Residents near a contaminated rail yard in the Greater Fifth Ward now will have the opportunity to move to another part of the city through Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Fifth Ward Voluntary Relocation plan. 

On Wednesday, Houston City Council unanimously approved the plan, which allots $5 million to the voluntary relocation of residents above the contaminated area and two to three blocks around the rail yard site. 

“The city of Houston has the moral obligation to provide people with an option if they so choose and we will work out the details of this plan in collaboration with the community,” Turner said. “No one (in the community) has to do anything, but we are providing people here with the option. That’s the only thing we’re doing today … creating the fund and putting money in the fund.”

For decades, the site – located along a still-operating railyard – was used for wood preservation by Southern Pacific Railroad, which merged with Union Pacific Railroad in 1998.

From 1899 to 1984, workers at the Fifth Ward site used creosote, a tarry substance derived from coal and wood, to coat railroad ties. Creosote contains several known carcinogens. The workers also worked with creosote extender, which was made from carcinogenic chemicals taken from other contaminated sites in the city. 

The city’s approval comes after the relocation vote was postponed last Wednesday, when At-large Councilmember Letitia Plummer tagged the item to discuss the plan further with Greater Fifth Ward residents. Tensions between Turner and Plummer intensified at the City Council meeting, with Turner calling for council’s immediate approval and finding Plummer’s actions “disappointing.” 

Plummer emphasized that she wanted to give time to the residents to learn more about the plan. People who live in Greater Fifth Ward long expressed concerns about the number of cancer deaths in the neighborhood and have pointed to the old rail yard as the potential source of contamination. In 2019, the Texas Department of State Health Services identified a cancer cluster – an area with higher-than-expected rates of cancer – in the vicinity of the rail yard.

“I’m feeling good now about the vote,” Plummer told the Houston Landing before the meeting. “But there’s still so many unanswered questions that we’re just going to have to work diligently as the process moves forward.” 

Voluntary relocation plan

The plan, as of today, will provide people who rent their homes in the designated area with financial support to find a new apartment or home outside the contamination area. For renters, the city will offer $10,000, which is meant to cover the first and last month’s rent, plus moving costs. 

Homeowners will be able to choose homes that already are built outside the contaminated zone, or build new structures with the help of the Houston Land Bank and the Community Land Trust, though the details on that process still are unclear. The city estimates the cost to buy out a home will average approximately $250,000, based on current market conditions, with an additional $100,000 potentially needed to cover other costs, such as appraisal, title searches and moving expenses.

The $5 million is just a segment of the total funding – $25 million – to relocate all families who are interested in moving. Turner said the city is seeking funding internally and externally, including with Union Pacific, to cover the cost of the relocations.

Union Pacific said it will take no action on relocation until the company completes further environmental testing in the area with the Environmental Protection Agency. This testing is expected to conclude in December.

Community response

The $5 million fund is set aside to cover everyone who wants to move now, said Stephen Costello, the chief recovery officer for the city of Houston, who added that, as of today, two renters and five homeowners are ready to move from the area. Renters will be able to move more quickly in the short-term, while it may take more time for homeowners, because their current homes and land must be appraised, and their future home must be bought or built.

When Turner brought the relocation plan to City Council last week, some residents in the Greater Fifth Ward expressed concerns about what it meant for them. They gathered at the house of community activist Sandra Edwards. Councilmember Plummer attended as well.

For Edwards, residents had good reasons to hold off on trusting the city. Historically, she said, no one has actually pulled through and offered any financial assistance regarding the cancer cluster.

“We just want to know a bit more about what’s going on,” Edwards told the Houston Landing last week. “It felt like a big thing.”

This Tuesday, several residents spoke at the City Council meeting during the public comment period and expressed appreciation for the mayor’s patience as they took a week to better understand the funding and what it meant for the community. Some residents teared up during the discussion. Others broke out clapping during particularly emotional speeches.

LaTonya Payne, a Fifth Ward cancer survivor, hugged her fellow community members. Her son, Corinthian “Mister” Giles, died from leukemia when he was 13. At the meeting, she wore a shirt with his photo printed on it.

Delores McGruder, a Fifth Ward resident who came to speak, said she appreciated Turner’s work, but was glad to have had more time. “I’m thinking of my neighbors, my fellow citizens, my relatives in the Ward – we have always been without (resources),” McGruder said. “I have loved the service that you [Turner] have done in these last years that you’ve been in office, but what we need is to inform and educate the community. That’s what it’s always been about.”

Now that the fund has been created, the next steps will include community meetings with residents to go over the details of the fund and how people will be relocated. Plummer told the council on Wednesday that she has three pages with questions from the community to go over when everyone meets. Those concerns included questions about how the houses would be purchased, and what roles the Houston Land Bank, the Land Trust, and the mortgage company would play.

She also brought up codifying the relocation fund since Turner will be leaving office at the end of December, meaning the future of the Greater Fifth Ward will rest in the hands of the next administration, which will be elected in November.

“The need for urgency for what is going on in our community” is crucial, Payne said. “We don’t want to continue to lose our children and others being diagnosed with cancer.”

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Elena Bruess covers the environment for the Houston Landing. She comes to Houston after two years at the San Antonio Express-News, where she covered the environment, climate and water. Elena previously...