Residents stand up to elected officials, defend the right to have a say in Sunnyside

Melissa Beeler, Texas Housers community planner

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.

100 years of harm

1 Comment

  1. Ms.Debra Walker my name is Judy Anderson and i live in East Texas. I just happened to be.researching low income housing all over the state if Texas and ran across the article and video of the meeting you attended to so solidly and bravely stand face to face with your Mr. Dwight Boykin City Councilman of Sunnyside……..or shall i refer to him as one “FINE KNUCKLEHEAD”??? Ms. Debra i admire your genuine concern and your loyalty to Sunnyside. You definitely have invested a great part of your heart and soul to the community and to MSC…it appears. As for Mr.Dwight Boykin I would give anything if i could just.sit.down with him for 15.minutes.and pick his brain. One.of the first question i would ask him is “You DO.understand Mr Boykin,YOU,TOO.will be an eldetly man one day. Yes.and knucklehead would you let a family member of yours move or relocate.2 miles from MSC on an old land fill, that has contamination of.trash metal shards contaminated soil and ground waterstill standing like it has since.1937. And would you Mr.Boykin let your children play out in the streets where there are no sidewalks.or lighting not to mention Sunnyside being known for being the 8th city with highest crimes reported in the U.S.?.And some “private buyer” has come in and stolen the eldetly people who have probably been struggling a LARGE MINUTE OR TWO. NO,Im definitely not going to look into moving to good ole Sunnyside now. Oh and by the way Mr. Boykin im white,recently divorced,have temporary custody of my 8 yr. Old grandson, am 60 yr old female…i was.diagnosed in 2009 with.a major anxirty disorder manic-deoressive disorder among other issues. Thank God for good Drs. I came from a very prominent family,well educared, middle.class and now im looking to move into low income housing because some.people are just flat stingy, self centered heartless people. My grandson and i will find a home but it wont be in Sunnyside. I cant stand the thought of living anywhere near an old landfill much less on top of one. And to all the elderly residents that have.lived and.dwell in and around MSC…God will give you the three S’s…..SAFETY. SECURITY….STABILITY. AND HE WILL KEEP YOUR FAMILY’S TOGETHER. Trust God,pray for Mr.Boykin.and the Mayor too…oh and ALWAYS.PRAY FOR MS DEBRA WALKER…..SHES GOT YOUR BACK!!!!.p.s. great video. Ms.Debra if you ever want to visit feel free to get my email address. Mr.Boykin if you ever have time could i pick your brain for 15 minutes…im trying really hard to understand who your speaking for..

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