10 in 2023: Top stories from the Urban Edge


Collage of photos for the 2023 year in review on Urban Edge.

Housing costs, the economy, increasing demands on income and concerns about the environment weighed on the minds of Urban Edge readers in 2023.

Readers wanted to know more about the increasing costs associated with renting a home and how relocating negatively impacts students when they are forced to change schools; preservation of history in and the ability of neighborhoods to withstand natural disasters as well as what defines the urban and rural divide in Texas; and how school districts are dealing with changing demographics.

Take a look below and catch up on what captured the attention of Urban Edge readers this year.

With conservation districts, Houston could have a new path to preserve neighborhoods

What we wrote: Despite the outcry from some property owners, in 2010 the Houston City Council strengthened its preservation law to help communities retain the character of certain “historic” neighborhoods. In 2023, the council proposed “conservation districts,” which would help “protect their community’s character and address other concerns stemming from redevelopment.” Specifically, it would allow these new districts to regulate minimum lot size; lot width and depth; front, side and rear setbacks; building height; and architectural style.

What’s new: On April 5, the Houston City Council voted to approve an amendment to Chapter 33 of the Code of Ordinances that enables the process of creating conservation districts in six Houston neighborhoods, including Independence Heights, Freedmen’s Town, Acres Homes, Magnolia Park/Manchester, Pleasantville and Piney Point (which includes District F and not Piney Point Village).

After Census redefines urban and rural, Texas remains steadfastly both

What we wrote: The U.S. Census Bureau altered the criteria for what is considered an urban or rural area, resulting in 36 new urban communities across Texas that were previously considered rural. Texas remained the nation’s leader for the largest rural population, but also had the second-highest urban population. Houston was listed as the fifth-most-populous urban area in the U.S. with 5,853,575 residents, a land area of 1,752.69 square miles and a population density of 3,340. It is ranked No. 7 for the most housing units with 2,232,438.

What’s new: A proposed update to the urbanized area boundary established by the Houston-Galveston Area Council stretches the boundaries of the Houston urban area into Walker County for the first time. That area includes Huntsville. Proposed maps for the adjusted urban boundary were due to be submitted to federal officials. The map was produced by H-GAC in conjunction with the Texas Department of Transportation.

Harris County has more FEMA-designated ‘disaster resilience zones’ than anywhere else

What we wrote: In September, FEMA began designating certain communities with high risk and disparate vulnerabilities for natural disasters as “disaster resilience zones,” and Harris County — with 14 — has more than any other county in the United States. This designation is meant to ensure these neighborhoods get priority when it comes to federal funding for resilience and mitigation projects, which is especially important in a region hit with disasters as often as Greater Houston.

What’s new: In November, FEMA announced an additional $1.8 billion to boost climate resiliency for communities across the nation. Counties and municipalities can apply as subapplicants through their states. With the creation of the disaster resiliency zones, this should in theory increase the chances certain areas in Harris County receive more of these funds.

Despite more people in the office, the workplace shift is shaking up all of Houston’s other ‘downtowns’

What we wrote: Office workers were quick to return to their offices, even part time, once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. Earlier this year, Houston office buildings had the highest occupancy rate among 10 major metros across the U.S., setting up the Houston metro to be in better standing than markets such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, which have experienced high-profile office mortgage defaults in recent weeks. The largest submarkets outside the urban core — including The Woodlands, Uptown and the Energy Corridor — also reported better-than-average results as workers returned to their desks.

What’s new: While Houston and fellow Texas cities Austin and Dallas have seen better return-to-work results than other big cities around the country, office space is more abundant following the pandemic. In Houston, more than 22% of office space remained vacant in the third quarter of 2023, compared to just more than 19% in the third quarter of 2019.

Rising flood insurance costs may be another blow to Houston’s affordability

What we wrote: Six years after Hurricane Harvey, Houstonians may be less inclined to buy flood insurance because of cost increases, with prices going up by as much as 75% in Harris County alone. These costs, along with rising costs like homeowners insurance, may further contribute to Houston, long known for its housing affordability, no longer being able to deliver on that promise.

What’s new: The 2023 hurricane season has come and gone with the Houston area getting through mostly unscathed. But issues of housing affordability remain and are among Houstonians’ top priorities for the incoming mayoral administration to address in the coming year. Like other issues in the region, it will require a multipronged approach.

Renting in Harris County is increasingly unaffordable and fraught with other challenges

What we wrote: Homeowners in Harris County and Houston are disproportionately white, meaning that policies and programs that benefit existing homeowners disproportionately benefit white people. White non-Hispanic people are 28% of the county’s population, but represent 42% of owner-occupied households. Meanwhile, when the head of the household is a Black person, two-thirds of those households are renters. Further, policies that could benefit renters would disproportionately benefit households with more moderate incomes. In Harris County, the median renter household income is about $45,000, less than half of the owner household median of $92,087. Fifty-one percent of Harris County rental households are cost-burdened, meaning that they paid more than 30% of their monthly income on rent. When taking into account the rising costs of food, transportation, child care and other non-housing essential costs, 60% of renter households are considered cost-burdened.

What’s new: Rising rents have increasingly affected families, forcing them to move to more affordable homes. An unforeseen aspect of this is that school districts have seen drops in test scores of students who are forced to switch schools, particularly among those who switch during a school year versus those who switch during the summer break.

Public school enrollment is facing a ‘demographic bubble.’ Urban districts are already seeing its effects

What we wrote: Statewide public school enrollment is expected to drop about 2% over the next several years. Urban school districts, such as El Paso, Fort Worth and San Antonio, have already experienced more severe declines, with 12%-13% fewer students since 2017-18. Broadly, these trends are attributed to declining birth rates and immigration, while urban districts are also losing students to charter schools and suburban public schools as parents seek out different options. According to Census estimates, 20% fewer school-age children lived in Houston ISD boundaries in 2021 compared to 2017, equivalent to 62,000 fewer potential students.

What’s new: Preliminary data shows that Houston ISD is continuing to lose students amid the shakeup of the district leadership. The Houston Landing reported that in 2023 — the first year after the state installed a new school board and superintendent — the district experienced its largest one-year drop in enrollment since the COVID-19 pandemic, with 6,000 fewer students. As more data becomes available, particularly at the grade level and campus level, more trends may emerge.

With economic concerns rising, Houstonians want more done to address the gap between rich and poor

What we wrote: Upon the release of the 42nd annual Kinder Houston Area Survey in May, Houstonians had the most pessimistic view of their prospects in nearly three decades. But more than ever before, residents were in agreement that more must be done to address income inequality. With Houstonians enduring a variety of economic woes, a majority of survey respondents were in favor of government interventions to tackle the issue.

What’s new: Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis announced the “Uplift Harris” program in June. Using $20.5 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, the 18-month pilot program will issue payments of $500 to about 1,500 families living under the federal poverty line following the application window in January. In Houston, three-fourths of residents said they supported the idea of a universal basic income for working families.

Fort Bend County found to be among the nation’s most prosperous for immigrants

What we wrote: Fort Bend County ranked as the eighth-most-prosperous county for immigrants in the U.S., according to a report by the George W. Bush Institute. In the analysis, Fort Bend outranked No. 15 Brazoria County and No. 99 Harris County. The report said counties that allow immigrants to thrive included assistance to English learners, easy access to online resources and educational pathways such as transfer degrees and credentials earned in countries of origin.

What’s new: New American Community Survey results show just how well immigrants fare in Fort Bend County, with about 54% of the county’s 280,000 foreign-born residents having a college degree. The county’s immigrant population has a median household income of $118,764, better than the county’s overall median household income of around $105,000. More than half of the immigrants are from Asian countries and fewer than a third are from Latin America. Overall, about 30% of all county residents were born outside the U.S. compared to 14% of the nation’s population.

Highways, flooding and sprawl: How Houston could have a bigger say in the region's future

What we wrote: The Houston-Galveston Area Council coordinates disaster recovery, workforce development, transportation infrastructure and more in the region. Because the voting structure of the council assigns votes by jurisdiction, Houston and Harris County have long been underrepresented despite making up a majority of the population. Community organizers with Fair for Houston pushed for reform with a citywide referendum, Proposition B, which would shake up how H-GAC works — and how it balances the interests of the urban core with those of the suburbs and rural areas.

What’s new: Proposition B passed and will compel the City of Houston to pull out of H-GAC, unless it negotiates for more proportional representation. However, the Houston city attorney has raised concerns that it could be difficult for the city to comply with the referendum. The Houston Landing also reported that changing the membership will require approval from the governor along with the support of 75% of the region’s representatives. Nevertheless, H-GAC Executive Director Chuck Wemple said he was optimistic about H-GAC coming to a decision that satisfies the mandate of the referendum before the January deadline.

Urban Edge staff
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