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01:41 - Source: CNN Business
East Palestine, Ohio CNN  — 

Melissa Henry already had a lot on her plate before a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine about a mile away from her home on February 3, spilling toxic chemicals into the air. She was going through a divorce and getting her home ready to put on the market. All she had left to do was photograph the home before it was to be listed.

But the process of selling her home since then has been “a nightmare,” she told CNN. “If the train wouldn’t have derailed, we would have sold within a couple of days,” Henry said. “But since the train derailed, nobody really wants to come to this town.”

Needing to move on with her life, she listed her four bedroom, 1,100-square foot home three weeks after the accident for $150,000. The first offer she received was $50,000 below the asking price. She reduced the price in March to $140,000 and ultimately went into contract with a first-time home buyer who offered $25,000 below the asking price.

Henry said she believes the lower price for her home is a direct result of the accident — and she is clear who she thinks should make up the difference: Norfolk Southern.

“I think for everybody in this town who wants to move, Norfolk Southern should pay for them to move,” Henry said. “We shouldn’t be forced to stay somewhere we don’t feel comfortable. We don’t feel safe.”

Norfolk Southern announced it would work with the community to address concerns about losses in home values, not long after a CNN Town Hall in which residents of East Palestine were able to confront the railroad company’s CEO, Alan Shaw.

When asked for comment on this story, Norfolk Southern directed CNN to its statement from mid-March: “We are committed to working with the community to provide tailored protection for home sellers if their property loses value due to the impact of the derailment.”

But details have been slow to materialize. And residents’ patience is wearing thin.

“I’d love 20 minutes with Alan Shaw,” said Henry. “I would say, ‘You need to help out the people, not just the town. The people who don’t want to be here, they don’t feel safe here. You should be helping those people out.’”

The market is ‘iffy’

It is still a little early to assess the longer-term impact on home prices, said Harry Hofmeister, real estate broker at Hofmeister Realty and Auction in nearby Salem, Ohio. He currently has several properties listed in East Palestine and said there are about 14 properties total on the market, more than there would typically be. Several have been lingering on the market since before the accident.

“The market is iffy,” Hofmeister said. “We’ve got some people who are getting less, some people are just saying no, we’re gonna hang in there and hold out. East Palestine is a good city. They’re resilient. But they just got kicked in the pants on this one.”

An aerial view shows a plume of smoke, following a train derailment that forced people to evacuate from their homes in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 6, 2023.

With a population of about 5,000 people, there are roughly 2,600 residential properties in East Palestine, according to Attom, a property data provider. The average value of a property there in January of this year, prior to the derailment, was $146,000, according to Attom.

The value of all residential real estate in the town adds up to about $380 million, including single-family homes and multi-family properties.

Those values are only a fraction of the money that Norfolk Southern earns. Last year it reported a record operating income of $4.8 billion, and a net income of $3.3 billion, up about 9% from a year earlier. It had $456 million in cash on hand on its books as of December 31, according to its latest earnings report.

Hofmeister said the company is certainly capable of compensating homeowners for property value losses, and that, in his opinion, they should.

“Norfolk Southern is a large company,” he said. “They could buy the whole town if they wanted to, quite candidly. And I’ve heard people say they should. I think they need to make things right.”

But sorting out how that process works is complicated.

“How do you possibly determine what kind of loss is attributed to that, or not?” Hofmeister said. “That is somebody else’s department.”

Support for those who want to leave, and those who want to stay

Nearly three months after the train derailment, some residents want to leave, but don’t have the resources to do so. Support from Norfolk Southern, they say, would help them feel safe.

“I don’t really don’t have the funds to move right now,” Vanessa Kastanek, who cares for her three-year-old son, told CNN. “Keeping him well and everything is one of my main priorities and so, if it were just me, I probably wouldn’t care as much. But the fact that it’s us both, I do kind of want to get out of town, just for his sake, just in case, just to be safe.”

Meanwhile, others in town are trying to pick up the pieces and keep their households and businesses going. They say support needs to be provided to businesses to help them stay going concerns.

Dianna Elzer, who owns Dogs on the Run, a hot dog restaurant that will be celebrating its eighth year in business in May, as well as other commercial properties in East Palestine, said she thinks residential buyers will return because the town is right on the border of Pennsylvania, where taxes are higher. But commercial real estate and the businesses in town need some help to keep the town going, she said.

“There is certainly a divide,” she said. “If they’re paying for you to be away, why are you yelling at people that are still here, trying to make sure the town doesn’t die in the meantime? Because if all our small businesses go away, the town will die.”

For Melissa Henry, she expects to close on the sale of her home in a couple of months and is looking forward to closing this chapter, including wrapping up her insurance claims before she leaves the home.

“I just want the material stuff replaced, the beds,” she said. “I don’t want to take any of this stuff with me, I want fresh. I want my kids to sleep on a clean bed.”