4 Takeaways from our first Nonprofit Disaster Data Dive + Workshop

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
  • Provide referrals
  • 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
  • Impact on environment
  • Impact on small businesses
  • More on health impact
    • Long-term health
    • Non-covid health impact
    • Chronic health conditions
    • Effectiveness of vaccines

Next Steps

You can find a recording of the event here, a copy of the presentation here, and the Jamboard here.

How have you used the data from Understanding Houston? Share your story with us!

We hope you will join us in future sessions as we collectively work toward building a more resilient and equitable region!

Future Nonprofit Disaster Data Dives + Workshops:

  • Vulnerabilities to and Impacts of Disasters – May 4, 2021 from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Register here.
  • Response to and Recovery from Disasters – June 8, 2021 from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Register here.

The Human Cost of Cash Bail in Texas

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 297 incarcerated 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 Houston webinar, 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.

100% of people who died from COVID in Harris County Jail had not been convicted of a crime.

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.

End Notes:

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

3ACLU (2017) Selling Off Our Freedom: How insurance corporations have taken over our bail system. Report can be found here: https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/059_bail_report_2_1.pdf

4Bail jumping is the defined as the act of failing to appear to a court-mandated trial for a crime.

5A civil right of action can be defined as an individual’s legal right to sue.

6General order bonds are judicial release orders, pre-approved by Presiding Judges, that require the release of the arrestee. (Source)

7This can occur when a defendant fails to show up to court for previous offense, forfeiting their opportunity to receive bonds for future offenses. 

8United States District Court For the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division. Full decree can be found here: http://www2.harriscountytx.gov/cmpdocuments/caoimages/Ex1ConsentDecree.pdf

9Monitoring Pretrial Reform in Harris County: Second Report of the Court-Appointed Monitor (March 3, 2021)

10Garrett, B.L. , Thompson, S.G. (September 2020) Monitoring Pretrial Reform in Harris County. Report can be found here: https://www.scribd.com/document/474748071/ODonnell-Monitor-Report-Six-Months-Final#fullscreen&from_embed

 11Docket Entry No. 701-2 at 17–18, citing sections of the Texas Penal Code

12Garrett, B.L. , Thompson, S.G. (September, 2020) Monitoring Pretrial Reform in Harris County. Report can be found here: https://www.scribd.com/document/474748071/ODonnell-Monitor-Report-Six-Months-Final#fullscreen&from_embed

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.

Additional Resources

Local Organizations:

Regional Organizations:

The COVID-19 vaccine in Houston: What residents need to know

Accessibility issues and misinformation have created rollout challenges throughout the region. Here’s what you need to know. 

Where can I get the vaccine?

Vaccines are available at pharmacies, grocery stores and ad-hoc vaccination centers set up at major locations throughout the region, including NRG Stadium in Harris County.

Each county has different resources and distribution patterns for getting residents vaccinated. Check this map and this tool to explore your vaccination options throughout the state. 

Who can get the vaccine?

As of now, there are three categories of vaccine eligibility (1A, 1B and 1C), determined by various factors including age, occupation and underlying health conditions. 

1A) Front-line healthcare workers and residents at long-term care facilities

1B) People 65+ or people 16+ with a health condition that increases risk of severe COVID‑19 illness

1C) All residents age 50 and older

In some counties where there is a surplus of vaccine supply, individuals who do not meet the current criteria may still be able to obtain the vaccine. 

Who should get the vaccine?

It is essential that as many people as possible get the COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine has proven safe and effective through many clinical trials, and all currently available options are shown to safely protect recipients against severe effects from COVID-19 and reduce the likelihood of infection/transmission.

However, the vaccine may not be safe for some, including:

  • Children 16 and younger
  • People who have received a different vaccine within the last 14 days
  • People who are severely immunocompromised 
  • People who have allergies to vaccine components

A Black History For 2021-22

A reflection on the deeper significance of Black History Month

In the 12 months since we last celebrated Black History Month, we have witnessed the slaying of Houston native George Floyd, received the disturbing news about the tragic killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, and watched in shock and horror as a New York woman weaponized her white privilege in an attempt to endanger and indict a Black man who dared to ask her to follow the stated rules of a public park. Even more disturbing, just days before we were to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we witnessed a mob of largely white men and women storm Our Nation’s Capital, brandishing confederate flags, nooses and other white supremacist paraphernalia as they chanted with pride and passion, “take our country back.”

And in spite of all our vain attempts to ignore or dismiss the ever-present realities facing us in those moments, what we could not overlook was that these episodes were taking place during one of the most severe pandemics in our lifetime — one that has again revealed the disproportionate impacts race plays in the lives of Black and brown people. In fact, of the 1,934 COVID-19 deaths in the city of Houston, 21% (406) were Black and 54% (1,050) were Hispanic as of February 23, 2021. 

Reflecting on our past, inspiring our future

So, as we approach the dawn of this new season of Black History Month, wherein we will again highlight historic Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and W.E.B. DuBois, I am curious whether we will also connect their work to the current work of Black leaders such as William Barber, Sherrilyn Ifil, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. As we once again rightly recognize and honor Houston’s own Black leaders and achievers such as Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leland and William Lawson, I am interested to see if we will be intentional this time in our efforts to make strategic investments in Houston’s new and emerging Black political, social and educational leaders. More importantly, as we again fill up our calendars with 28 days of feasting off of Black excellence, I can’t help but wonder if something in the telling of Black history in 2021 will be significant enough that it will cause us to stop for a brief moment and ask ourselves individually and collectively how we can more fully honor and celebrate the meaning and intentions of Black History Month as it was imagined by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, author of the Mis-Education of the Negro and founder of Black History Month.

Dr. Woodson is heralded as the “father of Black History Month,” however, many don’t know that when he founded the annual observance in 1926 — initially called Negro History Week — he was attempting to do more than just educate future generations of Black people about their ancestors’ remarkable contributions to world history, particularly in the United States. Indeed, what is often undervalued was his attempt to build and bridge Black institutions to larger social, political and economic institutions that would serve, protect and advance Black life in the United States and abroad. Although the study of Black historical representation across the African diaspora was crucial, Dr. Woodson also knew that a true understanding of the history of Black life would inevitably inspire a movement for Black freedom and liberation. In fact, Dr. Woodson is often quoted for saying that “those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” This, in part, is why he helped found the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915. It is also why he collaborated with organizations such as his beloved fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Hampton Institute, now Hampton University. Dr. Woodson understood that Black institutional building was a necessary component for sustained liberation and freedom in a world wherein the value of Black life was not yet fully recognized.

Most significant to those Black institutions would be the rise of a Black Servant Leader Class, or what W.E.B. DuBois called the Talented Tenth. Dr. Woodson knew that within those movements Black figures would emerge from those institutions to signal not only to Black excellence, but also encourage Black allies. A recent example of that belief is manifested in the election of Kamala Harris, the first woman to be elected Vice President of the United States. Both a graduate of a historically Black university, Howard University, and a member of one of the Divine 9 organizations, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Vice President Harris embodies Dr. Woodson’s reasoning for and support of Black history.

As such, Dr. Woodson was deeply interested in the way that Black history might inform the construction of institutions that would motivate both Black and white allies to develop activities for the advancement of Black political, social and cultural wellbeing. In other words, Dr. Woodson knew that Black history could be the foundation on which future generations could learn from the wealth of a Black ancestral past in order to build onramps that would allow Black people the opportunity to intelligently participate in the affairs of the world, both domestically and abroad. And while he wasn’t sure if it would free white people from the missteps of white supremacist logic, he did believe that Black history could challenge the validity of that logic.

A reason to be hopeful 

Dr. Woodson knew that Black history could help to produce a well-informed, socially responsible citizenry that could work to build a better society than the one he was born into in 1875.

Therefore, in light of that mission and with the evidence for that cause standing before us, I am holding to the belief that in the next 365 days between Black history months, that maybe it will be possible to see Black history as more than just a review of past events interspersed with Black bodies. Maybe it will be possible to see it as a guide map to the unimaginable — our North Star toward a fuller democratic republic. Maybe this season, Black history might inspire us to invest in the work of Black institutional building and support for those Black leaders within them.

For this reason, I remain hopeful in this new season for Black history, in the same way that my great-grandmother’s grandmother, who was emancipated from slavery in Texas in June 1865, was hopeful. I hold on to that same hope as my grandmother, who survived through Jim Crow and obtained the legally protected right to vote in 1965.

To be clear, I am not hopeful because I believe that another Black body will never again become a headline as another senseless death. Nor am I hopeful because I believe Black inequality will be solved within the next 12 months. Neither am I hopeful because I believe that white supremacy will be abolished from the United States cultural psyche in the next year or even the next decade.

I am hopeful because I know in spite of all of those things, Black people will still be here! We will be here in spite of institutional barriers that will try to limit us or the diseases that will try and kill us. We will be here in spite of policies that will try to once again claim that we are not deserving of our full humanity. We will be here creating new spaces for our community in spite of the disinvestment in our schools, our neighborhoods and businesses. And in the process, we will add new narratives to the stories of Black history.

We will tell how we helped to elect the first Black woman to the office of Vice President. We will remind people how in Georgia we banded together to elect the first Black senator in the history of that state. 

And because Black history is a corrective history, we will also tell the names of those who stood with us.  

Written By:

Marlon A. Smith, Ph.D.

Principal Consultant, Marlon A. Smith Enterprise

Founder, Black Greeks Speak Social Justice and Human Rights Council

Lecturer of African American Studies, University of Houston

Author of Reshaping Beloved Community: The Experiences of Black Male Felons and Their Impact on Black Radical Traditions and Black Lives Houston: Voices of Our Generations

Exploring the Legacy of Redlining in Houston

In the Houston area, there are neighborhoods fewer than 15 miles apart in which the average life expectancy differs by 21 years and future income differs by $50,000 for low-income children. The disparities may exist in the present, but their roots run deep through our region’s history.

More than 90 years of discriminatory federal, state, and local policies aimed at maintaining racial segregation significantly harmed resident wealth, health and well-being across generations and, by extension, entire neighborhoods. Today, these communities often lack adequate access to healthcare, healthy foods, equitable transportation, other basic needs, and even experience higher temperatures as a result of public and private disinvestment, the denial of public services, and the presence of industrial and waste facilities — just some of the many consequences of a practice known as redlining.

Redlining maps were used by the federal government in the early-to-mid 20th century to legally prevent Black Americans from accessing homeownership — one of the most effective ways to build economic security, social mobility and wealth.

As a result, Black residents who live in these neighborhoods still tend to have lower homeownership rates,  higher levels of poverty, lower future earnings, worse health outcomes and lower average life expectancies. Though the practice of redlining was outlawed in 1968, its effects can still be seen and felt today through a staggering wealth gap in which Black Americans hold only 13% of the median net worth of white families

These problems are complex and run deep. Correcting these injustices will require, among other things, intentional, philanthropic investment to support organizations that work to improve the historic, long-term inequities Black residents face. As Understanding Houston observes Black History Month, we will do so with a holistic perspective that celebrates the heritage and contributions of Black communities, scrutinizes the past and present, and looks ahead to a brighter future. Here, we examine the legacy of redlining in Houston. 

A brief background of redlining in America

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression to protect homeowners from losing their homes. The agency purchased mortgages that were facing imminent foreclosure and issued new mortgages with longer repayment timelines and, for the first time, offered an amortized schedule so buyers could gain equity as they paid off the loan.

To depict the level of risk in making home loans in various communities, HOLC created a series of multi-colored residential maps for 239 cities across the nation, including major cities in Texas. HOLC assigned communities a rating from A through D to designate the level of “risk” in investment.

Neighborhoods that were all-white were given an “A” rating, colored green, and denoted as a “best” area for investment. Meanwhile, if a single Black family lived in an area (regardless of neighborhood income level), it was automatically assigned “D” to indicate a “hazardous” investment and colored in red — hence the term “redlining.” Neighborhoods assigned D and C (categorized as “definitely declining” in yellow) ratings were also communities where immigrants or their children lived, as detailed in the redlining maps from Dallas and El Paso below. Read the area descriptions that informed the ratings for Dallas and El Paso (warning: the area descriptions contain overtly racist comments).1

Residential Security Maps of El Paso and Dallas. 

Source: Mapping Inequality: Redlining In New Deal America

Shortly after, in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established to provide federally backed insurance for mortgage loans. The FHA dramatically changed mortgage lending and made homeownership much more attainable and affordable — for a very specific segment of the population.

To guide the work of private real estate agents who conducted most property appraisals, the FHA created an Underwriting Manual in 1938, which relied on HOLC’s maps. This manual explicitly outlined the requirement of creating and maintaining “racially homogenous” neighborhoods and identified eligibility criteria which automatically denied Black applicants.

Since FHA-backed loans bear less risk to the lender, banks would not provide mortgages that the FHA would not insure — meaning, mortgages to Black applicants. As a result, between 1930 and 1950, only 2% of FHA mortgages went to non-white families

The practice of redlining and other racist housing policies legally excluded Black families from receiving fair housing mortgages for over 30 years. Major government investments aimed at making homeownership more accessible to low- and middle-income families largely benefited white families only — the effects of this injustice were then compounded from generation to generation and persist to this day. 

Though redlining was deemed unconstitutional in 1968 with the passage of the Fair Housing Act, efforts to prevent Black homeownership and integration did not end there. The policies of these federal agencies provided the systemic infrastructure for the perpetuation of discriminatory housing practices. Even after 1968, the federal government did not enforce the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and regularly supported restrictive covenants that excluded Black families from homeownership and policies that continued to segregate Black residents.

“…much of today’s racial disparities in housing, health, and education can be traced to our legacy of redlining and segregationist policies. This is a foundational issue that set a course for wealth disparity and racial injustice. Correcting this imbalance requires more than just access to FHA mortgages – we need to be intentional in adopting comprehensive reparations in all sectors of the American economy.” 

– Luis Guajardo, Urban Policy Research Manager at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research

How racial discrimination unfolds in the modern housing market

Compounding historical injustices, Black families are still being discriminated against in the housing market today in countless ways:

  • A national study found that Black applicants are denied mortgages at disproportionately higher rates than whites. 
  • As recently as 2016, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Department of Justice have required lending institutions to pay out millions of dollars for illegal redlining and discriminatory mortgage lending practices.
  • Studies have found that racial discrimination is still widespread in the housing market through more covert means like racial steering, a practice in which real estate agents deliberately steer Black potential homebuyers to areas with larger concentrations of people of color, higher poverty levels and lower housing quality. 
  • Agents tend to show white homebuyers more homes than they do in the case of equally qualified Black homebuyers. 
  • Homes in neighborhoods where there is a large concentration of Black families are appraised at lower market values (an average of 23% less, or $48,000), even among households of similar size and condition.
  • Lenders disproportionately market risky loans to Black families. In 2000, Black homeowners were significantly more likely to hold subprime loans than white borrowers at each income level. Higher-income Black households held subprime mortgages at four times the rate of higher-income white households.2 Not surprisingly, Black homeowners were the most harmed in the 2008 housing crisis, and between 2010 and 2017, the homeownership rate among Black households in Houston’s three-county region declined by five percentage points while white homeownership rates remained flat.
“The biggest issues have been lending institutions and appraisers and realtors not wanting to show properties [to Black individuals] in certain areas.” 

– Shadrick Bogany, Past Chairman of Houston Association of Realtors and Columnist for the Houston Chronicle

The impact of discriminatory housing policies today on Black Houstonians and communities

The negative impact of discriminatory federal housing policies cannot be overstated. The practice of redlining, combined with other housing policies intent on racial exclusion, led to two major inequities we see today:

1) The systematic exclusion of Black households from homeownership, which limited their ability to build and grow wealth across generations, resulting in extreme racial wealth disparities.

2) The isolation and deterioration of predominantly Black neighborhoods which created concentrated areas of poverty characterized by greater environmental risks, poor health outcomes, reduced life expectancy and little-to-no access to essential resources such as safe and affordable housing, high-quality schools, equitable transportation, green space and fresh and affordable food options. 

How redlining affects homeownership in Houston

It is impossible to separate present-day homeownership rates from decades of racist, discriminatory housing policies that prevented Black families from owning homes in the past. Across the Houston three-county area, 72% of white residents are homeowners compared to 41% of Black residents and 52% of Hispanic residents. 

Source: Mapping Inequality; Understanding Houston analysis of U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2019 5-year estimates data

Communities that were rated either “D” or “C”  in the 1930s tend to have lower homeownership rates compared to communities that were given “A” HOLC grades. For example, 31.2% of residents in Fifth Ward (previously redlined) are homeowners compared to 48.1% of residents in the Museum District and 65.6% of residents in the Heights (rated “A”). These disparities show the persistent obstacles that families in Houston’s redlined neighborhoods face in accessing homeownership. 

How redlining affects wealth and poverty in Houston 

Homeownership is the most common pathway toward economic security, social mobility, and wealth creation and particularly critical to upward mobility for the majority of low-income and non-white households since that wealth can be passed to future generations, according to a study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. In 2019, the median net worth among homeowners was $255,000, while that of renters was $6,300, according to the Federal Reserve

However, the practice of redlining prevented Black Americans from accessing the same homeownership opportunities that were afforded to white families. This would negatively impact Black families for generations and is a significant factor in the extreme racial wealth gap that exists today. The median net worth of white families in 2019 was $188,200 compared to $24,100 among Black families — despite a 33% increase in wealth for Black families between 2016–19. 

The impact of that level of lost wealth cannot be underestimated — not only in net worth but also in the lost opportunities that wealth allows in terms of investments in education, businesses, and other revenue-generating endeavors.

– Tanweer Kaleemullah, Public Health Policy Analyst at Harris County Public Health

Source: Mapping Inequality; Understanding Houston analysis of U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2019 5-year estimates data

Therefore, it is not surprising that poverty rates are higher in redlined communities than in greenlined ones and higher among Black households than white ones. There is a cluster of communities around the east side of Houston (redlined) in which a higher percentage of individuals live in poverty compared to the west side (greenlined).  For example, the poverty rate in Fifth Ward is 32.6% compared to 7.3% in Montrose. And across Houston’s three-county region, 20% of Black residents live in poverty compared to 7% of white residents. 

How redlining affects future income and earnings in Houston

Where we grow up profoundly affects our future. Neighborhoods give us resources, networks and opportunities. Or, they don’t. The lack of wealth accumulation among families across generations, compounded with perpetual disinvestment, created concentrated areas of poverty. Notable ripple effects include low property values resulting in lost tax revenue for schools, limiting access to high quality education and little private sector investment, which stifles business growth and employment opportunities. This matters because children who are raised in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates, less measured discrimination and higher levels of educational attainment tend to have better outcomes as adults (e.g., lower incarceration rates, higher household incomes, higher educational attainment and higher levels of employment). And, places that produce good outcomes in the past tend to produce good outcomes in the future. Homeownership has been identified as an effective way to create that neighborhood stability

Opportunity Atlas, an interactive tool from the Census Bureau and researchers from Harvard and Brown University, measures the extent to which groups move up (or down) the economic ladder by looking at various outcomes of adults and back-mapping where they grew up (read more about the methods and peer-reviewed paper here). The data reveals staggering differences in earnings for adults who grew up in low-income households that were located in wealthier neighborhoods versus lower-income neighborhoods. Being in an environment with access to the resources typically available in higher-income neighborhoods allows a child from a low-income household a greater chance to prosper in the future. 

Source: Mapping Inequality; Opportunity Atlas

Neighborhoods that were previously redlined generally produce low future earnings for adults raised in low-income households. Among the neighborhoods rated by HOLC, only one community produced high future earnings for individuals who grew up in low-income households — the Museum District — which received an A rating by HOLC in the 1930s.

How redlining affects social vulnerability in Houston

Communities that were redlined 90 years ago are also more vulnerable to impacts from economic and environmental threats today, including being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Job and income loss from economic recessions are higher among residents who live in previously redlined neighborhoods that are currently distressed, residents tend to have worse health outcomes as redlined communities are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, and most residents lack savings which acts as a safety net during difficult times.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) ranks each census tract on 15 demographic and social factors, including poverty, unemployment, family structure, lack of vehicle access, non-white population, disability and housing. Used together, this index helps identify communities that are more vulnerable to being negatively affected by hazardous events such as natural disasters like hurricanes and disease outbreaks like COVID-19.

For more detailed information regarding the Social Vulnerability Index, please visit our Disaster Vulnerability subtopic page

Source: Not Even Past: Social Vulnerability and the Legacy of Redlining

Neighborhoods in Houston that were redlined — Sunnyside, Third Ward and Fifth Ward — are located on the east side of the city and have SVI ratings of 0.84 or higher, making them more vulnerable than upwards of 80% of communities across the U.S, according to Not Even Past: Social Vulnerability and the Legacy of Redlining, an interactive tool that compares communities from the redlining maps to their current SVI. Areas that were given a grade of “A” — the Heights, West University Place and Montrose — have SVI ratings of 0.24 or lower, making them more vulnerable than, at most, 24% of communities across the U.S. and tend to be located on the west side.

Environmental hazards, health outcomes and life expectancy

Industrial and toxic-waste facilities in Houston are disproportionately found in Black neighborhoods — or in neighborhoods with a high concentration of low-income and non-white residents — due in part to redlining. This has consequences because the environment is a major determinant of health. A recent report from the Texas Department of State Health Services found that children in Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens were diagnosed with leukemia at nearly five times the expected rate of the general population, and cancer rates for children who live in the 100 homes located above a “toxic plume” were even worse. This isn’t the first cancer cluster in the region.

Additionally, formerly redlined communities overwhelmingly experience hotter temperatures than communities that were given better HOLC grades. Some neighborhoods in the same city differed by nearly 13 degrees. 

We see this phenomenon in Houston. Neighborhoods that have the highest nighttime temperatures — the greatest driver of heat-related health issues — are concentrated in areas that were redlined, according to maps created by Houston Harris Heat Action Team.

These dramatic differences in temperature have dire health consequences. FEMA warns that extreme heat kills more Americans than other weather-related disasters, and the World Health Organization states that  temperature extremes can exacerbate chronic cardiovascular, respiratory and diabetes-related conditions. This is especially problematic since there is a higher prevalence of diseases and poor health conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, pulmonary disease and obesity in neighborhoods that were previously redlined — due, in part, to the unsafe environment in these communities.

Environmental conditions account for nearly 25% of all deaths and likely comprise 70-90% of the total risk in the development of chronic diseases, according to research from Harris County Public Health, which means the neighborhood we live in ultimately shapes how long we will live. 

Redlined communities on the east side of Houston overwhelmingly have lower average life expectancies than those on the west side. For example, the average life expectancy in previously-redlined Fifth Ward is 70 years compared to 80 years in Montrose, according to analysis from the Episcopal Health Foundation

…primary challenges as a result of redlining [include] an increased health risk as a result of toxic exposures and poverty-related stress that causes a large gap in life expectancy, [and] the inability to recover from climate crises on a neighborhood and household level” 

– Zoe Middleton, Houston and Southeast Texas Co-Director at Texas Housers

What we can do to support historically marginalized communities

The past never stays in the past. Without the acknowledgment and repair of historical injustices, the past will continue to haunt our present. The challenges many Black residents face in building homeownership, wealth and good health is inextricably linked to the discriminatory housing policies created and enforced by our federal government 90 years ago. And while we also see incredible resilience, perseverance and power in communities that have been historically marginalized in Houston, our region’s collective progress depends on our ability to better understand the root causes that have contributed to the disparities we see today. 

“Individuals should…advocate for earnest reckoning with previous wrongs…showing a willingness to sacrifice a modicum of the privilege and comfort they may have in order to see resources go to other communities than their own.” 

– Kyle Shelton, Deputy Director at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research

Here are some things we can do:

  • Engage with residents and community leaders: Meet with individuals and organizations in these communities and seek to understand their needs and challenges. Offer to volunteer with organizations and work with them to identify ways that you can support ongoing work. 
  • Support CDFIs in your community: Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) promote economic revitalization with financial assistance to under-resourced neighborhoods and populations.
  • Donate in these neighborhoods: Find Black-led Organizations through GHCF’s Giving Guide or, if you are a Greater Houston Community Foundation donor, talk to your relationship manager about how you can be most impactful with your grants in these areas. 
  • Support Houston’s Complete Communities Initiative: The City of Houston’s Complete Communities Initiative works in partnership with Houston’s historically most under-resourced neighborhoods so that all of Houston’s residents and business owners can have access to quality services and amenities. Watch our interview with Shannon Buggs, Director of Complete Communities, highlighting the need in our region and the opportunities they are providing.
  • Reach out: As Greater Houston Community Foundation explores what more it can do as a partner to address economic disparities in Houston, we are listening and learning from readers like you. Sign-up to receive our monthly newsletter and contact us to get involved. 
“I am hopeful with cautious optimism for seeing more evidence-based justice, promoting the general welfare, liberty, and posterity for all. I hope we see our lofty ideals in practice for the common good.”

Theophilus Herrington, Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum

Resources for Further Learning

1 “Still Desirable” neighborhoods were graded “B” and colored blue. “Definitely Declining” neighborhoods were graded “C” and colored yellow.
2 Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Reprint ed.). Liveright.

Janis Scott: A Powerful Voice for Transportation Equity

This Transit Equity Day, we would like to acknowledge and thank Janis Scott for her unceasing commitment to improving and preserving public transit access for all Houston-area residents. Janis truly embodies the values central to transit equity. 

Janis Scott, LINK Houston Board Member

A Rice University graduate and a native Houstonian, Janis has been riding the bus all her life. She knows the lines, the drivers and the riders; she also knows the board members and executives who keep them moving. And when some of those crucial lines faced cuts, Janis knew exactly where to go to help riders’ voices be heard. 

“We want comfortable, dignified waiting areas for our buses. We should not continuously have to ask and beg and plead for basic amenities,” said Janis of Houston’s underserved public transit users. “My vision is crossing ‘boundaries,’ not feeling like I’m imposing, taking a chance on rejection. Not answering if asked what part of town I live in, and if I live in a bad neighborhood.”

As Janis’ voice for Houston’s underserved transit users grew louder, her profile rose, eventually earning her the nickname “The Bus Lady” and a seat on the board of LINK Houston, where she fights for more equitable access to public transportation

Fewer than 5% of households in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties are located within a quarter mile of a public transit stop. In Harris County, that rate climbs to 38%. In LINK’s 2020 Equity in Transit report, the three high-demand areas for more equitable transit investments include east and southeast Houston, southwest Houston and the Greater Greenspoint area. These communities have higher levels of poverty and lower rates of vehicle ownership compared to the overall county. The report calls for four main recommendations: 1) Increase frequency of routes; 2) extend service hours; 3) improve reliability and on-time arrivals; and 4) pursue accessibility and other transit stop upgrades. 

As for the nickname “Bus Lady,” Janis is proud of the reputation she’s built: “The nickname ‘Bus Lady’ started as a quick way to identify me when my name could not be quickly recalled. There have been some METRO folks who have asked for my advice on what is being done, since I tend to have a non-conformist view on what ‘everybody else’ thinks and does. Some have in fact put their phones down and relied on me to be ‘their Google’ transit app! I am honored to be a go-to source when someone is stuck, confused, and needs assistance. I’m happy to help!”

3 facts every Houstonian should know about natural disasters

Unfortunately, natural disasters in Houston are nothing new. Whether you’re a lifelong Houstonian or a recent transplant, chances are you’ve either experienced a natural disaster firsthand or experienced some extremely close calls like those from the very busy 2020 storm season. And as the data has made clear, these disruptive events aren’t expected to let up any time soon. 

Whatever your experience may be, the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters in Houston isn’t something our region can afford to overlook. In our recently published Disaster topic and subtopic pages, we examine the ongoing risks, vulnerabilities and response patterns affecting natural disasters in Houston across more than 50 unique data points. Below are the core points that every Houston-area resident should be aware of. 

1) Houston’s flooding risk is high (and getting higher)

When it comes to natural disasters like hurricanes, extreme precipitation and resultant flooding, Houston’s risk level has always been high and is only projected to grow. As of January 2021, Greater Houston has been the site of 25 federally declared disasters in just 40 years, nearly one-third of which have occured since 2015. All but one of these seven recent disasters (the COVID-19 pandemic) have involved flooding and/or hurricanes. 

While much of Houston’s elevated natural disaster risk level can be attributed to its geography and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, the ongoing effects of climate change and decades of ill-informed planning also play a significant role. When developing properties and planning communities, builders and developers consult FEMA Flood Zone maps in order to avoid building properties in areas at significant risk of flooding. However, these maps have been imperfect; about 75% of Houston-area flood damage between 1999 and 2009 occurred on properties built outside of FEMA-designated flood plains. Similarly, around 75% of homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey were outside flood zones, as were 55% of the homes flooded during 2016’s Tax Day flood. 

“Seven federally declared disasters have occurred in Houston since 2015.”

All-in-all, 322,000 residential properties in Houston’s three-county area are at some risk of flooding. That’s more than one-in-five. While the issue of increased flood risk may be widespread in Greater Houston, the severity of risk disproportionately impacts Black, Hispanic and low-income residents. Decades of discriminatory housing policies have seen many low-income communities placed in low-lying lands that subsequently receive insufficient investment toward flood mitigation.

With the dangers posed by extreme rain events projected to increase in coming decades, the number of Houston properties at substantial risk of flooding is also poised to grow. 

By 2050, one in seven properties (286,036) in the three-county area will be at substantial risk of flooding. By pure volume, Harris County is projected to bear most of the burden. Fort Bend County is projected to have the highest proportion of properties at substantial risk of flooding at nearly 20%. 

Click here for a deeper exploration of Houston’s natural disaster risk factors

2) Houston’s population is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of natural disasters

Houstons’ geographic placement is one of the driving factors behind Houston’s high natural disaster risk levels, but the extent to which these disasters impact our region is a different story. Beyond our inherent risk levels, socioeconomic inequalities and man-made environmental factors increase our region’s vulnerability to negative effects of natural disasters — impacting our ability to withstand and recover from natural disasters when they happen. 

Socioeconomic vulnerabilities 

One of the most valuable tools we have in evaluating vulnerability is The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). SVI measures the social vulnerability of counties and census tracts on a scale from 0 (indicating the lowest vulnerability) to 1 (highest vulnerability). Counties and census tracts with high SVI scores often face higher levels of human and economic suffering/loss in the wake of natural disasters. Factors that contribute to higher rates of social vulnerability include lower income levels, higher proportions of non-Whites, language barriers, housing segregation and other elements of discrimination and inequality. 

Harris County has an SVI of 0.72, meaning Harris County is more vulnerable to the negative effects of disasters than 72% of counties in the country

Communities with an SVI of 0.5 or higher are deemed to have medium-high vulnerability to the negative shocks disasters cause. In total, 3.4 million residents in Houston’s three-county region live in a medium-high risk census tract — that’s 58% of the region’s population

“58% of Greater Houston residents live in a census tract with medium-high vulnerability to the negative effects of disasters.”

As established earlier, Black, Hispanic and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted when disasters strike. These vulnerable populations are more likely to experience food insecurity, job/income loss, housing insecurity, transportation challenges, reduced access to healthcare, and more. Compounding these issues, many in Houston’s most vulnerable communities never receive the federal assistance they need to properly recover. About 50% of FEMA claims made in the three-county region since 2005 have been declined, and renters — who are more likely to be in a highly vulnerable group — were less likely to be approved for assistance than homeowners in seven of the last nine disasters. 

Environmental impacts

Greater Houston also faces environmental vulnerabilities that impact public health on a large scale following natural disasters. During flooding events, sewage, debris and chemicals mix with flood waters, and as waters rise, they can carry pollutants into water bodies, residential homes and our drinking water supply. Because many refineries and chemical plants are located in low-lying areas, this added vulnerability is largely carried by already-vulnerable communities of color. These plants also contribute to lower air quality during natural disasters. Industrial facilities in Greater Houston generated an additional 340 tons of toxic air pollution during Hurricane Harvey, at minimum. 

All-in-all, these and other environmental factors negatively impact our physical health. After Hurricane Harvey, 63% of respondents to the Texas Flood Registry reported experiencing at least one negative health symptom such as runny nose, headaches/migraines, problems concentrating, shortness of breath, or skin rash. 

Click here for a deeper exploration of Houston’s natural disaster vulnerabilities

3) Houston’s ability to recover from natural disasters is highly uneven

On their own, natural disasters do not discriminate. They can affect anyone in their path, and the immediate consequences of a hurricane or flood can ripple throughout all corners of the region, even if some groups bear more risk and vulnerability than others. The long-term effects of these disasters are ultimately determined by our region’s ability to recover, and the response we receive from the public and private sector. And while Greater Houston is often recognized for its generosity  — especially in the wake of Hurricane Harvey — the response often leaves Houston’s more vulnerable populations without the assistance they need to fully recover.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) addresses urgent basic needs after disasters through the Individual and Household Program (IHP). When federally declared disasters strike, residents may apply for financial assistance from FEMA to help with essentials. However, those who may need the most financial assistance don’t always get it.

With the exception of Hurricane Rita, homeowners have consistently received more federal assistance than renters, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Following Hurricane Harvey, renters received an average of $2,018 in IHP assistance compared to an average of $6,586 for homeowners. While homeowners are liable for more costs associated with storm damage, nearly half of Houston-area renters are significantly cost-burdened which limits their ability to pay for damages out-of-pocket. This disparity in financial relief can contribute to slower recovery times and the exacerbation of pre-existing wealth and income inequalities

Federal programs aren’t the only resource available to aid natural disaster mitigation and recovery. Local government also plays an important role, although many are dissatisfied with their performance. 

In the three-county area, 74% of residents rate local government efforts to protect Houston homes from flooding as poor-to-fair, with only 5% of surveyed residents rating protection efforts as “excellent.” 

All-in-all, these barriers to recovery ultimately burden economically vulnerable and disadvantaged residents the most, and widen pre-existing inequities and wealth gaps. A recent study found that the wealth gap between Black and White residents in Harris County grew by $87,000 as a result of  impacts from natural disasters. Similarly, 31% of Black Houston-area residents surveyed reported worse quality of life one year after Hurricane Harvey compared to 18% of White residents.

Click here for a deeper exploration of Houston’s natural disaster response and recovery. 

Understanding disasters in Houston can strengthen us for the future

The existence of natural disasters may be beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean that we are powerless against them. By taking the time to understand their risk to and impact on our region, we can be better equipped to prepare for and address the consequences of disasters before they strike, ultimately enabling a smoother recovery toward an opportunity-rich region for all. 

This new Disaster content is just the first stage in an ongoing expansion of the Understanding Houston platform. As a community-driven nonprofit, our mission to connect Houston leaders with the data they need to make informed decisions relies on the action and generosity of people like you. Consider exploring how you can get involved with Understanding Houston, and stay tuned to our social media for new data, insights and program updates. 

Join us February 25th for an in-depth virtual discussion of disasters in Houston! Click here to register

The Year in Review: A Data-Driven Look at Houston’s 2020

In no uncertain terms, 2020 has been one of the most memorable years in our country’s history. And while this year brought challenges that many of us would rather soon forget, we can’t dismiss 2020 in Houston without acknowledging some of the galvanizing moments that both defined our region’s year and served as indicators of its future  — both good and bad. 

In 2020, Greater Houston was at the center of a historic call for racial justice in America; it was a potential target in a record-setting hurricane season; it broke other records in a closely watched election; it continued to evolve and develop new resources for residents, all amidst the terrifying uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Before we all move on to our plans and ambitions for a (hopefully) brighter 2021, let’s take stock of what 2020 meant to Greater Houston.

How COVID-19 impacted Houston, by the numbers

For many, the year 2020 is and always will be inextricably linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like every city across the globe, the Greater Houston region has had to contend with this deadly virus in its own ways, as myriad consequences continue to impact our region as the year draws to a close.  

COVID-19’s spread in Greater Houston

Despite early signs of success in battling the spread of COVID-19, the Greater Houston region emerged as a virus hotspot as the year went on. While mask wearing and social distancing efforts have helped us avoid some worst case scenarios, the virus has still taken an unmistakable toll on our region in the form of deaths, business closures,  job losses, worsened mental health, evictions, and much more. 

Here’s how the virus has hit our region: 

Measuring COVID-19’s impact on Greater Houston

While the many effects of the pandemic will likely take years to fully make themselves known, Greater Houston has already felt severe impacts throughout the region. Between changes in consumer habits, stay-home orders, and shifts in demand, many residents in Greater Houston have lost their jobs, with those who work in restaurants,bars and construction hit hardest. After six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 45% of surveyed Harris County residents reported losing income/employment, according to the Episcopal Health Foundation. As with infections, Black and Hispanic residents in Harris County have been disproportionately impacted by job losses in the wake of COVID-19.

Despite eviction moratoriums enacted early in the pandemic, many Houstonians are still facing eviction. There have been 17,414 eviction filings in Houston between March 15 and December 9, according to data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. That places the fourth-largest city third in the nation for evictions filed during the pandemic, behind New York City and Phoenix. 

Unsurprisingly, all of this has had a negative impact on residents’ mental health, young and old alike. About 44% of surveyed Harris County residents reported worse mental health six months after the pandemic began.

While multiple vaccines are currently on their way to market, the ramifications of these impacts — in addition to consequences that have yet to emerge — will likely be felt throughout our region well into 2021 and beyond. 

A historic partnership to enable quick response

In the face of this public health and economic crisis, we have seen leaders, partners and individuals from all walks of life step up to assist. For the first time, the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston joined forces in March 2020 to establish the Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund, raising $17 million, to help support those in our community impacted by COVID-19 and the resulting economic conditions, with a focus on disproportionately impacted communities and vulnerable populations. 

$17 million to 87 unique nonprofit partners, serving more than 240,000 people so far. 

As of October, nonprofit partners reported serving more than 84,576 households and 245,339 individuals in need with access to food, emergency financial assistance for basic needs and housing, services to prevent homelessness due to evictions and foreclosures, financial and housing counseling, legal assistance, and services for the homeless to help fill public funding gaps. The data show that 87% of households served are very low-income, earning 60% of Area Median Income or less.

The renewed movement for racial justice

No social movement brought more attention to the region or inspired more activism in 2020 than the renewed calls for racial justice. Following the death of native Houstonian George Floyd, in police custody and the similarly unjust deaths of Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, people across the nation joined arms, hosted demonstrations and called for our nation to address racist policies and practices in our police and criminal justice systems. More broadly, this renewed movement inspired a broader call to action to move toward racial justice in all aspects of life to right wrongs past and present.

But it wasn’t the death of George Floyd and others alone that inspired residents to take action. Despite its reputation for diversity, the Greater Houston region has many long-standing issues that contribute to racial injustice and inequality in our own communities.

The following disparities illustrate  only some of the inequalities Black Houstonians have had to contend with in Greater Houston: 

Inspired by these long-standing inequities and the brutal deaths by police that laid them bare this year, Houstonians took to the streets in a moment of collective awakening to speak out against the legacy of racial injustice in our communities.

60,000 people gathered in Houston to demonstrate against racial injustice.

People throughout Houston including politicians, rappers, athletes and police officers gathered in Houston’s downtown to march in honor of George Floyd and to shine a light on the lingering problems of racial inequity, garnering national media attention in the process. And while much work remains to be done, Houston has no shortage of activists, advocates and nonprofit organizations working to ensure a brighter future for Houston’s communities of color

The need for progress doesn’t end with 2020; consider giving to a Black-led organization by visiting Greater Houston Community Foundation’s Giving Guide of Houston’s Black-led Organizations to deepen your commitment to racial justice and support in our community.  

A record-breaking storm season

For many Houston-area residents, flooding and hurricanes have become an unfortunate fact of life. In the past five years alone, our region has faced six federal natural disasters, with 100-year flood events becoming a near annual occurrence. The frequency of these extreme weather events isn’t the only cause for concern — the costs they inspire can be devastating financially, environmentally and psychologically. 

Unfortunately, these storms don’t seem to have been an aberration as the number of extreme precipitation days is projected to increase throughout the Greater Houston area over the next few decades. And if 2020’s record-breaking hurricane season was any indication, these projections are all-too-likely to bear out in the coming years. 

2020 Saw 10 named storms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Houston dodged more than a few proverbial bullets in 2020, to put it lightly. While the 2020 hurricane season was predicted to be busier than usual as early as April, many Houstonians still neglect preparations. In 2018 — just one year after Hurricane Harvey rocked our region — 72% of residents surveyed said they had not done anything to prepare for hurricane season. While it’s too early to say exactly what the 2021 storm season will bring, weathering future storms will require action, planning and awareness from residents and local leaders alike. 

Making history during the 2020 election

Against a backdrop of challenge and uncertainty was one more historic event: the 2020 Presidential Election. While the pandemic presented new questions and challenges related to the safety of voting, Texans and Houstonians were not daunted. Ahead of the election, Texas shattered previous voter registration records by adding more than 1.5 million citizens to voter rolls for a total of 16.6 million registered voters. That early enthusiasm translated into record-breaking turnout, as more Harris County residents participated in early voting than voted in the entire 2016 presidential election. 

1.4 million votes were cast during early voting in Harris County1

Harris County wasn’t the only place where early voter turnout exceeded total turnout in 2016. In Fort Bend County, more than 329,000 people cast their ballots prior to election day, surpassing the total number of votes cast during the 2016 election. Similarly, Montgomery County set a new early voting record with nearly 237,000 votes cast prior to election day, surpassing the total number of votes cast in 2016.  

New sites to visit in Greater Houston

Believe it or not, 2020 in Houston wasn’t all about galvanizing moments. Even with so much uncertainty in the air, Houston’s region became a more vibrant place to live, work and play with three exciting new projects: The Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The Houston Botanic Garden and a massive expansion of Houston favorite Discovery Green.

Let’s break them down by the numbers.

The Nancy and Rich Kinder Building

Long in the making, this new addition to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is the culmination of more than a decade of planning and construction and features a variety of classic and contemporary art. 

The details

  • The nation’s largest cultural construction project in a decade
  • The result of more than 15 years of planning and construction
  • 237,000 Sq. Feet of art from around the world

The Houston Botanic Garden

Houston is known for many things; nature and plant life aren’t exactly chief among them. But with the new Houston Botanic Garden, that may all change. Somewhere in between a public park, an outdoor museum and a community garden, the Botanic Garden hosts a variety of plants and vegetation, including species that have never grown in Houston before.

The details: 

  • Six unique zones spread across 132 acres of land
  • 350 species of plants, all of which can flourish in the Houston climate.
  • 2.5 miles of walking trails 
  • Two natural ecosystem areas, the Coastal Prairie and Stormweather Wetlands

Discovery Green Expansion

While much of Houston stays inside to aid social distancing efforts, the team at Discovery Green Conservancy is hard at work making sure Houstonians will have plenty to do in the years to come. Thanks to a $12 million upgrade, one of Houston’s favorite parks will have even more to offer visitors in the years to come.

The details

  • A brand new “house of cards” made up of 126 lighted playing cards
  • A five-year public art program
  • A brand new public playground

Here to help Houston understand what lies ahead

Projections and predictions aside, no one can truly say what 2021 holds for Houston. But whatever trends impact our region in the coming year, Understanding Houston is here to add data-driven insights and context to the issues that matter in our communities. 

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

End Notes:

1Source: Texas Secretary of State

A Look Back at Understanding Houston’s First Year

The Greater Houston region is filled with possibilities. Across Greater Houston’s 10,000+ square miles live more than 7 million people from all walks of life and more than 90 countries. They speak nearly 150 unique languages. They help their neighbors at higher rates than the national average. They create world class arts and cultural experiences. And, most importantly, they work together to create a more vibrant Houston region with opportunity for all. 

Whether you’re a philanthropist looking for guidance on where your dollars can make the most impact in Greater Houston, or you’re just a concerned community member hoping to understand and act on the issues that matter to you, Understanding Houston was created to measure what matters to our communities, so that people like you can do what matters in our communities.

It’s been one year since our official launch, and we’re amazed and inspired by the outpouring of support and engagement we’ve seen from our community on a near-daily basis. Through important conversations on social media, inspiring events and compelling guest perspectives, Understanding Houston has achieved remarkable growth in its first year, and our journey is only just beginning. 

These are just some of the highlights from year one. 

How people are using the website

As an expansive resource, Understanding Houston offers web visitors a number of ways to make the most of our data, including downloadable reports and charts, as well as a voting system that allows visitors to let us know the content we should expand on moving forward. 

Here’s how use of the Understanding Houston website has panned out over our first year: 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img-using-the-site@2x-1024x403.jpg
  • 17,160 site users: More than 17,000 people have come to Understanding Houston through search engines, social media, or direct referrals since we launched last year, with an average of 1,430 monthly users.
  • 48,063 pageviews: These users have explored more than 48,000 collective pages of Understanding Houston content. 
  • 787 report downloads: Nearly 800 reports have been downloaded by users for later use and reference.
  • 218 chart exports: More than 200 charts have been exported by users to include in presentations, share on social media or feature on their website.
  • 265 topic votes: Users have voted for the topics that matter most to them 265 times. 

Understanding Houston has served to inform our work with easy access to explore the data across the topics and subtopics within the website. This has been a tremendous value to have one central location for information.”

Jessica Davison – Sr. Program Manager, United Way of Greater Houston

How our community has grown

Understanding Houston launched its social media presence and monthly newsletter in January 2020 to grow our community, inform our users on important issues affecting the region and share new in-depth blogs and events. 

To date, we’ve seen incredible support and engagement in our community, as our social platforms  and newsletter subscribers continue to grow month over month, reaching 40,000 people via social media on average each month. 

Here’s where we stand as of this month:

1,701 total email subscribers

Social media followers

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img-total-followers@2x-1024x580.jpg

“Understanding Houston helps us stay relevant as we speak the same language of our top health partners who also use Understanding Houston’s data reports.”

Lharissa Jacobs – Vice President, Health Strategies, American Heart Association

How we’ve expanded our platform

From the very beginning, Understanding Houston has been a collaborative initiative between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and strategic research partner, Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Since our launch, Understanding Houston has partnered with a variety of leaders and organizations including the George Foundation, the Hackett Center for Mental Health, Houston Coalition Against Hate, Houston in Action, January Advisors, NAMI Greater Houston, and many others. 

These collaborations resulted in 17 in-depth blogs, including six guest-authored pieces that amplify voices from community leaders.

Expanding Understanding Houston hasn’t been limited to the written word; through an ongoing series of successful data briefings and webinars, we’ve briefed more than 700 donors, foundation, nonprofit and government partners on on key data insights across quality of life issues and topics such as criminal justice and housing inequities, with 97% of attendees reporting increased understanding of the Houston region after attending. 

How we’ve responded to 2020’s challenges

2020 has been an unpredictable year by any measure, as each new month seemed to bring with it new challenges. Between the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the renewed focus on racial justice and inequality in our region and beyond, the Understanding Houston team rose to the occasion, developing content that enhanced understanding and provided invaluable context to the issues affecting us all. 


When COVID-19 began to impact our region, we knew right away that our initial plans for the immediate future — including in-person events, blogs and social media posts — simply weren’t going to work as originally scheduled. Immediately, we shifted our focus on social media to helping our followers stay up to day with accurate, vetted information about COVID-19 in our region.

Since the initial outbreak, Understanding Houston has published six original blogs on the impacts of COVID-19, some of which have been among the most viewed blogs on Understanding Houston.

Racial inequality 

Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and several others at the hands of police, the nation’s attention turned en masse to issues surrounding racial injustice in our communities. Recognizing our platform’s ability to add invaluable context and depth to these conversations, we once again paused our previously scheduled content plans and shifted focus to help our community find answers to their most pressing questions. 

With cooperation from our partners, we worked diligently to develop an information campaign consisting of 16 unique social posts that presented a holistic picture of racial inequities and injustices in the Greater Houston area, including an inspiring guest blog by Marjorie Joseph of Houston Coalition Against Hate.

This content resonated with the community and helped hundreds of new followers discover Understanding Houston as we added 528 new followers to our four social media platforms over the course of the campaign.

How we’re planning for the future of Understanding Houston

A region as dynamic and ever-changing as Houston requires a resource that can keep up. Looking ahead to our second year, we are already planning two major updates to the existing platform: 

  1. A brand new Disaster topic with four subtopic pages crafted to help donors, government officials and community leaders understand the risks and effects associated with recent disasters in our region.
  2. Expanded content and engagement opportunities on economic opportunity that enables deeper learning and exploration of how we strengthen economic security for families across Houston.

With COVID-19 making in-person engagements a challenge for the foreseeable future, we will also continue to work with our community partners to host engaging online data briefings that will keep the conversation going until we are able to host in-person events again.

Thank you to everyone who has made this possible!

Whether looking ahead or looking back, we owe so much to the countless people who have helped Understanding Houston grow into the dynamic resource it is today. To all the donors, partners, guest bloggers, researchers, analysts, developers, designers, writers and followers who keep us moving forward, we are endlessly grateful.

A very special thank you to our founding partners and supporters, our advisory committee, our strategic research partners at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, and our communications partners at Baal + Spots and Deutser for their continued support of Understanding Houston.

We also couldn’t do what we do without the continued support of our donors. Your support keeps Understanding Houston evolving and accessible for all Houstonians, and we’re extremely grateful for the support we’ve received thus far. If you’d like to see Understanding Houston continue to grow and expand its reach in our communities, please consider making a donation. 

Here’s to many more years of keeping Houston connected to the things that matter.

Houstonians’ Experiences with Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Analyzing major challenges facing vulnerable populations

For many residents in the greater Houston area, two recent disasters have had lasting impact on their lives — Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 pandemic. The former dumped up to 60 inches of unrelenting rain that devastated neighborhood after neighborhood. COVID-19, of course, has hit the entire world and filled hospitals and unemployment rolls, including in our region.

Although a hurricane and a pandemic are very different crises, the lives they upend are often the same. The many negative economic, environmental and public health impacts of disasters exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities in these areas. In other words, those who are vulnerable before a catastrophic event are much more impacted during the disaster event and will likely continue to suffer long after it is over.

To provide policymakers, funders and stakeholders with reliable information about the impact of these disasters on Texans and inform their relief and recovery efforts, the Episcopal Health Foundation, in partnership with several research and funding collaborators, conducted public opinion surveys of Texans in 24 affected counties (for Hurricane Harvey) and the state (for the pandemic).1 Both surveys explored the disaster’s effects on income/employment, healthcare and mental health among various populations. Consistent with established research, findings from both surveys reveal that lower-income, non-white and undocumented communities are disproportionately impacted by these disasters.2

How Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19 impact income and employment 

Beyond the collateral damage disasters leave in their wake, the myriad disruptions to infrastructure, economic/market activity, access to resources and more can cause substantial job loss — either temporarily or more long-term. In the months following Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19, many residents throughout Harris County and the state lost income and/or employment. (Loss includes someone in their household lost a job, lost their business, had hours/wages cut back at work, or experienced some other loss of income, including furloughed, as a result of disaster.)

Nearly half of Texas Gulf Coast residents affected by Hurricane Harvey reported income and/or employment losses three months after the event. Meanwhile, nearly four in 10 Texans reported similar effects six months after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Effects in Harris County appear more pronounced as a higher percentage of respondents reported income and/or employment losses over these two time periods. 

While a direct comparison between surveys of income/job loss by household income is difficult due to the questions’ wording, the Hurricane Harvey report found that respondents with lower incomes were much more likely to experience income/employment loss than those with higher incomes. Across the 24 affected counties, 59% of respondents with incomes at or below the federal poverty level (FPL) reported income or job loss compared to 50% of those between 100%-200% FPL, 48% of those 200%-400% FPL, and 29% of those more than four times the FPL. Data from the Census Bureau finds that low-income adults are among those hit hardest financially by COVID-19.

Both surveys also reveal consistent disparities across race/ethnicity. Following existing trends in poverty and income inequality, Hispanics consistently bore the largest economic impact during these disasters, followed by Black Texans. In Harris County, a staggering 82% of Hispanic respondents reported income and employment loss three months after Hurricane Harvey and 43% reported similar losses six months after the pandemic began. 

In both the Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19 reports, we paid special attention to the experiences of those who are potentially undocumented immigrants. For our purposes, Texans who were not born in the U.S., did not have permanent resident status when they moved to the U.S., or who have not had their status changed since, were considered potentially undocumented immigrants. This population has lower job security and typically does not qualify for or access many governmental benefits which increases their vulnerability to economic shocks from a disaster.

About nine in 10 potentially undocumented residents affected by Hurricane Harvey in the region had experienced job/income loss three months after the storm. About half of potentially undocumented residents reported job/income loss six months after the pandemic began. In the Hurricane Harvey report, six in 10 potentially undocumented immigrants worried that they will draw attention to their or their family’s immigration status if they seek assistance. 

How Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19 impact health care in Texas

Lost income and strained resources often force people to make difficult decisions regarding their expenses, which can cause people to delay or forego health care in the period following a crisis — especially if they have lost health insurance. Not surprising given the income/employment losses, many Houston and Texas residents chose to skip or delay health care in the months that followed both Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19.

Texans skipped or delayed health care at a higher rate during COVID-19 than in the first three months after Hurricane Harvey. These differences are consistent across both the state/region and Harris County, and may be explained by personal health and safety concerns associated with visiting doctor offices during a pandemic. 

The COVID-19 report finds that 44% of Texans with incomes above $75,000 a year skipped or delayed health care compared to 31% of respondents with incomes below $75,000. This  is  likely  because higher-income households tend to have higher rates of health insurance  coverage, allowing for greater access to health care that preceded the pandemic.

The mental health impacts of Hurricane Harvey and COVID-19

Disasters in any form take a toll on our individual and collective health. The fear and worry of potential or actual financial and personal loss from a disaster can have serious emotional impacts — including PTSD, anxiety, depression and others. The impacts on our mental health can be as severe and long-lasting as the more visible physical and economic damage, and in some cases more so. 

The pandemic appears to have had worse effects on mental health than Hurricane Harvey. Close to half of Texans and Harris County residents said the worry or stress related to COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health. Three months after Hurricane Harvey, 13% of Texans and 12% of Harris County residents reported that their mental health worsened as a result of the storm. This difference is likely due to the time-limited nature of Hurricane Harvey and that some neighborhoods were more affected than others.

Key takeaways and what comes next

Aside from the obvious differences between these two major crises, the findings from both surveys reinforce the fact that lower-income, non-white and undocumented populations are more likely to experience financial hardships and have a harder time coping with both disasters than their peers.

These findings signal that public- and private-sector leaders need to do more to address economic, health and mental health needs related to the pandemic, particularly for our region’s most vulnerable residents. We must pay attention to the needs of a group that is critical to our region’s local economy, workforce, and social fabric — undocumented immigrants. As both surveys show, they are suffering even more than their peers during COVID-19. Policymakers and philanthropy should devise long-term assistance, relief and rebuilding strategies to assist these vulnerable populations.

1. See An Early Assessment of Hurricane Harvey’s Impact on Vulnerable Texans in the Gulf Coast Region, Texans’ Views on the COVID Pandemic and Texans’ Views on the COVID-19 Pandemic in Harris County.

2. In discussing some common threads of these reports, we should note that Hurricane Harvey is a one-time natural disaster event that impacted 41 counties in Southeast Texas while the COVID-19 pandemic is both a global and national public health emergency that continues to impact the entire state. Nonetheless, it is useful to compare the data relating to how these events have impacted the vulnerable populations in Texas and Harris County.