If you’ve lived in Houston long enough, you’ve learned that this is a resilient place built on a bedrock of optimism.

We’ve survived oil busts. We withstood recessions. We recovered from hurricanes. We confronted chemical plant fires. And, of course, the pandemic.

But somehow we’ve endured and evolved into one of the fastest-growing and dynamic regions of the country. However, this optimism, this belief in a better future that’s fueled Houston’s transformation over the last 40 years, appears to be waning.

The annual Kinder Houston Area Survey, released Monday, shows that anxiety over the economy and rising housing costs are diminishing optimism in the region to some of its lowest levels in nearly three decades. The survey shows that only half of adults polled for the 2023 report said they felt their personal financial situation was going to improve over the next three years. This is the fourth consecutive year this figure has decreased, and it is at its lowest level since 1994.

“We've noticed that they're a bit less optimistic than before,” said Ruth López Turley, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. “Some of it, I think, is related to the fact that most recently inflation increases have been horrible, especially for those struggling to make ends meet.”

The Kinder Institute for Urban Research has released the survey annually for 42 years to measure beliefs and attitude changes of residents in the Houston region. It is the longest-running survey of its kind, asking respondents about topics such as abortion, climate change, housing and the economy. The survey received 1,916 responses between Jan. 10 and Feb. 13, from a group of adults over 18 years of age living in Harris County.

Here are the major findings:

Rising concerns about the economy and housing

Nearly half the respondents viewed the economy or housing expenses as the top challenges facing the Houston region, the survey found.

For the third straight year, more than 20 percent of adults cited the economy as their top concern. Another 20 percent said rising housing costs was the biggest problem facing Houston — a nearly threefold increase since 2022.

Additionally, over 40 percent of the respondents said they could not come up with $400 in an emergency.

“If they can't come up with $400 in an emergency, that's a problem, right?” López Turley said. “And we saw that that number was much higher among Black and Hispanic respondents, compared to white and Asian respondents. So really persistent inequalities in our community.”

According to the survey, in 2021, the median home price in the region was more than almost five times the typical person’s earnings. At the time, median per-capita income had reached almost $65,000 and median home prices exceeded $300,000. Today, the average price of a home in Houston is nearly $420,000, according to Thomas Mouton, chairman-elect for the Houston Association of Realtors.

“Fewer families are finding homeownership within their budget,” said Daniel Potter, senior director of research at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “Half of all renters are spending 30 percent more of their monthly earnings on rent. A quarter are spending half of their earnings on just keeping a roof over their head.”

Spring resident Maria Soto, 19, said the cost of living is frustrating. She planned to move out this year but instead lives with her parents because rent prices are so high. Soto, who still pays reduced rent to her parents, did not participate in the survey but is a Harris County resident with concerns about the economy and high cost of living.

“I have to work two jobs, and it's killing me to a point where my body just feels so tired just so I can afford rent,” Soto said. “I didn't think it should ever be this bad.”

Changing views on immigration

The annual survey found that a growing number of Houstonians have become more accepting of immigrants in the area. Nearly one in four Houstonians are foreign-born, and nearly 1.6 million immigrants live in the region, according to the survey.

“So these questions about attitudes toward immigrants, we've been asking those for many years, and what we've noticed is that, instead of being threatened by this growing population, we've embraced it,” López Turley said.

In 1994, only 42 percent of Houstonians believed that immigrants contributed more to the economy than they took out. This year, the survey found that 71 percent of respondents supported that view.

“I feel like a lot of things have happened, especially since 1994, that have brought our communities together, like in Texas and Houston overall, you know?” said Norma Gonzalez, Texas lead organizer for United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led network in the country. “Our communities know what it's like to have to help each other in times of need, whether we're going through a financial disaster or we're going through a natural disaster.”

Additionally, the survey found that about 70 percent of respondents support the view that immigrants strengthen American culture rather than threaten it.

“We're starting to realize that we are all not only connected with each other but responsible for each other,” Gonzalez said.

More than 80 percent of survey respondents supported policies that would provide pathways to legal citizenship. Over 90 percent of young adults in the region voiced their support.

Different stances on abortion

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year and ruled abortion was not a constitutional right, the survey found Houstonians still broadly support abortion if the mother’s life is in danger or there’s a strong chance of a birth defect.

Asked if abortion should be available for any reason, respondents have remained consistent over the years. In 1988, about 56 percent of Houstonians supported a right to an abortion for any reason; this year, it was 59 percent.

This year, the research institute changed an option for answers on abortion, removing “it depends” as an answer for whether abortion is morally wrong or morally acceptable.

In 2023, 48 percent of respondents believed that abortion was morally wrong, while 52 percent believed it was morally acceptable.

“We did make an adjustment to the way that question is asked, because we wanted to sort of force people to make a decision. Because they used to have sort of an in-between kind of option,” López Turley said.

In general, she said more people in the Houston region think that it's important to give women the right to an abortion, if that's what they think is best.

“I think you're seeing this awareness and acknowledgement that we don't have to like it. We don't even have to want it. But there is an understanding that it should nonetheless still be available,” Potter said.

Universal background checks on all gun sales

This was the first year the survey included questions surrounding gun control. The questions were added because of recent mass shootings in the state such as Uvalde, where 19 children and two adults were killed at Robb Elementary School nearly a year ago.

“Texas has this reputation when it comes to guns, gun ownership, and gun control, and all of that. And I think it's very important to gauge where Houston is at,” López Turley said.

While a majority of Houstonians believed it was “somewhat important” or “very important” to preserve the Second Amendment, most wanted tighter controls on gun ownership, the survey found.

Ninety-three percent of respondents favored background checks of all guns no matter where they were purchased, according to the survey. Additionally, over 80 percent of respondents supported federal laws mandating handguns to be registered.

Potter said Houstonians respect gun ownership, but they understand that appreciation carries responsibility.

“People's views are complicated,” said Richard Murray, a senior research associate at the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. “They're not totally at one extreme or the other. We have a long tradition in Texas of gun ownership, hunting, recreation, self-defense.”

A shutdown business in Houston
A closed business less than a quarter mile from LyondellBasell Houston on Lawndale Street, April 5, in Houston. There aren't many open businesses on Lawndale Street and this is the closest building to LyondellBassel. (Joe Robles IV for Houston Landing)

Growing concerns about environmental issues 

The survey also asked respondents their thoughts on environmental issues, including if they believed the government spent too little, too much or about the right amount to address them and if climate change was a serious problem.

“The environment and climate change are problems that an increasing number of Houstonians would like to see addressed to help the region become more resilient to the extreme weather events that are all too common for the Houston area,” the survey report concluded.

The responses have varied depending on the weather events that occurred in the previous years, according to the survey.

In the first year the question was asked in 1982, most respondents believed that either too much or about the right amount of money was being spent. In the 1980s, the region endured heavy rainfall and freezes, and nearly 70 percent of respondents believed too little was spent by 1990. That figure settled to 50 to 60 percent from the late 1990s to 2010.

Since then, concerns about the environment have increased every year. In 2023, about 78 percent of young adults, those 18 to 29 years old, who responded to the survey believed too little was being spent, while 58 percent of older adults and 66 percent middle-aged adults said too little was being spent.

This year, nearly 60 percent of respondents believed climate change was a “very” serious problem, while 13 percent said they did not believe it was an issue — an all-time low.

Looking forward

The economy in Houston and how to improve it is important to voters and will be a big topic in the mayoral election in November, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“In a Democratic-leaning city, there will be concerns or questions about how to make the economy better for everybody,” he said. “That will be a point that a lot of people have to confront, and so how one does that and how the candidates do that will be telling.”

Additionally, Potter said Houston needs to determine what kind of city it wants to be.

“For the past year, a lot of people were watching their paychecks have less and less buying power,” Potter said. If buying a home will cost more than $300,000, Houston needs to create an economy focused on higher-paying tech jobs throughout the region and not only around pockets of Houston, he said.

“Houston is not New York City, San Francisco, and I'm sure some people would say, ‘Thank God,’” Potter said. “But Houston needs to grapple with, ‘Who is it?’”

Rottinghaus said the future of the economy will likely be a dual economy, where some people are doing well and others are not.

“There are bright spots in the economy. It just doesn't really affect everybody the same. So that's part of the challenge of a dynamic, dynamic economy like Houston,” Rottinghaus said.

The Kinder Foundation, which supports the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, is also a financial supporter of the Houston Landing. It had no influence on decisions related to the reporting and publishing of this article. The Landing’s ethics policy and list of financial supporters are available online.

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Angelica Perez is a civic engagement reporter for the Houston Landing. A Houston native, she is excited to return to the city after interning at The Dallas Morning News as a breaking news intern in the...