Craig Thomas said his friends, his family and his Fifth Ward-area neighbors are struggling to pay their bills, and it’s getting harder by the day.
The 75-year-old renter is single and has no children, but high inflation and housing costs are eating into the savings he has built throughout his life, he said. Most of the people around him are far worse off, he added, calling the impact “devastating” to his community.
“I find it appalling that inflation has risen so fast and realizing the burden it has placed on people who are less than affluent,” Thomas said. “I know the struggles that people in low income are facing. I deal with them everyday.”
More than half of the residents from the Greater Fifth Ward who responded to a new survey about Houstonians’ priorities heading into November’s mayoral election said they “often” or “almost always” worry about paying their bills on time.
Thomas, a survey respondent, and his neighbors are far from alone — large percentages of Houston residents worry they will not be able to pay their bills or their rent and say the city’s next mayor must prioritize policies that make housing more affordable, according to the survey.
TUESDAY: The Houston Landing in partnership with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research launches a series of stories examining priorities of residents for the next mayor.
WEDNESDAY: Crime — 81 percent of Houston residents said it was very important for the next mayor to reduce crime.
TODAY: Economy — Almost 40 percent of Houstonians worried about paying for housing.
FRIDAY: Infrastructure — The majority of residents want the city to improve drainage, roads and water supply.
MONDAY: Environment — More than 70 percent of Houstonians worry about climate change and extreme weather.
The Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research survey found affordable housing was on par with the need to improve city infrastructure and only trailed crime as a priority for the next mayor.
The survey, released Tuesday, was conducted in partnership with Houston Landing and was made possible with financial support from the Houston Endowment.
Nearly three-quarters of the more than 2,000 residents surveyed from April to June said affordable housing should be a priority for the next mayor. The survey found financial anxiety across Houston, particularly in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods and among minority communities. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 2.25 percent.
As the Nov. 6 municipal elections approach, inflation, rising interest rates and a housing market unable to meet the demands of the city’s population are contributing to pessimism about Houston’s economy, experts said.
The results from the survey show serious concerns over the health of the Houston economy have lingered since the Kinder Institute’s Houston Area Survey published in May, said Daniel Potter, senior executive of research at the institute.
“Looking at this data, looking at the worries, it feels like a continuation of that and feels like an indictment of the Houston economy, to some extent,” Potter said.
Nearly half of all Houston residents surveyed said they “often” or “almost always” worried they will not be able to keep up with their bills. Almost 40 percent reported they were often or almost always worried about making their monthly mortgage or rent payment, according to the survey report.
The level of Houstonians’ concerns about making ends meet was reflected in one’s home ownership status: 58 percent of renters said they were often or almost always worried about paying their bills, compared to a third of those who owned their homes.
Residents’ concerns over paying the bills may be tied to a lack of well-paying jobs, particularly for minorities.
Nearly 80 percent of Asian, Black and Hispanic Houstonians surveyed said they are concerned or very concerned with the availability of well-paying jobs; among white residents, the concern was lower but still significant at nearly 60 percent.
For much of the past two years, inflation has outpaced wage growth in the Houston area, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Houston area Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers, or the area’s inflation rate, has been well above the rate of wage growth since early 2021, finally dropping below it in March of this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“My paycheck is not going as far as it used to, especially with inflation,” said Marisol Mendez, a 42-year-old Magnolia Park resident. “There’s this phenomenon of things costing more but you’re getting less.”
As a homeowner and holder of a master’s degree, Mendez is better positioned than many to weather financial headwinds. The high rate of inflation seen around the nation since the end of COVID-19 lockdowns has left Mendez’s savings on unstable footing and her one unexpected medical bill away from being unable to cover her regular bills.
“I feel comfortable right now, but there’s always a sense of anxiety in the background because I don’t feel like I’m making as much money or I’m not keeping as much of it as I used to,” Mendez said.
The strength of Houston’s economy since the pandemic has been the consumer, making up close to 80 percent of spending locally, said Bill Gilmer, director of the University of Houston Bauer College Institute for Regional Forecasting. Stimulus checks sent to Americans during the early days of the pandemic have propped up the consumer economy for years, but that money finally may be running dry, Gilmer said.
“We’re just now beginning to see some signs of anxiety about that,” Gilmer said. “We may be running out of savings.”
The impact of inflation and efforts to combat inflation are not falling equally across different areas of Houston.
Residents living in neighborhoods with a lower median income reported concerns about paying their bills at more than double the rate of some affluent regions.
A whopping 60 percent of residents in the Humble and Kingwood region and 54 percent of residents in the Greater Third Ward, Magnolia Park and Greater Fifth Ward region said they often or almost always worry about being able to pay their bills, according to the survey. Only 27 percent of respondents in the Heights, River Oaks and Washington Avenue region indicated they were often or almost always worried.
Thomas said he has enough savings to live comfortably, but the high cost of goods has robbed him of his passion for traveling and added stress around medical bills because he does not think he can risk making a large expense from his savings account.
More Black and Hispanic residents reported being worried about paying their bills often or almost always – 57 percent and 49 percent respectively – than Asian and white residents, 35 percent of whom felt the same way. A similar divide was seen between residents who hold at least a bachelor’s degree, 28 percent, compared to those who hold up to a high school diploma, 55 percent.
High credit card interest rates and lingering inflation that make critical expenses more costly are impacting the lowest income residents the hardest, Gilmer said.
“It doesn’t surprise me the lower-(income) consumer is the first to show that sign of stress,” Gilmer said.
While they are better insulated, residents with higher education levels were not immune to the impacts of an unsteady economy.
More than a quarter of Houston residents who hold at least a bachelor’s degree reported being often or almost always worried about paying their bills, according to the survey.
Houston long has enjoyed lower housing prices and rents than most big cities in the country, but the city has been moving toward a level that would be considered average in the years since the end of COVID-19 lockdowns, Potter said.
“I think there was a narrative at one time that a college degree was a guarantor of a middle class life,” Potter said. “As the job market continues to grow and expand, additional people enter into higher education, it doesn’t quite give you that leg up it might have previously.”
Residents’ stress with their finances also translated to fears over evictions and foreclosures: 40 percent of respondents said they often or almost always worry about making the payment that keeps a roof over their heads.
Evictions essentially halted during the early days of the pandemic in 2020 when court proceedings were suspended. That ended in May 2020, and the rate of evictions steadily has increased since then, surpassing the pre-pandemic average for the first time in January 2022, according to the Eviction Lab, a nonprofit that tracks evictions across the United States.
This year, an average of about 7,000 renter households have been evicted each month, and every month has been well above the pre-pandemic average, according to the Eviction Lab.
The next mayor will face pressure from Houstonians to take action, but there is not a lot they will be able to directly influence, Gilmer said. High housing costs, high inflation and high interest rates are impacting the city and the rest of the country, and it will require a stabilization of the economy and federal action to return them to normal, Gilmer added.
As an undecided voter, Mendez said she does not plan to vote on a candidate based on their campaign’s economic message, despite her concerns.
“The economy is going to be important, and I know the right-leaning candidates are probably more focused on business and less regulation, but at the end of the day human rights is going to be more important,” Mendez said. “The left-leaning candidates are normally more about that.”