Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | May 1, 2017
Houston has been known for many things over the years: its bayous and highways, its oil and gas, its music and back-to-back, mid-90s NBA championships.
But now it’s also increasingly known for its diversity. City officials tout Houston’s demographics – 44 percent Hispanic, 26 percent white, 23 percent black, 6 percent Asian – and its large international community as signs of a booming, diverse, cosmopolitan metropolis.
And slowly but surely, residents have been reporting more positive interethnic relations, with white people tending to feel more positively about white-black relations than black people do. About 47 percent of whites here give black-white relations a positive appraisal, compared to just 37 percent of blacks.
Despite this increasingly diverse and overall more positive direction, as inequality deepens in the region, another version of the city segregated by income and race has come into focus.
“The city is very diverse. But it’s also very separate,” said Chrishelle Palay, Houston co-director of the nonprofit advocacy organization Texas Housers. “When it’s time for folks to go home, then that’s when the reality of the separation and the segregation becomes very much alive and well,” said Palay.
In recent decades, Houston has been home to a demographic shift that has transformed the area. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of Harris County census tracts in which no single racial or ethnic group made up more than half of the residents grew from fewer than 40 to almost 200, according to Kinder Institute research. Most of those, though, fall outside the city in suburban areas ringing Houston. That stunning transformation is due in large part to the growth of Houston’s Hispanic community.
But in the predominantly white or black parts of town today, there’s a good chance they looked the same way more than 30 years ago.
That reflects a complicated and inherently American story that includes slavery, de jure and de facto segregation, discriminatory lending practices and red-lining as well as today’s policies and practices. And it’s something homeowners themselves tend to reinforce.
The 2017 Kinder Houston Area Survey asked area residents to imagine their dream house, in a safe neighborhood with good schools and a short commute, and with varying percentages of black or Hispanic families in the neighborhood. The likelihood of buying that house among white respondents clearly depended on the demographic composition of the neighborhood. If that hypothetical home was in a neighborhood that happened to be 60 percent black, fewer than half of white respondents said they’d be very likely to buy it; but 79 percent said they would buy the home if the neighborhood was 30 percent black. A similar but less dramatic fall-off (from 70 to 58 percent) occurs when the neighborhood changes from 30 to 60 percent Hispanic.
These responses have not changed at all since 2004, when the questions were last asked.
“I think what happens is that once you tell people it’s a 60-percent black neighborhood, they just don’t believe that the crime rates are low and the schools are good,” said Stephen Klineberg, founding-director of the Kinder Institute and creator of the long-running annual survey. “Any school principal will tell you that once a school becomes about 30 percent black, white families begin to move out.”
And, white respondents may actually overstate their willingness to live in neighborhoods that aren’t predominantly white. In an analysis of similar recent survey data from Chicago, researchers found that white respondents, unlike other racial and ethnic groups, tended to both live in and search for housing in neighborhoods that were whiter than they said they preferred.
“They’re only inclusive to a certain point — to a point of being comfortable,” Palay said.
Generally, Hispanic respondents in Houston were substantially more willing to buy in a majority white neighborhood than in a majority black neighborhood, by a margin of 69 percent to 48 percent.
Most of the black respondents, when asked whether they’d buy their dream home in a majority white or Hispanic neighborhood, said they would; 56 and 58 percent respectively.
But there was still a solid percentage across the board of folks who had some hesitation about buying a house in a neighborhood with varying amounts of the different groups specified. The overall relative reluctance of both black and Hispanic respondents may reflect a desire to avoid further discrimination and studies point to some possible benefits for communities that may be otherwise marginalized to live in concentrated areas where social networks can remain intact. Research has also highlighted, however, significant health and other risks associated with neighborhood segregation.
There are also costs associated with residential segregation for the city as a whole. An analysis by the Urban Institute found that greater residential segregation hurt metropolitan regions. According to its findings, Houston was among the top 20 most segregated metropolitan areas economically and racially.
Even as white residents represent a smaller percentage of the city’s population, predominantly white areas are still among the wealthiest, possibly wielding an outsized influence on the push-pull factors that keep Houston segregated.
“It doesn’t take a lot,” said Palay, of the forces that can shape a city’s policies and practices.
Palay got a taste of that dynamic first hand during the 2016 public hearing for a high-profile low-income housing tax credit project that would have been Houston’s first built in a high-opportunity and overwhelmingly white area. It was ultimately denied.
“I ended my statement saying it’s time for you to start dealing with the truth and actually embracing the diverse communities that you claim to appreciate,” Palay told the audience at the hearing. “That’s when I got the loudest boos.”