Houstonians Want to Live in Walkable Communities. Often, That Doesn’t Happen.

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | April 25, 2016

Image via flickr/Drew Otto.

Image via flickr/Drew Otto.

If you take a trip through Harris County, you’ll see that, from a housing perspective, it’s incredibly diverse.

Downtown has expensive, high-rise apartments. Small shotgun houses dot the Third Ward. Further from the city core, there are 1950s ranchers in established neighborhood, and huge houses are pervasive throughout newer suburbs.

So it’s no surprise that when the 2016 Kinder Houston Area Survey asked residents what type of housing they prefer, there wasn’t, exactly, a consensus.

In fact, Harris County residents are evenly divided on the question. Fifty percent of respondents said they’d prefer “a smaller home in a more urbanized area, within walking distance of shops and workplaces.” Meanwhile, 49 percent preferred “a single-family home with a big yard, where you would need to drive almost everywhere you want to go.”

The good news is the county is large enough — nearly 1,800 square miles — that there’s something for everyone here.

But the bad news is that a deeper dive into the data reveals that many Houston-area residents aren’t living in the type of housing they say they’d prefer. And the problem is particularly acute for those who say they want to live in a walkable, urban area.

While half of Harris County residents said they’d prefer an urban-style home, 37 percent of the people in that group say they don’t live in that type of place.

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That means roughly 18 percent of Harris County residents want to live in an urban area but aren’t doing so. Roughly the same rate of urban-seekers lack an urban home in Montgomery County, north of Houston.

There, the rate of people who want an urban home is much smaller — 32 percent — but more than half of the people in that group aren’t living in an urban home.

And of the three Houston-area counties, the issue is most acute in Fort Bend County, southwest of Houston. There, 43 percent of respondents want the urban home, but 65 percent of urban-seekers aren’t living in it. In other words, about 28 percent of Fort Bend County residents want an urban home but don’t have it.

The numbers tell an important story: across each of these three counties — and especially in Fort Bend County — there are huge numbers of residents who want to live in urban, walkable areas, but for some reason, they aren’t doing it. It speaks to a mismatch between what people want, and what people are able to have.

(It’s worth noting that this same trend doesn’t play out among those seeking single-family homes with a big yard. In Harris County, roughly 11 percent of survey respondents indicated they preferred a single-family home with a large one but didn’t live in one. Fewer than 6 percent of residents in Montgomery County and Fort Bend County wanted to live in an area dominated by single-family homes but weren’t doing so.)

Project the figures across each county’s population, and the findings are stark: they translate to roughly 1 million people want an urban home but say they aren’t living in one.

The survey findings can’t, of course, explain exactly why that’s happening. But there are plenty of reasons people might not be able to live in an urban environment, even if they might prefer one.

In Houston, job centers are located throughout the region, even in suburbs. Workers might be living near their jobs, even if they’d rather live in a more walkable area. Moreover, rightly or wrong, the perception that suburban schools offer higher quality education persists. But, perhaps most importantly, is the fact that in recent years, home prices inside Houston’s urban core have skyrocketed.

It’s no surprise that some of Houston’s most walkable areas — “Inner Loop” neighborhoods like Montrose, Midtown, the Museum District, and The Heights — are also some of the most expensive places to purchase a home.

Houston area officials have acknowledged that they’re not just competing for workforce talent nationally. They’re competing internationally to recruit and retain workers. When close to 1 million of those workers may be living in an environment they don’t prefer, it may be time to take notice.

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