Houston to challenge Census Bureau's count of 2.099 million
The city of Houston will ask the U.S. Census Bureau to change its official count, raising questions about whether some apartment complexes or neighborhoods were missed.
Houston's population is 2,099,451, according to census data released last week. That's more than 100,000 fewer people than earlier estimates, and slightly below the 2.1 million that triggers an expansion of the City Council to 16 members.
"We thought we were well over 2.1 million," said Mayor Annise Parker, noting errors in how the census defined some city boundaries.
The council expansion is still on, as city planners and independent researchers try to determine what went wrong.
"I think we're all very disappointed in the Census Bureau's ability to actually count the immigrant populations, and (other) hard-to-count populations," said Jerry Wood, a consultant hired to review the results.
"The bureau had a great story about how they were going to do a better job this time, but I think the evidence is pretty clear that it didn't work."
Reluctance to participate
Census maps show that much of east Houston — most of the area inside Loop 610, east of Interstate 45 - lost population, as did sections of southwest and northeast Houston.
Those areas are predominantly Latino and African-American, populations that historically are most likely to be missed by the census.
"It's troubling," said James Rodriguez, who represents east Houston on City Council. "You're always concerned about an undercount."
But many of the affected areas are filled with small, aging houses and apartment complexes, and the lack of new subdivisions may explain some of the decline.
"Older folks die, younger folks move if they can," said Michael Emerson, co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.
State Rep. Ana Hernandez Luna, whose district stretches from just inside the East Loop to beyond the Beltway, noted that no census tract in her district recorded more than 81 percent of people mailing in their forms.
That fell to 63 percent in some tracts.
Census workers were dispatched to housing units that did not return the forms by mail.
But Hernandez Luna said some people, especially immigrants here illegally, may have been reluctant to participate, despite assurances the information would not be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"We're all a bit skeptical when we're giving so much detailed information about our household," she said. "For those that are undocumented, they want the least amount of contact they can have with the government."
Other people say they were never contacted.
Robert Presbruhi, who lives in Denver Harbor, said he did not receive a form by mail, nor was he contacted by a census worker.
"It ain't no big deal, but I haven't ever heard from anyone," he said. "Nobody took the census over here."
Census workers are supposed to track down people who don't return the forms, but Emerson said human error is unavoidable.
"You hire census workers, and they are just people," he said. "They (sometimes) look at a neighborhood and ... just make up something rather than go somewhere they don't feel comfortable."
Wood said early block-by-block comparisons already have turned up discrepancies, including an apartment complex at Beltway 8 and Pearland Park that appears to have been missed entirely.
Census data showed no one living on the block, although satellite photos from April 1 - the day of the official count - reveal cars in the parking lot, he said.
"Where are they?" Wood asked. "They may not have been counted."
But he and others acknowledge no count is perfect.
State Rep. Armando Walle, who represents northeast Houston, said the Census Bureau tried to encourage participation.
"To their credit, they reached out," he said. "But the system is not perfect."
Challenges to the official count can't be filed until June 1.
Wood said the city will report apparent errors - apartment complexes located on blocks where no residents were reported, for example - and possible mistakes in where boundaries are located.
The bureau probably won't object to correcting boundary errors, he said.
Chronicle reporter Chris Moran contributed to this report.
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