Significant developments are underway for the Fifth Ward Voluntary Relocation Program, an initiative aimed at assisting residents living near a contaminated Union Pacific rail yard. The city, after approving a $5 million fund in September, is now making strides to support long-standing efforts to cleanse the site.
The contaminated area in question is plagued by creosote, a substance known to be a likely carcinogen that was once used to treat railroad ties. In 2019, the State Health Department recognized it as a cancer cluster. Within the high-priority sector where the creosote plume persists, approximately 110 parcels can be found, consisting of 61 residential units, 41 of which are currently inhabited. The remaining parcels house small businesses and nonprofits.
To address the issue comprehensively, the city’s Chief Recovery Officer, Stephen Costello, has highlighted the priority of acquiring all lots impacted by contamination. However, recognizing the need for swift action and efficient utilization of available funding, the initial focus is on the relocation of current residents.
Although the city has provided an opportunity for residents to move, there is still some reluctance among them. A recent survey conducted in August targeted the 41 households located in residential areas, with responses received from 31 of them. Currently, 18 households remain to be surveyed, excluding abandoned or empty properties, as well as those who have outright refused to participate. The data indicates that seven homeowners, two renters, and one individual in an “interesting situation” have expressed interest in relocation, potentially paving the way for greater engagement in the program in the future.
In an effort to accommodate the concerns and hesitations of community members, the city has taken resident input into account. Some shared concerns include the sentimental value associated with their homes, potential increases in taxes, the scarcity of affordable housing options, and the challenge of acclimating to a new neighborhood.
Gloria Moreno, a representative from the city recovery office, emphasized the significance of resident feedback in shaping the relocation program. Moreno affirmed, “The input we’ve received has helped us tailor our program to address the questions and concerns raised by the residents effectively.”
The city will be offering buyouts to homeowners who own their property or have mortgages. These homeowners will have the option of working with one of the available nonprofits to select a new lot and collaborate with a builder. This process, termed a “dual closing,” allows homeowners to apply the funds received from the sale of their current property towards the purchase of a new house and lot, ensuring a zero net financial outcome. The city is covering all associated costs, including moving expenses, appraisals, surveys, and title company fees.
Additionally, homeowners will be provided with a forgivable loan. For example, if the city buys a home for $100,000 and constructs a new house for $150,000, the homeowner would have a $50,000 debt. This debt will be forgiven provided the homeowner remains in the new residence for at least three years.
Regarding taxes, the Community Land Trust will retain ownership of the land, ensuring homeowners only pay taxes on the house itself if they choose to work with the land trust.
Renters in the area will be offered $10,000 to facilitate their relocation—a model inspired by the City of New Orleans. Family Houston, a nonprofit organization collaborating closely with community members throughout the program, will contribute $5,000 on behalf of the city toward the first and last month’s rent to the new landlord. The remaining funds will assist renters with their moving expenses. After documentation is provided confirming their relocation and establishment in a new residence, the remaining funds will be remitted to the renters.
Current renters who have been in the area since July 1 qualify for these benefits. If a lease needs to be terminated, the city will provide coverage for associated expenses. Furthermore, the city is engaging in negotiations with landlords to acquire properties and prevent subsequent rental activities.
It is worth noting that while Union Pacific conducts additional testing in the area, they are not directly involved in the relocation efforts. The company has declined to participate, citing the absence of confirmed causality between their creosote plume and the need for relocation.
However, Union Pacific has released a statement highlighting a new transparency initiative called HWPW Forward (Houston Wood Preserving Works). The initiative aims to foster communication and collaboration with Fifth Ward residents, demonstrating the company’s commitment to the community. Through HWPW Forward, Union Pacific pledges to provide timely updates and comprehensive, accurate information to keep the community well-informed.
Q: What is the Fifth Ward Voluntary Relocation Program?
A: The Fifth Ward Voluntary Relocation Program is an initiative aimed at assisting residents living near a contaminated Union Pacific rail yard in Houston’s Fifth Ward.
Q: What is creosote?
A: Creosote is a substance that was used to coat railroad ties, which is a likely human carcinogen.
Q: How many parcels are affected by the creosote plume?
A: The high-priority area impacted by the creosote plume contains approximately 110 parcels, including 61 residential units.
Q: Are residents obligated to participate in the program?
A: No, residents are not obligated to participate. However, the program offers various benefits and assistance to those who choose to relocate.
Q: What concerns do residents have about relocating?
A: Residents have expressed concerns about the sentimental value of their homes, potential tax increases, the lack of affordable housing options, and adjusting to a new neighborhood.
Q: Who will cover the costs associated with relocation?
A: The city will cover all costs, including moving expenses, appraisals, surveys, and title company fees.
Q: Will Union Pacific contribute to the relocation efforts?
A: Union Pacific is currently conducting additional testing but has chosen not to participate in the relocation efforts until there is confirmed causality between their creosote plume and the need for relocation.
Q: How will renters be supported?
A: Renters will be offered financial assistance of $10,000 to facilitate their relocation. Additionally, nonprofit organizations, such as Family Houston, will contribute toward the first and last month’s rent for the new residence.
Sources: Houston Public Media