A reflection on the deeper significance of Black History Month
In the 12 months since we last celebrated Black History Month, we have witnessed the slaying of Houston native George Floyd, received the disturbing news about the tragic killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, and watched in shock and horror as a New York woman weaponized her white privilege in an attempt to endanger and indict a Black man who dared to ask her to follow the stated rules of a public park. Even more disturbing, just days before we were to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we witnessed a mob of largely white men and women storm Our Nation’s Capital, brandishing confederate flags, nooses and other white supremacist paraphernalia as they chanted with pride and passion, “take our country back.”
And in spite of all our vain attempts to ignore or dismiss the ever-present realities facing us in those moments, what we could not overlook was that these episodes were taking place during one of the most severe pandemics in our lifetime — one that has again revealed the disproportionate impacts race plays in the lives of Black and brown people. In fact, of the 1,934 COVID-19 deaths in the city of Houston, 21% (406) were Black and 54% (1,050) were Hispanic as of February 23, 2021.
Reflecting on our past, inspiring our future
So, as we approach the dawn of this new season of Black History Month, wherein we will again highlight historic Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and W.E.B. DuBois, I am curious whether we will also connect their work to the current work of Black leaders such as William Barber, Sherrilyn Ifil, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. As we once again rightly recognize and honor Houston’s own Black leaders and achievers such as Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leland and William Lawson, I am interested to see if we will be intentional this time in our efforts to make strategic investments in Houston’s new and emerging Black political, social and educational leaders. More importantly, as we again fill up our calendars with 28 days of feasting off of Black excellence, I can’t help but wonder if something in the telling of Black history in 2021 will be significant enough that it will cause us to stop for a brief moment and ask ourselves individually and collectively how we can more fully honor and celebrate the meaning and intentions of Black History Month as it was imagined by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, author of the Mis-Education of the Negro and founder of Black History Month.
Dr. Woodson is heralded as the “father of Black History Month,” however, many don’t know that when he founded the annual observance in 1926 — initially called Negro History Week — he was attempting to do more than just educate future generations of Black people about their ancestors’ remarkable contributions to world history, particularly in the United States. Indeed, what is often undervalued was his attempt to build and bridge Black institutions to larger social, political and economic institutions that would serve, protect and advance Black life in the United States and abroad. Although the study of Black historical representation across the African diaspora was crucial, Dr. Woodson also knew that a true understanding of the history of Black life would inevitably inspire a movement for Black freedom and liberation. In fact, Dr. Woodson is often quoted for saying that “those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” This, in part, is why he helped found the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915. It is also why he collaborated with organizations such as his beloved fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Hampton Institute, now Hampton University. Dr. Woodson understood that Black institutional building was a necessary component for sustained liberation and freedom in a world wherein the value of Black life was not yet fully recognized.
Most significant to those Black institutions would be the rise of a Black Servant Leader Class, or what W.E.B. DuBois called the Talented Tenth. Dr. Woodson knew that within those movements Black figures would emerge from those institutions to signal not only to Black excellence, but also encourage Black allies. A recent example of that belief is manifested in the election of Kamala Harris, the first woman to be elected Vice President of the United States. Both a graduate of a historically Black university, Howard University, and a member of one of the Divine 9 organizations, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Vice President Harris embodies Dr. Woodson’s reasoning for and support of Black history.
As such, Dr. Woodson was deeply interested in the way that Black history might inform the construction of institutions that would motivate both Black and white allies to develop activities for the advancement of Black political, social and cultural wellbeing. In other words, Dr. Woodson knew that Black history could be the foundation on which future generations could learn from the wealth of a Black ancestral past in order to build onramps that would allow Black people the opportunity to intelligently participate in the affairs of the world, both domestically and abroad. And while he wasn’t sure if it would free white people from the missteps of white supremacist logic, he did believe that Black history could challenge the validity of that logic.
A reason to be hopeful
Dr. Woodson knew that Black history could help to produce a well-informed, socially responsible citizenry that could work to build a better society than the one he was born into in 1875.
Therefore, in light of that mission and with the evidence for that cause standing before us, I am holding to the belief that in the next 365 days between Black history months, that maybe it will be possible to see Black history as more than just a review of past events interspersed with Black bodies. Maybe it will be possible to see it as a guide map to the unimaginable — our North Star toward a fuller democratic republic. Maybe this season, Black history might inspire us to invest in the work of Black institutional building and support for those Black leaders within them.
For this reason, I remain hopeful in this new season for Black history, in the same way that my great-grandmother’s grandmother, who was emancipated from slavery in Texas in June 1865, was hopeful. I hold on to that same hope as my grandmother, who survived through Jim Crow and obtained the legally protected right to vote in 1965.
To be clear, I am not hopeful because I believe that another Black body will never again become a headline as another senseless death. Nor am I hopeful because I believe Black inequality will be solved within the next 12 months. Neither am I hopeful because I believe that white supremacy will be abolished from the United States cultural psyche in the next year or even the next decade.
I am hopeful because I know in spite of all of those things, Black people will still be here! We will be here in spite of institutional barriers that will try to limit us or the diseases that will try and kill us. We will be here in spite of policies that will try to once again claim that we are not deserving of our full humanity. We will be here creating new spaces for our community in spite of the disinvestment in our schools, our neighborhoods and businesses. And in the process, we will add new narratives to the stories of Black history.
We will tell how we helped to elect the first Black woman to the office of Vice President. We will remind people how in Georgia we banded together to elect the first Black senator in the history of that state.
And because Black history is a corrective history, we will also tell the names of those who stood with us.
Marlon A. Smith, Ph.D.
Principal Consultant, Marlon A. Smith Enterprise
Founder, Black Greeks Speak Social Justice and Human Rights Council
Lecturer of African American Studies, University of Houston
Author of Reshaping Beloved Community: The Experiences of Black Male Felons and Their Impact on Black Radical Traditions and Black Lives Houston: Voices of Our Generations
More than 90 years of discriminatory federal, state, and local policies aimed at maintaining racial segregation significantly harmed resident wealth, health and well-being across generations and, by extension, entire neighborhoods. Today, these communities often lack adequate access to healthcare, healthy foods, equitable transportation, other basic needs, and even experience higher temperatures as a result of public and private disinvestment, the denial of public services, and the presence of industrial and waste facilities — just some of the many consequences of a practice known as redlining.
Redlining maps were used by the federal government in the early-to-mid 20th century to legally prevent Black Americans from accessing homeownership — one of the most effective ways to build economic security, social mobility and wealth.
As a result, Black residents who live in these neighborhoods still tend to have lower homeownership rates, higher levels of poverty, lower future earnings, worse health outcomes and lower average life expectancies. Though the practice of redlining was outlawed in 1968, its effects can still be seen and felt today through a staggering wealth gap in which Black Americans hold only 13% of the median net worth of white families.
These problems are complex and run deep. Correcting these injustices will require, among other things, intentional, philanthropic investment to support organizations that work to improve the historic, long-term inequities Black residents face. As Understanding Houston observes Black History Month, we will do so with a holistic perspective that celebrates the heritage and contributions of Black communities, scrutinizes the past and present, and looks ahead to a brighter future. Here, we examine the legacy of redlining in Houston.
A brief background of redlining in America
The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression to protect homeowners from losing their homes. The agency purchased mortgages that were facing imminent foreclosure and issued new mortgages with longer repayment timelines and, for the first time, offered an amortized schedule so buyers could gain equity as they paid off the loan.
To depict the level of risk in making home loans in various communities, HOLC created a series of multi-colored residential maps for 239 cities across the nation, including major cities in Texas. HOLC assigned communities a rating from A through D to designate the level of “risk” in investment.
Neighborhoods that were all-white were given an “A” rating, colored green, and denoted as a “best” area for investment. Meanwhile, if a single Black family lived in an area (regardless of neighborhood income level), it was automatically assigned “D” to indicate a “hazardous” investment and colored in red — hence the term “redlining.” Neighborhoods assigned D and C (categorized as “definitely declining” in yellow) ratings were also communities where immigrants or their children lived, as detailed in the redlining maps from Dallas and El Paso below. Read the area descriptions that informed the ratings for Dallas and El Paso (warning: the area descriptions contain overtly racist comments).1
Shortly after, in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established to provide federally backed insurance for mortgage loans. The FHA dramatically changed mortgage lending and made homeownership much more attainable and affordable — for a very specific segment of the population.
To guide the work of private real estate agents who conducted most property appraisals, the FHA created an Underwriting Manual in 1938, which relied on HOLC’s maps. This manual explicitly outlined the requirement of creating and maintaining “racially homogenous” neighborhoods and identified eligibility criteria which automatically denied Black applicants.
The practice of redlining and other racist housing policies legally excluded Black families from receiving fair housing mortgages for over 30 years. Major government investments aimed at making homeownership more accessible to low- and middle-income families largely benefited white families only — the effects of this injustice were then compounded from generation to generation and persist to this day.
Though redlining was deemed unconstitutional in 1968 with the passage of the Fair Housing Act, efforts to prevent Black homeownership and integration did not end there. The policies of these federal agencies provided the systemic infrastructure for the perpetuation of discriminatory housing practices. Even after 1968, the federal government did not enforce the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and regularly supported restrictive covenants that excluded Black families from homeownership and policies that continued to segregate Black residents.
“…much of today’s racial disparities in housing, health, and education can be traced to our legacy of redlining and segregationist policies. This is a foundational issue that set a course for wealth disparity and racial injustice. Correcting this imbalance requires more than just access to FHA mortgages – we need to be intentional in adopting comprehensive reparations in all sectors of the American economy.”
– Luis Guajardo, Urban Policy Research Manager at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research
How racial discrimination unfolds in the modern housing market
Compounding historical injustices, Black families are still being discriminated against in the housing market today in countless ways:
Studies have found that racial discrimination is still widespread in the housing market through more covert means like racial steering, a practice in which real estate agents deliberately steer Black potential homebuyers to areas with larger concentrations of people of color, higher poverty levels and lower housing quality.
Agents tend to show white homebuyers more homes than they do in the case of equally qualified Black homebuyers.
Homes in neighborhoods where there is a large concentration of Black families are appraised at lower market values (an average of 23% less, or $48,000), even among households of similar size and condition.
Lenders disproportionately market risky loans to Black families. In 2000, Black homeowners were significantly more likely to hold subprime loans than white borrowers at each income level. Higher-income Black households held subprime mortgages at four times the rate of higher-income white households.2 Not surprisingly, Black homeowners were the most harmed in the 2008 housing crisis, and between 2010 and 2017, the homeownership rate among Black households in Houston’s three-county region declined by five percentage points while white homeownership rates remained flat.
“The biggest issues have been lending institutions and appraisers and realtors not wanting to show properties [to Black individuals] in certain areas.”
– Shadrick Bogany, Past Chairman of Houston Association of Realtors and Columnist for the Houston Chronicle
The impact of discriminatory housing policies today on Black Houstonians and communities
The negative impact of discriminatory federal housing policies cannot be overstated. The practice of redlining, combined with other housing policies intent on racial exclusion, led to two major inequities we see today:
1) The systematic exclusion of Black households from homeownership, which limited their ability to build and grow wealth across generations, resulting in extreme racial wealth disparities.
2) The isolation and deterioration of predominantly Black neighborhoods which created concentrated areas of poverty characterized by greater environmental risks, poor health outcomes, reduced life expectancy and little-to-no access to essential resources such as safe and affordable housing, high-quality schools, equitable transportation, green space and fresh and affordable food options.
Source: Mapping Inequality; Understanding Houston analysis of U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2019 5-year estimates data
Communities that were rated either “D” or “C” in the 1930s tend to have lower homeownership rates compared to communities that were given “A” HOLC grades. For example, 31.2% of residents in Fifth Ward (previously redlined) are homeowners compared to 48.1% of residents in the Museum District and 65.6% of residents in the Heights (rated “A”). These disparities show the persistent obstacles that families in Houston’s redlined neighborhoods face in accessing homeownership.
How redlining affects wealth and poverty in Houston
However, the practice of redlining prevented Black Americans from accessing the same homeownership opportunities that were afforded to white families. This would negatively impact Black families for generations and is a significant factor in the extreme racial wealth gap that exists today. The median net worth of white families in 2019 was $188,200 compared to $24,100 among Black families — despite a 33% increase in wealth for Black families between 2016–19.
“The impact of that level of lost wealth cannot be underestimated — not only in net worth but also in the lost opportunities that wealth allows in terms of investments in education, businesses, and other revenue-generating endeavors.“
– Tanweer Kaleemullah, Public Health Policy Analyst at Harris County Public Health
Source: Mapping Inequality; Understanding Houston analysis of U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2019 5-year estimates data
Therefore, it is not surprising that poverty rates are higher in redlined communities than in greenlined ones and higher among Black households than white ones. There is a cluster of communities around the east side of Houston (redlined) in which a higher percentage of individuals live in poverty compared to the west side (greenlined). For example, the poverty rate in Fifth Ward is 32.6% compared to 7.3% in Montrose. And across Houston’s three-county region, 20% of Black residents live in poverty compared to 7% of white residents.
How redlining affects future income and earnings in Houston
Where we grow up profoundly affects our future. Neighborhoods give us resources, networks and opportunities. Or, they don’t. The lack of wealth accumulation among families across generations, compounded with perpetual disinvestment, created concentrated areas of poverty. Notable ripple effects include low property values resulting in lost tax revenue for schools, limiting access to high quality education and little private sector investment, which stifles business growth and employment opportunities. This matters because children who are raised in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates, less measured discrimination and higher levels of educational attainment tend to have better outcomes as adults (e.g., lower incarceration rates, higher household incomes, higher educational attainment and higher levels of employment). And, places that produce good outcomes in the past tend to produce good outcomes in the future. Homeownership has been identified as an effective way to create that neighborhood stability.
Opportunity Atlas, an interactive tool from the Census Bureau and researchers from Harvard and Brown University, measures the extent to which groups move up (or down) the economic ladder by looking at various outcomes of adults and back-mapping where they grew up (read more about the methods and peer-reviewed paper here). The data reveals staggering differences in earnings for adults who grew up in low-income households that were located in wealthier neighborhoods versus lower-income neighborhoods. Being in an environment with access to the resources typically available in higher-income neighborhoods allows a child from a low-income household a greater chance to prosper in the future.
Neighborhoods that were previously redlined generally produce low future earnings for adults raised in low-income households. Among the neighborhoods rated by HOLC, only one community produced high future earnings for individuals who grew up in low-income households — the Museum District — which received an A rating by HOLC in the 1930s.
How redlining affects social vulnerability in Houston
Communities that were redlined 90 years ago are also more vulnerable to impacts from economic and environmental threats today, including being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Job and income loss from economic recessions are higher among residents who live in previously redlined neighborhoods that are currently distressed, residents tend to have worse health outcomes as redlined communities are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, and most residents lack savings which acts as a safety net during difficult times.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) ranks each census tract on 15 demographic and social factors, including poverty, unemployment, family structure, lack of vehicle access, non-white population, disability and housing. Used together, this index helps identify communities that are more vulnerable to being negatively affected by hazardous events such as natural disasters like hurricanes and disease outbreaks like COVID-19.
Neighborhoods in Houston that were redlined — Sunnyside, Third Ward and Fifth Ward — are located on the east side of the city and have SVI ratings of 0.84 or higher, making them more vulnerable than upwards of 80% of communities across the U.S, according to Not Even Past: Social Vulnerability and the Legacy of Redlining, an interactive tool that compares communities from the redlining maps to their current SVI. Areas that were given a grade of “A” — the Heights, West University Place and Montrose — have SVI ratings of 0.24 or lower, making them more vulnerable than, at most, 24% of communities across the U.S. and tend to be located on the west side.
Environmental hazards, health outcomes and life expectancy
Industrial and toxic-waste facilities in Houston are disproportionately found in Black neighborhoods — or in neighborhoods with a high concentration of low-income and non-white residents — due in part to redlining. This has consequences because the environment is a major determinant of health. A recent report from the Texas Department of State Health Services found that children in Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens were diagnosed with leukemia at nearly five times the expected rate of the general population, and cancer rates for children who live in the 100 homes located above a “toxic plume” were even worse. This isn’t the first cancer cluster in the region.
Additionally, formerly redlined communities overwhelmingly experience hotter temperatures than communities that were given better HOLC grades. Some neighborhoods in the same city differed by nearly 13 degrees.
We see this phenomenon in Houston. Neighborhoods that have the highest nighttime temperatures — the greatest driver of heat-related health issues — are concentrated in areas that were redlined, according to maps created by Houston Harris Heat Action Team.
These dramatic differences in temperature have dire health consequences. FEMA warns that extreme heat kills more Americans than other weather-related disasters, and the World Health Organization states that temperature extremes can exacerbate chronic cardiovascular, respiratory and diabetes-related conditions. This is especially problematic since there is a higher prevalence of diseases and poor health conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, pulmonary disease and obesity in neighborhoods that were previously redlined — due, in part, to the unsafe environment in these communities.
Environmental conditions account for nearly 25% of all deaths and likely comprise 70-90% of the total risk in the development of chronic diseases, according to research from Harris County Public Health, which means the neighborhood we live in ultimately shapes how long we will live.
Redlined communities on the east side of Houston overwhelmingly have lower average life expectancies than those on the west side. For example, the average life expectancy in previously-redlined Fifth Ward is 70 years compared to 80 years in Montrose, according to analysis from the Episcopal Health Foundation.
“…primary challenges as a result of redlining [include] an increased health risk as a result of toxic exposures and poverty-related stress that causes a large gap in life expectancy, [and] the inability to recover from climate crises on a neighborhood and household level”
– Zoe Middleton, Houston and Southeast Texas Co-Director at Texas Housers
What we can do to support historically marginalized communities
The past never stays in the past. Without the acknowledgment and repair of historical injustices, the past will continue to haunt our present. The challenges many Black residents face in building homeownership, wealth and good health is inextricably linked to the discriminatory housing policies created and enforced by our federal government 90 years ago. And while we also see incredible resilience, perseverance and power in communities that have been historically marginalized in Houston, our region’s collective progress depends on our ability to better understand the root causes that have contributed to the disparities we see today.
“Individuals should…advocate for earnest reckoning with previous wrongs…showing a willingness to sacrifice a modicum of the privilege and comfort they may have in order to see resources go to other communities than their own.”
– Kyle Shelton, Deputy Director at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research
Here are some things we can do:
Engage with residents and community leaders: Meet with individuals and organizations in these communities and seek to understand their needs and challenges. Offer to volunteer with organizations and work with them to identify ways that you can support ongoing work.
Support CDFIs in your community: Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) promote economic revitalization with financial assistance to under-resourced neighborhoods and populations.
Donate in these neighborhoods: Find Black-led Organizations through GHCF’s Giving Guide or, if you are a Greater Houston Community Foundation donor, talk to your relationship manager about how you can be most impactful with your grants in these areas.
Support Houston’s Complete Communities Initiative: The City of Houston’s Complete Communities Initiative works in partnership with Houston’s historically most under-resourced neighborhoods so that all of Houston’s residents and business owners can have access to quality services and amenities. Watch our interview with Shannon Buggs, Director of Complete Communities, highlighting the need in our region and the opportunities they are providing.
Reach out: As Greater Houston Community Foundation explores what more it can do as a partner to address economic disparities in Houston, we are listening and learning from readers like you. Sign-up to receive our monthly newsletter and contact us to get involved.
“I am hopeful with cautious optimism for seeing more evidence-based justice, promoting the general welfare, liberty, and posterity for all. I hope we see our lofty ideals in practice for the common good.”
– Theophilus Herrington, Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum
Listen to In The Thick: The Legacy of Redlining where they discuss discrimination, housing segregation, and how redlining still shapes our citites today with Richard Rothstein, author of the book The Color of Law, and Emmanuel Martinez, data reporter for Reveal.
1 “Still Desirable” neighborhoods were graded “B” and colored blue. “Definitely Declining” neighborhoods were graded “C” and colored yellow. 2 Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Reprint ed.). Liveright.
This Transit Equity Day, we would like to acknowledge and thank Janis Scott for her unceasing commitment to improving and preserving public transit access for all Houston-area residents. Janis truly embodies the values central to transit equity.
A Rice University graduate and a native Houstonian, Janis has been riding the bus all her life. She knows the lines, the drivers and the riders; she also knows the board members and executives who keep them moving. And when some of those crucial lines faced cuts, Janis knew exactly where to go to help riders’ voices be heard.
“We want comfortable, dignified waiting areas for our buses. We should not continuously have to ask and beg and plead for basic amenities,” said Janis of Houston’s underserved public transit users. “My vision is crossing ‘boundaries,’ not feeling like I’m imposing, taking a chance on rejection. Not answering if asked what part of town I live in, and if I live in a bad neighborhood.”
Fewer than 5% of households in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties are located within a quarter mile of a public transit stop. In Harris County, that rate climbs to 38%. In LINK’s 2020 Equity in Transit report, the three high-demand areas for more equitable transit investments include east and southeast Houston, southwest Houston and the Greater Greenspoint area. These communities have higher levels of poverty and lower rates of vehicle ownership compared to the overall county. The report calls for four main recommendations: 1) Increase frequency of routes; 2) extend service hours; 3) improve reliability and on-time arrivals; and 4) pursue accessibility and other transit stop upgrades.
As for the nickname “Bus Lady,” Janis is proud of the reputation she’s built: “The nickname ‘Bus Lady’ started as a quick way to identify me when my name could not be quickly recalled. There have been some METRO folks who have asked for my advice on what is being done, since I tend to have a non-conformist view on what ‘everybody else’ thinks and does. Some have in fact put their phones down and relied on me to be ‘their Google’ transit app! I am honored to be a go-to source when someone is stuck, confused, and needs assistance. I’m happy to help!”
Unfortunately, natural disasters in Houston are nothing new. Whether you’re a lifelong Houstonian or a recent transplant, chances are you’ve either experienced a natural disaster firsthand or experienced some extremely close calls like those from the very busy 2020 storm season. And as the data has made clear, these disruptive events aren’t expected to let up any time soon.
Whatever your experience may be, the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters in Houston isn’t something our region can afford to overlook. In our recently published Disaster topic and subtopic pages, we examine the ongoing risks, vulnerabilities and response patterns affecting natural disasters in Houston across more than 50 unique data points. Below are the core points that every Houston-area resident should be aware of.
1) Houston’s flooding risk is high (and getting higher)
When it comes to natural disasters like hurricanes, extreme precipitation and resultant flooding, Houston’s risk level has always been high and is only projected to grow. As of January 2021, Greater Houston has been the site of 25 federally declared disasters in just 40 years, nearly one-third of which have occured since 2015. All but one of these seven recent disasters (the COVID-19 pandemic) have involved flooding and/or hurricanes.
While much of Houston’s elevated natural disaster risk level can be attributed to its geography and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, the ongoing effects of climate change and decades of ill-informed planning also play a significant role. When developing properties and planning communities, builders and developers consult FEMA Flood Zone maps in order to avoid building properties in areas at significant risk of flooding. However, these maps have been imperfect; about 75% of Houston-area flood damage between 1999 and 2009 occurred on properties built outside of FEMA-designated flood plains. Similarly, around 75% of homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey were outside flood zones, as were 55% of the homes flooded during 2016’s Tax Day flood.
“Seven federally declared disasters have occurred in Houston since 2015.”
All-in-all, 322,000 residential properties in Houston’s three-county area are at some risk of flooding. That’s more than one-in-five. While the issue of increased flood risk may be widespread in Greater Houston, the severity of risk disproportionately impacts Black, Hispanic and low-income residents. Decades of discriminatory housing policies have seen many low-income communities placed in low-lying lands that subsequently receive insufficient investment toward flood mitigation.
With the dangers posed by extreme rain events projected to increase in coming decades, the number of Houston properties at substantial risk of flooding is also poised to grow.
By 2050, one in sevenproperties (286,036) in the three-county area will be at substantial risk of flooding. By pure volume, Harris County is projected to bear most of the burden. Fort Bend County is projected to have the highest proportion of properties at substantial risk of flooding at nearly 20%.
2) Houston’s population is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of natural disasters
Houstons’ geographic placement is one of the driving factors behind Houston’s high natural disaster risk levels, but the extent to which these disasters impact our region is a different story. Beyond our inherent risk levels, socioeconomic inequalities and man-made environmental factors increase our region’s vulnerability to negative effects of natural disasters — impacting our ability to withstand and recover from natural disasters when they happen.
One of the most valuable tools we have in evaluating vulnerability is The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). SVI measures the social vulnerability of counties and census tracts on a scale from 0 (indicating the lowest vulnerability) to 1 (highest vulnerability). Counties and census tracts with high SVI scores often face higher levels of human and economic suffering/loss in the wake of natural disasters. Factors that contribute to higher rates of social vulnerability include lower income levels, higher proportions of non-Whites, language barriers, housing segregation and other elements of discrimination and inequality.
Harris County has an SVI of 0.72, meaning Harris County is more vulnerable to the negative effects of disasters than 72% of counties in the country.
Communities with an SVI of 0.5 or higher are deemed to have medium-high vulnerability to the negative shocks disasters cause. In total, 3.4 million residents in Houston’s three-county region live in a medium-high risk census tract — that’s 58% of the region’s population.
“58% of Greater Houston residents live in a census tract with medium-high vulnerability to the negative effects of disasters.”
As established earlier, Black, Hispanic and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted when disasters strike. These vulnerable populations are more likely to experience food insecurity, job/income loss, housing insecurity, transportation challenges, reduced access to healthcare, and more. Compounding these issues, many in Houston’s most vulnerable communities never receive the federal assistance they need to properly recover. About 50% of FEMA claims made in the three-county region since 2005 have been declined, and renters — who are more likely to be in a highly vulnerable group — were less likely to be approved for assistance than homeowners in seven of the last nine disasters.
All-in-all, these and other environmental factors negatively impact our physical health. After Hurricane Harvey, 63% of respondents to the Texas Flood Registry reported experiencing at least one negative health symptom such as runny nose, headaches/migraines, problems concentrating, shortness of breath, or skin rash.
3) Houston’s ability to recover from natural disasters is highly uneven
On their own, natural disasters do not discriminate. They can affect anyone in their path, and the immediate consequences of a hurricane or flood can ripple throughout all corners of the region, even if some groups bear more risk and vulnerability than others. The long-term effects of these disasters are ultimately determined by our region’s ability to recover, and the response we receive from the public and private sector. And while Greater Houston is often recognized for its generosity — especially in the wake of Hurricane Harvey — the response often leaves Houston’s more vulnerable populations without the assistance they need to fully recover.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) addresses urgent basic needs after disasters through the Individual and Household Program (IHP). When federally declared disasters strike, residents may apply for financial assistance from FEMA to help with essentials. However, those who may need the most financial assistance don’t always get it.
With the exception of Hurricane Rita, homeowners have consistently received more federal assistance than renters, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Following Hurricane Harvey, renters received an average of $2,018 in IHP assistance compared to an average of $6,586 for homeowners. While homeowners are liable for more costs associated with storm damage, nearly half of Houston-area renters are significantly cost-burdened which limits their ability to pay for damages out-of-pocket. This disparity in financial relief can contribute to slower recovery times and the exacerbation of pre-existing wealth and income inequalities.
Federal programs aren’t the only resource available to aid natural disaster mitigation and recovery. Local government also plays an important role, although many are dissatisfied with their performance.
In the three-county area, 74% of residents rate local government efforts to protect Houston homes from flooding as poor-to-fair, with only 5% of surveyed residents rating protection efforts as “excellent.”
All-in-all, these barriers to recovery ultimately burden economically vulnerable and disadvantaged residents the most, and widen pre-existing inequities and wealth gaps. A recent study found that the wealth gap between Black and White residents in Harris County grew by $87,000 as a result of impacts from natural disasters. Similarly, 31% of Black Houston-area residents surveyed reported worse quality of life one year after Hurricane Harvey compared to 18% of White residents.
Understanding disasters in Houston can strengthen us for the future
The existence of natural disasters may be beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean that we are powerless against them. By taking the time to understand their risk to and impact on our region, we can be better equipped to prepare for and address the consequences of disasters before they strike, ultimately enabling a smoother recovery toward an opportunity-rich region for all.
This new Disaster content is just the first stage in an ongoing expansion of the Understanding Houston platform. As a community-driven nonprofit, our mission to connect Houston leaders with the data they need to make informed decisions relies on the action and generosity of people like you. Consider exploring how you can get involved with Understanding Houston, and stay tuned to our social media for new data, insights and program updates.
In no uncertain terms, 2020 has been one of the most memorable years in our country’s history. And while this year brought challenges that many of us would rather soon forget, we can’t dismiss 2020 in Houston without acknowledging some of the galvanizing moments that both defined our region’s year and served as indicators of its future — both good and bad.
In 2020, Greater Houston was at the center of a historic call for racial justice in America; it was a potential target in a record-setting hurricane season; it broke other records in a closely watched election; it continued to evolve and develop new resources for residents, all amidst the terrifying uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before we all move on to our plans and ambitions for a (hopefully) brighter 2021, let’s take stock of what 2020 meant to Greater Houston.
How COVID-19 impacted Houston, by the numbers
For many, the year 2020 is and always will be inextricably linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like every city across the globe, the Greater Houston region has had to contend with this deadly virus in its own ways, as myriad consequences continue to impact our region as the year draws to a close.
COVID-19’s spread in Greater Houston
Despite early signs of success in battling the spread of COVID-19, the Greater Houston region emerged as a virus hotspot as the year went on. While mask wearing and social distancing efforts have helped us avoid some worst case scenarios, the virus has still taken an unmistakable toll on our region in the form of deaths, business closures, job losses, worsened mental health, evictions, and much more.
Here’s how the virus has hit our region:
Measuring COVID-19’s impact on Greater Houston
While the many effects of the pandemic will likely take years to fully make themselves known, Greater Houston has already felt severe impacts throughout the region. Between changes in consumer habits, stay-home orders, and shifts in demand, many residents in Greater Houston have lost their jobs, with those who work in restaurants,bars and construction hit hardest. After six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 45% of surveyed Harris County residents reported losing income/employment, according to the Episcopal Health Foundation. As with infections, Black and Hispanic residents in Harris County have been disproportionately impacted by job losses in the wake of COVID-19.
Unsurprisingly, all of this has had a negative impact on residents’ mental health, young and old alike. About 44% of surveyed Harris County residents reported worse mental health six months after the pandemic began.
While multiple vaccines are currently on their way to market, the ramifications of these impacts — in addition to consequences that have yet to emerge — will likely be felt throughout our region well into 2021 and beyond.
A historic partnership to enable quick response
In the face of this public health and economic crisis, we have seen leaders, partners and individuals from all walks of life step up to assist. For the first time, the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston joined forces in March 2020 to establish the Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund, raising $17 million, to help support those in our community impacted by COVID-19 and the resulting economic conditions, with a focus on disproportionately impacted communities and vulnerable populations.
$17 million to 87 unique nonprofit partners, serving more than 240,000 people so far.
As of October, nonprofit partners reported serving more than 84,576 households and 245,339 individuals in need with access to food, emergency financial assistance for basic needs and housing, services to prevent homelessness due to evictions and foreclosures, financial and housing counseling, legal assistance, and services for the homeless to help fill public funding gaps. The data show that 87% of households served are very low-income, earning 60% of Area Median Income or less.
The renewed movement for racial justice
No social movement brought more attention to the region or inspired more activism in 2020 than the renewed calls for racial justice. Following the death of native Houstonian George Floyd, in police custody and the similarly unjust deaths of Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, people across the nation joined arms, hosted demonstrations and called for our nation to address racist policies and practices in our police and criminal justice systems. More broadly, this renewed movement inspired a broader call to action to move toward racial justice in all aspects of life to right wrongs past and present.
But it wasn’t the death of George Floyd and others alone that inspired residents to take action. Despite its reputation for diversity, the Greater Houston region has many long-standing issues that contribute to racial injustice and inequality in our own communities.
The following disparities illustrate only some of the inequalities Black Houstonians have had to contend with in Greater Houston:
60,000 people gathered in Houston to demonstrate against racial injustice.
People throughout Houston including politicians, rappers, athletes and police officers gathered in Houston’s downtown to march in honor of George Floyd and to shine a light on the lingering problems of racial inequity, garnering national media attention in the process. And while much work remains to be done, Houston has no shortage of activists, advocates and nonprofit organizations working to ensure a brighter future for Houston’s communities of color.
For many Houston-area residents, flooding and hurricanes have become an unfortunate fact of life. In the past five years alone, our region has faced six federal natural disasters, with 100-year flood events becoming a near annual occurrence. The frequency of these extreme weather events isn’t the only cause for concern — the costs they inspire can be devastating financially, environmentally and psychologically.
Unfortunately, these storms don’t seem to have been an aberration as the number of extreme precipitation days is projected to increase throughout the Greater Houston area over the next few decades. And if 2020’s record-breaking hurricane season was any indication, these projections are all-too-likely to bear out in the coming years.
2020 Saw 10 named storms in the Gulf of Mexico.
Houston dodged more than a few proverbial bullets in 2020, to put it lightly. While the 2020 hurricane season was predicted to be busier than usual as early as April, many Houstonians still neglect preparations. In 2018 — just one year after Hurricane Harvey rocked our region — 72% of residents surveyed said they had not done anything to prepare for hurricane season. While it’s too early to say exactly what the 2021 storm season will bring, weathering future storms will require action, planning and awareness from residents and local leaders alike.
Making history during the 2020 election
Against a backdrop of challenge and uncertainty was one more historic event: the 2020 Presidential Election. While the pandemic presented new questions and challenges related to the safety of voting, Texans and Houstonians were not daunted. Ahead of the election, Texas shattered previous voter registration records by adding more than 1.5 million citizens to voter rolls for a total of 16.6 million registered voters. That early enthusiasm translated into record-breaking turnout, as more Harris County residents participated in early voting than voted in the entire 2016 presidential election.
1.4 million votes were cast during early voting in Harris County1
Harris County wasn’t the only place where early voter turnout exceeded total turnout in 2016. In Fort Bend County, more than 329,000 people cast their ballots prior to election day, surpassing the total number of votes cast during the 2016 election. Similarly, Montgomery County set a new early voting record with nearly 237,000 votes cast prior to election day, surpassing the total number of votes cast in 2016.
New sites to visit in Greater Houston
Believe it or not, 2020 in Houston wasn’t all about galvanizing moments. Even with so much uncertainty in the air, Houston’s region became a more vibrant place to live, work and play with three exciting new projects: The Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The Houston Botanic Garden and a massive expansion of Houston favorite Discovery Green.
Let’s break them down by the numbers.
The Nancy and Rich Kinder Building
Long in the making, this new addition to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is the culmination of more than a decade of planning and construction and features a variety of classic and contemporary art.
The nation’s largest cultural construction project in a decade
The result of more than 15 years of planning and construction
237,000 Sq. Feet of art from around the world
The Houston Botanic Garden
Houston is known for many things; nature and plant life aren’t exactly chief among them. But with the new Houston Botanic Garden, that may all change. Somewhere in between a public park, an outdoor museum and a community garden, the Botanic Garden hosts a variety of plants and vegetation, including species that have never grown in Houston before.
Six unique zones spread across 132 acres of land
350 species of plants, all of which can flourish in the Houston climate.
2.5 miles of walking trails
Two natural ecosystem areas, the Coastal Prairie and Stormweather Wetlands
Discovery Green Expansion
While much of Houston stays inside to aid social distancing efforts, the team at Discovery Green Conservancy is hard at work making sure Houstonians will have plenty to do in the years to come. Thanks to a $12 million upgrade, one of Houston’s favorite parks will have even more to offer visitors in the years to come.
A brand new “house of cards” made up of 126 lighted playing cards
A five-year public art program
A brand new public playground
Here to help Houston understand what lies ahead
Projections and predictions aside, no one can truly say what 2021 holds for Houston. But whatever trends impact our region in the coming year, Understanding Houston is here to add data-driven insights and context to the issues that matter in our communities.
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.
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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.