Progress is being made on the Fifth Ward Voluntary Relocation Program to move residents living near a contaminated Union Pacific rail yard, according to the city. The $5 million fund was approved in September in an effort to help residents who have been fighting for years to get the site cleaned up.
The city and residents said the site is contaminated with creosote, a likely human carcinogen, that was used to coat railroad ties. It was labeled a cancer cluster in 2019 by the State Health Department. The high-priority area where the creosote plume exists contains about 110 parcels, 61 are residential units and 41 have residents living in them. The remaining parcels are small businesses and nonprofits.
"The ultimate goal of the program is to acquire all lots," said Stephen Costello, the city's Chief Recovery Officer. "However, in the interest of time, in the interest of the funding that we have, we’re going to be focusing primarily on the residents that live there today."
Despite the city offering residents to move, some are still reluctant. The city surveyed the 41 residential households in August and received responses from 31. There are still 18 households to be completed, not counting abandoned lots, empty properties, or refusals. Seven homeowners are interested in moving, two renters, and one other that the city said is an “interesting situation”.
"We believe that once we are successful, and starting to move, will have a lot more residents interested in the program," said Costello.
Community members that want to move and those that don't, share some of the same concerns or hesitations. Many are worried about the sentimental value of their homes, paying higher taxes, the lack of affordable housing options for one’s budget, and settling into a new neighborhood.
Gloria Moreno, with the city recovery office, said the input from residents has been taken into consideration.
"That’s really helped us to frame our program in order to respond to some of these questions and concerns that they have," she said.
The city will offer buyouts to homeowners who own their home or homeowners who have mortgages, with the option of working with one of the available nonprofits, to pick a lot in another location within the city and a builder. The city is calling the process a "dual closing."
"They’re applying the money that they get from the purchase of their house and lot and applying it to the new house and a new lot," said Costello. "They get zero net money, and the city is actually picking up all the costs. Now that cost includes what we will call moving costs, the soft costs, the appraisals, the surveys, the title, company, everything else is picked up by the city."
The city is also including a forgivable loan to homeowners. For example, if the city buys someone’s home for $100,000, the house gets built for $150,000 with no net expense included, it leaves a $50,000 debt that will be forgiven as long as the homeowner lives in the home for three years.
Costello said in regards to taxes, the Community Land Trust will keep the land within the homeowners’ portfolio and the homeowner is only paying taxes on the house, if the homeowners choose to work the land trust.
For those that rent, the city is offering them $10,000 to move from the area, a model they adopted from the City of New Orleans. Family Houston, a nonprofit that will be working with community members individually through the program, will pay $5,000 on behalf of the city to the new landlord for first and last month’s rent. Some of the remainder of the funds will help the renters with moving expenses.
"Once we receive documentation a month later that they are in fact in the new place, and they have utilities, etc, then the remainder of the funds will be paid to the renter," said Moreno.
Current renters who were in the area effective July 1 will be eligible. If a lease has to be broken the city will cover that expense as well. Moreno said the city will be negotiating with the landlords to acquire those properties to prevent them from being rented out again.
Union Pacific is currently doing additional testing, but they are not helping with the relocation.
"We have asked UPRR (Union Pacific Railroad) on a number of occasions to participate," said Castello. "Their business decision, and I quote that as a business decision, their business decision is ‘until there is causality on our creosote plume, we are not going to participate in any relocation.’"
Union Pacific released a statement regarding its new transparency initiative, HWPW Forward (Houston Wood Preserving Works) aiming to foster communication and collaboration with Fifth Ward residents.
"Union Pacific is committed to the Fifth Ward community, and we're putting transparency at the forefront of our approach," said Toni Harrison, Community Liaison/Spokesperson "The HWPW Forward initiative is one of the ways we'll deliver on our promise of timely updates and providing comprehensive, accurate information to keep the community well-informed."