May 22--Houston gained more residents last year than any American city except New York, but growth in the rest of Harris County continued to outpace that of its largest city, according to census data released Thursday.
While Houston's growth was healthy, its population expanded at a slower pace in the past three years than those of Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin. The figures suggest that Houston continues to face challenges in its long effort to capture a greater share of regional growth.
Major Texas cities and their suburbs continued to enjoy robust growth. The state boasted seven of the 15 fastest-growing U.S. cities -- including the booming Houston suburb of Pearland, whose population exceeded 100,000.
Experts said the Texas growth was fueled by employment gains in vibrant industries, especially in the energy, medical and technological sectors, and by a moderate cost of living and relatively low taxes.
Houston gained about 35,000 residents in the year ending July 1, 2013, second only to New York, boosting its total population to almost 2.2 million.
Yet the census figures show that people are still flocking to the suburbs and unincorporated areas of Harris County faster than they're moving into the city. Houston's population grew by 4.4 percent over the past three years, while that in the rest of Harris County increased by 6.7 percent.
"It's normal to see that outward push with the amount of development we're seeing," said Steve Murdock, a onetime state demographer and former Census Bureau director who now leads the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University. The faster growth in the county doesn't mean Houston is less attractive, he said.
Growth trend changing
Nationwide, people historically have moved to outlying areas where it's easier and cheaper to build and where home buyers can get more for less, Murdock said. That trend has begun to slow down or reverse, he said, only because some cities, such as San Francisco and New York, are physically prevented from expanding outward by geographical impediments.
Houston and Texas, on the other hand, are among the least dense places in the country, he said, even though the state has boasted the country's fastest growth rate every year since joining the union.
For decades, Houston has attempted to capture a greater portion of regional population growth and development to add to its tax base.
For much of the 20th century it aggressively annexed surrounding unincorporated areas, pulling in huge swaths of new territory and gaining residents as those areas developed. Over the past decade, however, annexation has slowed dramatically for legal and policy reasons. Residents of The Woodlands, one of the area's most successful suburbs, have resisted becoming part of Houston, for example.
Still, other large Texas cities are faring somewhat better in the competition for growth. Dallas, for example, grew by 4.75 percent from 2010-2013, while the rest of Dallas County expanded by 4.26 percent. San Antonio added 5.62 percent to its population, compared to 5.04 percent in the rest of Bexar County.
County's size a factor
In part, that's because of Harris County's sheer size, Murdock said. It's nearly twice as large as Dallas County, so there are still large expanses of undeveloped space. San Antonio is still hungrily annexing regions within Bexar County.
Houston has experimented with other strategies to attract residents. It began offering financial incentives, for instance, to developers building residences downtown and in other areas where so-called "infill" development is more costly than in open suburban fields.
The city also amended its development rules last year to allow more single-family homes on the same plot of land. This citywide increase in density, previously in place only inside Loop 610, is expected to attract workers by spurring the construction of more affordable middle class homes within city limits.
That, and other efforts to revitalize downtown, seem to have had some impact.
Net migration from Houston has slowed greatly in the past few years, according to state demographer Lloyd Potter. By contrast, he said, Dallas continues losing people to Dallas County or to neighboring counties, as does Austin, though at a slightly slower pace.
Net migration to Houston is largely from other countries, overwhelmingly from Mexico, Central and South America, though there have been significant increases in the number of migrants coming from India and China, Potter said.
Mass transit crucial
Transportation plays a key role in the area's growth pattern, said David Crossley, the president of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit think tank promoting urban development.
In cities with better mass transit, such as Chicago, households can rely on one or no cars, devoting more of their incomes to the larger mortgage payments typical of downtown, he said.
Yet it's precisely Houston's long, tiresome commutes from its more affordable outer suburbs that are driving people to the city, Crossley suggested. Millennials, who grew up in the suburbs and are now entering the workforce, want the urban experience, as do empty-nesters who no longer want to maintain large homes and yards, he said.
Crossley pointed to a surge in downtown development and a planned overhaul of the Metro bus system as evidence that Houston is moving in a more urban direction.
"All the discussion on the table is really good and pointed in the right direction," Crossley said. "The city of Houston has decided that now's the time to become a place with walkable neighborhoods and better transit."
But, he added, "all this stuff is right around the corner, but it's still right around the corner."
Chronicle reporter Mike Morris contributed.
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