America is facing an unprecedented exodus of women from the workforce. The hard-fought gains women have made over the past 40 years are at risk of being wiped out by the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of March 2021, more than 1.8 million women have left the workforce since the pandemic started. While this number is an improvement over the initial 4.2 million women who dropped out of the job market last April, so many women have left the labor force that the current participation rate has fallen to 56.1%, a level not seen since the late 1980s.
Compared to men, women initially left the workforce in disproportionately higher numbers and their return to the job market has been slower. The graph below shows that using February 2020 as a baseline for both sexes, women have lagged men in their ability to regain their pre-pandemic employment levels. This disproportionate collapse in women’s labor participation has led some to call this the first “she-session.”
Like everything related to COVID-19, the effects of the pandemic on working women varied among different groups. On average, women of color experienced greater hardships than all other workers, including white women. Comparing the experiences of Black, Hispanic and white women, Hispanic women had the highest unemployment rate — 20.1% — in April 2020, at the peak of the crisis. However, since then, Black women have found their recovery to be slower than the other groups.
20.1% unemployment At the peak of the pandemic in April 2020, Hispanic women had the highest unemployment rate in the nation.
Working mothers of young children also have been hit especially hard. As daycares closed and school became virtual, mothers found themselves taking on an even greater share of domestic responsibilities. According to a McKinsey report, 23% of working women with kids under the age of 10 have considered leaving the workforce altogether.
While there is some evidence that women are beginning to find their way back into the labor force, it is important to realize that, like many other inequities the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted in our society, it didn’t create this problem. It simply magnified it. The truth is that growth in women’s labor force participation has stalled since the early 2000s. It began to decline after the Great Recession, mimicking trends in men’s participation rate. Interestingly, this phenomenon isn’t replicated in other advanced economies around the world. The proportion of women in the U.S. labor force has declined since 2000 — the only country among five major OECD countries with that trend.
“23% of working women with kids under the age of 10 have considered leaving the workforce altogether.”
Equal Pay Day for 2021 was March 24. This date symbolizes how much longer a woman would need to work to earn the same amount the average man did in 2020 alone. Meaning, because women earn less, on average, than men, they must work an additional 82 days to earn as much as an average man did in one year. For Black women, that symbolic day would be in August, and not until October for Hispanic women. We see these inequities at both the national and local levels. In 2017, women in Montgomery County made $20,000 less than men and women in Fort Bend County made $15,000 less. Harris County had a smaller but still significant gender pay gap of $7,500.
According to a study by the National Women’s Law Center, a woman starting her career today stands to lose $406,280 over a 40-year period compared to her male counterpart. This earning gap spans all jobs, no matter what career a woman choses. The same study found the gender wage gap in 98% of occupations. As Megan Rapinoe, the U.S. Women’s Soccer star, said in her testimony on Capitol Hill: “One cannot simply outperform inequality.” It is a truly pervasive problem, but it is hardly a new one. In fact, in 25 years, the gender pay gap has only shrunk 8 cents. At this rate, we can hope to close the gap by 2059. While this isn’t a problem exclusive to the U.S., other countries have made much better progress toward ending it.
Besides being paid less for the same work, women are also overrepresented in jobs with lower wages. While there are many underlying causes for this, one of the largest contributors is discrimination. According to a report from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, occupations with more men tend to pay better regardless of skill or education level. These trends are especially more pronounced for women of color. The implication for this being that even working full time, these women face higher rates of poverty. The negative effects extend beyond women and hurt the next generation. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, single mothers are almost twice as likely as single fathers to be living below the poverty line.
“a woman starting her career today stands to lose $406,280 over a 40-year period compared to her male counterpart”
Structural obstacles to increasing women’s workforce participation
COVID-19 has shown that, for all the advancements women have made in the workforce, the main impediment to gender equality is the structural barriers they face. COVID-19 further loosened the tenuous grip that kept many women in the workforce.
We have seen minimal gains in pay equity in the past quarter-century. The pay gap is a fundamental problem women faced before the pandemic, one they’ll continue to face throughout its duration, and even when it’s over. Research suggests that one of the most effective ways to close the pay gap is to help women achieve entry into the higher-paying, male-dominated fields, as women have an outsized representation in lower-paying jobs.
Another roadblock for many women is lack of maternity leave. Research finds that mothers offered paid maternity leave were more likely to return to work after the birth of a child both in the short- and long-term. The study found a 20 percent reduction in the number of women who left their jobs in the first year after giving birth and up to a 50 percent reduction after five years. In addition to helping women stay in the workforce, evidence suggests that paid family leave provides myriad benefits to the child, which can have a positive influence on their future.
Oftentimes for women, the problem of finding affordable child care becomes almost insurmountable. In Texas, child care often costs more than college tuition, and parents don’t have 18 years to save for it. Even before the pandemic, child care in Texas was facing a tipping point. It is estimated that U.S. businesses lose roughly $4.4 billion a year because of lost productivity due gaps in child care.
Change, while not cheap, is necessary. Significant investments that support families will help all women, mothers, fathers, and children live up to their fullest potential and thrive by improving educational outcomes, time for family bonding, and allow both women and parents to “show up” fully in their professional lives.
“In Texas, child care costs more than college tuition, and parents don’t have 18 years to save for it.”
Women are integral to our collective prosperity
Our ability to recover from the current economic crisis depends on women re-entering the workforce. Our ability to find new levels of economic growth depends on women being able to find economic success equal to men. A study often cited by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen estimates that “increasing the female participation rate to that of men would raise our gross domestic product by five percent.” McKinsey estimates that gender parity would add 19% to GDP by 2025. If we don’t want the economic fallout of COVID-19 to become permanent, we must support women and encourage their return to the workforce. Our collective prosperity depends on it.
In Houston, Black and Hispanic students on average lag between 3.0 and 3.6 years behind white students, as if they were absent for a quarter of their K-12 schooling.1 Pause here, re-read the previous sentence, and let that sink in for a moment.
This problem is compounded by the fact that the groups that lag behind make up a majority of our student population. In Texas, Blacks and Hispanics represent two-thirds of public-school students.2 In Houston Independent School District (HISD), Blacks and Hispanics are about 84% of the student population.3 Lagging groups are the largest and fastest-growing.
These academic achievement gaps are extremely costly to everyone. Nationally, the gaps, which average two to three years of schooling, greatly hinder economic growth and suppress earnings and tax revenue. A 2009 report by McKinsey & Company estimated that gaps in U.S. educational achievement had affected GDP more severely than all recessions from the 1970s up to that point.4 More recent estimates suggest that closing gaps would increase GDP by $551 billion and increase local, state and federal tax revenues by $198 billion annually.5 With these returns, we can justify investing significant resources in closing achievement gaps.
“Gaps in U.S. educational achievement affected GDP more severely than all recessions from the 1970s through 2009.”
How the education gap formed in Houston
Where do we begin? I say we start with the root cause. Ten years of data from over 4,000 school districts, and about 430 million test scores, reveal that the strongest predictor of academic achievement gaps is school segregation — specifically, the racial concentration of poverty in schools.6
Among public school students nationwide, 45% of Black students and 45% of Hispanic students attend a high-poverty school (with 75% or more students in poverty), compared to only 8% of white students.7 In HISD, 76% of Black students and 80% of Hispanic students attend high-poverty schools, compared to 14% of white students.8 At both the national and local level (within HISD), Black and Hispanic students are more than five times more likely to attend a high-poverty school than white students, resulting in very different educational experiences.
Everything is harder in high-poverty schools, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges. Despite the heroic efforts of many educators, community leaders, and philanthropists, most high-poverty schools struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers and administrators, tend to offer fewer advanced courses and fine arts, students have more disciplinary actions, and English learners take longer to become proficient — along with other examples. It even costs more per-pupil to educate a poor student in a high-poverty school than it does to educate a similar student in a low-poverty school.9
It’s time to dismantle the racial concentration of poverty in schools and close academic achievement gaps. It’s not enough to send more resources to Black and Brown high-poverty schools while continuing to maintain a system of segregation. Although additional resources can be helpful, this approach ultimately does not address the root cause and is not sustainable in the long run.The racial concentration of poverty in schools is the result of economic and racial segregation in neighborhoods that produce segregated, neighborhood schools. We maintain this system through personal and policy choice.
How Houston can close performance gaps in education
Closing academic performance gaps requires a systemic approach — one that moves beyond individual actions, such as how hard students work, how well teachers teach, or how much parents care about their children’s education. These factors matter, of course, but they don’t explain academic performance gaps. A systemic approach addresses the underlying systems that determine the types of educational experiences students will have.
A systemic approach has two components. First, we must acknowledge — and learn from — our region’s history. The educational inequities described here did not develop by chance but rather by careful planning by our predecessors. Historian Karen Benjamin documented that, during a massive school expansion program in 1924, the newly created HISD school board worked closely with the city’s planning commission to develop a racialized zoning system in order to protect real estate interests.10 This powerful coalition determined where 50 new school buildings would be located. Although schools were already segregated by race, Black schools and white schools previously were located in the same neighborhoods, with one Black school in each of Houston’s six wards. However, during this expansion, new school sites were selected to create segregated neighborhoods, and schools that did not fit the master plan of racialized zoning were closed, neglected, or moved. In 1929, a Texas Appellate Court declared this unconstitutional and the City Council rejected the commission’s zoning plan, but school construction was almost complete and the damage was done, setting in motion a powerful system that persists almost 100 years later.
The second component of a systemic approach requires careful coordination across local, state, and federal levels. This is challenging but definitely feasible, especially now. At the federal level, efforts are already underway to promote school integration, including the Strength in Diversity Act, the Economic Fair Housing Act, and changes in Title I funding to encourage integration. At the state level, more can be done to increase funding for our most disadvantaged students (and improve the distribution of that funding), to improve accountability for closing gaps, and perhaps even to introduce accountability for integration. At the local level, district controlled-choice programs and inter-district agreements can be developed to promote integration and close gaps.
“The educational inequities described here did not develop by chance but rather by careful planning by our predecessors.”
If we want to undo the racialized system we inherited from our predecessors, we must implement the same methods they used to set it up. Rather than approaching housing and education as separate domains, we must recreate a coalition of education and housing leaders, including community stakeholders from all racial groups and neighborhoods, to dismantle the system of racialized zoning that continues to harm our students, our economy, and our democracy. The work of the coalition should be grounded in the needs and solutions of community members, activists, and practitioners, and incorporate the leadership and voices of individuals with lived experience.
We know this systemic approach is effective and powerful because it worked and lasted nearly 100 years. Houston is ready to dismantle concentrated poverty in our schools and close the academic performance gaps that have plagued us far too long.
1Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University. 2021. “Exploring Educational Opportunity in Houston ISD, TX.” Retrieved from https://edopportunity.org/
From advocating for children and immigrants to creating businesses to expanding access to the arts and community services and beyond, these Houstonians are creating a better future for our region
Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month was initially established as AAPI Heritage Week to last the first 10 days of May. This timeframe was chosen to coincide with the arrival in the United States of the first Japanese immigrants (May 7, 1843) and the completion of the transcontinental railroad (completed May 10, 1869) which relied heavily on Chinese labor. In 1992, Congress expanded this 10-day celebration to the whole month of May, which is now known as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
The many invaluable contributions of Houston’s AAPI communities are as nuanced and diverse as the lives and identities of those who make them. However, these communities are often lumped together into one overarching cultural identity suffused with untrue stereotypes.
For AAPI Heritage Month, Understanding Houston is highlighting some of the incredible Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who work hard through many different avenues to create a more vibrant Houston area with opportunity for all.
We recognize that there are many Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders doing incredible work in the Houston area and that this list is far from exhaustive. If you know of a leader or organization that we should highlight, please let us know!
Donna Fujimoto Cole, Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer at Cole Chemical
The Greater Houston area has a robust small business sector compared to the state and nation, with the majority of businesses in the three-county area considered small businesses. Despite barriers, such as lack of credit access, 19% of small businesses are Asian-owned compared to 12% and 10% across the state and nation, respectively. Furthermore, 22% of small businesses in the Houston Metropolitan Area are woman-owned, and one out of five of those woman-owned businesses are owned by Asian Americans. That figure for Texas and the U.S. overall is much lower, with Asian American women owning 14% of all woman-owned businesses in the state and country.
Donna Fujimoto Cole is a Japanese-American trailblazer and an inspirational small business owner in the Houston area. Donna founded Cole Chemical in 1980 at the age of 27 as a single mother of a four-year old daughter with $5,000 in savings. As of 2015, her company was bringing in revenue in excess of $80 million and was ranked number three on Houston Business Journal’s (HBJ) Largest Houston-Area Minority-Owned Business List. That same year, Donna was also named one of HBJ’s 2015 Women In Energy Leadership.
Donna also empowers and supports other women, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by serving on the boards of the Center for Asian Pacific American Women, Rice University’s Chao Center for Asian Studies, the Women’s Home and the capital campaign for Asian Health Coalition (Hope Clinic). She is also co-founder of the Pantheon of Women, a production company which uses storytelling through film, television, plays and musicals to change the way men treat and perceive women, as well as how women see themselves. Donna also serves as Trustee of the Rockwell Fund where she is “proud to serve the socially and economically challenged in the areas of education, healthcare, housing, and recidivism.”
Despite facing much discrimination growing up during a time in America where there was animosity toward Japanese Americans, Donna did not let those negative experiences create resentment in her. Though her family and peers encouraged her to not embrace her Japanese heritage and culture in order to assimilate into American culture, she actively chose to do the opposite, by providing opportunities and mentorship for individuals in the Houston community. When asked what she finds most inspiring about Houstonians, Donna remarked that the Houston she experiences today is a big hometown where people are accepted no matter where they originally call home.
Rogene Gee Calvert, Philanthropic Consultant
Rogene Gee Calvert has worked for years to improve the quality of life for all Houston residents. Her vision for a better Houston is “a city that plans for its future — to know where we want to be as a city and to chart a plan to get there, e.g., land use, mobility, housing, infrastructure and neighborhoods. Opportunities for Houstonians to get to know each other better and learn from each other.”
Rogene’s journey truly began after she graduated from the University of Texas and began working for a project housed under the Community Welfare Planning Association, where she helped evaluate the effectiveness of different methods to treat substance abuse. She then took those skills and functions with her to United Way of Greater Houston, where she worked for 11 years. Afterward, Rogene became the head of the Child Abuse Prevention Network, continuing her learning experience in the nonprofit space. Her continued involvement working at nonprofits broadened her vision of social work and its many different dimensions. While in college, she thought social work was only clinical but “I discovered that it included social advocacy, planning, research, and policy and program development.” Regarding the start of her career, Rogene reflects that “I was fortunate to accidentally venture into this area and have made it my life’s calling.”
The good that Rogene provides for the Houston community stretches far beyond her professional career. When she would travel in the early 1990s, Rogene noticed there were community and health centers for Asian Americans that didn’t exist in Houston, despite the region’s fast-growing Asian American population. This drove her to take action and collaborate with others to fill this gap by starting a number of programs, including Asian American Family Services, which provided mental health and social service needs through bilingual and bicultural counseling and supportive services, and the Asian American Health Coalition/HOPE Clinic, providing healthcare and initiatives to promote healthy living and increased access to a continuum of care for the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities.
Rogene loves the city she calls home and is often inspired by its residents.
“I have often heard that Houstonians are friendly, kind-hearted, and selfless. Being a native Houstonian, of course, I am more self-critical, but the older I get and the more I get around, I totally agree. There is something about Houstonians that make them have a positive outlook.”
As for what’s next, Rogene says that “although I am past ‘retirement age,’ I will probably never formally retire. I will continue to work in some capacity, advocating for the helpless and voiceless. My culture and heritage will always be important to me, and this current rash of anti-Asian hate and violence commits me to continue this fight.”
The Greater Houston area is one of the most diverse regions in the country. Almost half of all households in the three-county area speak a language other than English in their home.This level of diversity gives Houston-area residents an opportunity to experience a rich array of different cultures, and Indus Art Council Founder Shahid Iqbal hopes to make Pakistani culture a more visible piece of the larger tapestry.
Shahid has always had a passion for his Pakistani heritage and has had a growing desire to share that with others since immigrating to the United States from Pakistan when he was 16 years old. He remarks that Pakistan has been influenced by a vast number of different civilizations over the centuries, creating a rich, diverse and unique culture that has a lot to offer. Shahid sees the bridging of different cultures and experiences as a way to create a closer, more unified version of the already-diverse Houston area.
“I would like to see Houston’s diversity bring different people even closer to each other.”
Nearly 40,000 Pakistani Americans live in the Houston three-county area, the fifth largest Asian American subgroup in our region. The Indus Arts Council originally started as a way to maintain a bridge between first-generation South Asian parents and their American-born children by celebrating their rich Pakistani heritage. Since then, Shahid and others have intentionally broadened their reach to promote awareness of Pakistani arts and culture throughout our region to a number of individuals who do not have direct roots to Pakistan.
In fact, despite the many important benefits of the arts — including the promotion of inclusion, community improvements, academic achievement and even improved mental health — there is a gap in access to the arts in the Houston area, particularly between different socioeconomic groups. In Harris County, roughly only a quarter of households making less than $40,000 annually report having attended an arts event compared to over half of households making more than $100,000 annually. However, Shahid is working hard to reach out to these communities and provide them with a robust arts experience through language classes, cultural events, films and theatre. Despite the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Indus Arts Council quickly adapted classes to an online platform by mid-May 2020 which has allowed easier access to these opportunities not just across our region, but across the globe.
Immigrants play a pivotal role in the Houston area’s population growth and diversity. In addition to the artistic and cultural contributions made by immigrants, immigrants add to our labor force and generate demand for goods and services within our local economy, helping our region remain a vibrant place to live.
Chi-mei Lin envisions a Houston area that “will continue to build on its reputation as a welcoming, multicultural city that elevates inclusion, social equity, and diversity.”
Through her work at the Chinese Community Center, Chi-mei has helped thousands of immigrants settle and build a financial safety net in the Houston area by offering services for quality childcare, workforce development, financial education, healthcare services and more in multiple languages including English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Spanish. Chi-mei Lin and the Chinese Community Center work to bridge the cultures of the East and West by celebrating diversity and promoting cross-cultural understanding through a number of events, including an annual Lunar New Year Festival that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, attracted over 10,000 visitors each year from across the region.
“Through cultural activities like this, as well as our Asian Heritage Tours, Chinese Community Center has added vibrancy to the diverse tapestry of Houston.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges, but Chi-mei Lin has been able to innovate and quickly adapt to meet clients’ needs by quickly transforming most in-person activities into virtual formats while also taking the necessary precautions to ensure essential services, such as childcare, could continue safely in person. During this trying time, Chinese Community Center also scaled up their IT capacity and lendable digital service inventory to mitigate learning loss and the digital divide among children and adult students. The Chinese Community Center has also pivoted to meet emerging needs due to COVID-19, by providing COVID-19 specific health education and encouraging vaccination among members of the underserved population who often encounter language and transportation barriers.
Chi-mei is inspired by the giving nature of Houstonians, which she has witnessed first hand during the pandemic, seeing residents coming together to support one another through raising funds for PPE and volunteering to distribute food.
“When crisis hits, Houstonians unite rather than divide.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing economic difficulties, it has also worsened residents’ mental health, with public health strategies like social distancing limiting access to social networks and support systems. As a result, three out of 10 adults in the Houston Metropolitan Area have felt nervous, anxious or on edge for at least more than half the days of a week in late-February.
Through her work at The George Foundation, Quynh-Anh McMahan has helped to rapidly deploy resources to provide assistance to the most vulnerable in the Houston area, including low-income families, seniors, and women and children at risk of- or experiencing abuse. To date, The George Foundation has contributed over $4.3 million toward COVID relief. “In particular, we heard overwhelming evidence of the increase in mental health needs from school leaders and nonprofit providers. The pandemic has elevated existing stressors and created new ones for families to face. Our investments in school-based counseling, telehealth and peer support groups ensured mental health options were available across a broad geography, and available in different modalities. Even prior to the pandemic, our foundation prioritized investments in mental health; between 2018-2019, our mental health grant making nearly doubled over the prior two-year period.”
Throughout her work, Quynh-Anh is inspired by the innovation and hard work shown by Houstonians especially when leveraged with the strengths of a diverse and welcoming community. “My hope is that our community continues to challenge itself to grow in its role as a world leader, demonstrating that humanity and opportunity are not exclusive, and in fact can serve each other well.”
As an immigrant from Vietnam herself, Quynh-Anh and her family experienced trauma due to a lack of resources and connections, exclusion and the stresses of adapting to a new life. However, she also encountered critical opportunities throughout her life which drove her to her current career where she is now motivated to provide these types of opportunities for others from disadvantaged backgrounds. “In entering the field of philanthropy I still wear my social work hat in assessing community needs and allocating resources, with an eye toward building opportunity for all.”
Research has shown a strong relationship between frequent mental distress, 14 or more days of poor mental health in a month, and clinically diagnosed mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. Across the three counties, 9%, 12%, and 10% of adults in Fort Bend, Harris, and Montgomery counties, respectively, reported experiencing frequent mental distress. Although white adults are more likely to have mental health issues than people of color, the consequences of mental illness in minority populations may be more persistent. Lack of cultural understanding by providers and social stigma may contribute to the underdiagnosis of mental illness among people of color and the immigrant population.
Jida works diligently to provide services to the immigrant and refugee population to help them thrive in their new environment and feel a sense of normalcy and social connectedness.
“In the past, nonprofits have advocated for short-term solutions for new immigrants. However, recent studies have shown that these short-term programs do not work. Research indicates that newcomers need at least seven years to integrate properly. Unfortunately, after these short-term resettlement programs, we find women are still struggling to find child care so that they can work, and children are still struggling to learn without the educational support they need because of an overburdened and inadequate school system. Changes are happening faster than the system can adapt, which is why Amaanah is here — to bridge the gaps.”
Before beginning her career in the social services sector, Jida worked in oil and gas for ten years and faced several discriminatory experiences due to her gender, religion and ethnicity. After graduating from the University of St. Thomas, where in her senior year she made the decision to wear the Hijab, the first recruiter she interviewed with brought up her Hijab as something that would need to be discussed, going on to imply that employers would need to know when she wears it, when she doesn’t, or if she showered in it. That experience, along with a number of other discriminatory experiences, made Jida realize that she should not allow anyone to treat her without respect because of who she is.
“My advice to anyone reading this is to be proud of who you are, know your worth, and do not let trolls bring you down. We all need to learn and grow but not at the cost of our morals and values.”
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of households have been struggling with many things including food insecurity, access to digital learning, continuing post-secondary educational plans, and accessing resources for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. In the Houston Metropolitan Area at peak times, 21% of all households and 30% of households with children have reported that they have often or sometimes not had enough to eat. With many school curriculums switching to virtual learning, 40% of households in the Houston area have not had consistent access to computers and internet; and with the economic toll for many due to the pandemic, over 60% of adults who have cancelled post-secondary educational plans did so due to income changes from the pandemic.
Avani Narang became quickly aware and concerned of these issues faced by the community in which she grew up. Working now with Indus Management Group and finding ways to bring resources to their properties in Southwest Houston, she was fortunate her father felt the same way about giving back. Enlisting her father Ajay Gupta to supper her efforts, Avani began strategizing ways to provide resources to their residents who were impacted by both the pandemic and/or Winter Storm Uri. Currently, their team is focused on supporting their residents through distribution of supplies, facilitation of COVID-19 testing, administration of vaccinations, and arranging for guest speakers from the community to discuss continuing education opportunities with their residents.
During her successful tenure at a large consulting firm, Avani found herself yearning to find ways to give back to her community at any opportunity. Consequently, her current work in philanthropy marks a very intentional career shift made out of a desire to create social impact and help move the Houston community forward in any way she could. As soon as the opportunity arose for her to lead the family foundation and join Indus Management Group as Director of Indus Cares, she immediately and excitedly started making the transition.
Although she encountered some push back from people in her life who thought, as a woman in her 30s, she should think of “settling down” and “staying put” instead of moving away from the stability of her current job, she realized she would not be happy unless she was doing the work she was meant to do. Since making this transition, she has never been happier and absolutely loves the work she does and the communities she works with; they inspire her by offering tips and best practices as Indus Cares shifts the services they provide to their residents to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Regardless of any type of competition in our industries, when it came to helping the greater Houston population, everyone opened their door to give some advice and pointers.”
Across the three-county region, more than 60% of residents think that increasing ethnic diversity due to immigration is a good thing. Additionally, 75% of residents in the three-county area also believe that immigrants who came to the U.S. without authorization should be given a path to citizenship if they speak English and do not have a criminal record.
Through founding Quan Law Group, a firm specializing in U.S. immigration law, Gordon works tirelessly to help individuals who immigrate here and want to officially call Houston home. He helps them navigate the often complicated and intimidating government bureaucracy, which he was first exposed to as a law student marrying a woman from Hong Kong.
“As a diverse city with a large immigrant population, I believe Houston can define what the modern American city can be when all are welcomed and respected despite their different cultural backgrounds and are invited to contribute to the common good even for those who do not look like themselves.”
Gordon’s vision for a better Houston led him to run for office, aiming to show how important immigrants’ contributions are to the growth and vitality of our region. He was the first Asian American to ever be elected to an at-large position in the Houston City Council and the second Asian American ever elected to the Houston City Council. During his time on city council, he sought to open doors for job opportunities, funding for clinics and housing, and encouraged individuals to participate in the political process. He vividly remembers a Ramadan dinner on the plaza at City Hall, during which one person told him they did not even know where City Hall was before he was elected but now believes that the people are the owners of City Hall.
Despite the successful outcome, Gordon faced significant obstacles when first running for Houston City Council in 1999 because of his race.
“My campaign consultant said that the public would be leery of an Asian-American candidate. We had to run billboards without my photo to get the public accustomed to my name. When we ran ads, we used an announcer with a Texas accent to introduce me as a person who grew up in Houston and had me say a few sentences to prove that I could speak proper English without an Asian accent.”
Gordon may no longer hold a political office,, but he still works every day to make a difference in the community. Today, he works with the Asia Society Texas Center, developing an online curriculum for middle schoolers to educate them on Asian and Asian Americans to combat stereotypes. He hopes to take this work further and develop multi-ethnic experiences that help Houston celebrate its residents’ differences and to address bias that fosters discrimination.
Gordon has deep admiration for the City of Houston and notes that, “It has been said that we don’t have a great waterfront and mountains, but we have wonderful, caring people. As a growing entrepreneurial city, people willing to work hard have been given a chance to succeed.”
“My vision for a better Houston area is for every child who is born here or migrates here to be supported and provided with equitable access to resources to help them maximize their full potential.”
Charanya grew up in India and Singapore and was not exposed to the U.S. public school system until her first job after college. Through her previous work as an engineer, she participated in an after-school program serving Title 1 middle school students, which made her aware of the inequities many children face with access to quality education in our current system. This experience drove her to the career transition she made and ultimately her current job with Children At Risk.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting a growing number of children and families in Texas, Children At Risk quickly reacted to the needs of those they serve by launching a three-point strategy to inform parents, partners and policymakers of resources and best practices; collaborating with nonprofit and community leaders across sectors; and advocating for policies that protect the most vulnerable families. They were also able to build on their work during Hurricane Harvey to rapidly create the Coronavirus Children’s Resiliency Collaborative, facilitating cross-sector collaboration to coordinate efforts to support vulnerable kids and families to create the greatest impact.
Charanya is inspired by the generosity and community spirit of Houstonians through her work every single day. “The community comes together to help one another in full force not just in the wake of disasters, but also more quietly on a daily basis, which I find so inspiring!”
On May 4, 2021, Understanding Houston held its second Data Dive + Workshop (DDW) with United Way of Greater Houston on Vulnerabilities to and Impacts of Disasters. The second session in our three-part series brought together nonprofit organizations to examine the disaster data through interactive and engaging discussion.
Houstonians across communities and neighborhoods are vulnerable to shocks caused by disasters:
The extent to which natural disasters affect households depends largely on their situation before disaster strikes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) is one of the most common ways to measure that level of vulnerability on a scale from 0 (lowest vulnerability) to 1 (highest vulnerability).
The SVI comprises 15 demographic characteristics and social factors across four themes: socioeconomic status, household composition and disability, non-white status and language, and housing and transportation. Disaster Data Dive + Workshop participants identified the practical ways in which social vulnerability plays out in our community and neighborhoods by SVI theme.
Community members are taking longer to recover from back-to-back disasters.
More issues are exacerbated and compounded, with many people still trying to regain their employment.
Household composition and disability
Lack of resources for older adults and youth in some communities such as Settegast.
Minority Status & Language
Limited English proficiency can limit ability to complete applications for assistance.
Dissemination of information is challenged when community members have language barriers.
Housing and transportation
In some neighborhoods, homes are still affected by both Harvey and the utility outage from the Winter Freeze which increases their vulnerability to following disasters.
Transportation outside of typical work hours (M-F, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.) is limited, especially for outlying counties like Fort Bend and Montgomery.
Financial impacts are the most pressing in our community and neighborhoods:
Through a dotmocracy voting exercise, participants identified financial impacts as the most pressing threat in their community and neighborhoods after a disaster. The DDW session highlighted how disaster assistance claims to FEMA vary across counties. The data show that the approval rate in the three-county area rarely rose above 50% for most disasters occurring since 2005. In seven of the last nine disasters, renters are less likely to be approved than homeowners. In Harris County, approval rates for both homeowners and renters are lower compared to Fort Bend or Montgomery counties.
Leverage data to prepare and plan for next disaster response:
The participants identified the need to invest in preparedness and planning efforts as well as prioritize disaster capacity building in non-crisis times. That was also a common theme from what we heard in the first DDW.
Use data to assist with investing in infrastructure in areas where we know there is potential for greater impact.
Use data to determine if there are enough resources and service providers to respond to a disaster and meet needs when they arise.
Pre-identify relevant organizations, their target populations and their strengths.
Use data to learn from the past disasters.
Establish a process to capture lessons learned from previous disasters and outstanding issues to address (i.e., try to reduce future severity through personal and community resilience and public/private sector responsibility).
You can find a recording of the second session here, a copy of the presentation here, and the Google slides here.
We hope you will join us for our last session as we collectively work toward building a more resilient and equitable region!
Future Nonprofit Disaster Data Dive + Workshop:
Response to and Recovery from Disasters – June 8, 2021 from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Register here.
Where we live profoundly affects nearly every aspect of our lives, including the quality of education we receive, the availability of good-paying jobs, access to high-quality healthcare and fresh food, and more. One year into the pandemic, it is also evident that the neighborhood we live in influences our chances of catching COVID-19 and getting vaccinated. But where we live also determines the quality of air we breathe, the water we drink, and ultimately, our health. This environmental inequity is the legacy of racial segregation without significant intervention.
Environmental racism refers to the fact that marginalized communities — communities of color, and low-income families — are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards. In practice, patterns of environmental racism can be observed in the deliberate placement of toxic waste dumps and industrial facilities in and near predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods, which has a disproportionate negative environmental and health impact on these communities.
Though far from the only major metro to feature environmental inequity, Greater Houston’s many industrial facilities make these issues particularly pronounced within our region. Battling environmental racism and its many impacts requires recognizing those impacts as they exist today and taking informed action. Though environmental racism in Houston is a multifaceted issue, these four trends are an effective starting point for anyone interested in working toward better outcomes for all Houston communities.
Environmental racism disproportionately harms communities of color
One of the most prominent examples of environmental racism in Greater Houston is the deliberate placement of toxic waste dumps and industrial facilities that emit high levels of pollution in and near predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods. The injustice of this is particularly salient since these communities are not themselves responsible for causing the majority of environmental hazards.
In the United States, Black people are exposed to 21% more pollution even though they produce 23% less pollution than the average.1
This inequity is especially true in Houston. As of 2019, 21 industrial and toxic waste facilities are located within three miles of the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood, including large-quantity generators of hazardous waste and waste treatment and disposal facilities.2 Hispanic residents comprise 90% of the population of Harrisburg/Manchester and Black residents make up 8%.
But environmental racism isn’t restricted to the placement of toxic waste facilities — it is also true of the placement of chemical plants and oil refineries that emit airborne pollutants in and near communities of color. Houston’s reputation as the “energy capital of the world” makes the problem more potent, given the large number of oil and gas refineries and plants operational in the area.
Chemical plants and oil refineries in the greater Houston area are also overwhelmingly located close to or within communities of color. A large number of plants and refineries are located along the Houston Ship Channel, which is bordered by neighborhoods such as Harrisburg/Manchester and Galena Park, which are 90% and 80% Hispanic, respectively. Almost 40% of Galena Park residents and 90% of Harrisburg/Manchester residents live within one mile of an industrial facility.3 These communities are disproportionately exposed to toxic substances and emissions compared to predominantly white communities. Industrial facilities in Houston emitted an additional 23 million pounds of pollutants over what they were allowed in 2019 alone.
In addition to elevated levels of air pollution and toxic emissions these plants create on a daily basis, chemical accidents are often a regular occurrence. In Houston, a chemical accident occurs about once every six weeks. And unfortunately, as shown in the map below, we have a considerable issue with facilities located in lower income communities of color that have several facility violations that indicate ongoing safety and compliance issues that endanger human health.
Proximity to industrial facilities harms resident health
Industrial facilities emit toxic pollutants in the air and nearby bodies of water, which can have detrimental impacts on the health of the residents. Greater exposure to toxic spills and elevated levels of air and water contamination have been associated with short and long-term health problems.
Residents who live close to chemical plants and industries suffer from a “double jeopardy” — not only are they at a higher risk of health problems including cancer and asthma from the elevated levels of air pollution and toxic emissions these plants create on a daily basis, they are also at a higher risk of being exposed to chemical accidents, which can be potentially life-threatening for those who live in close proximity.4
The communities in close proximity to industrial facilities are also at higher risk for respiratory problems, cancer and other chronic conditions than other Greater Houston residents.
The presence of industrial facilities in Harrisburg/Manchester puts its residents at a higher risk for various diseases — the residents are at 22% higher risk of cancer than other residents in Houston.
The presence of “cancer clusters” among communities of color in Houston is troubling. Cancer cluster is a term referring to areas plagued by a higher-than-expected number of cancer diagnoses, typically due to environmental factors. Cancer clusters have been identified in Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens, both predominantly Black neighborhoods, according to the Texas Department of Health Services. The increased incidence of cancer has been linked to the emissions by the railroad industry that was located and operational in the area during the 1900s.
The placement of industries that emit substantial pollutants in communities of color isn’t accidental
Decades of discriminatory policies and structural barriers have been instituted to maintain racial segregation. The government-sanctioned policy of redlining and racial zoning in particular helped cement environmental racism. As part of redlining policies, Black neighborhoods were designated as “risky investments” to prevent banks from making home loans and other investments in the area. This policy of designating these areas in red on maps successfully directed all investment and infrastructure away from it, leading to the degradation of historically Black and Brown neighborhoods. Public officials then offered up these redlined neighborhoods as locations for “undesirable” industries such as landfills and chemical plants.5
One of the first initiatives to tackle environmental injustice in civil court was Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corporation (1979), in which residents of a predominantly Black community in Northeast Houston challenged the company’s decision to build a waste disposal site in the neighborhood. One of the lead plaintiffs, Dr. Robert D. Bullard, who’s widely known as the father of environmental justice, set out to learn if that decision was “random or part of a pattern of discrimination.” He found there was a “clear racial pattern.” Between 1930 and 1978, Black residents made up only 25% of the city’s population, but 82% of the city’s waste was dumped in predominantly Black neighborhoods, even those with higher income. Despite resistance from the residents, race was still one of the most potent factors in predicting who was getting dumped on.
Environmental racism is compounded by climate change and natural disasters
The problem of environmental racism becomes more pressing within the context of accelerating climate change. In an investigative report, the New York Times explored how redlining and racial zoning has resulted in Black neighborhoods experiencing temperatures that are “5 to 20 degrees higher” than white neighborhoods. These historically redlined neighborhoods lack trees, parks and shade, that help keep temperatures bearable on extremely hot days.
Source: Houston Harris Heat Action Team
This is also true in Houston. An analysis of nighttime temperatures in Houston neighborhoods shows that the highest temperatures are concentrated in several low-income neighborhoods, many of them a product of redlining. This puts residents at a higher risk for heat-related health hazards.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted a temperature increase of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. The extent of climate change impacts on individual regions will vary, however, depending on the region’s ability to mitigate or adapt to changes. IPCC has also predicted an increase in heavy precipitation events, increasing sea levels, and more frequent and intense hurricanes. Rising sea levels along the Houston Ship Channel are likely to expose an additional 35,000 residents in the nearby communities to regular flooding by 2050.6 Given these forecasts, certain communities will bear the brunt of these disasters, further exacerbating the effects of environmental racism in Houston and across the country.
The frequency and intensity of natural disasters have already increased in the country over the past decade. Greater Houston has experienced eight federally-declared disasters since 2015, including the COVID-19 pandemic, and Hurricane Harvey’s devastating flooding. Fenceline communities, those that live next to industrial facilities, face larger risks from natural disasters in more ways than one — not only are they at risk posed by the natural disaster itself, but also they are exposed to a significant increase in toxic emissions as a result of the disaster. When chemical plants and industries have to shut down operations in the case of a natural disaster or other emergency, toxic substances and pollutants that are still in the system must be burned off. Emergency shutdowns are associated with increased toxic emissions, as was the case with Hurricane Harvey when refineries emitted 4.6 million pounds of pollutants between August 23 and August 30, 2017, exceeding state limits.
This was especially potent in the Harrisburg/Manchester community of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Comparisons of soil samples pre- and post-Harvey from households in the neighborhood found that residents were being exposed to a higher amount of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH). PAHs are released when fossil fuels are burned, and are associated with long-term damage to skin, liver, kidneys and eyes.7
Revision starts with recognition
The economic and environmental factors that most contribute to environmental racism may seem built in to our region, but they don’t have to be. As our region continues to expand and evolve, opportunities to rethink where and how we plan our communities will continue to emerge. Recognizing the many manifestations of environmental racism in Greater Houston will help us to make the most of these opportunities and to ensure a healthier, more equitable future for all who call Houston home today and in the future.
Environmental racism is just one part of a larger system of structural racism that undermines our region’s true potential, and knowing the facts is the first step toward taking action. Stay informed on the issues that matter to our region by joining the conversation on social media and getting involved with Understanding Houston.
For a deeper look at environmental racism in Houston, please watch the short video below by Dr. Robert D. Bullard.
1Tessum, C. W., Apte, J. S., Goodkind, A. L., Muller, N. Z., Mullins, K. A., Paolella, D. A., … & Hill, J. D. (2019). Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial–ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(13), 6001-6006.
2Tessum, C. W., Apte, J. S., Goodkind, A. L., Muller, N. Z., Mullins, K. A., Paolella, D. A., … & Hill, J. D. (2019). Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial–ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(13), 6001-6006.
3Union of Concerned Scientists. (2016). Double Jeopardy in Houston. https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2016/10/ucs-double-jeopardy-in-houston-full-report-2016.pdf
4Union of Concerned Scientists. (2016). Double Jeopardy in Houston. https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2016/10/ucs-double-jeopardy-in-houston-full-report-2016.pdf
5Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Reprint ed.). Liveright.
6Horney JA, Casillas GA, Baker E, Stone KW, Kirsch KR, Camargo K, et al. (2018) Comparing residential contamination in a Houston environmental justice neighborhood before and after Hurricane Harvey. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0192660. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192660.
7Abdel-Shafy, Hussein & Mansour, Mona. (2015). A review on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: source, environmental impact, effect on human health and remediation. Egypt J Petrol. 25. 107-123. Prince, Ukaogo. (2015). Environmental Effects of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. Journal of Natural Sciences Research. 5.
Greater Houston has many reputations, many good, some more challenging. We’re the Space City, Clutch City and home to the medical capital of the world. We’re also known to be the Bayou City, the Energy Capital of the World and a car city, to name a few. On their own each reputation speaks to a different facet of our region. But when viewed collectively, they have broader, more troubling implications for our region’s health.
Over the past several decades, population growth and urban development have contributed to historic economic expansion throughout Greater Houston’s three-county area. This expansion has led to new job opportunities, expanded access to vital resources and created new community spaces for recreation. It has also had considerable consequences for our natural environment, including impacts on our region’s natural resources as well as its air and water quality. And the fact that we are on the frontlines of the effects of climate change has additional implications for our region as we continue to face extreme weather in the future.
The preservation of Greater Houston’s natural environment is crucial to the ongoing health of our region and its residents. Though there are many factors influencing Houston’s environment, these broader trends are an important first step in understanding where our region stands and, ultimately, working to protect it moving forward.
1) Greater Houston emits about 68 million metric tons of industrial greenhouse gas emissions
According to a 2019 report by the EPA, energy production and consumption account for 61.2% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and as the “energy capital of the world,” Houston plays a significant role in creating and managing harmful greenhouse gases.
Greenhouse gases (e.g., carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change both in our region and around the world. Houston-area greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise, even with the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily reducing road traffic and energy use.
Between 2011 and 2017, total greenhouse gas emissions generated by industrial facilities in the three-county region fell 3%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Non-biogenic carbon dioxide (C02 ) emissions (derived from fossil fuels) fell by 3% and biogenic C02 fell 40% while methane and nitrous oxide emissions increased by 6% and 2%, respectively. Since 2017, total greenhouse gas emissions have ticked back up 2%. While non-biogenic C02 has remained flat between 2017 and 2019, methane emissions have increased 22% in the last two years and biogenic C02 fell 44%, according to the EPA.
2) Our region is increasingly reliant on cars
Greenhouse gas emissions generated by industrial facilities are only part of the equation. Automobiles contribute to 28.9% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions in the country, and Greater Houston is a very car-reliant region. Between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of Houston-area households that own at least one car grew one percentage point to 94.7%. This is higher than the national rate of 91.4%, which grew by only 0.5 percentage points over the same time period. Further, Houston-area residents are purchasing more vehicles at a faster pace than the nation overall, and they’re spending more time in them.
Between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of households with three or more vehicles in the three-county area grew by 38% — more than double the 15% national growth rate. All these cars on the road contribute to higher than average commute times, with 13.3% of three-county residents reporting 60-90+ minute daily commutes..
This disparity isn’t simply a matter of Houstonians preferring to drive or not caring about the environment — for most residents, public transit and/or walking simply aren’t practical options.
In both Fort Bend County and Montgomery County — where residents face above average commute times — fewer than 5% of households live within ¼ mile of a public transit stop. While Harris County fares better thanks in part to continued efforts by METRO, most households in the area are still out of walking distance from a public transit stop. As a result, only 2.3% of Houston-area workers commute on public transit — less than half the national rate.
As most residents know, in general, walkability is not one of the Houston area’s strong suits.
On average, Montgomery County has fewer than 0.6 linear miles of connected sidewalk per square mile of land. While Fort Bend County and Harris County are more walkable with 4.4 miles and 7.6 miles of connected sidewalk per square mile of land, respectively, it’s clear that making Greater Houston more walkable needs to remain a priority of our region’s ongoing growth strategy.
3) Wetlands and farmland shrink as developed land increases
It’s no secret that Greater Houston is growing, and with that growth comes a shift in how we use our region’s natural resources. In recent years, our region’s land cover has shifted heavily in favor of developed land, which makes up more than 1,800 square miles of our region.
Between 2001 and 2018, the percentage of developed land grew by 18–19% in all three counties, accompanied by some other striking changes throughout the region. In Fort Bend County, farmland decreased from 59% of total land cover in 2001 to 15% by 2018. In Harris County, forest and wetland continued to lose already low shares of land cover — as they did throughout the region — dropping to 10% and and 4%, respectively. Also noteworthy is the increase in pasture/grassland throughout the three-county region. Viewed alongside the region-wide decrease in farmland coverage, this transition may portend even more increases in developed land in the future, as new grassland often preempts additional development on a previously wooded area.
Of particular concern is the decline in wetland coverage seen throughout the region. The low-and-declining levels of wetland coverage throughout the three-county area in the absence of resilience measures to compensate come with increased risk of flooding from heavy rainfall in urban areas — a growing concern for our region today and in the future.
4) The effects of continued climate change pose distinct challenges for Greater Houston
As familiar as Houstonians are with extreme rain, we are even more familiar with intense heat. If climate change trends continue at their current pace, we may need to brace ourselves for even more higher temperatures than we already endure.
Between 2020 and 2050, the number of extreme heat days with temperatures over 95 degrees in the three-county area is projected to grow by as much as 47% to 51% over the next 30 years, with Fort Bend County seeing the most frequent extreme heat days in the region, a deeply problematic projection that has worrisome implications for resident health and energy use throughout the region.
Understanding Houston’s environment is the first step toward meaningful action
We may not be able to control the weather or the implications of population growth, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless in the fight against climate change or in making our region more sustainable and resilient for all who call it home. By taking the time to understand the data, we are one step closer to taking the targeted action that truly matters in our communities, which helps ensure a brighter future for all.
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.
From protecting green spaces to fighting for gender equality and beyond, these are the women creating a better future for our region
Every March, the United Nations sets a theme for Women’s History Month, and the theme for 2021 is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. This theme celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equitable future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and highlights the gaps that remain.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had major impacts on the entire world, but has been particularly hard on women, who tend to be overrepresented in service industry jobs that were lost at disproportionately high rates due to stay-at-home orders. Women are exiting the workforce at higher rates than men due to historically unequal childcare between moms and dads, in addition to pre-existing gender pay gaps and overrepresentation in low-paying jobs.
For Women’s History Month, we are highlighting some of the incredible Houston-area women who are working every day to fight inequalities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Building a more vibrant Houston with opportunity for all, these women spend countless hours improving our community through teaching and research, creating accessible green spaces, advocating for human rights and providing resources to some of the most vulnerable in our community.
We recognize that there are many women doing incredible work in the Houston area and that this list is far from exhaustive. If you know of a leader or organization that we should highlight, please let us know!
Daily, physical activity can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even some cancers. Research has found that increases in park and recreation space are associated with increases in physical activity. The Houston three-county area boasts a number of beautiful parks, and nearly 82% of residents live within one mile of a park. However, that figure could change. Between 2001 and 2018, all three counties experienced at least an 18% increase in developed land. During the same period, these counties saw a considerable decline in the percentage of wetland, which comes with increased risk of flooding from heavy rainfall.
Shellye Arnold is working with her team to conserve our region’s green space, create a more resilient and connected Memorial Park, and improve public access to the Park. With the Conservancy’s project partners, she is leading the execution of the Park’s Master Plan – and it’s associated Ten-Year Plan – that is currently underway. She seeks to advance the Conservancy’s mission to restore, preserve, and enhance Memorial Park for all Houstonians both today and for generations to come.
“We have parks and green spaces of national significance and are continuing to grow and improve them with the public and private sectors working closely together. Innovating and investing in infrastructure for managing the storm water that regularly ravages our city is necessary. Houston has the opportunity to embrace lessons learned from cities that have tackled this problem successfully, including the creation of sustainable green infrastructure.” Shellye envisions a Houston that “will be known more as a green city, and less as a grey (concrete) city.”
Houston boasts a vibrant arts scene that is an essential part of our region’s quality of life. In fact, access to the arts has been shown to promote inclusion, community improvement, academic achievement and even improved mental health for residents. However, access to the arts in our region is not equal. Only 29% of Harris County residents who have a household income below $37,500 reported they have attended a live arts performance, compared to 58% of respondents with a household income of more than $100,000.
Charity Carter sees how interconnected the arts are with other quality of life indicators, and dreams of a Houston area where there is better quality of life for all residents that includes long term and lasting investments in communities with few resources. Through her organization,, she works tirelessly to make the arts in Houston more accessible by developing cultural and performing arts programs for children, adults and families throughout the community. Currently, they are working on a project in East Fort Bend County “that will blend arts and cultural programming, affordable housing, early literacy education, health care, entrepreneurship, jobs creation, outdoor green space and public arts into one community, creating necessary elements for an economically thriving community.”
Charity is inspired by women such as her mother, Bertha Edison, and Lauren Anderson, who was the first Black principal ballerina for a major ballet company, “because of her commitment to stay in Houston and give back to the children in Houston.” Her advice to other women is to remember that “the race isn’t given to the swift nor to the strong but to the one who endures to the end!”
Dr. Stacie DeFreitas’ research explores what can be done to improve the academic success of youth, particularly urban, minority youth by examining mentoring relationships, faculty-student interactions and the influence of the educational environment on students. “My main concern with K12 education is the inequity across ethnic/racial groups and socioeconomic status. I have concerns that many of the public schools have been abandoned by those of higher socioeconomic status and many who identify as European American or white. This has resulted in schools that are less well funded and supported as the needs of the students are not priorities due to low rates of advocacy.”
In her career, Dr. DeFreitas felt unconfident at times and had difficulty speaking up in meetings with more senior colleagues. “I felt like I had to have everything worded perfectly and was unsure of how to take a risk.” Over time, she received mentorship and support from others, which helped her build that confidence in her knowledge and abilities. Her recommendation to other women is to “build a network of individuals to support them and that they can support. Make sure that you are giving back and not just taking. This network should be broad and cover the personal and professional arenas.”
She has been inspired by individuals such as Dr. Ernie Wade, a clinical psychologist and director of Minority Affairs at Wake Forest University, whose mentorship and impactful work inspired her to pursue clinical psychology; as well as Dr. Jennifer Montgomery, whom she describes as “a selfless person who strives to take care of others and lead a life of happiness and peace.”
Secunda Joseph, Co-Founder of ImagiNoir/BLMHTX& Director of Community Organizing and Smart Media
Secunda, also known as “For The People BAE” to her peers and colleagues, imagines a better Houston area in the future as a city where all community members have equitable access to resources. “I imagine a Houston where people have access, no matter where they live, to quality health care, quality education, and safety. And not safety in terms of police and punishment, but safety in terms of, I have the income I need and my neighbors have what they need. When folks have what they need crime, particularly survival crime, goes down.”
Through her organization, Secunda is coordinating and collaborating with others to effect positive change in the Greater Houston area through “trusting the people we are in the community with and using the resources that we have to highlight their voices and acknowledge the power, creativity, and wisdom that comes from these communities finding themselves needing help because of systemic oppression. Currently, that is happening through our mutual aid work.”
Secunda is inspired by many women. One women, in particular, being BLMHTX co-founder, Brandi Holmes. She admires her can-do attitude and problem solving approach to her work, as well as her perseverance to do what’s right and get the important work done even in the face of adversity and limited resources. “She inspires me because she never gives up.”
Going forward, Secunda will be working day in and day out, little by little to reimagine and recreate our current systems through an Ella Baker model of community organizing, which brings people together for sustained and coordinated strategic action for social justice.
“I would say, trust the people that we’re serving and encourage them to lead.”
Rachna Khare works with survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, her organization has seen an increase in the severity and frequency of domestic abuse, as well as the impact on clients who have recently fled an abusive relationship becoming unemployed due to the pandemic or having to cut their hours to take care of children who are at home.
“Across the county, we’re seeing women exiting the workforce. With domestic violence survivors, there is an added risk because these individuals typically experience some sort of financial control as part of their abuse. These women are exiting the workforce out of necessity which creates risks of them going back to their abusive partner due to financial need.”
Rachna is working hard to ensure these survivors have access to the resources they need to continue thriving and surviving during the pandemic. “We are meeting a moment that is so uncertain with a ton of flexibility and malleability. Meeting people where they are, not being in a box, because these challenges are not in a box.”
Going forward, Daya Houston will be focused on intentional outreach to a broader group of domestic violence survivors and reexamining the structures they have in place to be more innovative and responsive to what the community needs.
Rachna has hope in the Houston Strong commitment that she has seen from her neighbors during Hurricane Harvey, throughout this pandemic, and, most recently, in the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri where “people give philanthropically, give their time, and open their homes. I think that in a crisis we’re amazing as a city, and I would love to see that same mentality of community shifting over to the day-to-day as well.”
Ana envisions a Houston that is more accepting and inclusive. Through her organization, she supports, defends the rights of and creates survival networks for the trans latinx community.
“To create a better Houston, we need to change the systems placed here before us that we have grown to accept, and learn from our history to not repeat the same mistakes. These systems cause oppression and division within communities, and we hope to overcome all of these obstacles. Especially in the trans sector.”
In her work, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Ana has seen the disproportionate impact on transgender women who already face so many barriers. “Transwomen often feel not included in any communities and lack support systems causing a disproportion of unemployment and the situation is even worse for those who are undocumented.”
Ana is inspired by Harris County Judge Hidalgo for her strength and courage. “She fights for immigrants, the most vulnerable, and many communities have benefited from her hard work and dedication.” She also finds inspiration in the Houston immigrant community who are and always have been essential to the framework that makes Houston a robust and diverse region.
“We each have our own story and struggle we deal with. We should be proud of everything we have accomplished and survived.”*
Linda Toyota, VP Community Engagement and Development at LiftFund
Small businesses are a major driver of employment, and the entrepreneurs who run them are more beneficial to our economy and stimulate more growth than larger businesses — helping to lower poverty and improve low-income areas. The U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy report indicates that women represent 44% of the U.S. economic activity. Despite the female demographic launching the most startups, they are underfunded.
Through her leadership role at LiftFund, a nonprofit community lender, Linda Toyota not only recognizes the importance of loans to small business to create a more prosperous region, but also the impact these microloans can have “to promote diversity of wealth, business ownership, equity in funding opportunities, availability of business and financial education, and information to help individuals break through the systemic barriers that have disproportionately impacted women and people of color.”
Linda looks forward to a Houston area where the potential of women entrepreneurs is fully realized and where “they could impact their livelihood and the economic growth of our community. I envision a Houston that is more inclusive and equitable.”
The importance of diversity in Linda’s work and throughout her life comes from the history of her family and it aligns with LiftFund’s vision of a world where everyone has opportunity and access to education, just and equitable economies, the freedom to be fully engaged in the world, and are empowered to reach their dreams. Her parents were U.S. born Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite this, her father enlisted in the U.S. Army and her mother was able to leave the camp when a family sponsored her. The exclusion experienced by her parents played a substantial role in making diversity and inclusion an important pillar throughout her life. She firmly believes that “one person can make a difference.”
Elena White, Executive Director and Founder of Connective
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has declared a disaster in Fort Bend, Harris, or Montgomery counties 26 times in the past 41 years. Despite the frequency of natural disasters in the Greater Houston area, many of which involved flooding, a majority of residents do not believe the local government is successful in protecting their homes from flooding. Six months after Hurricane Harvey, about 40% of people in the three-county area rated efforts by the local government to protect homes from flooding as “poor.” However, even with assistance, the impacts of disasters can last more than several years for those with the fewest resources. About 41% of Black residents who were affected by Hurricane Harvey reported that their lives were still “somewhat” or “very” disrupted one year later, compared to 26% of white residents.
Elena White is working to improve Houston’s preparedness system in the event of a natural disaster and to ensure resources are distributed to the most vulnerable in our community when a disaster does strike.
“I believe that Houston should face the hard truths of climate change head on — leading the nation in proactive implementation of solutions to make our community more resilient, rather than facing disasters reactively.”
Through the COVID-19 pandemic recovery work and human-centered research her organization is leading, Elena has seen first-hand the disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations like single, immigrant mothers, and their stories have stuck with her.
“I think of Clara, a recently divorced mother of three, originally from Honduras, who gets her family food these days from the Food Bank and says that she often feels viewed as less than human by the staff at her apartment complex, And, Raquel, a hairstylist who lost 70% of her wages since the start of the pandemic. When asked what she’ll do if she cannot pay her rent next month, Raquel says, ‘I don’t have a plan. I don’t have a plan. The plan is day to day.’”
“My organization’s vision is to transform social services to become human-centered. I personally want to live in this city without being constantly in survival mode, and I hope to continue to push for a city where no one is constantly in survival mode.”
*Some portions of this interview were translated to English from Spanish.
March 4, 2020: A Fort Bend County area man became the Houston area’s first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 after traveling on a Nile River cruise. From there, the situation worsened rapidly. Just one week later, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was cancelled for the first time in 88 years after evidence of community spread was confirmed through a case in Montgomery County. Businesses began to close their doors and store shelves were quickly emptied as people across the region and the nation scrambled for answers. What will happen to me if I get the virus? How can I get tested? Will I keep my job? Will there be enough food? How long will this last?
One year later: we know much more than we did during those chaotic first weeks. With multiple vaccines receiving emergency use authorization, accessible testing and more treatment options, we’ve made some remarkable strides in our battle against the health effects of the pandemic. However, we also know more about the incredible toll the pandemic has taken on our region, and the impact it has had on the lives of millions of Houstonians. The data are irrefutable. Latino and Black communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic. They have paid the highest price: lost jobs, lost businesses, lost homes, lost loved ones and lost lives.
While relief may be in sight for many, the toll of COVID-19 still looms large — both for the families of people who have lost loved ones and those who have lost livelihoods. Understanding what lies ahead for our region starts with understanding where we stand today, and in a year as catastrophic as any in recent memory, it behooves us to look back and reflect on what COVID-19 has meant for Houstonians and Houston to date.
1. Nearly 465,000 Houstonians infected and 6,300 dead
Despite some early hopes that the virus would be limited in its severity and short in its duration, the grim figures one year later tell a much different tale. In the three-county area alone, nearly 465,000 people have been infected as of March 7, 2021. More than 6,300 of those infected did not survive, and residents of color and low-income communities have been hit disproportionately hard throughout the region.
As the most populous county in the region by far, Harris County has seen both the highest number of cases and the highest number of deaths in the three-county region. However, each county has had roughly the same infection rate per 100,000 residents, ranging between 7,305 out of 100,000 residents in Montgomery County to just over 7,600 out of 100,000 residents in Fort Bend and Harris counties.
Erica’s two adult brothers passed away due to COVID, only three weeks apart. As a result, Erica became the guardian for her young nephews. This has caused a great amount of stress for Erica and her husband, as they now have a family of five children to care for. When her application to the Lost Loved One Fund was accepted, she exclaimed, “Oh my God, thank you so much…you are a blessing. My family and I really appreciate it. God bless you.”
– Client story from COVID-19 Lost Loved One Fund administered by Memorial Assistance Ministries (MAM), a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund nonprofit partner
While COVID-19 may have spread through the three counties at similar rates, it has not affected everyone equally. In all three counties, Hispanic and/or Black Houston-area residents represent a higher share of COVID-19 deaths than they do the overall population.
A recent study estimated that nine family members are affected by one person who dies of the coronavirus, which means nearly 60,000 people are grieving in our region. As Dr. Julie Kaplow wrote in a recent Understanding Houston blog, “the context in which the deaths are occurring (e.g., social distancing that prevents in-person, ongoing support and collective mourning) makes the grief-related impact even more pronounced, particularly for children and adolescents.” Compounding layers of devastation is the fact that the communities experiencing the majority of infections and deaths from the novel coronavirus are the same ones who have been most affected by employment and income loss.
2. Houstonians have unequal and inequitable access to vaccines
In a year filled with difficult questions, one of the most pressing continues to be unanswered. To those who’ve spent the past year wondering when will the COVID-19 vaccine be ready? the answer is “it depends.”
According to official vaccination data tracked by the Houston Chronicle, 18% of Fort Bend County’s population has received at least one vaccine, with 12% being fully vaccinated, as of the first week in March 2021. Vaccination rates in Harris and Montgomery counties are lower in comparison, with 14% and 12% of the population vaccinated, respectively.
However, not all residents have equal access to the vaccine. The least likely to die from the pandemic are the first to become inoculated. This trend is already clear in the national data and in Texas where Hispanics/Latinos have suffered 43% of all COVID-19 cases, yet have received only 16% of vaccinations. Black Texans comprise 19% of all cases but only 7% of vaccine recipients, while Asian-American residents represent 9% of all cases but only 1% of vaccine recipients.
An analysis by the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston found that “vaccination sites are glaringly sparse in neighborhoods where the pandemic has been most severely felt, and instead are overwhelmingly located in the same westside neighborhoods as the rest of Houston’s resources.”
While race/ethnicity data on who has been vaccinated in Greater Houston is not publicly available, ZIP code-level data confirms that the highest vaccination rates are in communities with fewer COVID-19 cases. We can also use survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau to understand general vaccination trends by demographic characteristics — it is important to note the data presented below are not official vaccination rates.
Vaccination rate estimates correlate with income level, as residents from higher income households are more likely to have already received a vaccination against COVID-19. On the high end, 43% of residents in households earning $200,000 or more per year have received the vaccine, compared to about 17% of residents in households with annual incomes below $25,000.
3. Houstonians have lost 141,000 jobs
Rebecca is a single mom of three who found herself in a scary situation during March 2020. She contracted COVID-19 and could not go to work. As the sole provider of support for her children, the family’s livelihood depended upon her ability to work. When she was able to return to work in April, her employer had to close due to the impacts of the shutdown, leaving her unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. Rebecca received an eviction notice and had nowhere to turn. Helping her with gaining employment was essential to assisting her to get back on her feet in order to sustain herself beyond the COVID-19 funding that paid her rent. She joined our Financial Opportunity Center and enrolled in healthcare training. Rebecca now has a part time job at Texas Children’s Hospital, and will go full time earning $14/hr after gaining valuable credentials.
– Client story from Volunteers of America Texas, a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund nonprofit partner
Between lockdown orders and massive shifts in demand, COVID-19 was a destructive force throughout the global economy, and Greater Houston was no exception to this trend. In addition to the pandemic’s well-documented effect on employment in Houston’s oil and gas industry, COVID-19 had devastating effects on construction workers, service industry professionals and arts professionals throughout the region, as unemployment skyrocketed throughout Greater Houston.
By April 2020, unemployment rates had more than tripled from their previous average, soaring to 13.0% in Fort Bend, 14.6% in Harris, and 13.2% in Montgomery counties — setting new records for the region as more than 909,800 Greater Houston residents filed for unemployment between March 7, 2020 and February 13, 2021. While the Houston region has lost 141,000 official jobs in 2020 (the countless number of workers who were employed without official record — like in domestic work — will never be known), employment is slowly bouncing back. Though unemployment rates were down to 7.5–8.3% as of January 2021, the wide-ranging economic impacts continue to disproportionately impact lower-income workers.
Those who were already vulnerable prior to the pandemic were also those hit the hardest by the pandemic’s economic fallout. According to Pulse survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, residents in lower income households prior to the pandemic were more likely to have lost income a year later.
As of February 2021, 76% of residents who earn less than $25,000 per year had experienced a loss of income since March 13, 2020. Similarly, 60% of residents with annual earnings between $25,000 and $34,999 reported lost income. Conversely, those with higher incomes reported lost income at nearly half the rate of lower-income individuals, with 26% of those earning $150,000 to $199,999 annually and 33% of those earning $200,000 or more per year reporting lost income.
Similarly, racial trends in pandemic-related job losses largely track with existing data on poverty in the Greater Houston region. In the three-county area, 53.4–81.4% of residents living in poverty are Black or Hispanic, and residents of both groups experienced higher rates of employment income loss during the pandemic.
As of February 2021, more than half of Greater Houston residents still report employment income loss. However, Black and Hispanic residents have lost income at the highest rates. In the Houston metropolitan area, nearly two-thirds of Black and Hispanic residents have lost income since mid-March 2020 compared to 41% of white residents. And while signs of recovery are beginning to emerge, the long-term effects of these disparities will have additional ramifications for our region in the years to come. A recent study from consulting firm McKinsey estimates that it could take two years longer for women and people of color to recover jobs lost during the pandemic.
4. Hundreds of thousands of Houstonians are going hungry and worried about losing their homes
Of the many questions that arose early in the pandemic, two concerns loomed especially large: How will I be able to feed my family? and How will I be able to pay my rent? As various levels of income loss swept the region, these questions became all too urgent for many, as the financial resources needed to cover life’s basic necessities became less and less assured with each passing day.
Approximately one-third of families receiving financial assistance and groceries had never visited [our agency for help] prior to the COVID-19 crisis.
– Mission Northeast, a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund nonprofit partner
Food insecurity in Houston during COVID-19
Throughout the pandemic, The U.S. Census Bureau has been conducting Pulse surveys to assess the needs and status of major metropolitan areas throughout the country. In 10 of the 25 Pulse surveys issued, the Houston Metro Area reported the highest levels of food insecurity of any major metropolitan area in the country.
Since mid-April 2020, about 700,000, or 15%, Greater Houston households have “often” or “sometimes” not had enough to eat. Among households with children, that rate has climbed to an average of 20%. While rates have lowered as of February 2021, complications from Winter Storm Uri could see those rates continue to increase.
There was a family that ran out of gas while in the [food distribution] line. It was a family of seven inside, (mom, dad and five children). The children were crying because they were hungry and hot. So, I went to get gas and took it to them. When they arrived for their turn in line, the mom instantly got out to get the groceries to see what she could immediately give to the children. As I watched them, I could see they must not have eaten much in days. I asked if they would like to come inside to eat more. The mom nodded her head yes and started crying. She asked her daughter to translate that it had been five days since they last ate. That they had gone to two other places in the last couple of days, but their electricity is off so they can’t cook the food. They could not pay their rent, nor electricity. Leveraging funds from GHCRF, we were able to help them with both their electric and rent.
– Client story from My Brother’s Keeper Outreach Center, a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund nonprofit partner
While early rent deferral programs protected some through the early days of the pandemic, the lasting effects of lost wages/employment caused many Houston residents to struggle with rent and mortgage payments as the pandemic wore on.
Houston-area renters are typically more cost-burdened than homeowners, and the pandemic was no exception. Renters’ ability to pay rent largely decreased as the pandemic wore on. In early May 2020, just under 20% of renters reported missing the previous month’s mortgage payment. But as deferment programs and unemployment benefits ran out, missed rent checks increased, as the percentage of Houston-area renters who missed the previous month’s rent spiked to 35% in early February 2021.
Amanda lost her job shortly before the pandemic and was unable to find new employment as the pandemic struck the United States. She also struggled to obtain unemployment benefits. Then Amanda’s landlord filed for eviction. By searching through the property records, a Lone Star Legal Aid attorney discovered that Amanda’s apartment complex was backed by a loan through Freddie Mac. This meant it was subject to the CARES Act, which prevented landlords from filing evictions against tenants of federally-backed properties between March 27 and July 25, 2020 during the pandemic. The lawyer requested that the landlord dismiss the case immediately. Just a few hours later, the property manager filed a Motion to Dismiss the cases against Amanda and four other tenants in Amanda’s complex.
– Client story from Lone Star Legal Aid, a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund nonprofit partner
Homeowners faced a similar experience, with missed mortgage payments spiking to nearly 24% in late December 2020 before gradually declining back down to 18% as of February 2021. Heading into March 2021, 41% of renters reported low confidence in their ability to make next month’s payment compared to 14% of homeowners.
As with other trends related to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased difficulty paying for housing has disproportionately impacted Black and Hispanic residents, who are also more likely to be renters than white residents. As of late February 2021, 42% of Black renters said they were behind on housing payments. Without further action and assistance, the housing crisis facing Houston-area renters is likely to last well into the vaccination phase of the pandemic — and possibly beyond.
5. Learning has been disrupted for more than a million students in Houston
Just over a week after Houston’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, Houston Independent School District closed down all campuses. What began as a one week closure turned into months of at-home learning as the pandemic showed no signs of stopping, forcing educators across the state to adapt and develop online learning models fast as this unprecedented crisis took hold.
By the end of the 2019-2020 school year, 35% of students had gone without formal schooling due to outright cancellation of learning. As hard as teachers worked to make these programs effective, parents increasingly took on a significant share of the burden.
In the early days of remote learning, Houston-area students spent an average of 15.5 hours per week learning from members of their household, compared to just 3.7 hours per week of formal education between teachers and students. While the transition from the 2019-20 school year to the 2020-21 school year saw improvements, many students are still learning less than they would under normal circumstances.
As recently as late February, 37% of students in the Houston Metro Area reported spending less time on learning activities than they had prior to the pandemic. While most Houston-area students say they are spending as much or more time on learning activities than they did prior to the pandemic, one-third of Hispanic students — who currently represent more than half of Houston-area students — report less time spent on learning. The consequences of lost learning can be particularly pronounced for English language learners whose parents may not know or speak English at home and do not have full access to the resources needed for full online education.
For more information about COVID-19 and education in Houston, click here.
6. Three out of four Houstonians are suffering from worse mental health
Before COVID-19, Xochitl was already having a hard time providing for her family, which consisted of her partner and three children, because she was unemployed. COVID-19 has only exacerbated her financial problems. Since schools have closed she now has to balance taking care of her children, helping them with their school work, and providing them with meals — an unforeseen expense that increased her financial stress, in turn affecting her mental health. The financial assistance program has allowed Xochitl a little bit of reprieve to pay her bills.”
– Client story from BakerRipley, a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund nonprofit partner
Between the stresses listed above and myriad others including prolonged isolation and feelings of uncertainty, COVID-19 has had a severe impact on the mental health of adults and children alike. As of late February 2021, nearly 3-in-10 Houston-area adults have reported feeling anxious or on edge for at least more than half the days of a week.
At its peak, during the week of July 21, 2020, 74% of Houston-area adults reported feeling anxious, nervous or on edge — 23% of whom reported feeling anxious every day that week. And while the most severe levels of anxiety have been in slight decline, the mental effects of the pandemic will continue to impact many in our region.
Looking back to prepare for what’s ahead
Understanding Houston has worked with experts across disciplines to keep Houston connected with the insight and data it needs to make sense of the ongoing pandemic, and that mission will outlive the virus’s spread in our community. As we look toward recovery, we’ll continue to monitor our region’s progress, sharing valuable perspectives and new data as it becomes available.
But the road to recovery is far from over. The Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund has already helped thousands of Houston-area residents attain much-needed relief, but the need has not gone away. In fact, in the aftermath of the severe winter storm the region experienced in mid-February, the need is even greater. Please consider making a donation to the Houston Harris County Winter Storm Relief Fund to help our most vulnerable communities recover as we look toward brighter days ahead.
On March 4, 2021, Understanding Houston held its first Data Dive + Workshop with United Way of Greater Houston. These are interactive and engaging sessions with nonprofit organizations in which we talk about data! This event was the first in a three-part series of Data Dives + Workshops focused on natural disasters in Greater Houston.
In the first Data Dive + Workshop, we provided an overview of the new partnership between Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston to seek feedback from local nonprofit organizations on what they want to see as we build disaster-ready philanthropic partnerships to improve our collective disaster preparedness and response. We also shared key findings from our new subtopic on the various disaster risks to the region and from our COVID-19 data page.
Here are four takeaways from the robust and productive conversations with more than 75 Houston-area nonprofit agencies.
1. One central place for nonprofit agencies to collaborate and coordinate during a disaster.
When disaster strikes, one of the greatest challenges is communicating information in a timely and effective way. Nonprofit organizations that serve on the frontlines repeatedly cited the need for a central place to collaborate, communicate, and coordinate services and resources among each other. In particular, nonprofits want a central place to:
Share and communicate real-time needs
Provide consistent, accurate, timely messaging and updates
Access and find a catalogue/inventory of resources
Share and promote resources
Conduct client intakes
Track clients so referrals are productive
Access community-level demographic, household, economic, and social vulnerability data, including maps
View a database of agencies by the services they provide, their strengths, populations served, and their contact information
Complete surveys and view real-time results
2. Coordination should consider, include, and prepare for:
Start with prioritizing ALICE populations
Providing information to special populations such as individuals with disabilities
In-language and multiple language resources
Creating opportunities for agencies to focus on working in communities of color to reach under- and un-served populations
3. Invest in agencies to build capacity before disaster strikes.
Invest in disaster capacity in non-crisis times, make preparedness and collective planning a real priority.
Fund capacity building and make investments in technology and coordination which people typically do not want to fund
Establish clear channels of communication between organizations and government agencies for coordinating resources for the community
Pre-identify relevant organizations, their target populations, and their strengths
Establish a process to capture lessons learned from previous disasters and outstanding issues to address (i.e., try to reduce future severity through personal and community resilience and public/private sector responsibility)
Catalog other types of local disasters (e.g., chemical fires, explosions, etc.) in addition to the more widespread disasters
4. Gain greater clarity on COVID-19’s local impact.
As COVID-19 continues to impact our community, participants identified that they wanted to know more about its myriad impacts on different groups:
Impact on specific populations such as unsheltered community and different household sizes and compositions
Impact on family dynamics from child abuse and interpersonal violence
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many pre-existing disparities in access to healthcare, housing, and other life-dependent measures. These disparities often intersect with more severe outcomes in our criminal justice system, and are then met with a broken cash bail system. The outcomes dictated by these disparities can be dire. A study by the University of Texas found that of the 297incarcerated individuals in Texas correctional facilities who died of COVID-19 between May and September 2020, 80% had not yet been convicted of a crime.1 This crisis within a crisis has further reinforced calls for pretrial justice reform in Texas and around the country.
In most of the state, pretrial justice programs are entirely dependent on cash bail, which favors wealthier defendants over poorer ones, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.2 This system not only detains non-violent offenders simply because they cannot afford bail, but also allows violent offenders the chance of release if they can afford it. This unconstitutional system transfers approximately $15 billion in the United States each year from the poorest, most vulnerable communities to privately-held bail bond corporations in the process.3
What pretrial reforms have taken place across the country?
Proponents of cash bail systems argue that releasing or offering bond assistance to pretrial offenders increases the likelihood of bail jumping, repeat offenses and crime in general.4 But a recent study conducted by researchers at Loyola University found that 2017 Cook County bail reform measures increased the number of people released pretrial without causing significant changes in the level of new criminal activity. The reforms also saved the Chicago-area community approximately $31.4 million that would have been used on bail funds in only the first six months after initiating the program. This program even included alleged felony defendants.
Data-driven insights gleaned from studies such as this have assisted lawmakers across the country in crafting evidence-based policymaking in regards to cash-based pretrial reform. On February 22, 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Pretrial Fairness Act (HB 3653 SFA2) into law, making Illinois the first state in the U.S. to effectively eliminate cash bail. While the bill eliminates cash bail for many defendants, it still permits judges to detain individuals if they’ve been charged with felonies such as murder or domestic battery. The only misdemeanor charges that permit the use of pre-trial detention are domestic or family violence, in order to ensure the safety of the victims. In addition to reforming cash bail practices, the 764 page bill also includes provisions for the creation of a Pretrial Practices Data Oversight Board, a Domestic Violence Pretrial Practices Working Group, establishes a “civil right of action,”5 bans outright chokeholds, and even creates a confidential mental health program for law enforcement officers. While this is the most progressive pretrial justice program passed in the United States to date, even conservative thinkers find value in certain aspects of bail reform efforts such as this.
What is Harris County doing to mitigate harm caused by cash bail?
While Illinois is leading the country in progressive pretrial reforms, lawyers and policy makers in Harris County have also been working to eliminate wealth-based descrimination in pre-trial populations. In 2016, defendants in Harris County filed a class action lawsuit arguing the unconstitutionality of bail practices, resulting in the creation of the ODonnell v. Harris County Consent Decree. The resultant measures allow Class A and B misdemeanor arrestees the chance to apply for swift release or to receive bail assistance in the form of personal or general order bonds.6 Those who are not eligible for swift release or personal bonds include those arrested:
and charged with domestic violence, violating a protective order in a domestic violence case, or making a terroristic threat against a family or household member;
and charged with assault;
and charged with a second or subsequent driving-under-the-influence (DUI) offence;
and charged with a new offense while on pretrial release;
on a warrant issued after a bond revocation or bond forfeiture7; or
individuals arrested while on any type of community supervision for a Class A or B misdemeanor or a felony.8
Led by Brandon Garrett of Duke University, Sandra Guerra Thompson of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center, and Dr. Dottie Carmichael of the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M, the Independent Monitor for the ODonnell v. Harris County Consent Decree recently released their first six-month report, showing promising signs of progress. “Gone are the days when a poor person would be locked up solely due to an inability to pay,” Garrett said in response to the findings.
Some key metrics featured in the report include a large increase in releases of misdemeanor arrestees, a large reduction in the use of cash bail in misdemeanor cases, a reduction in race disparities in the use of cash bail and an overall decline in pretrial jail days (from an average of five days or more to two days or fewer) without resulting in an increase of reoffenders. In fact, the report found a slight decline in the number of reoffenders (shown below).9
How much money is the Consent Decree saving the Harris County community?
In the Independent Monitor’s second six month report (published March 3, 2021), Dr. Carmichael and researchers at Texas A&M University found significant decreases in the cost of bail incurred by Harris County communities. In 2016, the actual cost of bonds to individuals and their families in Harris County totaled $4.4 million. Just three years later, the actual cost of bonds incurred by local communities was just over $500,000, an 89% decrease from 2016.10
89% decrease in bail spend
In the three years since enacting bail reform, annual costs to the community dropped from $4.4 million in 2016 to $500,000 in 2019.
What other improvements can be attributed to the Consent Decree?
The Consent Decree has also vastly improved the quality and administration of due process for those awaiting trial. A few key improvements detailed in the Decree are that every defendant must now receive a bail hearing within 48 hours of their arrest, defendants must be represented by a lawyer in bail hearings, forms are now translated in the defendant’s native language, and translators are available at all hearings.11 Email and phone reminders are also now in place, which helps increase the likelihood that defendants show up to trial. In a recent Understanding Houstonwebinar, Sybil Sybille, a Fellow at Pure Justice and member of the Community Working Group for the independent monitor of the Consent Decree, shared her thoughts regarding the efficacy of the program saying, “It’s working. People have access to bonds … as long as you haven’t violated a bond in the past.”
“An important part of the success of the Consent Decree is due to our team’s ‘Community Working Group,’” said deputy monitor Sandra Guerra Thompson. “The group is comprised of community leaders with experience in providing services for the homeless, survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking, foster kids, immigrants and others.”12 The inclusion of independent, community-led oversight in Harris County’s recent bail reforms has set the county apart from other bail reform measures across the country, but still fails to address the population of felony defendants.
According to Dr. Howard Henderson of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, pretrial justice reforms must be accompanied by programs that address the underlying “societal pre-existing conditions” that prevent equitable access to mental healthcare, quality education and economic opportunity. The truth of this wisdom can be seen in the aforementioned research conducted by Loyola University in response to Cook County’s recent bail reforms. The researchers found that the most common new charge for alleged reoffenders was misdemeanor drug possession, followed by retail theft and drug dealing. The impetus of each of these offenses could be suppressed if historically neglected communities were given greater access to quality employment, mental healthcare and substance abuse counseling. Taking a glimpse at the mental health breakdown of the Harris County Jail population further supports these claims.
Has the Consent Decree improved outcomes for those with mental health indicators?
According to the continuously updated Harris County Jail dashboard, nearly three quarters of the Harris County Jail population have mental health indicators. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, mental health indicators are defined as “serious psychological distress in the 30 days prior to the interview or having a history of a mental health problem.”13
In the second six-month report created by the Independent Monitor for the Consent Decree, the data show that misdemeanor defendants with mental health problems are being arrested at roughly the same rate as prior to the Consent Decree (30% of all misdemeanor arrestees have mental health issues). However, the Independent Monitor team did find that recidivism rates in those with mental health indicators have decreased slightly in recent years, from about 45% in 2015 to about 38% in 2019. These data illustrate that while the Consent Decree has resulted in slight improvements in outcomes for those with mental health needs, additional diversion and affordable mental health care programs are needed. Local organizations such as the Harris Center for Mental Health, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities are working to fill this gap in equal access to mental health services.
Has the Consent Decree minimized the COVID risk in Harris County Jail?
Despite Harris County’s proactive measures in enacting the Consent Decree prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large share of people who died of COVID-19 in Harris County correctional facilities had not been convicted of a crime. According to the Texas Justice Initiative’s dataset on COVID-19 fatalities in Texas correctional facilities, all ten people who died (with Custodial Death Reports14 available) from COVID-19 in Harris County Jail had been awaiting trial.
Of the ten who died while awaiting trial, five were charged with a violent crime against persons, likely making them ineligible for swift release. Two were charged with Possession of a Controlled Substance, and at least two individuals who were on staff in Harris County correctional facilities have also died from COVID-19.
While one may be quick to equate these deaths as failures of the Consent Decree, the avoidable tragedy of these deaths cannot be attributed to the program, because most of these people were not eligible for swift release under current requirements. Instead, their deaths can be attributed to the lack of a program that addresses felony defendants.
What does Harris County Jail look like now, without a pretrial diversion program that addresses felony defendants?
As of January 28, 2021, Harris County Jail was at 97% capacity, with 87% of the population awaiting trial.15 Despite efforts of local nonprofits like the collaborative leading the Community Bail Fund, Harris County Jail is reaching a breaking point. “Almost all of these individuals have bail that is set at amounts that are beyond their or their families’ financial means,” Amrutha Jindal, an attorney with Restoring Justice, stated to CBS. “As a result, they are stuck in jail – where the virus is rampant, social distancing is impossible and PPE is limited — merely due to their poverty.”
These data show that while the Consent Decree has vastly improved the efficacy of the pretrial process, the program can only do so much. As you can see in the figure below, a vast majority of those in Harris County Jail are alleged felony offenders, and therefore are not eligible for swift release or general order bonds.
This means they are forced to stay in jail for an indefinite period of time, subjecting them to life-threatening and torturous conditions, often without being convicted of a crime due to the COVID-caused delays in the courts. In an interview with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, one incarcerated man described his experience in quarantine saying, “We had to go to the single-man cells (solitary confinement) for fifteen days, eating bologna sandwiches for lunch and dinner.” Another incarcerated person described his experience, “Sometimes, we didn’t even come out for like 30, 40 hours. We’d just be locked in the cell, the one-man cell, for like 40 hours… It’s not fair. It’s not right.”
While the Harris County Consent Decree has made great progress in reducing wealth-based discrimination and upholding due process in pretrial misdemeaner populations, additional reforms that address alleged felony offenders and the inhumane treatment that incarcerated people are being subjected to are needed. The story of Preston Chaney illustrates the urgent need for such reforms. Chaney was arrested for allegedly stealing lawn equipment and frozen meat. Despite the pettiness of these charges, burglary is a felony offense in Harris County, making him ineligible for swift release under the current Consent Decree requirements. A judge set a relatively modest $100 bail but Chaney was unable to pay. After spending three months awaiting trial in Harris County Jail, Chaney contracted COVID-19 and tragically died shortly thereafter. This entirely avoidable death was purely due to Chaney’s inability to pay bail, undoubtedly caused by “societal pre-existing conditions” alluded to by Dr. Henderson earlier.
“While the Consent Decree has vastly improved the efficacy of the pretrial process, the program can only do so much.”
What can be done to improve the pretrial process?
Although Harris County is leading Texas in amending unconstitutional bail practices, there is clearly much work to be done. Engaged citizens who would like to take part in building a more equitable pretrial justice system can do so by educating themselves and/or providing material assistance to the organizations mentioned in the piece and supplied below. If you would like to stay updated on the research into the efficacy of the Consent Decree, the Independent Monitor team released their second six-month report on March 3, 2021, which provides clearer insights into the efficacy of the program. Future reports and updates can be found here. Future pretrial reforms that address alleged felony defendants may be on the horizon. According to the Civil Rights Corps, an additional lawsuit against felony cash bail practices is ongoing.
1Data used in this study were collected from early March 22, 2020 to October 4, 2020.
2Wydra, E.B. (October, 2017) When cash bail violates the Constitution.Constitutional Accountability Center
13Berzofsky, M., Bronson, J. (June, 2017) Indicators Of Mental Health Problems Reported By Prisoners And Jail Inmates, 2011-2012. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
14Custodial Death Reports are created for every person that dies while in custody of a Texas correctional facility. These reports include information pertaining to the individual’s cause of death, detention charges, and location.
15“The largest jail in Texas is nearing capacity. Experts warn it could become a hotbed for COVID-19.” CBS News, 2021. Accessed online.