Houstonians want their next mayor to take action on crime, the rising cost of housing and the city’s ragged roads and drainage, according to a first-of-its-kind survey of more than 2,000 residents conducted in four languages by Rice University in partnership with the Houston Landing. 

The survey, from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, sets the table for the 17-candidate scramble this fall to decide who will replace departing Mayor Sylvester Turner.


TODAY: 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.

THURSDAY: 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.

His successor could reshape city policy at a time of high expectations and tight budgets.

Unlike some surveys, this one drilled deep to uncover the geographic and demographic context that made certain issues rise to the top.

Crime frustrated nearly all Houstonians regardless of their background, with only 6 percent of respondents reporting that they never felt unsafe. Eight in 10 residents said the next mayor should do something about crime, though they were of mixed minds about whether to extend help or handcuffs.

Muggings and juggings were not the only things keeping Houston up at night. Cheap housing once was one of Houston’s selling points, but 40 percent of survey respondents said they often worry about making their monthly rent or mortgage payments. Concerns about gentrification were highly concentrated in certain neighborhoods.

Nearly three-quarters of all Houstonians said the next mayor should wield the powers of office to address housing costs. Yet, there was a notable gap between renters and homeowners, and between Black and Hispanic residents compared to those who identified as white and Asian.

Houstonians have plenty more marching orders for the next mayor. About three-quarters of residents want the next mayor to make infrastructure a priority – but some neighborhoods had deep concerns around specific issues, such as green space in Settegast or flooding in Brays Oaks.

“What you have is a population with need in some very fundamental places,” Daniel Potter, senior director of research at the Kinder Institute, said. “You’ve got a city that isn’t necessarily boiling over with pessimism or rage, or resentment, but is more or less looking at doing better.”

Guided by the idea that the next mayor should serve all Houstonians, the survey reached a broad range of residents. The survey did not distinguish by voting or citizenship status.

Houston Landing Editor-in-Chief Mizanur Rahman approached the Kinder Institute in December with the idea of conducting a mayoral election survey that reflected priorities of all city residents. “We didn’t want to just hear from people who are likely to vote or registered to vote,” Rahman said. “We also don’t care about who people are going to vote for, so we didn’t want to just do a poll. The next mayor of Houston will have a profound impact on the future of a great city with a lot of critical needs. With that in mind we wanted to elevate the voices of all Houstonians.”

Questionnaires were made available in English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese.

The survey was made possible with financial support from the Houston Endowment.

More than 2,000 people responded between April and June to questionnaires sent to a sampling of city addresses, and their responses were weighted to reflect the city’s deep diversity. The sample was large enough to provide breakdowns by 11 large geographic regions.

The margin of error is 2.25 percent.

The Kinder Institute also conducts an annual survey of residents in Harris County, the most recent of which documented declining optimism. This survey was distinct, however, in focusing on people who reside inside Houston city limits in Harris, Montgomery and Fort Bend counties.

The survey results, therefore, reflect a Houston that is much more diverse than the electorate, which typically is older, whiter and more likely to own a home.

The next mayor for the city’s 2.3 million residents will be selected in a Nov. 7 election and potential December runoff.

Turner, the sitting mayor, drew mixed-to-positive reviews.

Fifty-one percent of Houstonians said his performance had been excellent or good, while another 35 percent said it was average.

Forty percent of survey respondents said city government as a whole was good or excellent, and another 41 percent called it middling.

If Houstonians give City Hall mixed grades, that may be because they have plenty on their mind.

Take Eric Baik, a Kinder survey respondent who moved to Houston to attend Rice University in 2017. Last month, someone broke into his apartment near the Texas Medical Center and “ransacked” the place. A few months before that, someone stole his bike.

Baik, a designer, said he plans to move to another neighborhood when his lease is up. He’s not sure where, except “definitely away from downtown, because I feel like it’s not safe anymore.”

Crime concerns were shared across demographic groups, with Black survey respondents the most likely to say it was a very important issue for the next mayor, at 90 percent. Houstonians over 55 were the most likely age group to rate the issue as very important, at 87 percent.

A northeast Houston resident who responded to the survey, 71-year-old Gladys Howe, said she encounters a steady stream of package and vehicle thefts on her Nextdoor feed, many captured on doorbell video cameras.

“I’m just kind of really concerned about the crime, because it’s affecting and hitting a lot of different people,” Howe said. “I have an elderly mom, and she likes to go out. I tell my mom, ‘let me do that.’ She won't listen.”

The widespread concerns come despite Houston Police Department stats showing a steady drop in crime reports over the past year. They could play to the advantage of mayoral candidates, such as state Sen. John Whitmire, who is making crime reduction a centerpiece of his campaign.

For Baik, crime bleeds into his concern about costlier housing, which he believes may be pushing some residents into a life of crime. Baik said for young people and renters like himself, it increasingly is difficult to find affordable housing.

The numbers bear that out. Some 40 percent of adults under 30 reported they “often” or “almost always” worried about being able to pay for housing, compared to 26 percent of older adults, according to the survey. Fifty-one percent of renters worried often or always about being able to pay compared to 22 percent of homeowners.

“When I initially moved I was like, ‘Oh, it’s pretty cheap in Houston,’ because I moved from California,” Baik said. “But now it’s like, things are not as cheap anymore, and it’s just getting more challenging.”

The oft-discussed topic of gentrification is a personal concern for Houstonians in some neighborhoods more than others.

“A lot of people who are not homeowners who have lived in historical Third Ward are basically just going to be pushed out. That absolutely is a concern of mine,” said Patricia Wycliff, a retired survey respondent who lives near the University of Houston.

She is not the only one in her neighborhood with that concern.

Twee's Corner Food Mart in Houston's Third Ward, a neighborhood that is a food desert for many local residents.
A high number of residents in Houston's Third Ward neighborhood expressed concerns about development making their neighborhoods more expensive to live. (Marie D. De Jesús file photo / Houston Landing)

According to the survey, more than 60 percent of respondents in Greater Third Ward, Magnolia Park and Greater Fifth Ward said they often or almost always worry that development is making their neighborhoods more expensive – compared to 22 percent of respondents in the Uptown and Memorial areas.

While about three-quarters of Houstonians said they want the next mayor to make housing more affordable, there were sharp divides among different groups. Only 55 percent of Asian and 56 percent of white respondents ranked housing policies as very important, compared to 80 percent of Hispanic and 89 percent of Black respondents.

People who had trouble making their own payments were much more likely to put housing on the City Hall agenda.

When it came to infrastructure, another top-rated agenda item for the next mayor, there also were splits along neighborhood lines.

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    Eighty percent or more of respondents from Greater Third Ward, Magnolia Park, Greater Fifth Ward, Meyerland, Brays Oaks, the Heights, River Oaks and Washington Avenue ranked improving physical infrastructure as “very important,” compared to support in the low 60s from far west and northwest Houston or Spring Branch, Fairbanks and Greater Inwood areas.

    Across the broad swath of the city where support for improving infrastructure was rock-solid, Potter suspected different motivations.

    In areas such as Third Ward, he said, “the calls for improved infrastructure there (are) really about modernizing an infrastructure that almost in some ways was never put in place.”

    Whereas in Meyerland and Brays Oaks, “That is one of those spaces that is severely flooded with Hurricane Harvey …  I think it’s an area that still has that lingering trauma.”

    Children playing and reading in a library.
    More than 50 percent of survey respondents said they want the next mayor of Houston to protect programs for children and seniors. (Joseph Bui file photo for Houston Landing)

    Along with crime, housing and infrastructure, the survey found numerous issues that Houstonians want their next mayor to tackle. More than half of residents said they want the next mayor to protect programs for children and seniors, keep taxes down, fund mental health services, reduce the gap between rich and poor, create more jobs or expand public transportation.

    “I think there’s an attitude of ‘we can do better,’” Potter said. “There’s an acknowledgement of things mostly working, but they could be working better.”

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    Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Houston Landing. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...