All of that changed last month when a train carrying hazardous materials derailed a mile away from their house in Northeastern Ohio, sending a tall cloud of smoke and chemicals over the town.
“We’re stuck. We’re not going to be able to sell it,” Arter, a 46-year-old engineer, told The Washington Post. “We went all in. We’ve put all that we’ve worked all of our lives for into this house.”
The Feb. 3 derailment has become a political flashpoint, with Republicans seizing the disaster to take aim at President Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. But for those who returned after officials lifted an evacuation order, the incident isn’t a cable news talking point — it has upended their lives. Residents interviewed by The Post raised concerns about the potential drop of home prices — one of the biggest investments for many Americans — even as local real estate agents say it’s too soon to tell what impact, if any, the accident would have.
Still, many feel as if they are trapped in the home they invested in, and trapped in a town they now fear growing old in because of long-term exposure to toxic chemicals spread by the fumes and the “controlled release,” in which officials purposefully burned off several rail cars’ carrying cancer-causing vinyl chloride.
Some have put their homes for sale and left all of their belongings behind to start over. Others can’t afford to move despite wanting to and are temporarily living with family, friends or at hotels. Many said they distrust assertions by local officials that the air, water and soil are safe and worry no one will ever want to buy in such a place, even if their property value significantly decreases.
“Whatever is in that house is either going to be donated or thrown away,” Nicole Manini, 25, said. “I’m starting over.”
Manini, who bought her two-story, two-bedroom home in the town right out of high school, recently put her house on the market for $87,000 — the same price that she bought it for in 2017.
Manini said her realtor couldn’t give her a straight answer about whether her house, which is 1.2 miles away from the site of the derailment, would sell.
The single mother said she’s not willing to put a price on her three-year-old daughter’s health.
“I considered renting, but I really don’t want any attachment to the house,” Manini, who is staying with friends in Darlington, Pa. until she finds a place to rent, told The Post. “I don’t want to go back. I just want out of it.”
Real estate listings sites and local agents interviewed by The Post said the concern may be premature. Residents would need at least six months of data to see where housing prices are headed, said Kelly Warren, a local broker.
The small size of the town means that a recent high or low sale would make weekly data “too volatile” for an informed analysis, Redfin spokeswoman Angela Cherry told The Post. The derailment occurred two days after the Federal Reserve increased interest rates an eighth consecutive time, which complicates the picture of what is happening within the market, Zillow spokesman Tyrone Law said.
Variables like new test results showing contamination in the soil and water could also impact the housing market, Michael Stevens, a broker and the president of the Youngstown Columbiana Association of Realtors, told The Post.
“It’s a very challenging topic because of the unknown,” Stevens said. “We are waiting on test results. Your well might be okay today but it might not be good tomorrow.”
So far, there is little evidence that the derailment and its contamination will pose long-term health risks to residents of East Palestine. But residents want more testing done to be sure. Partly because of their concerns, the EPA on Thursday ordered Norfolk Southern to test for dioxin, a toxic contaminant that can result from burning plastics and chemicals used to make plastics.
If a large number of the town’s 4,700 residents opt to permanently leave and there is not enough demand for the town’s housing market, those who stayed would take a hit, Warren said. But some local real estate agents said that even if some residents want to leave, many don’t have the financial means to pack up their things and pay two mortgages while they wait for their house to sell.
“These people aren’t just able to get such a financial hit and get up and move on with everything they have invested,” Amber Lee Hostetter, a local real estate agent, told The Post. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Some residents like Arter, the engineer who had plans to sell his home this fall before the derailment happened, have contacted Norfolk Southern, the railroad company, offering their homes for sales. Arter said Norfolk Southern declined to purchase his home and told him they are not buying properties in the area at this moment. Norfolk Southern has offered to pay residents for all expenses incurred during the four-day evacuation period and $1,000 “inconvenience checks.”
“I don’t want to be here,” Arter said, his voice cracking. “It’s depressing. Basically, it’s like they took their investment away from you.”
Since the derailing, Jacki Ewing, 65, has been staying at local hotels and returning home for a couple of days to care for her four chihuahuas and five cats, she said.
Ewing, who has a disability, had difficulty breathing, pain in her gums and a runny nose if she spent too much time at the East Palestine home she bought over a decade ago for $15,000.
So her children found her a hotel to temporarily relocate until this week, when their funds ran out. She plans to stay in her three-bedroom, two baths home until she can save enough money to rent another place in Akron, Ohio, Ewing said. As for her house, she is unsure what will happen to it once she leaves.
For now, she’s also trapped in East Palestine.
“Nobody is going to buy this house,” Ewing said. “I have friends that won’t come over here to visit. They are not going to rent it and they are not going to want to buy … I do not want to leave my home, [but] I have no choice.”