The planned closing of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto to make way for an apartment complex took a step forward Tuesday night, Dec. 11, as attorneys for the property owners, the Jisser family, gave residents a terse reading of terms for their eventual eviction.
Residents of the 86-year-old mobile-home park on El Camino Real, who had received notification of the potential sale of the property in mid-September, said after the meeting they were stunned that the closure might become a reality. About 400 people live in the park.
Their eviction would be the largest dislocation of residents in Palo Alto since 1942, when about 184 residents of Japanese ancestry were sent to World War II internment camps, according to a 1940 Palo Alto Times article. In 1962, about 110 homes were demolished to make way for Oregon Expressway, the most recent displacement of Palo Alto residents, fair-housing proponents said.
Several advocacy groups vow they won't leave residents to fight alone, however. The Community Working Group, the Palo Alto PTA Council Executive Board, the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, and the newly formed Friends of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park said they are rallying behind the residents.
Buena Vista, the city's only mobile-home park, is located at 3980 El Camino Real and contains 115 mobile homes and 12 studio units. Joe Jisser and his family currently own the property but are under contract to sell to Bay Area developer Prometheus. The Jissers filed an application with the city for conversion on Nov. 9. Prometheus intends to build 180 apartments on the roughly 4.5-acre property but must obtain a zoning change from the city first.
In building rentals, the developer is not required to offer any units at below-market rate, City of Palo Alto officials have said. But under a 2001 city ordinance, there are numerous steps the Jissers must take before the city can consider approving the conversion. Those include surveying the residents and completing a relocation-impact report that assesses the value of the mobile homes, the cost of comparable housing elsewhere and moving expenses, among other things. The ordinance requires the property owner to provide "reasonable relocation assistance" to the tenants.
Advocates say that the city has an even greater responsibility: to keep Buena Vista open.
"To the extent feasible, the city will seek appropriate local, state and federal funding to assist in the preservation and maintenance of the existing units in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park," the city's Comprehensive Plan states.
"The city has an affirmative duty to uphold the Comprehensive Plan, and we expect them to do that in this case," said Winter Dellenbach, a former fair-housing attorney and Barron Park neighborhood resident who is spearheading the Friends group, which is comprised of 60 residents from various neighborhoods. "They're not going to be allowed to wash their hands of it."
Advocates also argue Buena Vista residents will not be able to find comparable housing in the area, let alone in Palo Alto.
Providing financial assistance to move won't make up for the loss of opportunity, they said.
"How do you compensate for a Palo Alto education? You can't put a monetary value on Palo Alto schools. I don't think you can put a dollar amount on a Palo Alto education and what it would do to their lives," said Nancy Krop, vice president of advocacy for the Palo Alto Council of PTAs.
"Even given relocation payments, it won't come close to keeping them in Palo Alto," Dellenbach said. "They will leave with some money in their pocket, but it will not be a solution to the long-term housing problem."
The Community Working Group, which spearheaded the creation of the Opportunity Center for the homeless, among other projects, has formed a task force to advocate for Buena Vista residents. They have introduced residents to attorneys who specialize in mobile-home law and could accept donations and or assist in fundraising for the residents, said Dr. Donald Barr, a founding member of the Community Working Group and longtime homelessness-prevention advocate.
Barr said the risk of homelessness for many at Buena Vista is "very real." Those who end up moving in with relatives because they cannot afford housing would be considered homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Closing Buena Vista would also be a setback for the city's supply of affordable housing, Barr said.
The Community Working Group developed 88 units of low-income housing at the Opportunity Center and is working on 801 Alma, the 50-unit, low-income family housing near downtown.
"One hundred and 15 is a pretty big chunk of a decade and a half of work on low-income housing -- and then bam! -- three-quarters of the number of units are gone. All of your work was devalued by the loss of these units for these families. That doesn't feel good," he said.
Buena Vista residents probably won't have access to the affordable 801 Alma units because of a long waiting list, he said.
Curtis Williams, the city's director of planning and community environment, acknowledged that finding replacement housing will be "very tough." The city has between 500 and 600 rent-restricted units for affordable housing, but all are occupied, and there are long waiting lists.
Advocates have floated the idea of the city buying the Buena Vista property so that residents could remain. Jisser said that such a decision would be up to Prometheus and the city, as he's already in a contract with Prometheus to sell the site.
Williams said the city would have to seek state and federal funding to purchase the Buena Vista land. But he cautioned that it is "a very expensive property."
The city does have leverage regarding entitlements and changes the property developer might want.
"If they have any hope of moving forward, they need to come up with a plan to provide housing on site or elsewhere," he said.
"Our sentiment is certainly (toward) if there is a way to keep them there and fund it. Secondarily, it would be to find places as close as possible in Palo Alto for them to live," he said.
Jon Moss, executive vice president and partner at Prometheus, said he is not against considering different alternatives for assisting residents, including renting the new apartments to Buena Vista residents if subsidy funding could be found.
In the meantime, David Richman, a housing relocation specialist hired by the Jissers, said he plans to meet with each household to develop a relocation plan that must be submitted to the city. The ordinance allows him to identify housing within a 35-mile radius and to offer a lump sum for moving costs, the value of the unit, first and last months' rent and a security deposit.
Qualifying low-income households and persons with disabilities could receive financial assistance for up to one year if their new location costs more than Buena Vista's rents, he said.
Despite the show of support for Buena Vista residents, not everyone favors keeping the mobile-home park intact.
"I am thrilled that finally the Buena Vista property -- which is not a 'buena vista' (but) more like a 'mala vista' eyesore -- is going to be redeveloped. This is the happiest news I've heard in a very long time," Pamela Diken, a Barron Park resident, told the Weekly.
"As far as the tenants are concerned, it is very nice that Jisser is willing to give the tenants money for relocating, and if he wanted to be a little bit nicer he could set aside 25 units (of the new complex) for low-income housing and not have to worry too much about the complaints that he will definitely receive," she said.
But Krop of the PTA said the closure would affect not just the residents but classmates at neighborhood schools. About 12 percent of Barron Park Elementary School students -- 42 children -- live at Buena Vista. Twenty-two students attend Terman Middle School, and 29 attend Gunn High School.
She said the PTA Council Executive Board voted to form a committee to explore whether there is a role for PTA in the issue. PTA Council represents all 17 of the Palo Alto PTAs, but each PTA is its own entity and has not voted on the issue. They have formed an advocacy group to preserve affordable housing in whatever form it takes, she said.
The impact of their move would be dramatic -- and not just in sheer numbers, she added.
"The cultural diversity, all of the cultural events (that Buena Vista students bring) at the schools would all just be gone," she said.
Dellenbach likewise views Buena Vista as essential to the fabric of the community.
"Buena Vista is on my doorstep. It's part of my neighborhood. It's part of what makes Barron Park Barron Park," she said.
"Can you imagine if this were Professorville or Crescent Park or Greenmeadow and if we said that 400 members of our neighborhood would just disappear? I surmise that people would be up in arms.
"I just feel they are our neighbors, and I'm concerned that our neighbors be well and prosper," she said. "These are Palo Alto residents, and we want to keep them in Palo Alto, whether in Buena Vista or other housing. We don't want to see them scattered to the winds."