Lately a lot of people who've lived in Houston for years have become concerned with what they feel are rapidly escalating rents and a dwindling supply of affordable housing, particularly in areas of town where that wasn't always an issue. Many people seem to be feeling that they're priced out of areas that they've lived in for years, with Inner Loop neighborhoods like Montrose or The Heights often being cited as becoming unaffordable for all but new and relatively wealthy residents.
Some of those fears seem to be supported, as Rice University's Shell Center For Sustainability has released a report that finds Houstonians are spending more on housing and transportation than the federal recommendations for those costs per household. This is perhaps surprising to many, since one of the supposed perks of living in Houston is its low cost of living compared to other cities, but according to the study, we rank at number 26 for affordable housing and transportation costs in a list of major American cities.
Those costs have risen for many Houstonians as rents and home costs have escalated in recent years, driving many people from the city's central core to neighborhoods further out where housing costs less. Many of those folks retain jobs downtown, and since Houston still lacks a mass transit system comparable to those of other major cities, that has increased their transportation costs, causing us to be ranked lower for affordability than places like New York City or Chicago. However, the report makes it clear that the truly sought after real estate in the Inner Loop is located mostly in the west end, and not the entire area as is often referenced by people complaining about rising costs.
The report contains other interesting information about our changing city, some of which is alarming. It grouped different parts of town by their City Council districts, and a lot of information about developing trends in Houston can be gleaned by looking at the numbers.
For instance, the study found that in 2010, about 723,000 Houstonians, or 36 percent of the overall population, lived in areas described as "food deserts" — parts of town where it is difficult to buy healthy food at affordable prices. These are usually impoverished areas where fresh vegetables, fruit and other whole foods are unavailable because of a lack of farmers' markets, grocery stores or other outlets. Houston is improving in that regard, and by 2013 had reduced the number of residents living in food deserts by 3 percent, or to around 702,000 people. The study points to an increase of 15 supermarkets opening during that time, creating opportunities for more Houstonians to have easier access to healthy food choices.
Sadly, things went in the other direction when measuring the number of Houston residents who will have easy access to a park in the near future. Actions needed to acquire more land for parks haven't kept up with our rapid population growth, as a result dropping per capita park access by 3.6 percent since 2010. Large numbers of Houstonians also chose largely not to participate politically in local elections, with only 11 percent of voting-age residents turning out for them in 2013, highlighting a dismal lack of involvement.
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The study's data also indicate that racial and ethnic population distribution is uneven across different areas of town, with certain districts reflecting heavy majorities of one group or another. Two districts have a population in which more than half the residents are white, two districts have a more than 50 percent African-American population, and four have a higher than 50 percent Hispanic population, with all but one of the districts having at least a 25 percent Hispanic population. Looking at the map provided in the Rice study, it's clear that Hispanic populations are concentrated throughout the east, southeast, near-north, northeast and southwest areas; African-American populations are concentrated in the south and northern areas; and whites are concentrated west of the Inner Loop and toward the Beltway. It's interesting that in a city that has emerged as the most ethnically and racially diverse in the nation, so much of Houston is still largely divided along racial and economic lines.
The study is interesting for a lot of reasons, and could indicate the trends that will affect Houston and its residents over the next few years. Of course, some people predict that we may see rough times ahead with a region still highly dependent on oil, so that could possibly affect rising home prices and rent if we see a prolonged downturn in the local economy.
The study does make it clear that for the time being, some parts of the Inner Loop are growing more expensive, and added transportation costs for those relocating to other areas of town are making many residents exceed the federal recommendations for housing and transportation costs. It also indicates that Houston probably needs to address a better mass transit system sooner rather than later, and hopefully new rail lines will help with that. Most surprising (to me at least) is the large percentage of Houstonians still living in food deserts. Only time will tell how we address these new trends and challenges, but Houston is a pretty amazing and resilient city, and I feel confident that we will. I just might never be able to afford property in the western section of the Inner Loop ever again.