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Houston-area suburbs growing much faster than city since 2020

Houston’s population increased by an estimated 1,306 residents from 2020 to 2022, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. During the same span, Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties each grew by at least 49,000 residents.

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The populations in Houston-area counties such as Fort Bend and Montgomery grew much more rapidly from 2020-22 than the city’s population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The Houston region is growing much more rapidly on its outskirts than in its urban core.

The nation's fourth-largest city grew in population from 2020-22 but not by much, gaining 1,306 residents, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Surrounding Harris County grew by nearly 50,000 residents during the same span, while there was an even greater influx into Fort Bend County to the southwest and Montgomery County to the north, which gained a combined 124,406 new residents during the last two years.

Several factors have contributed to the disparity in growth between urban and suburban, including the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Lloyd Potter, a professor of sociology and demography at the University of Texas at San Antonio who also is the gubernatorially appointed state demographer. He said Thursday that an increased ability to work from home as well as a desire to live in more rural settings as opposed to densely populated areas are pulling more people away from locales in and around downtown.

"You look at Montgomery County and Fort Bend County, probably Galveston County, and then we're now starting to see it in Waller County as well – people are moving out," Potter said. "It's kind of been happening for much of the last decade and certainly something that's accelerated during the pandemic."

Potter said Harris County, the third-largest in the U.S. with more than 4.78 million residents, has seen more people move out than in during the last decade in terms of domestic migration, with its overall population being stabilized by an influx of international immigrants. The same trend applies to Houston, the county seat with more than 2.3 million residents, he said.

Overall growth in the surrounding county skyrocketed between 2021 and 2022, according to Census data, with Harris County growing by an estimated 45,626 residents during that year alone. That made Harris County the second-fastest growing county in the country behind Maricopa County, Arizona, with Fort Bend County and Montgomery County ranking seventh and 10th on that list, respectively.

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Fort Bend County has grown by an estimated 66,367 residents during the last two years, while Montgomery County has gained 58,039 residents.

More affordable land and housing are driving factors for migration to those suburban locales, along with a desire to be in areas with less traffic congestion and crime, according to Potter. He said people also are moving to those counties because businesses are, too.

"You're also seeing employment opportunities being created out in the ring counties," Potter said. "In Montgomery County and Fort Bend County, there are companies that are locating there and hiring people. Some may even be creating branch offices or something like that out in the suburban rings, so people have the ability to live in the surrounding counties and not have to commute into downtown."

While rapid population growth can be a selling and bragging point among local politicians, civic groups and chambers of commerce – and stagnant growth or decline can lead to negative perceptions about a place – Potter said slow, sustainable growth is favorable. When the influx of residents outpaces the development of infrastructure and government services, he said quality of life deteriorates.

The quest for a better quality of life, meanwhile, is largely driving migration from Houston to its outlying suburbs. Potter also said people tend to move from cities to suburbs when they get married and start families.

"When you talk about moving, it's an economic decision people are making. And the economics aren't just finances, not just money, even though that's part of it," Potter said. "Quality of life is a valued commodity. If they can move someplace and get a bigger house, a yard, maybe better schools, maybe employment that might be paying better or even similar to what they were making when they were living closer to the urban core, people do that."