Houston is Resilient

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

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. 

Winter Storm Uri

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.

Houston is Vibrant

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.

Houston is Changing

“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. 

Houston is demonstrably hotter than it was a decade ago, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The 30-year average temperature in our region increased between 0.6 and 1.0 degrees Fahrenheit between 2010 and 2020 — unwelcome news to residents who live in a region that can be dangerously hot. Montgomery County had over 500 days at temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the last decade, compared with fewer than 300 days the previous decade. That is almost two-thirds of a year of extra extreme heat over a single decade. 

The numerous natural disasters our region has experienced has also changed us. (And the National Weather Service.) FEMA has declared a disaster in our region eight times since 2015, and more are likely to come our way given predictions that warmer temperatures will continue to cause stronger hurricanes. But Houstonians by and large know that now; in 2019 53% of Houstonians participating in the Kinder Houston Area Survey saw climate change as a serious threat, up from 39% in 2010.

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.

Ending the inertia of student mobility in Houston

It matters that 60,000+ Houston-area students change schools each year. Here’s what we can do about it.

Each school year in the Houston area, more than 60,000 children leave the school they were attending to enter another school. Given that more than 700,000 students are served by Houston-area schools1, the number of children moving may seem trivial, but for the teachers, classrooms, and students actually making these moves, this student mobility is disruptive, destabilizing, and carries both short- and long-term consequences.

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.

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.

Source: Bao, K., Molina, M., Kennedy, C., & Potter, D. (2021). Student mobility networks in the Greater Houston area: Elementary school student mobility networks. Houston, TX: Houston Education Research Consortium, Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University.

“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.

Final thoughts

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.

Examining Houston’s Reputation as a Car City

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?

Simply put, most of the region is just not very walkable. According to the National Walkability Index provided by the EPA, most neighborhoods in all three counties have below-average walkability. This is due in part to the sprawling geography of Houston, but also has a lot to do with the cultural prioritization of cars over pedestrians. Houstonians want walkable urban spaces, but the cultural and infrastructural barriers are high and made of poured concrete.

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 gone down. 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.

Houston is… Entrepreneurial

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. 

Houston Fund for Social Justice and Economic Equity 

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.

Impact Hub 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 Prison Entrepreneurship Program

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 Wolff Center For Entrepreneurship

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.

2021 in Greater Houston: The year in review

A data-driven look at what 2021 meant for Houston’s three-county area

No year in recent memory has simultaneously had so much and so little to live up to as 2021. Coming on the heels of a tumultuous 2020 mired in an ongoing pandemic and a contentious political landscape, the arrival of 2021 represented hope and the chance to return to normalcy — or at least something like it. And while 2021 certainly gave us more to celebrate than its predecessor, it also came with its share of challenges and surprises.

From big freeze blackouts to vaccine rollouts, an Astros World Series to an Astroworld tragedy, the greater Houston area was at the center of some of 2021’s most talked about events. And with so much clogging our newsfeeds on any given day of 2021, it wasn’t always easy to keep up with the finer details, especially with one event often overtaking another before the dust could even settle.

That’s why we’re closing out the year by taking a look at the numbers and unpacking the things that defined life in Greater Houston during 2021.

Winter Storm Uri

Greater Houston may be no stranger to natural disasters, but freezing weather has not historically been our region’s burden to bear. Then came Winter Storm Uri. Uri blew into Texas barely a month and a half into the new year, bringing with it temperatures as low as 13℉ in Houston and leaving about 1.4 million Houstonians waking up to freezing cold temperatures and no electricity.

Hours turned to days as people desperately waited for their power to come back on. The surprise of an extended power outage left many without food, water and other essential supplies needed to endure such conditions –– including highly vulnerable communities, who are less likely to have the emergency supplies or funds on-hand to endure unexpected emergencies.

Here’s how Winter Storm Uri impacted Greater Houston/Texas, by the numbers

The COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout 

Despite what many had hoped, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to shape Houston life in 2021, impacting our region, its residents and its healthcare systems. However, thanks in significant part to the effectiveness of available COVID-19 vaccines, residents and businesses have found new ways to carry on in the face of the ongoing pandemic. 

As one of the largest and most diverse major metropolitan areas in the country, the greater Houston region played a significant role in setting the tone for vaccine rollouts across the nation. Despite some early challenges regarding inequity in access, vaccines have had a mostly successful rollout throughout our region, albeit at inconsistent rates.

Even after all Texas adults became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on March 29, 2021, hesitancy and accessibility remained barriers for many. According to survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Houston-area residents have expressed a variety of reasons for not getting vaccinated.

Of those surveyed, 51% of those not yet vaccinated cited concern about side effects as the driving factor behind their hesitancy. While the vaccine has proven to be safe over the past 12 months, trust issues remain a concern. A third of those surveyed said they did not trust the COVID-19 vaccine, and possibly more concerning, more than a quarter of respondents cited distrust of the government as a driving force in their decision not to get vaccinated. As the vaccine is arguably our most critical tool in our battle against the deadly impact of COVID-19, consistent communication about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine remains vital.

Amidst a protracted vaccine rollout that was even more challenging overseas, two COVID-19 variants — Delta and Omicron — have emerged, presenting new challenges for public health officials and medical professionals. While the impact Omicron could have in our region remains to be seen, Delta represented significant challenges at its peak, overwhelming area hospitals and medical facilities – with COVID-19 patients occupying 21.3% of area hospital beds the week of August 22, 2021, a significant increase from just 5.9% the month before, and just 2.3% the month before that. 

85% of COVID-19 deaths in Texas were among the unvaccinated. 

The Summer surge also contributed to a sobering death toll. As of December 8, 2020, 3,890 people had died of COVID-19 throughout the three-county region. A year later, that number tripled to 11,721. According to a study conducted by the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, 85% of people ages 12+ who died of complications from COVID-19 between January 15 and October 1, 2021 were not vaccinated. 

Houston’s population keeps growing and changing

The results of the 2020 census were released this year and confirmed what many residents could already feel: Our region — and our state — has grown significantly over the past decade. In fact, population growth in Greater Houston accounted for a quarter of the total population growth in the state of Texas. 

Between 2010 and 2020, the three-county area population grew by 1,040,787 people, a 20% increase. While Harris County added the most residents total, Fort Bend County experienced the highest growth rate at 40.6% over the last decade.

Non-white people made up 95% of all of Texas’ growth in the past 10 years –– and Hispanics alone accounted for half of that growth. 

This population growth was significant enough to warrant the creation of a new congressional district in the Houston area.

Further reading: Take a deeper look at what the 2020 Census tells us about Greater Houston

Houston’s housing market in 2021

Growing populations and pandemic-impacted markets have had a significant impact on both the availability and affordability of housing in Greater Houston. Though the greater Houston region has historically had a reputation for affordability, that trend has been gradually reversing for years, reaching a boiling point alongside similar markets nationwide.

The median sale price for a single-family home in the Houston area grew by 16% — from $270,000 in November 2020 to $314,000 in November 2021, according to Greater Houston Partnership analysis of data from Houston Association of Realtors. And total sales in November 2021 were up 5.6% from the same time last year. 

Home sales increased only for homes valued $250,000 and higher.

Source: Greater Houston Partnership analysis of data from Houston Association of Realtors, November 2020 – November 2021

Even as home prices increased, the demand and competition for buying them remained strong. In November 2020, a given piece of property remained on the market for 46 days on average. A year later, that number was down to 35. 

Life in Houston, by the numbers

Amidst a year defined by uncertainty, vaccines and a cautious return to normalcy allowed for some memorable moments to return to our region — many great, one tragic. 

The Astros in the World Series

A highlight for many Houstonians was no doubt the return of the Houston Astros to the MLB World Series for the third time in five years. Though the Astros ultimately lost the six-game series, the greater Houston region won in a number of other ways. We’ll let the baseball fanatics focus on the game stats, meanwhile, we’d like to draw your attention to the economic impact the Astros’ championship season had on our communities. 

  • Estimated economic impact: $26 million (Source: Houston First Corporation)
  • Downtown hotel occupancy rates: 90%+, up from just 11% a year before (Source: Houston First Corporation)
  • Fans in seats: 128,526 (Source: Baseball Almanac)

The Astroworld Tragedy

When Grammy Award-winning Houston-native Travis Scott announced the return of his popular Astroworld music festival, fans and music-lovers were thrilled at the chance to gather and enjoy live music again after a mostly concert-free 2020. Unfortunately, that joy was short-lived.

While investigations are ongoing amid an ever-growing slew of lawsuits against Scott, promoter Live Nation and others, what we do know paints a tragic picture of loss that our region will mourn and reflect on for years to come.  

  • Official attendance: 50,000
  • Deaths: 10 
  • Injuries: 300+
  • Hospitalizations: 25

Source: Houston Chronicle

Looking ahead to the new year

2021 was filled with ups and downs for our region, and If the last two years serve as any indication, there’s only so much anyone can safely predict about 2022. But whatever trends impact our region in the coming year, Understanding Houston is here to add data-driven insights and context to the issues that matter in our communities. 

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

Celebrating Understanding Houston’s Second Anniversary

Reflecting on two years of community connections and informed action. 

When we began work on Understanding Houston a few years ago, we set out to create a relevant, accessible platform that would connect community leaders and changemakers with the information they need to take targeted, informed action where our region needs it most. This November, Understanding Houston is celebrating its two-year anniversary of our launch in 2019. Since then, Understanding Houston — an initiative of the Greater Houston Community Foundation — has grown significantly, and we would like to thank everyone who has supported our mission to build a more vibrant Houston with opportunity for all.

Here are just a few of the things that made year two such a success.

The addition of our ninth topic: Disaster

Between hurricanes, floods and even freezes, residents in Houston’s three-county region are no stranger to weather-related disasters. Layer on the COVID-19 pandemic and its many devastating impacts, and the need for a source to find data on regional disasters was greater than ever. 

At the beginning of 2021, Understanding Houston added a Disaster topic page along with four subtopic pages to share key findings and provide insights into how disasters affect residents differently.  Our hope is that this information helps residents understand the varied risks of disasters, who is the most vulnerable to disaster impacts and in what ways, and shows how uneven disaster response can widen pre-existing inequities. In order for our region to bounce back after a disaster, everyone in our community — especially the most vulnerable — must receive the help they need to not only recover but also be made stronger to weather the next disaster.

The Disaster topic page allows us to take an in-depth look into these areas of disaster and identify opportunities and obstacles to help our residents prepare for and withstand the various impacts of disasters. But we have also started catalyzing collaborative action in the area of disaster recovery and resiliency in more proactive and intentional ways. Following the release of Understanding Hoston’s new disaster data, the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston announced their Disaster Resilience partnership to streamline disaster funding, combine resources, and provide a streamlined response for the entire region whether recovering from a pandemic or a winter storm.  

Understanding Houston helped with reliable data to provide a basis for discussion on problems facing Greater Houston. Using this information with others allows us to determine root causes and first steps to developing an action plan to address a basic issue.

Shelia Thorne, GardenKids of Kemah

Understanding Houston’s community continues to grow

Understanding Houston’s community has grown substantially in the last year. More people use and engage with the site, subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on social media, and have joined us at a data briefing, data workshop, or a visioning session as we seek to continually evolve and improve.

New audiences through data briefings 

Despite the need for social distancing, Understanding Houston was able to continue to engage the community in our data through programming. In the summer, we held three Data Dives + Workshops in partnership with United Way of Greater Houston (UWGH) where nearly 300 members of Houston’s nonprofit community attended. In addition to reviewing the new data around disasters, we sought feedback from local nonprofit organizations on what they want to see as we build disaster-ready philanthropic partnerships to improve our collective disaster preparedness and response. We asked how the data would be useful and how it could be more helpful to regional leaders who activate during disasters. Read our findings here.

More recently, this fall we held an intensive Visioning Lab in which we engaged 50 users in a conversation about what they liked best about the Understanding Houston website and how they would improve it. We will hold another Visioning Lab in January and publish our findings the following month. Stay tuned as we share where we are headed next.

New users and increased awareness

The Understanding Houston website allows visitors to access impartial data through high-level topic pages, deeper subtopic pages, informative articles, downloadable reports and interactive charts. Our website also allows visitors to vote on the type of content that we should focus on moving forward so that we can reflect our residents’ interests and concerns.  

Here’s how the community has been utilizing Understanding Houston website in year two: 

  • 40,038 site users: More than 40,000 people have come to Understanding Houston through search engines, social media, or direct referrals in the past year.
  • 99,008 page views: These users have explored more than 99,000 collective pages of Understanding Houston content. 
  • 1,937 report downloads: Nearly 2,000 reports have been downloaded by users for later use and reference.
  • 786 chart exports: Close to 800 charts have been exported by users to include in presentations, share on social media or feature on their website.
  • 336 topic votes: Users have voted for the topics that matter most to them 336 times in the past year.

Understanding Houston utilizes multiple platforms to reach different audiences, including social media and a monthly newsletter. Across all social media platforms, Understanding Houston gained more than 2,000 followers in our second year. This means that more individuals are engaging with Understanding Houston’s data and becoming more informed and aware of issues and current events that are taking place in our region. 

Here’s how we have continued to grow and engage our Houston audience in our second year.

  • 2,106 total newsletter subscribers (23.8% ↑ from last year)
  • 5,514 total social media followers (61% ↑ from last year)

Understanding Houston has provided information about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in discussions around the region’s population. This bolstered our organization’s response by hiring a DEI consultant to assist in a two-year initiative to improve processes where needed and better serve our clients. We are finding more funders’ attention to this subject important in grant making.

– Jenetha Jones, Child Advocates of Fort Bend

Amplifying community voices 

At its core, Understanding Houston aims to inspire and inform and action. Not only by providing robust data over time on key quality of life indicators but also by illuminating and contextualizing that data into insights through research articles and amplifying Community Voices with regional leader profiles and personal stories. In the past year, we have collaborated with a number of community leaders and organizations including the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC), Arts Connect Houston, Urban Harvest, FuelEd, and many more!

These collaborations resulted in 21 total in-depth articles, including six pieces authored by leaders and changemakers from Houston’s nonprofit community. Through data and testimonies, these pieces helped us paint a more detailed picture of issues affecting our communities. 

How Understanding Houston is making an impact: Survey responses

In October 2021, Understanding Houston sent out a Feedback & Impact Survey –– an opportunity for those in Houston’s three county region to share how Understanding Houston can improve its website’s tools and programming in the upcoming update. 

The survey was conducted from August 26 to October 25 and garnered 170 responses. When asked to rate Understanding Houston’s usefulness for learning about the quality of life in our region, 96% of respondents rated our website as very or mostly useful, indicating respondents are very satisfied, and more than four out of five respondents took some action based on learning something new through the website or data briefing, and 99% said they were extremely likely to refer a friend or colleague to the site

Through the responses, it became clear that most participants value a user-friendly website with relevant data and clear content –– most agreed that the Understanding Houston website caters to these preferences. As we move into year three with plans for a site-wide refresh, these responses will help us make our website a more inviting and useful tool for all who need it. 

As a concerned Houstonian, the resources available through this initiative have a direct impact on where and how I can direct my resources to have the most impact in my own city.

– GHCF Donor

How we’re planning for the future of Understanding Houston

Evolution is core to the Understanding Houston initiative. So even though the first two years of Understanding Houston have been successful, our work is not done yet. Using the responses from the Feedback & Impact Survey, we are working to improve our user experience and better our website’s resources by implementing a sitewide data update. 

As we update hundreds of indicators on our website, we hope these updates better reflect and serve our community’s needs so that Understanding Houston can be as useful as possible. The first phase of updates will be launching soon, and we cannot wait for you to see what we have in store!

Thank you, Houston!

We would not be able to celebrate our second anniversary without thanking everyone who made this success possible! We owe many thanks to those who have helped to make Understanding Houston the compelling resource it is today. To all the donors, partners, guest bloggers, researchers, analysts, developers, designers, writers and followers who keep us moving forward, we are endlessly grateful.

We would like to express our gratitude to our founding partners and supporters, our advisory committee, our strategic research partners at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, and our communications and content partners at Baal + Spots and Deutser for their continued support of Understanding Houston and efforts to grow our community.

Thanks to you, our second year was successful, and we plan to continue that success in years to come. If you’d like to wish us a Happy Second Anniversary on our social media accounts, give us a follow on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn!

As we look toward our third year in 2022 and beyond, no one knows what Mother Nature, COVID-19, or even life, has planned for our region, but you can count on Understanding Houston to help you find the facts, deliver insights, and amplify community voices.

Houston’s three-county region accounts for a quarter of Texas’ population growth

2020 Census data shows how the Houston region has evolved over the last decade

The U.S. Census Bureau has released data from the 2020 Census; however, collecting this data did not come without its challenges. In March 2020, right as households began receiving invitations to participate in the 2020 Census, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the U.S. Census Bureau to cease all in-person operations. Not only did social distancing make it challenging to go door-to-door to follow-up with folks who hadn’t completed the census, but the virus (along with uncertainty around the existence of citizenship-status questions) also hindered Houston’s response rates to the 2020 Census

In an article with Understanding Houston, Frances Valdez, the Executive Director of Houston in Action, wrote, “The census affects how billions of our tax dollars will come back into our communities through federal budgeting allocations over the next decade.” The lower the response rate, the smaller the budgets for services and programs like public education, public transit, housing, and more. Decennial census data allows us to look at the present to understand what the Houston region may need in the future. This data informs redistricting efforts, alerts county officials to which groups are growing or declining, and helps policymakers’ plans to strengthen our region for the road ahead. 

Houston’s three-county region adds one million residents in past decade

The past decade has been a time of growth for both the state of Texas and the Greater Houston region. The population of Texas grew to 29.1 million in 2020 by adding nearly 4 million residents since 2010. Three Houston-area counties — Fort Bend, Harris, Montgomery — accounted for one-fourth of Texas’ population growth.

As for Houston’s three-county region, each one of our three largest counties has also experienced population growth. The population of Harris County — the most populous county in the state — increased to 6.2 million (15.6%) between 2010 and 2020. Fort Bend County is home to 822,800 people and grew 40.6% in the last decade — the fastest growth rate in our three-county region. Montgomery County’s population grew 36.1% since 2010 to 620,400 in 2020.

Population growth consists of two main components: natural increase and net migration. Natural increase refers to the number of births minus deaths in a population, and tends to remain relatively steady over time. Whereas, net migration — the total of the number of individuals who moved into an area minus those who moved out — can have more frequent fluctuations. 

Domestic and international migration drives population growth in Houston’s three-county region

The U.S. Census Bureau distinguishes between domestic and international migration in its migration estimates — domestic migration is any movement within the nation while international migration refers to movement across international borders.

For example, between 2010 and 2020, about 81,900 more residents left Harris County to live somewhere else in the U.S. than moved into Harris County from another U.S. county. (This is the second consecutive decade in which Harris County had negative net domestic migration. Between 2000 and 2010, 72,100 more residents left Harris County to live somewhere else in the country.) 

However, Harris County net-gained 289,400 residents to its population between 2010 and 2020 from more people from overseas moving into the area than leaving it for another country. Much of Fort Bend and Montgomery counties’ population growth comes from domestic migration — historically, people from Harris County moving to a neighboring one.

Population projections for Houston’s three-county region hit the mark

In 2014, the Texas Demographic Center (previously known as State Data Center) made population projections for three different migration scenarios: one, assuming zero net migration (the number of people who move in equals the number of people moving out), another assuming a net migration rate equal to one-half of the rate seen between 2000 and 2010 (0.5 Scenario), and a final scenario assuming the net migration rate will be equal to the rate seen between 2000 and 2010 (1.0 Scenario). 

The 2020 population of Texas is not very different from the projections the Texas Demographic Center made in 2014. Under the 0.5 scenario, they projected that the population of Texas would reach 28.8 million by 2020. Under the 1.0 Scenario, they projected Fort Bend’s population would reach 888,600; under the 0.5 Scenario, they projected Harris County’s population would reach 4,683,874; and Montgomery’s 2020 population is closest to the 1.0 Scenario estimate. 

According to their most recent projections made in 2018, the Texas Demographic Center estimates that by 2030, Fort Bend’s population will nearly double to 1.2 million, Harris County’s will exceed 5.9 million, and Montgomery County’s will reach 831,450.

More than two-thirds of Houston’s three-county region is comprised of People of Color

The past 40 years has been one of transformative change for the three-county Houston region. Not only has our region grown to one of the most populous in the nation, but also the racial/ethnic composition of our residents has diversified. Between 1980 and 2020, each of the four largest racial/ethnic groups increased, however the growth rate of Hispanics and Asian Americans outpaced that of non-Hispanic whites and Black Houstonians, creating a demographic shift in our region from being majority-white to majority-people-of-color. While this mirrors a similar trend happening across the nation and the state of Texas, no other major metropolitan area has witnessed this change more acutely and quickly as Houston, according to Stephen Klineberg, principal investigator of the Houston Area Survey and sociologist at Rice University. Interact with the chart below to see how racial/ethnic composition has changed in our region and Texas by selecting different geographies in the drop-down menu.

In 2020, there were nearly 2.4 million Hispanics/Latinos in Houston’s three-county region (nearly 39% of the region), with 2 million in Harris County alone. In 1980, just 40 years ago, Hispanics comprised 15% of the region’s population. The weight of these figures typically does not faze most Houstonians who have witnessed this significant shift, but to most Americans, these changes are unique. For example, among the 100 most populous counties in the nation, only 12 have a higher percentage of Hispanics than Harris County. More recently, Houston’s Hispanic/Latino community has grown considerably in the last decade. Between 2010 and 2020, the Hispanic/Latino population in the three-county region grew by 26% alone. The number of Latinos grew by 43% in Fort Bend County, 22% in Harris County, and 73% in Montgomery County during the same time period.

More broadly, in Texas, the Hispanic/Latino population grew by nearly 2 million people between 2010 and 2020, increasing its share of the state population from 37.6% to 39.3%. In fact, non-white people made up 95% of all of Texas’ growth in the past 10 years –– and Hispanics alone accounted for half of that growth.

According to recent Census data, the three-county region’s Asian-American population grew by 53% — from 358,000 in 2010 to 548,000 in 2020 — the fastest growth rate in our region. In 2020, Asian Americans comprised 8.9% of the three-county region population compared to 7.0% in 2010 and only 1.8% in 1980. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of Asian Americans grew 84% in Fort Bend County, 38% in Harris County, and 129% in Montgomery County — though Asian Americans comprise less than 4% of Montgomery’s total population.

Fort Bend County has the highest proportion of Asian-American residents in Texas (22%). In Sugar Land, nearly 39% of the population identifies as Asian American. Asian Indians comprise 41% of the Asian-American population in Fort Bend, while Vietnamese Americans account for the largest share in the rest of our region. Read more about the fastest-growing ethnic group in our region here.

Of course, it is difficult to talk about population growth without considering how certain groups are typically displaced from their communities due to changing economic and demographic conditions. For example, the Houston Chronicle reports that historically Black Third Ward has changed significantly in the last decade. In 2020, Black people comprised 45% of the neighborhood — a decline from 71% in 2010. Acres Homes in North Houston saw its Black population fall 12% and its Latino population grow by 65%. Second Ward saw its Latino population decline by 25% while its white population increased 50%. Learn more about the history of these communities in the Chronicle’s report.

Trends today inform Houston’s future

Census data allows us to recognize the trends of the past and plan for the population of the future. The data also represents an opportunity for us to strengthen our region in the places where change and evolution will be necessary. These shifts in our population have implications for our community context, economic opportunity in our region, our education system, and much more, including the process of adding a congressional district to our region and redistricting, which is currently underway. 

As Houston’s three-county region continues to grow, we will continue to analyze and report on the data that affects our communities. Given the pandemic, the Census Bureau is expected to release its first-that-we-know of “experimental” data set that will allow us to delve deeper into the latest trends on a broader range of quality of life issues. Stay tuned for data updates coming in November and early 2022! We invite you to get to know the data, keep up with our mission on social media and discover how you can get involved to help Understanding Houston continue exploring what matters to the Houston area.