Whether you’re a philanthropist looking for guidance on where your dollars can make the most impact in Greater Houston, or you’re just a concerned community member hoping to understand and act on the issues that matter to you, Understanding Houston was created to measure what matters to our communities, so that people like you can do what matters in our communities.
It’s been one year since our official launch, and we’re amazed and inspired by the outpouring of support and engagement we’ve seen from our community on a near-daily basis. Through important conversations on social media, inspiring events and compelling guest perspectives, Understanding Houston has achieved remarkable growth in its first year, and our journey is only just beginning.
These are just some of the highlights from year one.
How people are using the website
As an expansive resource, Understanding Houston offers web visitors a number of ways to make the most of our data, including downloadable reports and charts, as well as a voting system that allows visitors to let us know the content we should expand on moving forward.
Here’s how use of the Understanding Houston website has panned out over our first year:
17,160 site users: More than 17,000 people have come to Understanding Houston through search engines, social media, or direct referrals since we launched last year, with an average of 1,430 monthly users.
48,063 pageviews: These users have explored more than 48,000 collective pages of Understanding Houston content.
787 report downloads: Nearly 800 reports have been downloaded by users for later use and reference.
218 chart exports: More than 200 charts have been exported by users to include in presentations, share on social media or feature on their website.
265 topic votes: Users have voted for the topics that matter most to them 265 times.
“Understanding Houston has served to inform our work with easy access to explore the data across the topics and subtopics within the website. This has been a tremendous value to have one central location for information.”
Jessica Davison – Sr. Program Manager, United Way of Greater Houston
How our community has grown
Understanding Houston launched its social media presence and monthly newsletter in January 2020 to grow our community, inform our users on important issues affecting the region and share new in-depth blogs and events.
To date, we’ve seen incredible support and engagement in our community, as our social platforms and newsletter subscribers continue to grow month over month, reaching 40,000 people via social media on average each month.
These collaborations resulted in 17 in-depth blogs, including six guest-authored pieces that amplify voices from community leaders.
Expanding Understanding Houston hasn’t been limited to the written word; through an ongoing series of successful data briefings and webinars, we’ve briefed more than 700 donors, foundation, nonprofit and government partners on on key data insights across quality of life issues and topics such as criminal justice and housing inequities, with 97% of attendees reporting increased understanding of the Houston region after attending.
How we’ve responded to 2020’s challenges
2020 has been an unpredictable year by any measure, as each new month seemed to bring with it new challenges. Between the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the renewed focus on racial justice and inequality in our region and beyond, the Understanding Houston team rose to the occasion, developing content that enhanced understanding and provided invaluable context to the issues affecting us all.
When COVID-19 began to impact our region, we knew right away that our initial plans for the immediate future — including in-person events, blogs and social media posts — simply weren’t going to work as originally scheduled. Immediately, we shifted our focus on social media to helping our followers stay up to day with accurate, vetted information about COVID-19 in our region.
Since the initial outbreak, Understanding Houston has published six original blogs on the impacts of COVID-19, some of which have been among the most viewed blogs on Understanding Houston.
Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and several others at the hands of police, the nation’s attention turned en masse to issues surrounding racial injustice in our communities. Recognizing our platform’s ability to add invaluable context and depth to these conversations, we once again paused our previously scheduled content plans and shifted focus to help our community find answers to their most pressing questions.
With cooperation from our partners, we worked diligently to develop an information campaign consisting of 16 unique social posts that presented a holistic picture of racial inequities and injustices in the Greater Houston area, including an inspiring guest blog by Marjorie Joseph of Houston Coalition Against Hate.
This content resonated with the community and helped hundreds of new followers discover Understanding Houston as we added 528 new followers to our four social media platforms over the course of the campaign.
How we’re planning for the future of Understanding Houston
A region as dynamic and ever-changing as Houston requires a resource that can keep up. Looking ahead to our second year, we are already planning two major updates to the existing platform:
A brand new Disaster topic with four subtopic pages crafted to help donors, government officials and community leaders understand the risks and effects associated with recent disasters in our region.
Expanded content and engagement opportunities on economic opportunity that enables deeper learning and exploration of how we strengthen economic security for families across Houston.
With COVID-19 making in-person engagements a challenge for the foreseeable future, we will also continue to work with our community partners to host engaging online data briefings that will keep the conversation going until we are able to host in-person events again.
Thank you to everyone who has made this possible!
Whether looking ahead or looking back, we owe so much to the countless people who have helped Understanding Houston grow into the dynamic resource it is today. To all the donors, partners, guest bloggers, researchers, analysts, developers, designers, writers and followers who keep us moving forward, we are endlessly grateful.
We also couldn’t do what we do without the continued support of our donors. Your support keeps Understanding Houston evolving and accessible for all Houstonians, and we’re extremely grateful for the support we’ve received thus far. If you’d like to see Understanding Houston continue to grow and expand its reach in our communities, please consider making a donation.
Here’s to many more years of keeping Houston connected to the things that matter.
Analyzing major challenges facing vulnerable populations
For many residents in the greater Houston area, two recent disasters have had lasting impact on their lives — Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 pandemic. The former dumped up to 60 inches of unrelenting rain that devastated neighborhood after neighborhood. COVID-19, of course, has hit the entire world and filled hospitals and unemployment rolls, including in our region.
Although a hurricane and a pandemic are very different crises, the lives they upend are often the same. The many negative economic, environmental and public health impacts of disasters exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities in these areas. In other words, those who are vulnerable before a catastrophic event are much more impacted during the disaster event and will likely continue to suffer long after it is over.
To provide policymakers, funders and stakeholders with reliable information about the impact of these disasters on Texans and inform their relief and recovery efforts, the Episcopal Health Foundation, in partnership with several research and funding collaborators, conducted public opinion surveys of Texans in 24 affected counties (for Hurricane Harvey) and the state (for the pandemic).1 Both surveys explored the disaster’s effects on income/employment, healthcare and mental health among various populations. Consistent with established research, findings from both surveys reveal that lower-income, non-white and undocumented communities are disproportionately impacted by these disasters.2
How Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19 impact income and employment
Beyond the collateral damage disasters leave in their wake, the myriad disruptions to infrastructure, economic/market activity, access to resources and more can cause substantial job loss — either temporarily or more long-term. In the months following Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19, many residents throughout Harris County and the state lost income and/or employment. (Loss includes someone in their household lost a job, lost their business, had hours/wages cut back at work, or experienced some other loss of income, including furloughed, as a result of disaster.)
Nearly half of Texas Gulf Coast residents affected by Hurricane Harvey reported income and/or employment losses three months after the event. Meanwhile, nearly four in 10 Texans reported similar effects six months after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Effects in Harris County appear more pronounced as a higher percentage of respondents reported income and/or employment losses over these two time periods.
While a direct comparison between surveys of income/job loss by household income is difficult due to the questions’ wording, the Hurricane Harvey report found that respondents with lower incomes were much more likely to experience income/employment loss than those with higher incomes. Across the 24 affected counties, 59% of respondents with incomes at or below the federal poverty level (FPL) reported income or job loss compared to 50% of those between 100%-200% FPL, 48% of those 200%-400% FPL, and 29% of those more than four times the FPL. Data from the Census Bureau finds that low-income adults are among those hit hardest financially by COVID-19.
Both surveys also reveal consistent disparities across race/ethnicity. Following existing trends in poverty and income inequality, Hispanics consistently bore the largest economic impact during these disasters, followed by Black Texans. In Harris County, a staggering 82% of Hispanic respondents reported income and employment loss three months after Hurricane Harvey and 43% reported similar losses six months after the pandemic began.
In both the Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19 reports, we paid special attention to the experiences of those who are potentially undocumented immigrants. For our purposes, Texans who were not born in the U.S., did not have permanent resident status when they moved to the U.S., or who have not had their status changed since, were considered potentially undocumented immigrants. This population has lower job security and typically does not qualify for or access many governmental benefits which increases their vulnerability to economic shocks from a disaster.
About nine in 10 potentially undocumented residents affected by Hurricane Harvey in the region had experienced job/income loss three months after the storm. About half of potentially undocumented residents reported job/income loss six months after the pandemic began. In the Hurricane Harvey report, six in 10 potentially undocumented immigrants worried that they will draw attention to their or their family’s immigration status if they seek assistance.
How Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19 impact health care in Texas
Lost income and strained resources often force people to make difficult decisions regarding their expenses, which can cause people to delay or forego health care in the period following a crisis — especially if they have lost health insurance. Not surprising given the income/employment losses, many Houston and Texas residents chose to skip or delay health care in the months that followed both Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19.
Texans skipped or delayed health care at a higher rate during COVID-19 than in the first three months after Hurricane Harvey.These differences are consistent across both the state/region and Harris County, and may be explained by personal health and safety concerns associated with visiting doctor offices during a pandemic.
The COVID-19 report finds that 44% of Texans with incomes above $75,000 a year skipped or delayed health care compared to 31% of respondents with incomes below $75,000. This is likely because higher-income households tend to have higher rates of health insurance coverage, allowing for greater access to health care that preceded the pandemic.
The mental health impacts of Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19
Disasters in any form take a toll on our individual and collective health. The fear and worry of potential or actual financial and personal loss from a disaster can have serious emotional impacts — including PTSD, anxiety, depression and others. The impacts on our mental health can be as severe and long-lasting as the more visible physical and economic damage, and in some cases more so.
The pandemic appears to have had worse effects on mental health than Hurricane Harvey. Close to half of Texans and Harris County residents said the worry or stress related to COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health. Three months after Hurricane Harvey, 13% of Texans and 12% of Harris County residents reported that their mental health worsened as a result of the storm. This difference is likely due to the time-limited nature of Hurricane Harvey and that some neighborhoods were more affected than others.
Key takeaways and what comes next
Aside from the obvious differences between these two major crises, the findings from both surveys reinforce the fact that lower-income, non-white and undocumented populations are more likely to experience financial hardships and have a harder time coping with both disasters than their peers.
These findings signal that public- and private-sector leaders need to do more to address economic, health and mental health needs related to the pandemic, particularly for our region’s most vulnerable residents. We must pay attention to the needs of a group that is critical to our region’s local economy, workforce, and social fabric — undocumented immigrants. As both surveys show, they are suffering even more than their peers during COVID-19. Policymakers and philanthropy should devise long-term assistance, relief and rebuilding strategies to assist these vulnerable populations.
2. In discussing some common threads of these reports, we should note that Hurricane Harvey is a one-time natural disaster event that impacted 41 counties in Southeast Texas while the COVID-19 pandemic is both a global and national public health emergency that continues to impact the entire state. Nonetheless, it is useful to compare the data relating to how these events have impacted the vulnerable populations in Texas and Harris County.
Understanding and supporting our most vulnerable youth
The impact of COVID-19 on the Greater Houston community has been, and continues to be, unpredictable. However, there is one thing we know with certainty — the pandemic is affecting children’s mental health. Adults and children alike feel the psychological impact of the pandemic, which often includes anxiety about the possibility of becoming infected and/or infecting others, the significant economic toll on families who have lost jobs, and decisions regarding whether and how to send children back to school. Social distancing can also make us feel more socially isolated, depressed, and lonely. In fact, we know that social support is a major protective factor when facing adversity — one that is now missing for many children and families.1
It is also important to recognize that most of these reactions are completely normative in the context of the pandemic. And in fact, small amounts of anxiety can actually be adaptive and protective. To some degree, this is what helps us to feel compelled to wash our hands and practice social distancing. Too much anxiety, on the other hand, can cause significant distress and lead to further psychological issues.
COVID-19’s psychological effects on children
Children may be at particularly high risk for longer term anxiety and depression as a result of the pandemic. They are often highly attuned to their parents’ own reactions; however, they may lack the cognitive ability, insight, or support to effectively express and process their feelings. In addition, the return to school, either virtually or in person, can have its own set of psychological consequences. For example, we have heard children who recently returned to in-person learning worry, “What if I get sick? What if I end up getting mom or dad sick, how will they take care of me?” We have also heard children participating in remote learning say, “Sometimes I feel invisible. I’m not sure if anyone remembers that I’m even there.”
Increased anxiety and depression
Although there have been few rigorous research studies examining the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health, we know from a recent review of studies from other countries that children and adolescents appear to be experiencing high rates of anxiety and depression.2
How children manifest these symptoms can vary widely depending on the child’s age and developmental stage. For example, preschool-aged children may appear to be “clingy” with caregivers and become distressed at even brief separations. They may also show developmental regressions (e.g., eating, speech/language delays, toileting), increased oppositional behavior, and increased tearfulness. School-aged children may develop new fears or worries, such as fear of the dark, being alone or loud noises. They may also have difficulties sleeping, nightmares, increased irritability, and somatic complaints (headaches, stomach aches). Adolescents may exhibit similar problems, and are also likely to demonstrate lethargy or apathy, social withdrawal (isolating themselves in their room), increased moodiness or hopelessness about the future.
Worsened outcomes for children with pre-existing risks
The psychological impact of the pandemic on children is closely intertwined with other preexisting risks and protective factors. For example, children may be more at risk for psychological and behavioral problems, including school-related outcomes, if they had preexisting mental health issues and/or had experienced prior traumas or losses. One of our studies conducted prior to the pandemic showed that bereavement was the strongest predictor of poor school outcomes (e.g., poor school grades, increased school drop-out, lack of school connectedness) among adolescents above and beyond any other form of trauma, including physical abuse, sexual abuse and/or witnessing domestic violence.3 This is particularly relevant for children in our underserved Black and Latino communities where we are seeing higher rates of pandemic-related deaths.4
For children with histories of trauma or loss, certain aspects of the pandemic can serve as trauma reminders (people, places or situations that remind the child of a prior traumatic event), leading to symptoms of post-traumatic stress. For example, seeing or hearing about individuals dying from COVID-19 can bring back disturbing thoughts or images of how other loved ones may have suffered or died. A twelve-year old girl who experienced the death of her mother to cancer began to complain of heart palpitations and nausea every time she saw a news story that involved COVID-19 patients in the hospital. “It makes me feel like her death is happening all over again. Just seeing the hospital gowns and doctors rushing into the room — I start to feel sick to my stomach.”
Children’s grief in the context of the pandemic
Over 215,000 Americans have died as a result of COVID-19 at the time of publication. A recent study estimated that nine family members are affected by one person who dies of the coronavirus.5 This means that nearly two million individuals (including children) are grieving. Unfortunately, these numbers are growing, even within our own Greater Houston community, and even more rapidly among our Black and Latino families. The context in which the deaths are occurring (e.g., social distancing that prevents in-person, ongoing support and collective mourning) makes the grief-related impact even more pronounced, particularly for children and adolescents.
After a death, concerned parents and caregivers often ask, what should I expect from my child? What is considered a “normal” grief reaction? This is a difficult question to answer given that grief is influenced by a host of factors including the child’s age/developmental stage, prior traumas/losses, culture, religious/spiritual beliefs, family environment, and circumstances of the death, just to name a few. Our work with bereaved youth has shown us that children tend to grapple with three primary bereavement-related challenges: separation distress, existential/identity distress, and circumstance-related distress.6,7
Separation distress can take the form of really missing the person who died and yearning and longing to have them back. Existential or identity distress includes feeling lost without the person or unsure of how life will go on without the person’s physical presence. Circumstance-related distress involves excessive worries or concerns about the way the person died, such as guilt or shame or anger about what caused the person to die.
At the same time, it is helpful to recognize that there is such thing as “good grief”, in that children and adolescents can and do find healthy ways of coping with each of these bereavement-related challenges.6 For example, when facing separation distress, children often engage in behaviors or activities that help them to feel connected to the person who died either by doing the same things that they used to enjoy doing with the person, memorializing them or identifying personality traits or interests that they had in common.
When facing existential/identity distress, youth can often find ways to carry on the legacy of the person who died or ensure that they’re living the kind of life that the person would have wanted for them.
And when facing circumstance-related distress, children naturally gravitate toward finding ways to transform the circumstances of the death into something meaningful so that people can avoid suffering in the same way.8 For example, a ten year-old boy who lost his mother to breast cancer said, “I try to raise money every year for the breast cancer walk so that other kids don’t have to go through what I went through.” Or a fourteen year-old girl who lost her sibling in a car accident said, “I want to become an ER doctor so that I can save kids’ lives. I don’t want other kids to die like my brother did.”
What can we do to help children during COVID-19?
Although the pandemic may feel out of control, there are things that we, as adults and caregivers, can do to help children who may be struggling with strong emotions.
Help children to recognize what they CAN and DO control. While we may not be able to control what’s happening in our environment, we can control our own proactive efforts to stop the spread of the virus through physical distancing, wearing a mask and hand washing. Help children to feel empowered by “choosing” the ways in which they are helping themselves and their family to stay safe. We can also help to monitor and control children’s exposure to graphic news stories about the pandemic.
Encourage emotional awareness. Children have an easier time coping with their own emotions when they are encouraged to observe and identify them, as opposed to trying to push them away or hide them. This often requires the help and support of a caring adult to label feelings and normalize their reactions. For example, a parent might say, “It looks like you might be feeling nervous about going back to school. That’s totally normal and understandable, and sometimes it can help to talk about it. What can you tell me about how you’re feeling right now?”
Teach breathing exercises Breathing exercises can help to reduce the physiological aspects of anxiety by helping to reduce heart rate and blood pressure. Children and adolescents can easily implement these exercises when they’re feeling stressed. This is very effective for adults as well.
Breathe in through the nose for a count of 4 seconds.
Hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds.
Exhale through the mouth for the count of 8 seconds.
Repeat the cycle 4-8 times as needed.
Embrace enjoyable activities Sometimes a little distraction can go a long way to reduce anxiety or stress. Caregivers can help children by identifying activities that they might enjoy, whether it’s going for a walk, watching a favorite tv show, or calling a friend or family member.
Addressing sadness or depressive symptoms
Shift focus to a better future: Help children recognize that the pandemic is temporary (even though it may seem like it’s going to last forever) and it will eventually come to an end.
Emphasize gratitude: Introduce the idea of practicing gratitude by helping children write in a journal or on paper three things that they’re grateful for each day. This can also become an end-of-day activity that the whole family participates in together.
Find a support network: For adolescents who may be less comfortable confiding in their parents, help them to identify at least one person who they can check in with each day – someone who can be a listening ear and offer comfort or support.
Caregivers often shy away from discussing the death of a loved one with children, as they tend to worry that they’re somehow “planting a seed” or raising concerns where there aren’t any. On the contrary, what we’ve learned is that children feel understood and validated when caregivers openly discuss the person’s death.9 It is helpful to use simple, developmentally appropriate language and let the child guide the conversation whenever possible. For example, a parent might say “I know Grandma’s death can feel confusing or upsetting, especially since we couldn’t be there to say goodbye to her. What kinds of questions or worries do you have? I would really like to hear how you’re feeling.”
To address separation distress (yearning or longing for the person who died):
Help children find ways to feel connected to the person who died, which can include looking at photos or videos of the person together, memorializing the person by lighting a candle or planting flowers in their honor, or engaging in activities that the person really enjoyed.
If children were not able to say goodbye prior to the person’s death, it can help to write a letter to the person that includes everything they would have wanted to say to them.
If at all possible, give children an opportunity to hold onto something tangible that reminds them of the person, like a necklace or a photo.
Talk about the person who died – say their name often, talk about positive memories, encourage the child to share stories about the person.
To address existential or identity distress, (when we feel like our lives are permanently altered or we don’t know who we are anymore):
Help children identify all of the positive traits or characteristics they have in common with the person who died and discuss how they can carry on the legacy of the person by focusing on those traits and behaviors.
Help children think about what the person would have wanted for them. How can they live their life in a way that honors the person’s memory?
To address circumstance-related distress, (being very preoccupied with unhelpful thoughts about the circumstances of the death):
If the death is due to COVID-19, help children identify the ways in which we are coming together as a society to try to tackle this problem and things they are already doing to prevent the spread of the virus.
Often the circumstance-related distress stems from unanswered questions or concerns that children have about the way the person died (e.g., Did they suffer? Were they sad or scared?). . It can be helpful for children to ask the questions they have, or if it’s too difficult to express them out loud, they can write questions on a sheet of paper. Use simple and straightforward language to answer the questions without going into excessive detail. For more complicated questions, it can be helpful to have children speak to a physician who can provide information in developmentally appropriate terms that they will understand.
Know When to Seek Additional Help
Although most children will be resilient and even grow and learn from this pandemic, we also know that a number of youth will require more than just parental support. Below are what we would consider “red flags” that may indicate that a child requires a more thorough evaluation and possibly therapy:
Functional impairment: For younger children this can look like behavioral regressions or significant changes in behavior like extreme aggression or extreme fear to the point where a child refuses to leave a caregiver’s side. For older children, this can involve trouble getting out of bed in the morning, constant tearfulness or extreme withdrawal.
Dangerous behaviors: Excessive risk-taking behaviors, alcohol use, or drug use in adolescents should also be considered concerning.
Obsessive behaviors: Hand washing is encouraged, but if children reach a point where they become visibly distressed when they are not washing their hands or if it feels excessive, this is something to explore further.
Self-harm or suicidal tendencies: Any expression of a wish to die or hurt themselves likely requires an evaluation with a therapist.
There are now plenty of telehealth options across the U.S. where children can be seen virtually by a therapist. You can either call your pediatrician or a mental health provider in your area to see what might be available, and there is good evidence to suggest that teletherapy is just as effective in reducing distress as in-person therapy.10
In addition, Texas Health and Human Services has launched a 24/7 statewide mental health support line operated by the Harris Center. Individuals who are experiencing distress due to COVID-19 can call 833-986-1919 at any hour of the day to speak with a mental health professional.
Although the pandemic has, in many ways, created more social isolation, it has also helped to raise awareness about the importance of mental health and well-being for our youth. Collectively, we have the ability to help children identify and address difficult emotions and come through the pandemic with even more skills to cope with whatever life throws their way.
Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP, is executive director of The Trauma and Grief Center (TAG) Center at The Hackett Center for Mental Health. The TAG Center raises the standard of care and increases access to best practice care among youth who have experienced trauma and bereavement.
Hostinar, C. E., Sullivan, R. M., & Gunnar, M. R. (2014). Psychobiological mechanisms underlying the social buffering of the HPA axis: A review of animal models and human studies across development. Psychological Bulletin, 140(1), 256-82. doi: 10.1037/a0032671.
Wagner, K. D. (October, 2020). New findings about children’s mental health during COVID-19. Psychiatric Times.
Oosterhoff, B., Kaplow, J. B., & Layne, C. (2018). Links between bereavement due to sudden death and academic functioning: Results from a nationally representative sample of adolescents. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(3), 372–380.
Verdery, A.M., Smith-Greenaway, E., Margolis, R., & Daw, J. (2020). Tracking the reach of COVID-19 loss with a bereavement multiplier applied to the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117 (30), 17695-17701.
Kaplow, J.B., Layne, C.M., Saltzman, W.R., Cozza, S.J., & Pynoos, R.S. (2013). Using Multidimensional Grief Theory to explore effects of deployment, reintegration, and death on military youth and families. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 16, 322-340.
Layne, C.M., Kaplow, J.B., Oosterhoff, B., Hill, R., & Pynoos, R. (2017). The interplay of trauma and bereavement in adolescence: Integrating pioneering work and recent advancements. Adolescent Psychiatry, 7(4), 266-285.
Kaplow, J.B., Layne, C.M., & Pynoos, R.S. (2019). Treatment of Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder in children and adolescents. In M. Prinstein, E. Youngstrom, E. Mash, & R. Barkley (Eds), Treatment of disorders in childhood and adolescence (4th ed., pp. 560-590) New York, NY: Guilford Publications, Inc.
Shapiro, D., Howell, K., & Kaplow, J. (2014). Associations among mother-child communication quality, childhood maladaptive grief, and depressive symptoms. Death Studies, 38(3),172-178.
Boydell, K.M., Hodgins, M., Pignatiello, A., Teshima, J., Edwards, H., & Willis, D. (2014). Using technology to deliver mental health services to children and youth: A scoping review. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 23(2), 87-99.
Home values in each of Greater Houston’s three most populous counties have increased at a faster rate than in the nation overall. Between 2010 and 2017, median home values rose 33% in Fort Bend County, 31% in Montgomery County and 17% in Harris County, compared to 7% nationally.
Rent is rising for renters, too. Median rents climbed faster in both Fort Bend and Montgomery counties than in Harris County, Texas, and the nation in that same time period.
Renters and homeowners in Greater Houston have been facing increased housing costs for the last several years.
The housing affordability gap measures the difference between the price of an affordable home for a median-income household (i.e., no more than 30% of income) and the median sales price for a home in the area. The affordability gap in Harris County widened between 2011 and 2018, according to the 2020 State of Housing in Harris County and Houston from the Kinder Institute.
In 2018, a household with median income of $60,146 could afford a $186,300 home in Harris County. But the median home price was $220,000. This $33,700 gap is the difference between what households at the middle income level can afford and what is available. Among renters, the affordability gap stretches to $93,500.
Zoe Middleton from Texas Housers illustrated how low-income households are constrained by both rising rents and stagnant wages. Citing data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Zoe explained that a person earning minimum wage would need to work 96 hours per week to afford a fair market rate (FMR) one-bedroom apartment in Harris County, 116 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom, and 156 hours per week for a three-bedroom.
As home prices push more families out of the market, the number of renters in the region has grown. This trend has significant implications because renters are more likely to be cost burdened than homeowners due to their lower median incomes compared to homeowners. In the three-county Houston area, 46% of renters spend at least 30% of their income on housing compared to 21% of homeowners. Renters are three times as likely to spend at least half their income on housing as homeowners.
Cost-Burdened Renter Households by Income Level, Harris County, 2018
The burden weighs heavier for those with low incomes. Households with incomes less than $50,000 in Harris County are significantly cost burdened. This disparity is most striking for households that earn less than $30,000. The overwhelming majority (93%) of households that earn between $10,000 and $20,000 in Harris County spend at least 30% of their income on housing compared to 18% of households with incomes between $50,000 and $75,000.
Lack of affordable and safe housing in Houston is costly
Houston, like many other large metros, does not have sufficient supply of affordable, safe and healthy housing — particularly for households with low incomes — but even for median-income earners. “The stock is skewed towards single family or very large multifamily,” Kyle Shelton from the Kinder Institute explains. “Houston struggles to provide the missing middle — smaller multifamily units that are typically more affordable.”
New housing construction trends indicate a growing supply of future multi-family units, but those tend to be higher-priced. Meanwhile, existing affordable units are in decline.
Renter-occupied Housing Units by Gross Rent, Harris County, 2010 and 2018
In 2010 in Harris County, there was more availability among units with lower rent. However, in 2018, the supply of units with lower rent fell while units with rent above $1,500 per month surged.
Greater Houston’s housing crisis “has been going on for a while, but has hit an inflection point,” Anne Gatling Hayne from the Texas Land Bank states.
Harris County has led the nation in evictions over the past two decades, and the number of evictions in the region remains higher compared to other metros since COVID-19’s onset — another consequence of the region’s housing crisis. “[Evictions] destabilize households and the overall housing system in the region,” Shelton warns.
Homeownership is still the most significant way to build wealth — the kind that can be transferred to future generations and compounded. Barriers to homeownership not only rob families of current and future wealth, but also they weaken communities through decades of disinvestment.
The fact that the majority of predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods in the region are located in areas characterized by older, lower-quality housing is the legacy of racial segregation in Houston. Twentieth century legal federal housing policies and banks denied mortgage and maintenance loans for homes located in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods. This trend of devaluing Black property continues today, Paul Charles from Neighborhood Recovery CDC clarified, which accelerates disrepair, sharing a powerful story and concluding: “So does redlining still exist?… Yes. Redlining still occurs. Redlining shows up in mortgage loans, appraisals, and insurance…which leads to devaluation of personal and community wealth.”
For these reasons and more, combined with slower recovery after the Great Recession and recent natural disasters, Black homeownership rates are the lowest in the region, and fell to 41% in 2017 from 46% in 2010. For comparison, the homeownership rate for White households is 71%.
The intersection of rising home prices/rents and stagnant incomes for low-income households makes neighborhoods more vulnerable to gentrification. This can lead to the displacement of long-term residents and even threaten homeownership. Black communities in Harris County are among the most susceptible to gentrification, according to the State of Housing report.
Environmental and climate change is crucial to consider as insufficient healthy and safe housing negatively impacts resident health. Majority-Black neighborhoods report worse air and water quality, higher temperatures, and increased susceptibility to flooding.
Jonathan Brooks from LINK Houston emphasizes that transportation is the ultimate “shared interest” of housing. It literally connects us to opportunities, people, and places, which is why transportation equity and affordability is crucial to housing. A community’s transportation infrastructure, or built environment, should include high quality, safe, accessible sidewalks, bikeways, streets, transit stops, and drainage.
Because housing is taking up a larger share of incomes, many “choose” to live farther from the traditional center of the region’s economic hub, the city of Houston proper in Harris County. Given Houston’s geographic reach, this results in substantial transportation costs.
Fort Bend residents spend 60% of their income on housing and transportation alone. That’s a larger chunk than what families in Los Angeles County — notorious for its expensive housing market and lengthy commutes — spend.
How we can work together to solve Houston’s housing issues
It’s easy to get lost in the numbers. Maria Aguirre-Borrero from Avenue grounded the conversation in why housing matters. She shared a story about a 31-year old man whose greatest hope is to live in the same community in which he was raised. But, that dream seems intangible given his low income and college expenses. Reluctantly, he and his family are thinking of moving somewhere else more affordable or living together in overcrowded living conditions–another housing issue where the three-county region trends more poorly than Texas and the nation.
Housing is inherently about community. When diverse and rich communities are displaced, or when people have less money for essentials like education, food, healthcare or savings because housing and transportation costs cannibalize incomes, we will continue to see more housing vulnerability. The good news is, many smart and dedicated people and organizations are working to reverse negative trends.
Here are some of the steps we can all take to help improve access to housing in Greater Houston:
Fund what others can’t or don’t. That includes advocacy for sound and equitable housing policies at the local, city, and county level; grassroots organizations; and innovative pilot programs and projects. Philanthropy can take risks — the results of which potentially allow the government to step in to scale. These dollars fund systems change.
Use your voice to advocate for and fund equitable housing initiatives and policies that prioritize low-income and communities of color by talking with your neighbors about this issue and contacting local officials to voice your concerns.
Consider what you’re already funding. Think about housing and transportation issues related to areas or populations you already fund. Be open to funding transportation and housing line items and asking questions about the transportation options being provided to residents in the process. Invest in organizations working on this issue to build their capacity, provide general operating support, or flexible capital that can complement or enhance other funds. Here are just a few organizations we’ve worked with to know about:
The year 2020 has been defined by significant change. From the many disruptions and adjustments associated with the COVID-19 pandemic to the renewed and evolving conversations surrounding racial injustice in America, each month has brought with it new reasons to reflect on and adapt to the shifting circumstances we’re all facing. Amidst these many challenges is another galvanizing moment — the 2020 election.
In addition to the presidential election, a number of state and local offices are on the ballot, and a record-setting number of registered voters in Texas are heading to the polls to make their voices heard. And while no one can truly predict the outcome of an election, we can examine previous trends to understand what lies ahead — both encouraging and troubling — when it comes to civic and electoral participation in Houston.
The total number of registered voters increased in all three counties between 2016 and 2018.
More than 3.1 million people were registered to vote in Greater Houston during the 2018 midterm elections. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of registered voters increased between 5% and 6%. Voter registration in Greater Houston grew faster than the rate for Texas (4.6%) and defied a national downward trend, as national voter registration fell by 3% during the same time period.
While increased voter registration inherently suggests increased engagement, voter turnout is the ultimate indicator of participation in our democractic system. Not only were more people registered to vote in the Houston area in 2018, they also voted at higher rates.
Voter turnout has remained steady for the last three presidential elections.
Voter turnout in the three-county region has remained flat over the last three presidential elections, with the highest turnout rates consistently in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. However, changes in voter participation during midterm elections tell a very different story.
More than half of registered voters in the three-county region voted in the 2018 midterm elections.
Fewer than half of registered voters — in the three-county region and across the nation — participated in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. However, voter turnout in 2018 surged nearly 20 percentage points in all three counties, with 53% to 59% of registered voters in each county casting a ballot.
Disparities in voter registration in Greater Houston
Despite recent growth in overall voter registration, some groups are less likely to register than others. Greater Houston sees disparities in voter registration along race/ethnicity, nativity status, and educational attainment.
Black voters in the three-county region have the highest voter registration rate. .
While 70.4% of eligible Black residents and 68.0% of eligible white residents in Greater Houston were registered to vote in 2016, only 52.3% of eligible Hispanic residents were registered. The data indicate that citizens with higher levels of education tend to register to vote at the highest rate.
What happens after the elections?
While increased civic interaction, engagement and mobilization are to be expected during an election cycle, what happens after the polls close is arguably just as important. Our democractic system is rooted in the ideal that elected officials represent the needs of their constituents in our country’s high offices — a notion that requires trust and communication between elected officials and the people they represent. However, this isn’t always how things work out in the Houston area.
Ideally, public officials are able to hear directly from their constituents so that they can act on community concerns in the course of their duties. However, in Greater Houston, people contact elected officials at lower rates than the rest of the state and the rest of the country.
Greater Houston residents contact elected officials at nearly half the national rate.
In Greater Houston, only 6.1% of residents contact their elected officials at least once a year, compared to 8.1% at the state level and 11.0% nationally. This translates to about one out of every 17 residents. Ideally, this would suggest that Houston residents are happy enough with their elected officials that they don’t feel they need to contact them, but a survey of Houston-area residents found otherwise.
Houston-area residents are mostly split on whether or not they trust their local governments.
When asked whether their local government can be trusted to do what’s best for the community in a 2014 survey, Houston residents had a somewhat mixed response. More than half of Harris County residents responded favorably compared to 51.9% of Fort Bend County residents and 48.8% of Montgomery County residents. More recent national data show that 20% of American adults trust the federal government to “do the right thing” almost always or most of the time.
While this doesn’t mean that elected officials can’t or don’t deliver on campaign promises and community concerns, it does indicate that our region may still have work to do in increasing positive civic engagement and confidence among all residents.
Ensuring that this increased enthusiasm at the polls translates to meaningful engagement within our communities requires continued education and open conversations throughout the year — not just during election cycles. Understanding Houston is designed to help our region do just that by connecting people with key data about life in our communities, extending our platform to guest bloggers and sharing the latest updates with our followers on social media.
Help us keep the engagement alive; follow us on your favorite social media platform, learn how you can get involved, and help us continue to do what matters in our communities.
Meet Latino community leaders who are forging a brighter path for Houston
Houston heritage is Hispanic heritage. The remarkable contributions of Houston’s Hispanic community can be felt in nearly every square inch of our sprawling region, forming a trajectory that aligns closely with our region’s future.
Within the next ten years, Hispanic/Latino* residents are projected to make up over half of the Greater Houston-area population, and as their presence increases, so too does their impact in our communities. Latino leaders are making vital contributions in nearly every aspect of Houston life — from speaking out for human rights and immigrant protections, to advocating for educational equity, to contributing to our arts and culture, to empowering communities of color through organizing and entrepreneurship.
When it comes to making Houston a more vibrant, opportunity-rich region, these leaders are blazing new trails. An important note: We recognize that this list is far from exhaustive. If you know of a leader or organization that we should cover, please let us know!
Campaign Director at Texas Organizing Project – Houston
Fortunately, people like Celesté Arredondo-Peterson and the Housing Justice team at Texas Organizing Project are working tirelessly to ensure that Black and Latino communities have access to the safe housing conditions that can help residents achieve their dreams and reach their fullest potential.
“Texas Organizing Project has been organizing with Black and Latino communities in Houston for 10 years. I like to think of community organizers as power paleontologists; it’s our job to unearth the power that exists in our communities…together we can demand the American dream we were sold.”
For Celesté, these dreams and ambitions are more than just vague notions. She takes the time to hear residents in underserved communities and sees the potential that lies inside each and every one of them. “I spend a lot of time on people’s porches … their living rooms, talking to people about the things they care about. Their hopes and dreams for their families and what they want out of life,” says Celesté of her work in Houston’s Black and Latino neighborhoods. “The people I talk to have often been kicked in the teeth by a hurricane or the criminal legal system… (But) they remain hopeful that things can be different, that people can change and that their community will be there for them — because history has shown that to be true.”
Moving forward, Celesté and TOP have their sights set toward Washington, D.C. as they continue the fight for better Houston-area housing. “In Houston, we are building a movement of tenants who can demand the kind of housing solutions that our families so desperately need. And on January 20, 2021 we will join a nationwide call to action for our nation’s leaders to do their job and take the necessary steps to ensure the working people of this country aren’t left behind during this economic disaster.”
Executive Director of Greater Houston at Latinos for Education
As the Executive Director of Greater Houston for Latinos for Education, Andy Canales is dedicated to ensuring that Houston’s world-famous diversity translates into world-leading opportunities for students of all backgrounds.
“We, at Latinos for Education, deeply believe that representation matters and that our solutions in education can be even more effective if we incorporate the Latino voice in decision-making,” says Canales of his work in Houston. “We equip more Latino leaders to be at the forefront of education change by training and placing them on boards of education nonprofit organizations and helping those that work inside the education sector to increase their sphere of influence.”
Since beginning their work in Houston in 2018, Latinos for Education has helped to develop 70 Latino leaders in the education sector, as they aim to establish a stronger infrastructure for Latino voices in Houston-area education programs. But Andy’s ambitions for his work aren’t limited to the Hispanic community. “One of our core values at Latinos for Education is ‘Bridge Across Cultures.’ We see value in knowledge, relationships, and ideas that may be different than our own. We seek to learn, grow, and become more inclusive with others in a multicultural world.”
It was in this gap between interest and engagement that Raúl Orlando Edwards foundedFLAMART (Featuring Latin American Music and ART). FLAMART is dedicated to promoting Latin American voices in the arts through a variety of innovative programming, including dance, music, festivals and more. “I would like to see a city that honors the traditions and histories of its people,” says Edwards of his goals for FLAMART. “Our goal is to exemplify the cultures that make up Houston and find solutions to problems.”
“The reason my organization came to be was because we saw that there was an incredible void in the way Latin American arts was being represented in Houston; there was very little recognition of the African part of Latin America and to the indigenous regions there as well. One of the things we noticed was how those groups were represented and so we decided to do something where all of these cultures were represented with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
Despite the gulf in representation, Raúl has found in Houston a rich tapestry of multicultural exchange, and is inspired by Latino trailblazers like Alice Valdéz and Luz Mouton. Moving forward, Edwards and his fellow artists at FLAMART are working to expand their annual Latin Week Houston event, and hope to continue sharing these experiences in-person as soon as they can.
Chief Development Officer at The Center for Pursuit
We often speak of Houston as a welcoming and inclusive region. Living up to that reputation means respecting the rights and needs of people with disabilities. Just one sign that we have work to do in our education system alone is a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Education, which found that the Texas Education Agency capped the statewide percentage of students who received special education services in order to control costs. Not only are there challenges, there are opportunities to support adults and children with disabilities on their journey of choice, growth, and independence.
That is where Marilu Garza and The Center for Pursuit continue to provide support. “With a brand new campus being built in the East End, we will bring together other groups in this area as collaborators who can work together to give these clients a true shot of choice, independence and growth, and serve as a voice for those who have a voice but whose voice is not always heard.”
“We want to help families continue to navigate through the difficult waters that lie ahead of them as they attempt to find services in the areas of health, education, employment, and living situations for their children,” says Marilu of her work with The Center for Pursuit.
Marilu had a granddaughter born this year on March 23, and her vision for her and all children and adults in the Houston area is that they continue to live in a city with increasing opportunity for all. She believes that Houston is a place that can continue down this path toward growth and inclusivity.
“I am always amazed by our resilience. We can be knocked down but rarely are we out. We respond by reaching out to help our neighbors. When COVID-19 became a reality, we made sure that our elderly were taken care of, that our homeless were safe, and that our front-line workers were honored for this service. I, like so many others, remain HOUSTON PROUD!”
Director of Education and Economic Opportunity at BakerRipley
Houston may struggle with economic inequality, but the Houstonian spirit of giving and the hard work of everyday residents supports our region’s rise above our challenges. It’s this spirit of giving that inspires Estella Gonzalez and her partners at BakerRipley to work tirelessly for a more opportunity-rich Houston.
“BakerRipley inspires positive change by truly working side-by-side with community members… We believe that the most important assets in a community are the residents — they are capable and powerful enough to create meaningful change in their neighborhood, we simply give them a safe space to do it in, and support them along the way. Although the organization has been around for longer than a century, it hasn’t changed its mission of bringing resources, education, and connection to emerging neighborhoods.”
Most recently, Estella spearheaded a social enterprise project in Houston’s Aldine community, helping to develop small businesses in the area through the establishment of a commercial kitchen, a business incubator, and a co-working space. Though the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic requires flexibility in planning for the future, Estella is “…focusing on making sure we continue to provide quality programs that our community needs and that my staff are taking care of themselves at the same time” and remains inspired by her fellow Houstonians.
“The way Houstonians help each other is inspiring. Ask anyone about what it was like during Hurricane Harvey and you are sure to get stories about homes being destroyed and lives uprooted, but know what else you will hear about? Neighbors helping neighbors. It didn’t matter where you lived, there were Houstonians showing up in Fifth Ward and Kingwood to help clear out homes and just lend a helping hand.”
Principal at Traffic Engineers, Inc. and Board Member of LINK Houston
It’s no wonder that Houston has developed a reputation as a “car town.” Households in Greater Houston have higher rates of car ownership than the national rate, contributing to an annual congestion-associated cost of $1,490 per vehicle. While some have become complacent, James Llamas and his partners at LINK Houston and Traffic Engineers, Inc. are advocates for safer, equitable and more diverse transportation options for residents throughout the Greater Houston area.
As a member of Houston Bike Share and the Midtown Management District Urban Planning Committee, James is inspired by Houston’s spirit of continuous improvement, and is taking an active role in making Houston’s urban areas more walkable, more bike-friendly and less reliant on cars. “I’d contend that more people have the ability to ride a bike than to drive a car. However, not everyone has the skills, desire, or budget to own and maintain their own bike … We offer 1,200 bikes available at 112 stations and counting for people to make short trips around the city. We’re expanding to more neighborhoods all the time with help from partners like Council Member Karla Cisneros and Commissioner Rodney Ellis and have launched a GO Pass program to ensure bike share is affordable to all,” says James of his work with Houston Bike Share.
In his work with LINK Houston, James is helping to stand up against the controversial I-45 expansion project (NHHIP), which opponents believe will disproportionately impact Houston’s communities of color. “Segregation, wealth disparities, and the persistence of poverty are the results of deliberate policy decisions over many decades. It will take a concerted and sustained effort to undo that legacy, and LINK is taking on this challenge in Houston.”
“My work has progressed within themes of environmentalism with each piece highlighting our relationship to nature, the precious commodity of water, and how we choose to help (or oftentimes neglect) the natural world around us. I hope to inspire change within the arts to look and find more conscious choices to hopefully not just visually inspire people but give them a chance to reflect on our conservation opportunities as well.”
A few organizations that have inspired Felipe in his artistic endeavors include Fresh Arts, which “allows artists to step out of the studio and meet with colleagues who can give guided perspective and useful knowledge on topics that will reshape a creative’s thinking to propel their career forward in a more focused fashion.” Other inspirational organizations include Art League Houston, which “continues to expand their dedication and cultivation of local talent” and Houston Arts Alliance, where Felipe served on their Disaster Recovery Board and received an Individual Artist Grant in 2019.
“Through my work, research, and other activities I’m very much an advocate for health equity and education equity. What that means is that every person has the same opportunity to be healthy and be educated.”
Dr. Olvera’s BOUNCE program empowers families to make healthy choices through a comprehensive program that promotes a healthy mind and body. “I believe in working to make the families agents of change. I work with schools and parents and teachers as well to some degree but I believe the best way to start a positive change is from the roots by starting with the individuals and families.”
Through her work, Dr. Olvera, is inspired by Pamela Quiroz, Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at UH, who “…always has the courage to stand up for what is right for the Hispanic community” and Daisy Morales, Vice President of Community Affairs at Community Health Choice, for “…her ability to have hard conversations when it comes to insurance and health access for the Hispanic community but being able to approach it with finesse.”
“These two women really go above and beyond and are really committed to improving the community.”
Texas State Director at Mi Familia Vota
As Hispanic residents form an increasingly large portion of Greater Houston’s population, political participation and representation are and will continue to be of vital importance in ensuring that all residents are given fair opportunities in our communities. Unfortunately, Hispanic candidates remain underrepresented in local offices and elections, and Hispanic residents are registered to vote at a lower rate than other Houston-area ethnic groups.
As the Texas State Director at Mi Familia Vota, Angelica Razo is committed to tackling these shortcomings at the root so that Latino Houstonians of all backgrounds and income levels can use the tools of civic engagement to better the world for those around them.
“Our organization believes that democracy should be accessible to everyone, and in order to achieve positive change in Houston, community members really need to understand the issues impacting them and then advocate by voting and speaking to their elected officials in order to have ownership to improve their quality of life.”
Though much work remains to be done to create equitable Latino representation in our political process, Angelica knows that if any region can overcome such barriers, it’s ours. “There is a saying in Spanish, no te rajes (“Do not give up”). It’s a mantra that I see Houstonians live up to and it shows through their hard work ethic, perseverance, dedication, and kindness to their neighbors.”
Even with the 2020 election coming soon, Angelica and Mi Familia Vota are already looking ahead to 2021 for opportunities to advocate for better environmental justice, immigration, education and healthcare policies.
Executive Director at Fe y Justicia Worker Center
Prior to the pandemic, Houston experienced faster job growth and more industrial diversity compared to the nation and state, largely thanks to the contributions made by immigrants who strengthen our labor force and generate demand for goods and services within our local economy.
Daniana Trigoso-Kukulski, at the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, remarks that, “The construction and service industries are particularly dependent on immigrant labor today, but other sectors such as domestic workers who have been on the front line in this tragic worldwide pandemic have been forgotten or erased out of the political and economic changes that have happened.”
Daniana has been working hard with the immigrant community to empower them with information on their rights as workers. “We have assisted with legal and advocacy help, but also provided a safe space where those who are discriminated against and rejected by the working community can receive education and empowerment to address their status.”
When it comes to Houston, Daniana greatly admires, “…the passion and driving spirit that the immigrant community brings to the economy, in areas that are so crucial to the national wealth such as medicine, construction, oil, and other important industries.”
But true to the spirit of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, Daniana knows there’s still more that can be done to improve Houston by “…helping authorities, organizations, and the general community understand what immigrants with drive, luck, talent, and creativity bring to… economic life…”
Ruth Lopez Turley
Founder/Director at Houston Education Research Consortium – A Program of The Kinder Institute for Urban Research
With Hispanic, Black, and economically-disadvantaged students in the Houston area being less likely to meet or exceed grade-level expectations on third-grade STAAR Reading Exams and eighth-grade STAAR Math Exams, it is likely we need to reexamine whether or not our public education system is distributing resources in an equitable manner.
As founder and director of the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC), a program of The Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Ruth Lopez Turley and her team produce research to improve education equity by race, ethnicity, economic status, and English language learner status through a research practice partnership between Rice University and 11 Houston-area school districts. Ruth envisions a Houston where these differences in backgrounds continue to add a positive impact to the culture and diversity of the Houston community and are no longer barriers to educational opportunities.
The conception of HERC was based on Ruth’s previous interest in and conversations with the UChicago Consortium on School Research. “I was really inspired by the way they were doing education research and their partnership with the Chicago Public Schools and saw that not a lot of academic researchers were doing research in that way in partnership with schools.”
“I’m interested in producing research that can be directly accessed and used by district leaders. Research is often considered a luxury item as it is expensive to do well, but I want HERC to provide the resource of our research capacity to our community and don’t want it to be just about learning in an academic sense. We are explicitly trying to have an impact on the educational opportunities that students in the Houston area have and are really trying to make sure the research we are producing is informing those efforts.”
Ruth sees Understanding Houston as a great step in the right direction to start pulling information together in one place and increasing collaboration and comments that, “There is still a lot to pull off but I think the Foundation’s efforts to help us be better coordinated is a great start.”
Going forward, Ruth would like to think even deeper about what can and should be done in order to make progress towards education equity by addressing the underlying structural barriers within the system.
*Racial and ethnic labels are by their very nature imperfect, and in many ways evolving. For simplicity here, we use Hispanic and Latino interchangeably in this blog, with most data on Understanding Houston utilizing the U.S. Census term “Hispanic” or Hispanic/Latino.
The informative conversation revealed five key insights about criminal justice and how we can improve the system for all.
1. The criminal justice system is expansive, has grown significantly in recent history, and affects everyone.
One out of 37 American adults is currently under control by the criminal justice system (i.e., imprisoned, parole, probation), or nearly seven million people, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data analyzed by Arnold Ventures. About two-thirds of those are under community supervision (otherwise known as probation or parole) which are “hidden” drivers of mass incarceration.
“It hasn’t always been this way,” Julie James from Arnold Ventures states. The number of people incarcerated or under community supervision nearly tripled from 1980 to the peak in 2008. “This is historically and internationally unprecedented. The United States has just 4% of the world’s population, yet about 25% of the world’s prisoners are in the U.S.,” James reports. Of course, incarceration is not felt in a vacuum — entire communities and families are disrupted when someone goes to jail, such as the more than 5 million children who have had a parent incarcerated.
“This [growth in people incarcerated or on community supervision] is historically and internationally unprecedented. The United States has just 4% of the world’s population, yet about 25% of the world’s prisoners are in the U.S.,” Julie James, Arnold Ventures
Locally, Harris County has the largest number of individuals on probation in the state; and Texas has the largest number in the country, according to Dr. Howard Henderson from the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University. “About 70,000 return to Texas from prisons, and one in five returns to the Houston area,” he explains. Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department supervises nearly 70,000 individuals throughout the year, the third largest probation department in the United States.
2. Black Americans, particularly males, are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system – and at every level.
While the criminal justice system affects everyone, some are more likely to feel these impacts than others, more frequently, and to a hasher degree. People of color, particularly Black Americans, are disproportionately impacted at each stage in the criminal justice system: arrest, bail, sentencing, release, and beyond.
A common myth is that Black and Brown people are arrested at higher rates because they are more likely to commit crimes. Research has established this just isn’t true, Sebastian Johnson with Arnold Ventures notes. What is happening, is that Black people are more likely to be associated with criminality, their communities are over-policed, and there is bias in the system that disadvantages Black people at every stage, including more severe punishments.
Nationally, incarceration rates have declined for Whites, Latinos, and Black Americans since 2000, however, Black adults are still incarcerated at nearly six times the rate Whites are incarcerated.
In Harris County, Blacks are overrepresented in arrests for each type of offense except Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). Despite making up 18.5% of the population, Black residents comprise between 43% and 50% of those arrested on drug, property, person, public order, serious, and violent charges, according to Dr. Henderson’s analysis.
Consider the following:
Black people are four times as likely to be arrested in Harris County than Whites.
Blacks and Latinos are more likely to have a firearm discharged at them by a Houston Police officer than at their White counterparts.
Black residents represent 50% of all bookings into the Harris County Jail.
Half the people currently being held at Harris County Jail are Black.
Nearly 80% of the pretrial populations in Harris County Jail are Black or Latino.
Nationally, one in 13 adults is convicted of a felony compared to one out of three Black men.
3. Those within the criminal justice system incur major personal, professional, developmental, and financial costs that don’t end after time served.
Costs for the accused, imprisoned, and released are substantial, broad-ranging, and prolonged. They include direct financial costs, opportunity costs, and “collateral consequences” which includes barriers created by the system that don’t stop after incarceration.
Even limited contact with the criminal justice system can result in fines and fees, which most people can’t afford. Three out of every four people in the Harris County Jail have not been convicted of any crime (held in pretrial). They are there because they could not afford to get out while they wait for trial. Unpaid debt in turn prevents people from getting a driver’s license, voting, getting an occupational license, and more. One study found that on average, families paid about $13,600 in court-related costs.
The costs do not stop after one has served one’s sentence and been released. The formerly incarcerated face numerous and widespread systemic barriers that exacerbate challenges to re-entry, including the denial of the right to vote even after time served, denial of housing and employment, and ineligibility for federally-backed student loans, to name a few.
Again, these impacts are borne more by Blacks than other groups. For example, Johnson cited a study which found that white people with a criminal record are still more likely to get a job than a Black person without a criminal record.
Sybil Sybille, a Veteran and community activist focused on trauma-informed approaches in the criminal justice system, was also formerly incarcerated. She describes her experience this way: “I got out of jail in 1998 and off of parole in 2002, when I could finally vote again. I could not vote for four years even while paying into the system that imprisoned me.”
In describing her attempts to get housing and employment after her release, she has paid numerous application fees for apartments only to get rejected upon learning she was formerly incarcerated. Sybille doesn’t have many other housing options due to her record and faces challenges securing employment when she is required to check the box on an application that asks if she has ever been convicted of a crime.
Sybille is currently a Pure Justice Fellow and graduated from the inaugural Smart Justice Speakers Bureau class created by Anthony Graves in collaboration with the ACLU, URRC and Texas Southern University. She is also a member of the Community Working Group of the independent monitor for the ODonnell v. Harris County Consent Decree regarding misdemeanor bail practices. She continues, “It does not matter the accomplishments I’ve made since then…it [the impact of incarceration] does not go away. I’m still being punished. I’m still living a sentence.”
“It does not matter the accomplishments I’ve made since then…it [the impact of incarceration] does not go away. I’m still being punished. I’m still living a sentence.” – Sybil Sybille
4. It doesn’t have to be this way.
There are multiple forces at work that keep this unjust system going, but the data suggest that the growth in our criminal justice system cannot be attributed to an increase in crime — national property and violent crime rates have declined by half since the peak in the early 1990s. In fact, imprisonment can advance crime “by destabilizing families and people, and restricting economic opportunity when people get out,” James explains.
According to data collected from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the crime rate fell 21% between 2007 and 2016 in 36 states where imprisonment rates also decreased, compared to a 12% decline in crime rate in 12 states that increased imprisonment rates during the same time period.
Panelists spoke to many reasons we’ve seen explosive growth in the criminal justice system, including bias; a “tough-on-crime” narrative, policies and practices; over-policing, particularly in Black neighborhoods; and the cyclical nature of criminal justice — even serving between one and three days in jail or prison increases one’s likelihood of being arrested for another crime. The lack of resources and support the formerly incarcerated receive compounds systemic obstacles, reducing chances for success.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way. “Countries that have restructured criminal justice to focus on rehabilitation have enjoyed lower recidivism rates,” Arnold Venture’s Johnson cites. The Center for Justice Research has found that the more resources and access ex-offenders have, the less likely they are to re-offend, which prompted them to develop a dashboard of resources and support services for the formerly incarcerated.
Sybille uses her lived experiences to advocate for bail reform and trauma-informed training for judicial personnel, and has worked to change policies and laws to advocate for those under the criminal justice system. She believes that we must prioritize rehabilitation and trauma-informed care over incarceration, noting that programs that don’t address mental health challenges will never be a permanent solution. Johnson adds that so-called “diversion programs” should be evaluated so that they aren’t additional pathways into jail and are community-led.
5. We can make a difference.
Arnold Ventures estimates that if we continue at the current rate, it will take 72 years to cut the prison population in half. We can do better. “We can have much lower rates of incarceration and keep our communities safe,” Johnson from Arnold Ventures states.
There is broad bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms, Johnson continues. Here are some things you can do to educate yourself on this issue and advocate for positive change.
Funders can support policies and programs that prioritize rehabilitation over incarceration, particularly trauma-informed care. See a list of organizations below.
Be part of the conversation, particularly those who are most affected by the system. Dr. Henderson states “what we know about criminal justice is not coming from people who are most impacted by the system,” citing that 81% of faculty in doctoral criminal justice programs are White.
Employers can “ban the box” from their employment applications, signaling to those formerly incarcerated that they will be considered holistically as a candidate instead of dismissed outright for one aspect of their history.
Get involved. Attend local city council and commissioners court meetings. Sybille emphasized, “Show up. Don’t just sit on the sidelines. Be an active participant. Use your voice along with your money to make something known.”
Educate yourself. Use resources like ballotready.org and The Appeal: Political Report to learn where elected officials stand on criminal justice issues. You can find recommended reading and a list of organizations working on criminal justice reforms below.
Access to and participation in the arts is a vital part of any community; and in a region as diverse as Houston, the arts play a crucial role in helping us see and understand cultures other than our own. And while Houston may be home to several world-class arts and culture organizations, not everyone in our region is able to participate equally — particularly Black, Latinx and economically disadvantaged residents. Despite 75% of Hispanic/Latino Houstonians saying they believe the arts are important, only 40% reported being able to attend an artistic event within the year of the survey. Fortunately, Alice Valdez and her team at MECA Houston are working to bridge that gap.
Alice’s advocacy work started in the 1960s with her initial brush with social justice reform, after her first public encounter with institutional racism. Her high school was selected to join the Texas Orchestra—part of the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA)—and invited to perform at the annual TMEA conference in Houston. A Black classmate of Alice’s was barred from sharing the same hotel and from eating at the same restaurants as the other students of the Texas Orchestra. Her orchestra teacher gave his students two options: attend the conference without the Black student or protest the TMEA and advocate for the student’s inclusion. Alice and her classmates chose to support their fellow musician and they succeeded in their efforts, allowing all students to attend the conference together. The incident left a lasting impact on Alice and taught her how the arts can bring people together, no matter their social circumstances. Alice went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Texas at El Paso and earned her certification to teach instrumental music at all grade levels in Texas.
When Alice moved to Houston in the early 1970s, many inner-city Houston schools did not offer music education; this was a stark contrast to her experience growing up in El Paso, where most schools had band or orchestra programs. After becoming familiar with arts education programs in Houston, Alice quickly realized that inner-city schools of color would only receive funding for arts education if they were part of magnet programs or arts-oriented schools like the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA). Recognizing this gap in art education services inspired and influenced Alice to get involved with community philanthropy at St. Joseph Catholic Church in the Old Sixth Ward.
To build upon the spirit of the community, Alice founded and organized, along with the Morin, Salinas, and Zermeno families, St. Joseph Fun ‘n Food Fest. Following on the success of the festival, Alice founded an after school arts program, St. Joseph Multi-Ethnic Cultural Arts. She described the incorporation process as “on-the-job training” and marked her first steps into nonprofit management. In 1991, the organization became Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA). The nonprofit remained at St. Joseph for nearly fifteen years, completing several public art projects, like the Resurrected Christ mural inside the parish, until settling in the historic Dow School building in 1993.
MECA fosters the growth and development of underserved youths and adults through arts and cultural programming, academic assistance, community building, and support services. The organization assists over 4,000 students and their families each year through their social support services, multicultural artistic performances and events, and arts education. The goal of MECA is to cultivate self-esteem, discipline, and cultural pride in their students. One of the unique offerings of MECA is that it is at the intersection of social services and arts education. With Alice’s guidance, MECA has provided participants and families with extensive counseling for alcoholism, drug addiction, and abuse as well as social service referrals. Alice recognized the need for such services early in her teaching career, as she faced many hardships balancing her family life and professional aspirations. MECA’s innovative approach to combine social services and arts education under one nonprofit is not typical for arts organizations, but Alice’s advocacy efforts have impacted thousands of Houstonians over the course of her remarkable career.
Under Alice’s leadership, MECA has received numerous awards and recognitions, including a Point of Light designation by President George H. W. Bush. Alice is also lauded for her contributions to the visual arts and community parks—namely, initiating the planning and directing the construction of the Old Sixth Ward Art Park in inner-city Houston, and has gone on to direct many major public sculpture and mural projects throughout the Houston area. Alice sees her nonprofit endeavors as a way of giving to her community.
This time of year is typically filled with back-to-school excitement. Students dust off backpacks, pencils and binders from closets. Families flock to retailers to spend hours wandering around the “Back-to-School” sections, all to make sure students are prepared for their first day and beyond.
However, this year feels a little strange. “Back-to-school” has had a completely different meaning, as most school districts across the country start remotely for at least the first few weeks. Texas Education Agency (TEA) officials have granted districts authority to devise their own reopen plans. Houston ISD plans on teaching remotely for at least the first six weeks. Spring ISD is allowing parents to choose whether their child will be in the “safety-first in-person” section or the “empowered learning at-home” section. However, district officials have determined that it is not safe for anyone to come into school until September 11. Humble ISD started in-person classes for 35,000 students on August 24 — one of the first districts in the region to do so.
In this time of uncertainty, parents and educators around the country are left wondering: will students actually be able to learn remotely this fall? Will virtual school be an effective way for kids to learn, or will they fall behind?
Thanks to 12 weeks of survey data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau during the initial period of online learning following COVID-19-related school closures, we can analyze how learning disruptions impacted households and track how education changed during the beginning of the pandemic. While we can’t predict the future, we can use data about previous remote learning efforts to identify and understand the challenges that may lie ahead.
The more we understand these educational changes and their implications, the more we can do to ensure all students in our region continue to learn during the pandemic.
Learning “looks” different during a pandemic
The Trump Administration declared COVID-19 a national emergency in mid-March. Soon thereafter, schools closed for a couple of weeks and then moved to online learning when much of the country shut down. The first week of pulse surveys — as schools were in the middle of their spring semester — indicated 67% of classes were moved to distance learning and 31% of classes were cancelled altogether. While fewer students took summer classes, they continued to experience substantial changes to schedules as the virus continued to spread, and schools remained closed.
According to Pulse Survey data, 64% of classes taking place in the Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA)1 during the week of July 9 were moved to a distance learning format. An additional 35% were completely cancelled, higher than the cancellation rate the week of April 23 (31%). These data align with trends in other major metros and the United States as a whole, representing major adjustments students and teachers must make across the nation.
Education is now a household activity, though only part-time
In a typical pre-COVID-19 school day, neither child nor parent spent much time at home working on intentional education activities beyond homework. In our new reality, this has changed drastically.
The graph below compares the amount of time children and parents in Houston spent on education at home during the week of July 9 to other similar regions like Dallas-Ft. Worth Metro (fourth-largest metro in the nation), Greater Los Angeles (second largest school district in the country), Texas, and the U.S.
Houston-area parents reported spending around four hours teaching their children at home in the past seven days. Similarly, children spent around one hour learning with a teacher and almost four hours learning on their own. This totals nine hours of learning during the week of the survey — less than an hour and a half per weekday.
While this is substantially less time than we’d expect for a regular school day, it’s on trend with rates for Texas and the U.S. overall. Notably, parents and students surveyed in Greater Los Angeles spent almost double the amount of time learning than those in Houston.
These data reflect a snapshot from early July when the majority of students were on summer break, but students in Houston spent an inadequate amount of time on school even when it was officially in session. During the week of April 23 (when learning hours peaked), students studied for 17 hours — approximately three and a half hours per weekday — far below the usual eight hours students spend at school.
The steady decline in hours dedicated to learning, especially during the academic year, potentially reflects increasingly negative feelings parents and children have toward online classes. A national poll found 42% of parents are concerned that COVID-19 will negatively impact their child’s education. Sitting in the same spot at home staring at a computer screen alone most likely quickly lost its appeal to students and parents. Online schooling leaves kids missing socializing with friends, individualized help from teachers, and designated time to move around or play. As the pandemic wears on, parents and students may be losing patience with the numerous challenges associated with at-home education.
“42% of parents are concerned that COVID-19 will harm their child’s education.”
Households face significant challenges adapting to online learning
Pulse Survey data suggest the extent to which education has become a household activity might vary by household income. According to Week 11 (July 9) survey data, Houston households with annual incomes below $50,000 reported spending the most time on educational activities. This pattern was observed in each of the previous 10 weeks as well.
While this appears promising, preliminary research indicates that the move to online learning will disproportionately hurt students from low-income homes. The digital divide between low- and high-income households (and schools) is a major contributor to disparities in learning loss. Schools and homes without adequate technological resources face major obstacles to successful online learning.
Online classes necessitate children have access to a computer (or digital device beyond a smartphone) and internet access at home. This is not guaranteed for all students, of course. Approximately 6% of households in the three-county region don’t own a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, and another 11% have only a smartphone and no other type of computing device — totaling 346,400 households — according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Recent Pulse Survey data reinforce these lagging statistics. Households in Greater Houston report less access to computers/laptops than those in Dallas and Los Angeles metros as well as state and national levels. Houstonian are least likely to “always” have a device available and most likely to “never” have a device available for educational purposes compared to these major metros. Given the urban nature of our region, Houstonians’ access to the internet tends to be slightly higher than the rate for the state. Still, 12% of households (245,800) in the three-county region have no internet subscription at all, and additional 13% (274,400) have internet access through a cellular data plan only.
“346,400 households in the three-county area have no computing device other than a smartphone.”
The expansive digital divide in Texas is well-known, and many school districts and nonprofits have worked to bridge the gap. Dallas addressed its students’ lack of access to devices and internet with Operation Connectivity which shares the cost with the state. This operation proved so successful that Governor Abbott launched it throughout Texas with the help of the Texas Education Agency in the beginning of May. However, Houston lags behind, with about a quarter of households reporting receiving a device from the school or district.
The percentage of students who “never” have access to a device for educational purposes in Houston rose from less than two percent in Week 1 (April 23) to more than seven percent in Week 11 (July 9), suggesting students have less access to devices during the summer, potentially widening learning loss. Meanwhile, in Dallas and Los Angeles metros, the proportion of students without access to a device fell during the same time period.
Three lessons that support a more successful Fall semester online
Failing our region’s students is not an option for any of us. That’s why we’ve collected lessons gleaned from the data, established research, and practitioners that will support a successful fall semester for our youth.
The region has come together to ensure students have access to the technology they need during this time of remote learning. HISD has established Digital Learning Centers where students without reliable tech access can go, but those who are concerned about the virus may steer clear. Consistent access to reliable, modern technology is critical to learning in general but more acutely now as we are still in the throes of a pandemic. We applaud the substantial efforts districts have made to support all students.
Support teachers and school staff.
Even before the pandemic, schools faced significant challenges. One reason schools and districts are struggling to adapt to virtual instruction is they themselves lack adequate resources. Texas spent an average of $9,375 per pupil in the 2017-2018 school year, 23% less than the national average of $12,200.
“Texas spent 23% less per pupil than the national average in the 2017-18 school year.”
Teachers are essential front-line workers, and we must support them as they embark on the substantial and significant mission of educating students in an unprecedented time of simultaneous public health, racial equity, economic, and political crises.
1 The Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is a geography boundary designated by the Federal Office of Management and Budget that includes the following nine counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery, and Waller.
In no uncertain terms, easy and equitable access to clean water is an absolute necessity for a prosperous Houston and its residents. And while many dedicated local officials and nonprofit organizations work to maintain the safety and drinkability of Houston’s water supply, some troubling trends require our region’s attention and action in order to keep our water supply healthy for all.
Working to protect our region’s water resources will require the awareness, input and action from people across the region — all of which starts with exploring the data.
1) Houston’s water supply is decreasing relative to our population growth
As Greater Houston’s population grows, so too does our water usage. Though our region’s supply is currently strong, careful use and conservation will be essential to maintaining and extending our resources for future generations.
In Fort Bend and Harris Counties, water withdrawals increased between 2010 and 2015.
In the three-county region’s two most populous counties — Fort Bend and Harris — water supply (also known as “withdrawals,” which refers to water taken from the ground or surface for use in homes, businesses, industries and food production) increased between 2010 and 2015 (most recent data available). Unsurprisingly, Harris County extracted the most water in 2015, withdrawing 287 milligals per day, up 2.5% from 2010. Similarly, withdrawals in Fort Bend County increased by 2.1% over the same time period, while Montgomery County withdrew less water in 2015 than in 2010.
The amount of publicly-supplied water per capita decreased between 2010 and 2015.
Withdrawals supplement water collected from rain which is also used for similar purposes, so while this measure is not a comprehensive indicator of a community’s total water supply, it is an important one, particularly within the context of population. The available water supply relative to the overall population (per capita) decreased in all three counties between 2010 and 2015. The decline in availability was most severe in Harris County, where supply dropped by nearly 15% over the 5-year period. A recent report from Texas Living Waters Project found that water conservation in Houston has worsened recently, primarily as a result of water loss in its distribution system (such as from leaking pipes). More broadly, Texas2036 reports that if Texas were hit with a drought today, the state would be unable to meet one-fourth of its water needs — calling on policymakers to reduce Texas’ water shortage by 40% by 2036.
2) Drinking water contamination levels are (mostly) low
While we need to continue to monitor our water use, the good news is that our drinking water presents low levels of contamination and is generally safe to drink.
Water contamination is typically tracked by measuring levels of coliform bacteria, which indicate the presence of human or animal waste. One commonly recognized coliform bacteria is E. Coli, which is often harmless but can cause serious illness depending on the strain. Water contamination is also determined by the presence of non-coliform bacteria, harmful environmental organisms and inorganic chemicals.
A 2018 study conducted in Harris County — the largest county in the state — found that 150 out of nearly 63,000 water samples contained a presence of coliform bacteria (0.24%). However, the presence of inorganic contaminants was noticeably higher. In the same study, 7.6% of 24,300 non-coliform samples exceeded limits for compounds possibly connected to industrial waste in the region.
3) Most Houston-area waterways are unsafe for human exposure
While our drinking water supplies are mostly safe, our natural bodies of water are another story. While large bodies of water aren’t usually the first thing people envision when they hear the name Houston, we didn’t get the nickname “The Bayou City” by accident. As home to four major bayous and more than 2,500 miles of waterways, the health of local bodies of water is an important indicator of our region’s larger environmental condition.
Nearly 900 miles of the region’s water streams, or 60%, are contaminated and unsafe for human consumption/exposure.
Harris County has twice as many miles of impaired water streams as unimpaired streams.
In Harris County, 71%, or 515 miles, of water streams are impaired, as are 52% of Montgomery County’s. While Fort Bend County has more miles of unimpaired streams than impaired streams, 43% of waterways are still unsafe. These ground or surface water streams are largely made unsafe by bacterial contamination, likely created by malfunctioning wastewater treatment plants, overflowing sewers and failing septic systems.
4) Less trash is being thrown into our waterways
Industrial pollution and waste management practices account for much of the contamination found in Houston-area waterways and groundwater, but trash and litter from individual residents also plays a role in the condition of our waterways. Fortunately, recent data suggest that littering and trash dumping in waterways is on the decline in the Houston area.
Each year, residents across the state join hands to remove waste and debris from our waterways during the annual Trash Bash. In recent years, Trash Bash volunteers have been finding and collecting far less trash than they used to.
After peaking in 2001, the amount of trash collected from Houston-area waterways has drastically declined.
In 2019, Trash Bash volunteers collected 56.5 tons of trash from Houston-area waterways, compared to 107.5 tons collected ten years prior, and 212.5 tons collected in 2001. While the Trash Bash is not a scientific study, the volume of trash collected does paint a picture of the amount of litter contaminating our waterways — and less trash collected can reasonably be interpreted as good news for our local environment.
Protecting Houston’s water supply is a job for everyone
When it comes to water quality in Houston, each of us can take meaningful steps to conserve and protect our region’s water for all residents throughout our region.
From reducing wasteful consumption to participating in local cleanup efforts and reaching out to your local officials with concerns and suggestions, there are many ways we can make a difference in our community.
Want to get involved? Check out these nonprofit organizations that do amazing work to protect our region’s water supply and see when and where you can help out: