was worse one year after Harvey as a direct result of the storm, with Black (31%) and low-income (20%) households bearing the brunt of the effect on the region.
Though the Houston region has plenty of experience activating after a storm, we had never responded to a public health disaster of this scale. But the region responded quickly in March 2020 by adapting our weather-related disaster expertise to a pandemic. Our ability to be nimble and flexible in responding to the effects of COVID-19 revealed both strengths and gaps in our resilience.
Not only were people getting sick and dying, our region suffered significant job loss, with unemployment peaking in April and May of 2020 at 14.6% in Harris County. Households with low incomes were the most likely to lose their jobs. One in five renters still reported that they were behind on payments in December 2021, almost two years after the onset of the pandemic. The Houston Metro Area has the highest rate of reported food insecurity, among the 15 most populous metros 15 times out of the first 40 surveys conducted by the Census Bureau, with the highest rates among people of color and households with children.
The challenges were enormous, and our region quickly responded with innovative relief funds and programs. This is not an exhaustive list, of course, but here are just a few:
The majority of folks who lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic worked in hospitality and retail. The Get Shift Done program paid for out-of-work hospitality workers to staff food pantries — this served the dual purpose of responding to the skyrocketing demand for food donation while also providing living wages to folks who were laid off.
The Lost Loved One Fund, funded through the Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund and administered by Memorial Assistance Ministries provided flexible financial assistance to families that lost a primary breadwinner or immediate family member due to COVID-19.
To combat food scarcity, the Urban Harvest Community Gardens Program, one of many agencies addressing food insecurity in the region, donated 136,000 pounds of food in 2020 alone, and the Houston Eats Restaurant Support program raised almost $5 million to provide for food-insecure individuals.
Most recently, Winter Storm Uri brought nearly unprecedented challenges in February 2021 to a region already well-acquainted with natural disasters.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas estimates the true costs of Winter Storm Uri to be somewhere between $80 and $130 billion, which would make it potentially the most costly weather disaster in Texas history. The storm left millions of people without power and water, causing damage in patterns not dissimilar to those of previous disasters in that vulnerable communities were affected disproportionately.
In response, Mayor Sylvestor Turner and Judge Lina Hidalgo quickly established the Houston Harris County Winter Storm Relief Fund, which the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston jointly administered. The first round of emergency financial assistance was distributed within four days to pre-existing nonprofit partners with a proven record of disaster response — a pace faster than any previous local disaster response.
To help low-income homeowners repair damage caused by burst pipes and other effects of the ice storm, the Winter Storm Relief Fund supported an innovative program from Connective, a local nonprofit, that connects families in need with home repair agencies. Connective’s work streamlines the home repair process by serving as a one-stop shop for families and bringing increased accessibility to social services through their knowledge of the disaster relief cycle and cutting-edge, human-centered technology.
Resilience for all
True climate resilience, however, is ultimately about not only ensuring the most vulnerable in our region are able to recover from disasters quickly, but also anticipating and preparing for the worst. Residents who are economically, housing, and food secure before disaster strikes are most likely to recover from the negative impacts of disasters in the shortest amount of time.
Houston has certainly earned its reputation for responding quickly and effectively after crises, but the future of reaching true climate resilience will require transformative systems/ infrastructure change, public investment in areas and communities most at risk, and philanthropic dollars that spur innovation. Still, Houston is strong, as are the people who call it home, and our collective capacity for innovation, empathy and hard work will always remain a hallmark of our region.
For some time, Greater Houston has been, to those who don’t live here, in the midst of an identity crisis. Even Anthony Bourdain, a man who made a career of ostensibly analyzing and broadcasting to the world the essence of every city into which he wandered, admitted to “entertaining lazy prejudices and assumptions” about the Houston region and its residents.
Maybe it isn’t their fault. Houston does, to some degree, defy categorization. Are we cowboys or astronauts? Are we defined by the award-winning chefs or the abundance of mom-and-pop spots? Our world-class museums or our fanatical football fans?
The confluence of Houstonians’s ideas and sensibilities have informed the evolution of our region in complex and unobvious ways, too great in number to track, catalog or fully recount. The region’s diversity and vastness extend to our arts, culture, and food — and create an environment of constant discovery. Understanding Houston would like to spotlight just a few places and organizations that make our corner of the world so vibrant.
Houston’s world-class arts community
Houston is home to the esteemed Theater District, which boasts nearly 13,000 seats, and is one of only five cities with permanent resident companies in each of the major performing arts disciplines. The Alley Theatre, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance, [Jesse H.] Jones Hall [for the Performing Arts], Revention Music Center and the Wortham Theater Center are all within the 17 blocks that comprise Houston’s Theater District. Additionally, many smaller venues and organizations bring the arts to all corners of the region.
Similar to the Theater District, Houston’s renowned Museum District is broken into four walkable, themed zones, featuring both touring and permanent exhibits throughout. While the Museum of Fine Arts might be the oldest art museum in Texas, it is certainly not the only way to engage with the arts in Houston.
There were more than 1,260 arts and culture organizations in Houston’s three-county area in 2020, up from just 181 in 1990. Most of this growth was in Harris County (599 new organizations), but both Montgomery and Fort Bend counties both saw significant growth in arts and cultural sectors as well — the number of arts and cultural organizations in Montgomery County grew tenfold in 30 years.
These organizations contribute significantly to the local economy as well; the Houston Metropolitan Area’s nonprofit arts and culture industry generated over $579.4 million in total economic activity in 2015, according to the latest Arts & Economic Prosperity report. These organizations directly supported 14,389 full-time equivalent jobs and delivered $42.8 million in local and state government revenue.
Despite an abundance of arts organizations and performances, families with lower incomes do not have the same level of access to the arts as higher-income households.
According to the latest Houston Arts Survey, just 29% of respondents with reported household incomes below $37,500 attended a live performance, compared to 52% for respondents with annual household incomes between $37,501 and $62,500 — and the disparities continue to increase with higher earnings.
However, Houston’s passion for the arts isn’t fully reflected in official access or attendance figures. Many organizations in Greater Houston work to address disparities in access to and participation in the arts. Groups like Asia Society Texas Center, MECA Houston, the Laini Kuumba Ngoma Troupe and the Institute of Hispanic Culture celebrate and showcase the artistic traditions and cultural expression of diverse communities that have been historically underrepresented in the “traditional arts” scene.
A region shaped by local and global traditions
Houston’s three-county region observes an amalgam of traditions — both homegrown and carried from afar. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the world’s largest of its kind, is an example of a homegrown tradition informed by the traditions of another culture. The Rodeo grew out of an effort to preserve a regional industry but has made efforts to incorporate and recognize Latin American contributions to the industry and culture from which it was born. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo wouldn’t exist without the charreada, which was the cultural precursor to the rodeo, or those big Texas cattle drives (which sustained the nascent Texas economy) that came by way of Spanish Mexico.
The Houston region is home to a number of religious congregations that originated from around the globe. The Islamic Society of Greater Houston (ISGH) is the largest Islamic society in North America, and the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is the first and only traditional Hindu temple of its kind in the United States — the stones for which were hand sculpted by 2,000 artisans in India.
The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is one in a long line of ambitious monuments that tells the story of our region. The Astrodome also comes to mind, but so do smaller places like the “Be Someone” bridge and the Rothko Chapel, which showcase a different form of Houston’s social and intellectual ambitions. The former often serves as a barometer for our times, as the message often changes to represent the current needs and fears of the citizenry, and the latter stands immovable.
Houston’s culinary influence
Houston, once known mainly for Tex-Mex and chain restaurants, now boasts eateries that represent more than 70 countries and American regions. Renowned chef and restaurateur, David Chang called Houston the “next food capital of America” in 2016, and the food scene has only grown since then. The most meaningful way that the food scene in Houston has changed recently is not in the flavor of the food itself, but in the visibility it has gained on the national stage — 10 Houston chefs were among the 2022 James Beard Award Semifinalists.
Despite the bevy of talented chefs on the cutting edge of cuisine, the evolution of the region’s culinary identity is due in principle to one factor: the diversity of its residents.
Our position on the Gulf Coast secured a foothold not only on fresh local seafood but on one-of-a-kind Cajun cuisine, and the French fundamentals that inform it. The Czexans (Czech Texans) that immigrated to the hill country have given us a lot more than the famous, but still nationally obscure kolache. The fact that our region is home to the third largest population of Vietnamese Americans in the nation has contributed to a culinary culture in which dishes like pho or bánh mì are as commonplace as BBQ and hamburgers. Additionally, the significant South Asian population has given rise to some of the most acclaimed Indian and Pakistani food in the country.
A region made vibrant by its residents
We all know that Houston is diverse. We have seen the data asserted time and time again. What that data does not tell us, however, is the individual stories of all of those people. The un-measurable and intangible essence of what makes Houston special is that for every person represented artistically or culinarily in the three-county region, there are thousands more, cooking in their homes or painting for their grandchildren.
Houston is certainly vibrant, but it wouldn’t be anything without Houstonians — who are as difficult to define as the region itself. Be they artists, chefs, or cowboys, the stories and passions of the people that inhabit the region are what bring Houston alive.
“This is the city where the American future is going to be worked out,” Stephen L. Klineberg, Ph.D., said of Houston in 2010. Klineberg, the founding director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, has been tracking the ways in which Houston has been changing since the 1980s through the Kinder Houston Area Survey. Understanding Houston, like the Kinder Institute, believes that data helps tell our region’s story and provides a barometer with which we can measure how we change over time. Our region is of such consequence not only because of our size and demographics, but also because of strengths like our industrial diversity and the opportunities we have to address our region’s unique vulnerabilities.
Population change, population growth
Greater Houston’s population has changed significantly over the last few decades, a trend that will inform the other ways in which our region will continue to evolve and grow.
Houston’s three-county region has added over one million residents since 2010, with each county seeing significant population increases. Population growth comes from two sources: natural increase and net migration. Natural increase refers to the number of births minus the number of deaths, and it is relatively predictable. Net migration, both domestic and international, is more affected by external factors, such as cost of living, the regional economy and public policy.
The U.S. Census Bureau distinguishes between domestic and international migration when calculating net migration. Harris County, the most populous of Houston’s three-county region, experienced significant negative domestic migration between 2010 and 2020. Approximately 80,000 more people left Harris County to live elsewhere in the U.S. than moved into Harris County from somewhere else in the country over the ten-year period.
Despite the negative domestic migration, Harris County (and the region overall) continues to grow at a rapid rate. This is due to both the natural increase and high levels of international migration — Harris County gained 289,400 residents from international migration over the ten-year period. Our region’s population hasn’t just grown, however, it has fundamentally changed.
More than two-thirds of Houston’s three-county region is now made up of people of color, marking a complete demographic transformation from the region’s racial/ethnic composition just 40 years ago. The largest contribution to this immense shift has been the growth of people who identify as Asian American or Hispanic, who now comprise 47% of the three-county area’s population, up from 16% in 1980.
Increasing industrial diversity
Houston has a reputation for being an energy town. This reputation, while not entirely unearned, is limited in its assessment of our region’s economy. Houston ranks third among U.S. metropolitan areas in number of Fortune 500 headquarters, and received half a billion dollars in venture capital funds for the tech sector in 2019 alone.
The jobs in Houston’s three-county region have also changed. Between 2000 and 2020, the number of people employed in management of companies and enterprises increased five-fold to 43,000 in 2020 from 8,000 only 20 years ago. And jobs in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting in our region have fallen 40% to 28,000 in 2020 from 45,600 in 2000, according to the Quarterly Census for Employment and Wages. Perhaps most concerning, manufacturing jobs in the region have also fallen 7% in that same time period. Further, job growth in Texas and the three-county region has outpaced the national rate in all major industries but healthcare and social assistance, though that industry now employs 13% of our region’s workforce compared to 9% in 2000.
Healthcare and social assistance jobs, however, are more likely to qualify as ‘“opportunity employment.” Opportunity employment refers to the jobs accessible to workers without bachelor’s degrees that pay above the national median wage and reflect the local cost of living. In the Houston metro area, 24% of employment was classified as opportunity employment in 2017, while 27% of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, and 49% of employment was considered lower-wage.
Climate change and environmental progress
It would be impossible to discuss Houston’s evolution over the last few decades without mentioning our relationship with the environment, natural disasters and climate change. The region continues to feel the effects of more frequent and severe storms, which has shaped the region in many ways — some more obvious than others.
At the same time, we have made major strides in improving our region’s air and water quality. For example, between 2000 and 2020, levels of harmful particulate matter fell 23% in the Houston Metropolitan Area. Texas also produces a larger share (23%, nearly double the national rate) of its energy from renewable resources than the rest of the nation. Living up to its reputation as a city ready to embrace change, the City of Houston announced its Climate Action Plan, aiming to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
Changing perspectives and behaviors
We’ve seen how the region’s demographics, industry and environment have evolved over the last few decades, but how have Houstonians’ behaviors, opinions and attitudes changed?
Resident priorities have changed in the past 10 years in many meaningful ways. Voter registration rates are at an all-time high, in keeping with the country’s increased participation throughout the pandemic and in the 2020 election. Voter turnout increased by almost 10 percentage points in Fort Bend County between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections and 7.8 points in both Harris and Montgomery counties. The region still lags behind the rest of the country in voter turnout, but is making progress.
The region has also gone through some important ideological changes related to sustainability and urban innovation. Metro’s light-rail service and bus routes have been expanded, and Houston BCycle, a local non-profit bike-share program, has seen rider numbers spike. Houston Parks Board has introduced their Bayou Greenways Plan in an effort to create and connect a navigable greenspace though the system of bayous running through the city.
Some of the most profound shifts in our region are also some of the least visible. Gradual changes in ideology have also taken place. For example, support for same sex marriage in the Houston area has more than doubled in the last few decades, growing to 64% in 2019 from 31% in 1993, according to the 2020 Kinder Houston Area Survey.
The effects of a diverse population may have inspired another change; 71% of U.S.-born non-Hispanic white adults in Harris County are in favor of granting undocumented immigrants a path to legal citizenship if they speak English and have no criminal record, up from 56% in 2010.
Despite our challenges, the proportion of Houston-area residents who say the region is a “good” or “excellent” place to live has increased to 76% in 2020 from 59% in 1983, according to data from the Kinder Houston Area Survey.
Houston’s resilience won’t change
Change can be unsettling, but it can also represent growth and improvement. As much as our region has already changed, we know more is still to come — some changes we may reasonably predict while others may completely surprise us. And in the face of all this change, we look to one constant aspect of our region: resiliency. Whatever may come our way, we know that armed with the right information and resources, community leaders and residents alike can help Houston thrive through whatever may come next.
Students who change schools score lower on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests, both during the year they change schools and in subsequent ones. Changing schools also places students at an increased risk of being retained a grade, dropping out of high school, and failing to graduate at all. Moreover, the costs of student mobility extend beyond the mobile kids themselves — schools and classrooms with higher mobility have fewer kids passing the STAAR and lower overall ratings, even though these ratings are based almost exclusively on students who haven’t changed schools. Mobility matters for students, for schools, and for communities, and to better address the challenges it poses to the Houston area, we must first know more about who is mobile, where mobility takes place and why mobility happens.
Which students are mobile
Our research found patterns among students who change schools. In the Houston region, white students and Black students are more likely to change schools than Hispanic students or Asian students. Student performance — as much as it is affected by student mobility — also predicts which students will change schools. For instance, if a student scores in the bottom 10th percentile on the STAAR math test, during the next school year that student is five times more likely to change schools as their peers who scored in the top 10th percentile.
Students with lower STAAR scores in 2015-16 were more than five times as likely to change schools in the 2016-17 school year
Perhaps the most notable trend in mobility is its inertia — students who change schools one year are more likely to change schools again the next year. In fact, about one in five previously mobile students will change schools again, compared to about one in 20 non-previously mobile students. Student mobility begets student mobility begets student mobility.
1-in-5 previously mobile students will change schools again, compared to about 1-in-20 non-previously mobile students.
Where mobility takes place
One of the features of student mobility that makes it so disruptive is that it typically involves students changing not only their school but also the district they attend. Less than one-third of student mobility begins and ends at campuses in the same district. That means the majority of student mobility involves students going to a new school, in a new district, with new rules, cultures, classroom climates, and social contexts. But while most student mobility travels between school districts, that does not mean students and their families are moving great distances. Some of the most common student mobility is between neighboring campuses, it just so happens that in the urban context of Houston, those campuses belong to different districts.
This pattern of student mobility — going between districts but remaining close to home — has produced six major student mobility networks in the Houston region. These mobility networks consist of schools who commonly exchange students during the school year, are geographically clustered, and cut across district boundaries. They are identified as the Central, East, North, Southeast, Southwest, and West networks, as depicted in the image below. To see and learn more about these six mobility networks, click here.
“Less than one-third of student mobility begins and ends at campuses in the same district.”
Why student mobility happens
The reasons students change schools, while diverse, tend to be driven by economics and education. The economic drivers of student mobility relate to the diminishing availability of quality, affordable housing in Houston. As parents look to balance better, safer communities and affordability, there is an ongoing cycle of mobility that follows — as evidenced in the inertia of student mobility mentioned earlier. In addition to finding affordable housing, parents also face decisions around where to live relative to where they work.
And from an education perspective, a student’s current school may not be working for them,so the parents may decide to relocate. Despite the best intention behind much of mobility — finding better housing, seeking out a schooling context more aligned with what a parent wants — the school change is disruptive to students’ learning and achievement.
Why student mobility issues persist in Houston
Changing schools is a disruptive event, particularly when it is accompanied by a change in where a family lives. Many districts around the Houston area have policies and plans — formal and informal — to help minimize the disruptiveness of the change. Some schools that experience high levels of student mobility have “welcoming teams” of students who buddy up with the newly arrived peer to show them around the building, help them with their class schedule and get them accustomed to the new campus. Other districts have invested in academic support specialists who are connecting with mobile students within 48 hours of their arrival to their new campus to meet them, learn about their skills, and plug them into any remedial services that help prepare the student to fit into their new classes. Still other districts have “home school” programs, so that if a child’s family needs to find a new home they can finish out the school-year at their original school (in some cases, even if the family has moved to a neighborhood in a different district).
Districts already do so much in service to mobile students, so why does changing schools continue to have such negative consequences?
First, student mobility is a regional problem that districts are being forced to grapple with independently. That so little mobility stays within a district means that even if a district passed policies or plans to eliminate all of its student mobility, those plans — which would likely carry significant costs — would address less than one-third of the student mobility coming into the district each year. This fact notwithstanding, districts have put into place systems that minimize disruption in the logistics of students’ education when they change schools within the district.
Every district in the Houston region has an integrated student information system that connects all campuses in a district in real-time. If a student was enrolled in School A on Friday and School B on Monday, if those schools are in the same district, all of the student records and information associated with that student follow them instantaneously. These records are critical because they contain information on special services and accommodations students receive, such as services or supports provided for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) in special education programs. These student records also include information about English learner status, gifted/talented status, interventions or other programs the student may be involved with, and other details about a student’s schooling that are not always otherwise available.
Texas public schools have a way to exchange these records between school districts, the Texas Records Exchange (TREx), but the system involves one campus requesting information and another campus sending information. This process can often be slow and burdensome. In terms of instruction time, the loss of a week or more when a student is not receiving the appropriate supports and services can set students back significantly. Improving upon the TREx system to provide real-time access to student records across districts would go a long way to optimizing the continuity in children’s education, but any such improvements would need to be made with an eye towards logistical and data security matters.
Second, since student mobility tends to travel between districts, mobile students become the responsibility of everybody and simultaneously nobody. Mobile students find themselves in this space, in no small part, because currently the Texas Education Agency (TEA) only counts students for accountability purposes if the student was enrolled at a school at the time of the October Snapshot (early part of the school year) and when state assessments were administered (later part of the school year). For those students who change schools in the middle of the year, their STAAR performance is not counted toward any campus, and if the student moved between districts, it’s not counted toward any district. TEA excludes all students who change schools during the school year from the accountability subset. This makes sense — to hold a campus and district accountable for its students who have been there the whole year — but also opens up the opportunity for mobile students to fall through the proverbial cracks.
Exploring available solutions
As a multi-district issue, many districts will need to work together to address student mobility. Additionally, the same way school districts currently have assistant superintendents overseeing elementary schools or directors of multilingual programs, the state needs to fund parallel positions for overseeing mobile students.State funding could be specifically allocated to positions housed within districts tasked with working across districts to streamline information sharing, collaborate on policies prioritizing schooling stability, and work to curtail the drivers of student mobility as well as its consequences. In doing so, districts and the state can work together to support these students currently poised to slip through accountability cracks.
Admittedly, a school district could independently opt to prioritize its mobile students and fund a “director of mobile student services” position; however, as discussed above — mobility is not a single district’s issue. Asking for a district to foot the bill for a position that would work to serve and support students coming from other districts as well as going to other districts could be unnecessarily fraught with problems, as parents and communities might reasonably ask why their tax dollars are going to support students who are no longer attending a school in their district.
The state — or, potentially entities in the philanthropic community — could serve as a funder to offset community expenses, building on the precedent of the state’s programs and departments aimed at supporting “highly mobile” students (which is a program appropriately aimed at supporting students and their families who are experiencing homelessness), to create a new initiative in charge of overseeing and supporting a larger segment of the student population: those who change schools each school year.
In addition to lessening the consequences of mobility, reducing the phenomenon altogether is also an option worth exploring. To keep students in the schools that work for them and their families, funds could be raised in order to allow public school districts to financially support families being forced to move to find affordable housing. While the reasons given above for students changing schools listed economic and educational reasons, the most common reason is economics, and in the Houston context that often translates to families needing to find safe, affordable housing.
To the extent families are being forced to move because they can no longer afford their current housing arrangement, funds could be set up in a district to support families and to do so in a sliding-scale manner to ensure that the most supports went to help those who could benefit the most from it. The source of these funds could be philanthropic, carved out from current budgets, or through the establishment of a new tax. Though no one wants a higher tax bill, small increases to property taxes that went towards keeping families housed who would otherwise be moving, could actually help increase property values by creating more stable residents, reducing transiency, and promoting the family and education in the community.
Tens of thousands of students change schools in the Houston area each year. This mobility translates to lower test scores and higher risks for grade retention and dropout. Yet, it is not a mystery which students will change schools, and there is a relatively high degree of certainty where students will go when they’re mobile.
The newfound understanding of this phenomenon in the Houston area shows student mobility is both widespread throughout the region and can be dealt with proactively. Student information systems can be connected across districts to ensure greater continuity in children’s education, positions can be established with the purpose of directly and intentionally supporting mobile students (and their families), and trivial adjustments to tax-rates can translate to meaningful sums of money tagged to help stabilize families and communities.
Student mobility has been part of the Houston region and educational landscape for years, but it does not have to be. Now knowing the patterns and predictors of who is mobile, where they are mobile, and why they are mobile offers the opportunity to move past understanding student mobility in the Houston context to do something about it.
1Houston-area schools refers to the collection of 10 public school districts in and around Harris County who partnered with the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) to study student mobility.
A data-driven look at personal vehicle use in Greater Houston
You’ve probably heard it from visiting relatives who just can’t seem to wrap their heads around how big the city is, asking “is this still Houston?” on the twenty-minute drive to your favorite dinner spot. Houston’s size contributes to its character, but it also makes owning and driving a car a fact of life for most residents.
Historically speaking, Houston is similar to most U.S cities developed post World War II. As people’s ability to make and save money grew, so too did demand for things like spacious homes and personal vehicles, the latter made affordable by the innovations of the Ford assembly line.
Today, the sheer amount of ground to cover is certainly a contributing factor to Houston’s car-centrism, but more philosophical barriers, like Texans’ fierce attitude toward independence, contribute as well. Cars offer freedom and flexibility, all while contributing to personal style and status.
That said, Houston’s reputation as a car city, while grounded both culturally and statistically, is not immutable. In fact, 58.8% of Houstonians believe that a much-improved mass transit system is vital to the success of the city, according to the 2020 Kinder Houston Area Survey, despite the fact that 80% of Houstonians drive to work alone in a personal vehicle (2019 American Community Survey). However, research has shown that people often choose to commute by car, even when other travel modes like public transportation, walking or biking might save them time and money, making any major shifts in how people choose to get around a foreseeable challenge.
The cost of cars
It may not surprise you to hear that average commute times in Houston’s three county region are higher than the national average, or that they’re generally getting worse. Houston ranks #3 of 15 large metros for worst commuter congestion, and #4 for worst commercial truck congestion. Motorists in Houston spent an average of 49 hours stuck in traffic in 2020, averaging out to $1,097 in fuel and lost time.
According to census data, Houstonians spend an hour a day getting to and from work, which is higher than both the state and national average, according to Census data. This is all despite 80% of the populace choosing the supposed convenience of driving alone in a personal vehicle. More cars on the road means more traffic. It also means more accidents, which also means more traffic. While the pandemic may have given commuters and the environment a short reprieve from congestion and pollution, both accident and roadway fatality reports show that the sojourn is over; from January to September of 2021 Texas roadways saw a 15% jump in crash frequency.
As normalcy ebbs its way back into our lives and our roadways, so do the safety concerns, environmental concerns, and tedium that come with all those people just trying to get somewhere.
Ozone pollution in Houston has abated over the last twenty years, with fewer days in which ozone poses a measurable threat to our residents. Days still exist in which just walking around in urban areas would pose significant risks to your health, often in the dead heat of summer. Despite a national decline, ozone pollution is still very much a threat in Houston, due in part to the number of cars on the road. About 60% of Houston’s ozone pollution is estimated to result from vehicle exhaust alone.
Particle pollution (or PM) are small solid and liquid particles, like soot, released into the air by a variety of industrial processes, that reduce visibility and cause haze. Of particular concern are PM2.5 particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter that are easily inhaled. In 2019 the EPA determined that short or long-term exposure to PM2.5 can lead to cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and even early death. PM2.5 levels in Metropolitan Houston (10.1 µg/m3) are about as far below national limits (12 µg/m3) as they are above the national average (8 µg/m3).
National standards for acceptable levels of both ozone and particle pollution have seen consistent reductions over the years as we develop a better understanding of the danger posed by these environmental hazards. Because of this, Houston is now within acceptable limits on both ozone and PM, but has lagged behind the national pace of reduction in both categories. The air quality in the city is still of great concern, as the American Lung Association State of the Air Report rates the air in Harris and Montgomery counties an “F,” and the PM2.5 numbers could fall on the wrong side of the new national limit upon the EPA’s imminent reexamination.
So if we’re doing better, and Houston falls within most national guidelines, why is this important? Because pollution doesn’t affect everyone in the same way — some neighborhoods face higher threats than others, and Black and Hispanic residents most acutely suffer the effects of pollution though they produce less of it.
Given the consequences of high solo-commuting rates, why don’t more Houstonians elect for public transit? Why don’t they walk or bike to work?
Cyclists face similar issues in that the city is built to serve motorists. Biking carries the same (if not more) health and environmental benefits as walking. Houston can be a delightful place to bike after all; the city has committed to the creation of 1,800 miles of bike lanes by 2027 through its Bike Plan. Although 345 of those miles currently exist, only 25 miles are protected (just over 7%), a fact that underscores why many might be reluctant to pick up the hobby.
However, cycling is not always a hobby. Many bike commuters choose to cycle not out of respect for its social or cardiovascular benefits, but out of necessity; your average bicycle costs a lot less than a car. And due to Houston’s car-centric streets, bicyclists often endanger themselves getting around, with Harris County drivers striking cyclists 557 times in 2021, killing 23 riders.
What about public transportation? Why is it that Houstonians choose public transit at half of the national rate?
Although national rates for commuters choosing public transportation have gone up since 2010, rates in Houston, and Texas at large, have actually gonedown. Part of the problem is the availability of stops in general. Only 5% of households in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties are located within a quarter-mile of a public transit stop, while Harris County sits at 38%.
Houstonians in poverty use public transit far more often than others, a finding consistent with national trends. In 2017, more than twice as many Harris County residents in poverty used public transportation as those who live above the poverty line.
These individuals would benefit from more bus and train stops as first steps, in addition to basic amenities (such as benches or roofs), extended service hours, and expanded routes to fully access the vibrant culture, prosperity and opportunity Greater Houston has to offer.
The road ahead
Steps have been taken to make our region less car-reliant and safer for those who do choose to ride bicycles or public transportation when traversing the region. Where there once were no protected bike lanes in the city of Houston, there are now 345 miles of high-comfort bike lanes, with plans for 1,800 more miles currently in progress. Additionally, programs like Houston BCycle are making it easier for residents of all means and backgrounds to choose bikes over cars when traveling within urban areas.
Houston-area cyclists aren’t the only ones enjoying improvements to our transportation infrastructure; thanks to people like Janis Scott and the team at LINK Houston, safe and comfortable public transit options are reaching more parts of our region than ever before.
When armed the right information, we believe our region can continue to take the steps necessary for a less congested, more free-moving Houston that’s safe and accessible for all.
Exploring the factors influencing Houston’s famed entrepreneurial spirit
Houston’s business culture is unique — both distinctly global and local, it owes its evolution as much to every hardworking Houstonian as it does to the frontier mentality from which its industry grew. Entrepreneurship is an essential part of what it means to live in Houston, and whether you’re buying new business software or a cup of coffee, small businesses and the Houston entrepreneurs who run them likely play a role in your purchase.
Industry is in our history
Houston owes its existence to brothers John Kirby and Augustus Chapman Allen, two entrepreneurs who saw opportunity in the unrest following the bloody Battle of San Jacinto. They bought their initial spit of 6,600 acres for just $10,000, successfully lobbied the Texas Congress for capital status, and put some ads in the paper claiming glory for Sam Houston and the Republic — all with about a dozen citizens sitting on a muddy bayou in land that wasn’t considered particularly desirable.
First, they built a railway (that would go on to join the Union Pacific Railroad) and advertised the city as the place “where 17 railroads meet the sea,” despite the fifty miles in between Houston and the Gulf of Mexico. Once the railroad was underway, the city spent the next 50+ years bringing the sea to its borders, dredging Buffalo Bayou and Galveston Bay incrementally to accommodate larger and larger ships.1 They eventually turned that muddy stream into the second largest port in the United States, beginning the project before oil was ever even found in the state.
Oil did, however, change everything. It made Houston the unofficial capital of the energy industry, combining the maverick spirit of its founders with the industry boom of many in the country chasing down the valuable resource, and contributing significantly to the growth of our region.
Houston’s origins tell a story not just of the quality of the human spirit, but of the inherent balance and imbalance of economic opportunity. To continue improving our great city through years of its exponential growth, it is necessary to look unceasingly into how our entrepreneurial nature can better serve every single Houstonian.
Small business is big in Houston
Houston is certainly a huge, global city, but it just wouldn’t be the same without Mom and Pop.
Houston is famous for its maverick founders, its tycoons, for the big business and even bigger briskets — but the reality is that business in Houston isn’t always so “big.”
Small businesses employed about 14% of our region’s workforce in 2019 — nearly 400,000 people. In addition, 81% of entrepreneurial firms in the Houston Metropolitan Area have fewer than 20 employees. According to estimates from the Greater Houston Partnership, the Metropolitan Area had 663,800 “non-employee businesses” in 2018; these are most often consultants or freelancers — the entrepreneurial spirit exemplified.
While real estate is Houston’s number one industry for small businesses, with 95% of firms employing fewer than 20 , industries like retail and administrative services are right on their heels, and smaller companies exist in all sectors (even energy!). These small businesses benefit our local economy in important ways. In particular, creation of small businesses among communities of color — sometimes a necessity to overcome employment barriers, challenges in building personal wealth, and discrimination — can help increase economic opportunity..
Continued intentional support of local small businesses, especially among communities that disproportionately face challenges like lack of credit access, social capital and accumulation of generational wealth, is what the path toward a healthier and more vibrant local economy looks like.
81% of Houston-area firms have fewer than 20 employees.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2020 Annual Business Survey, data year 2019
Diversity and disparities
As well as its reputation for entrepreneurship, Houston is also a city known for its diversity. Its cultural diversity today mirrors what demographers predict the U.S. population will look like in half a century. Houston’s reputation for entrepreneurship is inextricably linked to the city’s diversity. The growing populations of Houstonians from diverse backgrounds, namely immigrants and people of color, are not only the economic and cultural driving force for the evolution of our city, but also the future of our country.
Houston ranks fourth in the nation for start-ups owned by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), with 35% of start-ups in the Houston Metropolitan Area being BIPOC-owned. While 35% is high enough to outpace most major metros in the United States, it obviously falls short of true representation; the BIPOC population share of Houston Metro is far greater, at about 65%, according to 2020 Census data. Black and female residents remain particularly underrepresented in the small business community, with only 25% of small businesses in the Houston area being solely woman-owned, and only 3% being Black-owned, according to the 2020 Annual Business Survey.
These trends underline the fact that simply being diverse is not enough, and that disparity will edge out prosperity if not given the proper attention and resources.
Only 35% of new Houston businesses are BIPOC-owned
By contrast, these residents represent 65% of our region’s population.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2020 Annual Business Survey, data year 2019
A region filled with allies in entrepreneurship
Despite common perceptions, the entrepreneurial spirit is not solely an individual cause. Houston’s penchant for entrepreneurship is aided in great part by our philanthropic, academic and nonprofit communities, which work to cultivate and support aspiring business owners from all walks of life.
These are just a few of the organizations whose work empowers entrepreneurs throughout Greater Houston.
This new initiative led by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and some of Houston’s top community leaders is working to fund and drive strategic progress for Black-owned businesses and nonprofits throughout Greater Houston.
With their Black Marketing Initiative, Impact Hub Houston is raising funds and offering training programs to elevate and support Houston’s Black entrepreneurs as they recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The beauty of entrepreneurship is that its benefits are open to all — even those currently behind bars. The people at the Prison Entrepreneurship Program work directly with those currently incarcerated to foster and encourage their entrepreneurial spirits, so that they might find and create new opportunities for themselves and their communities once released.
The Wolf Center for Entrepreneurship at UH’s Bauer College of Business has been ranked the number one or two entrepreneurship program in the country, including a number one ranking in 2021 for the third consecutive year. Over the past decade, more than 1,400 businesses have been started by Wolff Center students, earning a collective $399 million in funding.
Entrepreneurship matters to Houston
Ensuring that Houston-area entrepreneurs have access to the tools and resources they need in order to thrive is vital to the continued success of our region. By understanding the challenges and barriers current and aspiring entrepreneurs face in Greater Houston, we can better equip our region with the tools it needs to foster an even healthier small business community that positively impacts us all.
As important as they are to our region’s health and prosperity, entrepreneurs are also a reflection of other truths about life in Greater Houston. Be sure to follow along on social media and in our newsletter to keep up with the “Houston Is …” series all year long.
1Understanding Houston utilizes the U.S. Census term, “Hispanic,” “Latino” or “Hispanic/Latino” when referring to the overall population. For the purposes of this article, we will use these terms interchangeably depending on the nomenclature used in our cited sources.