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Buena Vista hearing opens in Palo Alto

Lawyers for the property owner and residents discuss fate of mobile-home park

Watch a live stream of the Buena Vista hearing as it continues Tuesday and Wednesday, beginning both nights at 6:30 p.m.

A three-day public hearing on the fate of Palo Alto's only mobile-home park, Buena Vista, began Monday night. A room full of park residents in black T-shirts that read "Save our home!" listened to their legal representation and the attorneys for property owner Toufic Jisser go head to head on the adequacy of the relocation benefits currently being offered to them.

Jisser, who purchased the property in 1996, has applied to close the 60-plus-year-old residential park located at 3980 El Camino Real. Nearly 400 low-income individuals would be evicted to make way for a 184-unit apartment complex.

In February, the city finally deemed complete the fifth iteration of a Relocation Impact Report (RIR) submitted by the Jisser family. Under the new report, the family has offered to buy residents' mobile homes for their appraised values and pay for the "startup costs" of relocating, which includes first- and last-month's rent, a security deposit and 12 months of rent subsidies that reflect the difference between the rent at Buena Vista and the rent at the new locations.

The level of startup costs would vary based on the kind of housing the residents move into. For those moving into one-bedroom apartments, this sum would range from $12,000 to $16,300. For those moving into three-bedroom apartments, the sum would range from $20,000 to $30,600.

At Monday's hearing, each side's legal team deconstructed the report's new terms, with the Jisser family's attorney, Margaret Nanda, defending their decision to close and attorneys representing the residents pointing to what they called a disconnect between the Jissers' offer and the reality of the local housing market and what residents can afford.

Nanda, sitting next to Toufic's son, Joe Jisser, opened the evening by standing to face the crowd of residents, some wearing headphones to get simultaneous translation of the evening in Spanish.

"We do, of course, understand very deeply your position and opposition in regard to closure of the park," she said.

She went on to defend the Jissers, characterizing the family as decent property owners well within their legal right to close the park.

"The park is and always has been private property. It is the legal right of a private property owner in California and specifically a mobile-home park owner ... to close, convert or cease the operation of a mobile-home park. The park owner has the right to close the park," she said.

She pointed to the average rent of spaces at Buena Vista -- $685 per month -- and to the fact that the Jissers raised rents once in 2008 and again in 2010, effective Jan. 1, 2011, and have not since.

"Thus, for a period of 29 months, the park owner has not raised rents on a park-wide basis," she said. "Certain space rents have been increased when there's been a vacancy, per the terms of the rent-control ordinance. I would ask how many other rental properties, whether they be apartments in Palo Alto or other mobile-home parks, have not raised rents in 29 months."

Nanda's opening statement also focused on the history of the family's purchase and ownership of the park, tracing in particular the origins of the City of Palo Alto's mobile-home park conversion ordinance and a rent-control ordinance passed in 2001. She criticized the conversion ordinance, blaming the city for a flawed process that has taken "12 months and six versions of the RIR before deemed complete."

"In my view, as someone who has closed parks in six other jurisdictions with other mobile-home park conversion ordinances, the ordinance in Palo Alto is extremely poorly drafted," she said. "It does not require, as other conversion ordinances do, a period of time for negotiations between park owner and residents for the purchase of the park. It does not (communicate) how real relocation offers occur, which begin with private discussions with residents and a housing relocation specialist. It does not allow for that part of the process to start early so residents can get on lists for affordable-housing units."

Melissa Morris, senior attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, gave the opening statement in support of the residents, demanding more "meaningful" and sufficient compensation that would allow them to move to "comparable housing that is safe and stable."

"Almost all (Buena Vista) households are very low income and almost all are homeowners. They stand to lose not just the place they live but the home they have purchased," Morris said. "It's rare to own a home if you're a low-income person in Silicon Valley. In fact, mobile-home parks represent one of the only opportunities in the area to own homes, have a private space and build equity."

She also emphasized Palo Alto's quality schools as one of the most significant amenities linked to living at Buena Vista, and one that cannot simply be lumped in with the definition of comparable housing, as Nanda suggested earlier in the evening.

Morris asked that independent Administrative Law Judge Craig Labadie, who is charged with overseeing the hearing and issuing a written tentative decision on whether or not the terms laid out in the latest Relocation Impact Report are acceptable, reject the report outright and require the Jissers to submit a new proposal.

The first witness called in the three-day hearing was Dave Richman, a designated housing-relocation specialist who was hired by the Jissers to meet with Buena Vista residents. He said he has been involved with nine mobile-home-park closures to date, ones both privately and publicly funded.

Attorney Sue Himmelrich from the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a member of the residents' legal representation, pointedly questioned Richman on the actual possibility of relocating Buena Vista residents under the terms currently offered.

"Have you done any research to determine whether relocation is possible with these numbers within 35 miles of this park?" she asked. "If that person has a home in Buena Vista and they get their fair market value and they get their $18,000 and they get their startup cost and they get whatever assistance they get ... Are you aware of any other mobile-home park that has housing available for people who live in this park within 35 miles?"

"I think they could purchase other homes, but they would have to finance some kind of balance for that acquisition," Richman responded.

Himmelrich asked how much that balance might be; Richman said based on experience, it could range anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000.

"Can you tell me what segment of the housing market could provide rentals for the current home owners in the park at current level of $685? Is there anything?" she next asked.

"In the Bay Area, probably not," Richman responded.

"So what's going to happen? It's your job to find them relocation," she said.

"We provide advisory assistance for relocation," Richman responded.

Kenneth Baar, an attorney who has worked on housing policy issues and served as a consultant to numerous cities on mobile-home park issues, was the second witness of the evening. He offered statistical and anecdotal information on the Bay Area's steep housing market, both for apartment rentals and mobile-home parks, in direct contrast with the earning levels of Buena Vista residents.

He said that apartment rental prices in neighboring areas are "well over" $1,500 per month, with the exception of lower rents in East Palo Alto, which he said are in the range of $1,300.

"The other problem is when there is a low-rent apartment, there's stiff competition for it," Baar said. "So it makes it extremely hard to get low-rent apartments. And as I said, most of the rents of lower levels are beyond the range of most of the residents."

Baar also commented on what he called a "drastic change" in recent years in the prices of mobile homes, discussed in conversations with local real-estate brokers regarding mobile homes.

"They said two years ago, you could get a mobile home for $50,000. Now, it's very rare and it's tough to get anything for under $100,000," he said.

Nanda later questioned this number, asking Baar if he is of the opinion that $100,000 should be the mitigation payment offered to residents. He responded that he is not and was rather offering it as a "starting point" and example of the minimum cost to purchase a replacement mobile home.

Baar also questioned the Jissers' economic decision to sell an investment that's been providing a "very good return" since their purchase in the 1990s. The family initially bought the property for $4 million with partners, and then bought out partners for $6 million in 2011. He said the net operating income of the park is about $800,000 per year.

"The park investment has been doing very well just as a park. It wouldn't close as a park or the owner would not propose it except now there's an option in the market that's much more attractive," he said, referring to an offer from San Mateo developer Prometheus. "And that's why. But its functioning very well economically as a mobile-home park."

He also countered Nanda's point about the Jissers keeping rent low at Buena Vista, explaining that the $685 per month average is, indeed, lower than average mobile-home park rent levels, but Buena Vista is a denser-than-average park, with 25 spaces per acre. He said a density of 12.5 spaces per acre is more common.

"We could debate about the specific numbers or details, but there's such a distance between what is being proposed and what is needed to move within this area that there's no way the proposed mitigation is going to provide these people with replacement housing in just about every case, or the vast majority of cases," Baar said.

The hearing will continue tonight and tomorrow, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., in the Avenidas Senior Center's La Comida room at 450 Bryant St. Labadie said Tuesday's time is allotted for residents to speak, with any time leftover available for public comment, which will continue Wednesday.

Related stories:

New report boosts effort to close Buena Vista Mobile Park

Study sheds light on Buena Vista children

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