A Houston City Council Member’s recent response to a Sunnyside neighborhood leader perfectly exemplifies why low income, segregated communities still need to fight for the right to have a say, a cornerstone of our Fair Housing and Neighborhood Rights campaign with Texas Organizing Project (TOP).
Sunnyside leader and TOP member Debra Walker appeared before the City Council to speak in support of tax incentive reform and against the possible relocation of the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center (MSC, pictured above), a public facility the City is considering rebuilding on land adjacent to a 300-acre former landfill.
Relocation of the MSC, an institution that provides health services for seniors, teenagers, children and pregnant women as well as widely-used meeting and event spaces, raises a variety of concerns for Sunnyside residents, given the long history of environmental injustice in the neighborhood. A 2010 study of the former landfill site documented methane gas released at high concentrations, trash and metal shards sticking up through the soil and contaminated groundwater below the surface.
“Sunnyside is a very active community,” Mrs. Walker said during her public testimony:
“We are in touch with what our neighbors need and act upon issues such as what is to happen with the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center. We haven’t been consulted on the next town hall meeting or any testing results, and we would also like to ask the City if they would allow us to have an independent tester to go onsite to do the testing to get clearance from the community’s standpoint.”
The mayor found her request for an independent tester unnecessary, stating that the City’s effort – conducted with no community outreach and only same-day notice for residents – was enough. Council Member Dwight Boykins, who represents Sunnyside, went further, claiming that addressing the environmental concerns of community residents (or in his words, “three or four knuckleheads who are lying about the soil”) was a waste of time and money:
“Let me tell you what we just did. Last week we approved $640,000-plus for a summer youth program for kids. We spent over $50,000 for a test for three or four knuckleheads who are lying about the soil. We could have put that money into the summer program for these kids. Just because somebody wanted to be included in a decision. The results will come pretty soon and you will see that it was wasteful spending.”
Boykins used his final point to pit low income neighborhoods against each other in the fight for funding for public services:
“Let me tell you what Dwight Boykins is about to do. I want to be on record. I spent a year and a half dealing with all these lies and scare tactics in Sunnyside. I’m about to shift my focus to South Park.”
Here’s the full exchange:
Several Sunnyside residents have attended City Council meetings since December in hopes that their concerns about the MSC would be heard and addressed. The project is already in the Capital Improvement Plan and would be relocated to City-owned land; therefore, it is likely the project will never appear on the Council agenda for a formal vote. Moreover, the City has moved forward with hiring an architect and contractor for the new building, as if the real concerns of residents have no merit. No details have been shared about what will happen to the current MSC site should be facility be relocated.
I have listened to hours of public comments at Houston City Council meetings over the past few months, and each Sunnyside resident has raised very legitimate points, stemming from the neighborhood’s history of unequal treatment and environmental injustice. For example, residents fear that building on or near the dump will result in the same severe health impacts exhibited by African-American homeowners in Kennedy Heights, just south of Sunnyside, associated with water and soil contamination from unlined underground storage tanks until the 1960s. Residents remember when the dump site was active, from the 1920s through the 1970s, and the neighborhood faced roaches, rats, foul smells and the stigma of living next to the dump.
Residents are also concerned about seniors in Sunnyside who have chosen to live near the current Multi-Service Center for convenience. Seniors who once were able to consolidate trips to the MSC and the neighborhood commercial corridor may soon have to figure out bus transfers or other transportation options to reach the new site two miles away.
Yet these legitimate concerns are immediately brushed off by Mayor Turner and Council Member Boykins, who offer nothing more than the empty promise of a “town hall” meeting. Ever since this project was placed in the Capital Improvement Plan, City leaders have not been open or transparent on the reasoning behind the relocation and possible sale of the existing Multi-Service Center property to a private developer. This kind of public process fosters distrust and anger in communities for years, decades and generations to come.
The town hall meeting has been set for the night of April 17, but it seems too little and too late to temper the neighborhood’s frustration. The way the City has handled the MSC will most certainly have lasting impacts on future public decisions related to Sunnyside, a neighborhood that has felt the adverse effects of City-sponsored segregation, concentration of poverty and denial of public services for generations – as documented in the Sunnyside Neighborhood Plan.
The MSC engagement process will be yet another example of public actions undertaken without acknowledging residents’ right to have a say.