Home sweet home

How housing characteristics differ by county across Texas

By Tim Brown

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Whether it is related to changes in the housing market due to COVID-19 or how winter storm Uri impacted peoples’ ability to heat their homes, there has been a significant amount of discussion about housing lately. Fortunately, there is a wealth of data available on just this subject, including age, heating source, internet access and value.

The most comprehensive housing data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau. Map 1 uses data from the American Community Survey's five-year estimates for 2015-2019. It shows the percentage of housing units in each county constructed in 2014 or later — each unit in a duplex or apartment complex counts as a housing unit, just as a single family home does. These newer units account for more than 10% of the housing units in Hays, Williamson, Comal and Fort Bend — suburban counties known for their recent growth. They also account for more than 5% of the housing units in many smaller, more rural counties, such as King, Upton, Willacy, Karnes, Kent and Delta, and more than 10% of the housing units in McMullen County. 

Conversely, in many counties, particularly west of Interstate 35, a large segment of the available housing units is made up of older homes. Map 2 shows the percentage of housing units in each county constructed prior to 1940. Based on the bureau's estimates, those built prior to 1940 account for more than 15% of all housing units in 34 counties. In Motley, Terrell, Hall, Roberts, Hardeman, Foard, and Mason, they account for more than 25% of all housing units.  


Construction standards and materials change over time. One consequence of this fact is that newer homes tend to be more energy efficient — a factor that comes into play when summer temperatures rise, or when winter storms with record-setting low temperatures hit the state.  

Outside of the Panhandle and far West Texas, most occupied housing units get their heat from electricity as seen in Map 3. In 51 counties, at least 75% of these units get their heat from electricity — in Kenedy County, every occupied housing unit uses electricity for heat. Housing units in Cochran County and El Paso County were the least likely to use electricity for heating at 21.5% and 22% respectively. 

Although not shown here, the bureau also estimates the percentage of housing units in each county that uses other forms of energy for heating, such as utility gas, wood or solar, and even estimates how many housing units have no source of heating.  

As the state began to recover from winter storm Uri, attention turned back to improving broadband internet access for school kids and for their parents, who are trying to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bureau creates several estimates that are useful for those interested in this issue, although their estimates do not directly address the question regarding which specific homes or areas lack broadband access. For information on the percentage of each county’s population with high speed internet, see this October 2019 article, Texas' Digital Divide, from the Texas comptroller of public accounts.

Map 4 shows the percentage of housing units in each county with broadband internet subscriptions. Having a broadband subscription is not the same as having broadband access. First, many housing units may have access to broadband, but not have a subscription. This could be due to a household’s choice to not subscribe. Second, the bureau did not include housing units in this estimate where broadband access is available without a subscription — such as in many college dormitories, for example.  

The bureau also estimates the number of housing units that do not have internet service as shown in Map 5. For this map, internet service, includes broadband service, satellite service and dial-up service. As with the previous data on housing units with broadband subscriptions, housing units may lack internet service due to the householder’s choice.  

In addition to the bureau's data on housing features, the 2015-2019 American Community Survey (ACS) includes estimates of the median value of owner-occupied housing units. These estimates cover all of the state except for Loving County, as seen in Map 6. Median value varies widely across the state. At $348,500, the median value of occupied housing units in Kendall County is more than 14 times that in Kenedy County where the median value is only $24,400. 

Texas is a large and diverse state. At different times, some counties are growing and some are not. As growth has varied, the location and rate of housing construction has also varied widely over the years to meet the needs of local communities. Similarly, whether it was electricity in the 20th century or broadband internet in the 21st century, new technologies have become available at different times to different households. Consequently, just as the people vary greatly across the state, although we all call ourselves Texans, so too does the housing vary greatly.

The American Community Survey

The U.S. Census Bureau runs its ACS survey every year; however, for the smaller counties, it must aggregate the responses from a five-year period to develop reasonably accurate estimates. Collecting, aggregating and analyzing that data takes time; consequently, the most recent estimates for all 254 counties come from surveys conducted from 2015 through
2019. Another caveat to the data is that the bureau reports estimates for housing units, which includes single family homes, apartments, duplexes, etc.