Houston looks to boost Census self-response rates in Montrose as part of citywide effort

A mural by Sebastien MrD1987 Boileau is promoting Census participation in the Montrose area. (Courtesy City of Houston)
A mural by Sebastien MrD1987 Boileau is promoting Census participation in the Montrose area. (Courtesy City of Houston)

A mural by Sebastien MrD1987 Boileau is promoting Census participation in the Montrose area. (Courtesy City of Houston)

If only 1% of the Houston population is undercounted in this year’s census, the city stands to lose as much as $250 million in federal support over the next 10 years, according to estimates by local officials.

One area where an undercount could occur is in Montrose, where renters account for 66% of residents, compared to 45% of the city as a whole, according to census estimates. Moreover, 29% of residents have moved in the past five years, compared to 17% of the rest of the city. It has been flagged as one of five “hard to count” areas of the city.

“Renters across the board typically respond at lower rates than homeowners. It’s that transitory nature of being a renter, there’s often less of a tie to a community,” Houston Director of Planning Margaret Wallace Brown said.

In addition to being home to younger residents and renters, the area is known for its support services for the LGBT community, the homeless and other populations.

“There has been a lot of work since 2010 to increase LGBT representation in the census, and we did make progress, and it looked like new questions were going to be added, but that did not make it,” said Marcus Hook, a community projects specialist for the Montrose Center, referring to an effort to include sexual orientation and gender identity questions that was cut short in 2017.

The U.S. Census Bureau did adjust its question options around opposite- and same-sex couples, he said.

Having less representation on the census form itself is one factor that can be discouraging to some populations, resulting in lower response rates.

Having higher self-response rates is preferred because it results in more accurate counts, Brown said. Those who do not fill out the form should still be counted by census enumerators, who conduct in-person interviews to gather the data.

In 2010, about 63.5% of Houstonians self-responded. As of April 30, about 46% had responded to the 2020 census. View the latest response rates in Houston here.

“I would hate to say anything less than 100% is our goal. ... But if we could beat 70%, I’d be happy,” Brown said.

Being responsive

The U.S. census collection effort began in mid-March, with forms being sent to every housing unit across the county. The response rate is calculated based on how many forms are returned or submitted online for each home or apartment unit. The form asks for the name, age, gender, ethnicity and race of each occupant.

By late May, unresponsive housing units will begin to receive more direct outreach from census takers dispatched throughout the community, though that timeline could change based on the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Until then, local efforts remain focused on getting the word out that everyone needs to be counted. The final date to submit a response was pushed to Oct. 31 from July 31.

“Things have changed with the coronavirus, but our strategy hasn’t changed as much as our tactics have changed,” said Nabila Mansoor, who co-chairs the Harris County/Houston Complete Count Committee, a collaborative effort of city and county officials, community leaders and nonprofits.

Instead of doing in-person outreach activities such as canvassing, Mansoor said the emphasis has shifted to digital channels, but the campaign is also making the most of its community-based relationships.

“All of our partners have been spending a long time trying to figure out how we make that really big push to our particular communities to respond to the census,” she said.

David McClendon, a data scientist with January Advisors, a firm that is consulting with the city’s outreach campaign, said the team is able to track response rates daily and adapt to local conditions amid the outbreak.

“We’re actively identifying those places, like food bank sites, where people are still coming out,” he said. “We’re reallocating resources and messaging where those locations are and where they overlap with the lowest self-response scores so far.”

The 2020 census is also the first time residents can participate online, which Mansoor said makes her optimistic the effect of the coronavirus will not be as pronounced.

What is at stake

As results are tallied and formally reported by the end of this year, the numbers will trigger a recalculation of how future federal dollars are allocated for the next decade, though some may hesitate to share what they believe to be private information.

“A lot of folks just think it’s not important to answer it ... but it is incredibly important. And it’s important to know the answers you provide are protected by law; they cannot be shared with anyone else, they are safe and confidential,” Brown said.

That protection extends to other government agencies. As a planner and government official, Brown said she uses census data daily and knows there are many questions the data cannot answer because the full dataset, including individual housing unit breakdowns, is not provided.

For nonprofits such as the Montrose Center, census data can help justify grants and programming decisions and more broadly give a voice to underrepresented groups.

“It allows us to see the structure and shape of our communities and direct the outlook of what happens to our nation,” Hooks said.

Census data is used in calculations to determine the amount of federal assistance cities and counties receive from programs, such as the Medical Assistance Program and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. For each person counted, the federal government will allocate as much as $1,500 to the state of Texas each year, according to estimates.

“For those programs ... we’re paying it in taxes already, but may not see the full benefit as a state and locally if we’re undercounted,” McClendon said.

A vast array of government programs and projects draw on insights from the official count, including how road construction projects are prioritized and funded, how foster family programs are supported and how school lunch programs are offered, Brown said. City services, from libraries to fire stations, also look to population counts to determine areas of need.

“Even businesses use it daily to decide what products to sell and where to put their next store, to relocate or to invest in an area,” she said.

The data is also used to determine how many congressional representatives each state has and how their districts are drawn. The boundaries could also shift for city and county offices as well, affecting elections for the next decade.

“There’s very little that isn’t affected by census numbers,” she said.

Shawn Arrajj contributed to this report.
By Matt Dulin
Matt joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2018 and is the City Editor for Houston's Inner Loop editions.


Rothko Chapel
After extensive renovation, Rothko Chapel set to welcome visitors again

Admission to the Rothko Chapel is free, but tickets will be required, and visits will be limited to 30 minutes.

Dr. Sam Rolon is a physician for Baylor St. Luke's Medical Group Creekside Family Medicine in The Woodlands. (Courtesy St. Luke's Health)
Q&A: St. Luke's physician shares advice on flu season, vaccine and prevention

The influenza vaccine is recommended for nearly all patients of all ages ahead of this year's flu season, Dr. Sam Rolon said.

student in mask
TEA launches statewide COVID-19 dashboard for public schools

The Texas Education Agency, in collaboration with the Texas Department of State Health Services, has launched its latest COVID-19 dashboard for positive cases in Texas public schools.

Motorists can expect some delays on I-69 Southwest Freeway at I-610 West Loop from Sept. 18-21. (Courtesy TxDOT)
TxDOT: Weekend closure on I-69 Southwest Freeway at I-610 West Loop

Motorists can expect some delays on I-69 Southwest Freeway at I-610 West Loop from Sept. 18-21.

Francesca’s boutique clothing store is exploring “strategic initiatives” after the company announced 2020 second quarter net sales losses. (Hunter Marrow/Community Impact Newspaper)
Bankruptcy a possibility as Francesca’s boutique chain explores ‘strategic initiatives’

Francesca’s boutique clothing store is exploring “strategic initiatives” after the company announced 2020 second quarter net sales losses.

Houston Police Department is joining Harris County's cite-and-release program. (Courtesy HTV)
Houston Police Department to join Harris County cite-and-release program

Houston Police Department is joining Harris County's cite-and-release program.

The Houston Food Bank is looking for more volunteers as it handles increased food distribution during COVID-19. (Courtesy Houston Food Bank)
Houston Food Bank: COVID-19 pandemic amplifies already-high food insecurity rates across region

Before COVID-19, the Houston Food Bank distributed about 400,000 pounds of food daily. That number has since increased to about 1 million pounds a day.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Sept. 17 that data from Texas' 22 hospital regions will dictate when certain businesses can reopen at 75% capacity. (Screenshot of Sept. 17 press conference)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott: Retail stores, restaurants, office buildings, gyms can reopen at 75% capacity as early as Sept. 21

Nursing home and long-term care facilities will also be allowed to reopen for visitation as early as Sept. 24.

Vehicles drive alongside the Tomball Tollway in Harris County. (Anna Lotz/Community Impact Newspaper)
Newly formed corporation could divert Harris County toll road revenue to non-mobility projects

A new limited government corporation formed by Harris County Sept. 15 could result in surplus revenue from the Harris County Toll Road Authority going to other county needs outside of the realm of transportation and mobility.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has announced a public awareness and cleanup campaign to target PPE litter. (Courtesy HTV)
Houston coronavirus updates: City starts plan to target PPE litter

Mayor Sylvester Turner has announced a public awareness and cleanup campaign to target PPE litter.

(Courtesy Curry Masala)
Curry Masala opens in The Woodlands and more Houston-area news

Read the latest business and community news from Greater Houston.

One in five children and adults have a learning disability, according to statistics from the National Center for Learning Disabilities. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Q&A: National Center for Learning Disabilities expert discusses challenges of special education, remote learning during pandemic

The NCLD's director of policy and advocacy spoke about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on special education students and their development in and out of the classroom.