Brigette Nays has asthma, bad enough that an attack can feel like having a plastic bag over her head. Because of that, she sometimes avoids going outside, worried a flare-up could be just around the corner.
Houston’s air pollution, which is some of the worst in Texas and the nation, is a top concern for Nays when it comes to the upcoming mayoral election.
She is not alone.
One third of Houstonians said outdoor air quality is a top environmental concern and about 40 percent are worried about nearby pollution, according to a new survey by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
The survey was conducted in partnership with Houston Landing and was made possible with financial support from the Houston Endowment. More than 2,000 respondents, regardless of voter status, completed the survey between April and June 2023. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.25 percent.
Among the findings, more than 70 percent of Houston residents reported being “concerned” or “very concerned” about extreme weather and climate change and its environmental impacts.
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.
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.
TODAY: Environment — More than 70 percent of Houstonians worry about climate change and extreme weather.
Concern about extreme weather did not differ by race, ethnicity, education level, age or neighborhood.
Concern about climate change, however, varied by race and ethnicity: 80 percent of Hispanic respondents reported being “concerned” or “very concerned” with climate change. That dropped to 71 percent among Asian and Black residents, and 67 percent of white Houstonians.
Those with the highest concern about climate change live in the Northshore, Settegast and East Little York region.
The percentage of residents saying they were concerned or very concerned about climate change and its environmental impacts was lower in other neighborhoods, but the percentage did not drop below 60.
With its massive oil refinery sector, petrochemical plants, hurricanes, air pollution and high temperatures, Houston is a city with more than a few environmental issues. For decades, worries about environmental challenges have grown more serious for residents as the impact of human-caused climate change leaves its mark on the Gulf Coast.
“We need to control our emissions,” said Nays, who lives in southwest Houston. “We need to hold these companies accountable to our air and our environment. I want a mayor who does that.”
According to the survey, nearly three-quarters of Houstonians said it is very important for the next mayor to improve the city’s infrastructure, including drainage, and 60 percent of Houstonians said flooding is one of the top three environmental issues facing their neighborhoods. The other two were heat, at 48 percent, and pests, named by 38 percent of respondents.
Most of the leading mayoral candidates, however, are not campaigning on environmental issues this year. For the two front-runners, John Whitmire and Sheila Jackson Lee, the focus is crime and public safety. And while both have made a point to emphasize infrastructure, environmental issues such as air quality and pollution largely have been relegated to the sidelines.
Among the other candidates, City Council member Robert Gallegos is an advocate for expanding green spaces in Houston; former METRO chairman Gilbert Garcia and attorney Lee Kaplan are looking to clean up Houston streets, including cracking down on illegal dumping and picking up trash; former City Council member MJ Khan, also mentions storm and climate preparedness.
So far, none of the candidates have stood out to Nays.
“It’s not that people and candidates aren’t interested in environmental issues, it’s just that there may be a bit more interest in other things,” said Daniel Potter, senior director of research at the Kinder Institute of Urban Research. “But it is still a very large, commonly held concern in the Houston community.”
Houston is one of the most polluted cities in the United States with the worst air quality in the state of Texas. This year alone, the Houston metropolitan area has had 35 high ozone days as of last Thursday, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and persistently has exceeded the national standards for ozone air quality.
Ozone pollution, a smog-like substance produced by the mixture of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, causes unhealthy air quality. Those pollutants come from cars, power plants, refineries and chemical plants.
Houston is home to 618 chemical manufacturing plants and has 44 percent of the nation’s petrochemical capacity. The city also is regularly threatened by tropical storms, with Hurricane Harvey damaging more than 150,000 homes in Harris County in 2017.
Flooding, heat, pests
Candidates may think running a campaign on the environment and climate change is not a winning strategy, Potter said. At least, not right now. After Harvey, residents were more concerned about storms than before, according to earlier Kinder surveys.
“These next two months are prime hurricane season in Houston,” Potter said. “We’ve had this streak of luck in Houston, but it will inevitably end. The drought we have now could be replaced with torrential downpour, and suddenly what residents want from the new mayor could change just as quickly.”
Houstonians’ environmental concerns varied by age, location and race. Those living in areas with more industry, such as concrete batch plants or chemical plants, were more concerned about nearby pollution than residents in other parts of the city.
The Union Pacific Railroad runs through Greater Fifth Ward, Greater Third Ward and Magnolia Park. All three are located near the Houston Ship Channel, which has numerous petrochemical plants. Forty-five percent of residents in those neighborhoods cited nearby pollution as a concern.
Pablo Moreno, Jr, a 30-year-old respondent living in Denver Harbor near the Ship Channel, said he would like to see more green space in the area, with fewer buildings and concrete. He said he knows air pollution is a major issue, but he is more concerned with inflation and the economy.
“I’d like to see us undo the damage we’ve done to the environment in Houston,” he said. “But it’s not the first thing I think of when I think of this election.”
Black, Asian and Hispanic residents overwhelmingly said flooding, heat and pests were their top environmental concerns in Houston. White respondents also selected flooding and heat, but replaced pests with outdoor air quality.
Forty-six percent of white survey respondents said outdoor air quality was a top environmental concern facing their neighborhood. About half of Hispanic and Black residents chose air quality.
Older adults were more concerned about outdoor air quality, as were 44 percent of residents with a college degree compared to 24 percent of residents with up to a high school diploma.
Jen Allison, a 53-year-old survey respondent from Greater Third Ward, said when it comes to climate change and pollution, the issues seem too big for Houston or any mayor to tackle alone, so she chooses to focus on infrastructure, such as fixing the sidewalks.
“In a perfect world, I’d want to make Houston more resilient to global warming, but I’m not sure the mayor could even make that much difference,” Allison said. “In Houston, it’s just politics and big money and a lot of talk. I’ve lived here my whole life, it’s always the same thing.”
The state and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have a lot of say in environmental regulations in Houston. Local government has some power, such as with city ordinances, but major changes often come from the top down. Even so, Mayor Sylvester Turner has put effort into making Houston more resilient, such as the adoption of the Houston Climate Action Plan and Resilient Houston, and the start of Houston Complete Communities.
In spite of a new state law preempting local government regulations and ordinances, elected officials and candidates should not leave the environment out of the conversation, said Leticia Gutierrez, government relations and community outreach director for Air Alliance Houston.
“If you’re running for this type of position, even with obstacles, you still carry a lot of influence and some power,” Gutierrez said. “These are serious issues in the environment, which shouldn’t be ignored.”
A Travis County state district judge declared the preemption law unconstitutional last month, but the state has appealed.
It can be tricky for residents to measure whether the city is making any progress on pollution, said Potter from the Kinder Institute. Some of it is out of the city’s control, such as pollution literally wafting in from other cities, states or countries, and it is less apparent than a broken sidewalk or gunshots at night.
Other issues take precedence for some residents, Potter said. If someone’s apartment is infested with rats or bugs, they may be less concerned with air quality at the moment, or because it is so hot outside, they may be thinking about heat much more than they are thinking about nearby pollution.
DeShawn Ward, a 36-year-old survey respondent from southwest Houston, said he mostly has been concerned about education and the heat lately.
“This summer has been hard,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ever been this hot before and that’s something.”
People who cited nearby pollution as a concern also may have lumped air quality in with it. Nearby pollution could mean water, soil and air quality, depending on the issue.
Either way, Gutierrez sees the survey results as real concern from the community.
“In the past decade, people have been caring more and more, which these (survey) numbers sort of highlight,” she said. “Residents want to get stuff done.”