Development

As City of Houston moves forward with relocating Fifth Ward residents, development in cancer cluster area sparks concerns

The city issued 88 permits for new single-family homes and 17 for multifamily units since January 2019 when the cancer cluster area was first reported. The most recent was issued in January 2024, close to the plume, before Whitmire paused issuing permits at the end of  January.   

The Union Pacific Railyard, located near Kashmere Gardens. Residents say the railyard is responsible for the cancer cluster in Kashmere Gardens. Taken on Jan. 27, 2021.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
The Union Pacific Railyard, located near Kashmere Gardens. Residents say the railyard is responsible for the cancer cluster in Kashmere Gardens. Taken on Jan. 27, 2021.

The City of Houston is moving forward with its plans to relocate residents in Northeast Houston living in a cancer cluster in Northeast Houston. But there are now questions about why building permits were still being issued in the contaminated areas until last month, a concern by many community members.

The Houston Land Bank will get $2 million to oversee the moving process for the residents of Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens following a vote Wednesday by Houston City Council. The land bank will be in charge of building homes for residents on their land and paying for moving expenses. The funding was halted for a month because of unanswered questions from residents and new city officials like Mayor John Whitmire.

The funding is part of a $5 million voluntary relocation plan approved under former Mayor Sylvester Turner's administration to move residents of the area they said is causing cancer. The plan was announced last July, after residents have been fighting for decades to get Union Pacific to clean up the area, and the state health department found higher-than-normal rates of cancer in the community.

"I was shocked because while I was driving, I was flagged down at a couple of stop signs by residents that said they didn’t want to move," said Mayor Whitmire. "They thought it was a land play gentrification largely by developers, I could see where they would draw that conclusion."

Whitmire's staff showed a presentation outlining the development in the area. The city has broken the cancer cluster into three zones, with Zone 1 being the prime focus where the creosote plume is located. His staff revealed there are five parcels within the plume with active permits; they include two new builds of single-family structures.

Steven David, the mayor's deputy chief of staff who presented the findings, said permits have continued to be issued since the community was notified about the cancer plume in January 2019. The city issued 88 permits for new single-family homes and 17 for multifamily units since January 2019, with the most recent issued in January 2024, close to the plume, before Whitmire paused issuing permits at the end of January.

"If you look at this, removing the cancer cluster from underneath, this neighborhood has seen significant rebuilding," said David. " It’s a wonderful thing. We like to see these in our communities. But the fact of the matter is, in 2019, we said that ‘the land is killing you’ to these folks."

David is referring to 8.6 miles of new paved roads and three brand new bus stop rebuilds done under the prior administration which David said he believes is due to miscommunication between city departments.

District B Council Member Tarsha Jackson, who represents the area, said she was blindsided by the permitting news.

"We get our information from Houston Public Works and the administration," said Jackson. "I was under the impression that development was happening outside of the area, but this report basically just shed light on a lot of things that's happening."

Jackson said she hopes the vote from the council will help rebuild the trust in the community.

"I'm happy we got a pathway forward," she said "The 30-day delay gave us an opportunity to all get on the same page, to answer the community questions, and assess the situation and identify what else the [city needs] to do to make sure the residents are safe."

The city has stated only about 10 people are ready to move, and one person has already moved out. A survey was conducted last year to see where residents stand on the program and only about 31 residents responded.

The city still has to wait until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues its testing which could take between 6- 9 months. The city said there are still many parts of the program without answers like what happens to residents’ land if they choose to relocate, but Whitmire's administration said they'll do a better job of communicating about the relocation process moving forward.

Union Pacific said in a statement:

“Union Pacific is completing comprehensive vapor testing near the former Houston Wood Preserving Works site and finalizing additional soil testing plans, adhering to a science-driven approach led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The data obtained from these tests is necessary to determine next steps.”