The closure of Palo Alto's sole mobile-home park became more imminent Wednesday, when an administrative judge upheld the property owner's plan for compensating the roughly 400 residents who would be displaced when Buena Vista Mobile Home Park shutters.
Acknowledging that his decision will have a significant impact on the largely Hispanic and working-class community in Barron Park, Administrative Judge Craig Labadie concluded that the Jisser family has fulfilled all the necessary legal requirements to proceed with the closure. Among the most significant of these is the completion of an adequate Relocation Impact Report (RIR), a document that estimates that value of each mobile home and lays out the assistance that Jissers would provide to the roughly 100 families that would need to find a new place to live.
Labadie's 22-page decision, which focuses on this document, came about three months after a three-day public hearing in which dozens of Buena Vista residents and community supporters made a plea to keep the mobile-home park open, citing the high costs of finding alternative housing in the area and the disruptive effects of having to pull children out of Palo Alto schools. The residents' attorney called the mitigations offered in the Relocation Impact Report "grossly inadequate" at that time.
Labadie acknowledged in his ruling the "heartfelt testimony" he heard from residents and experts about the negative impacts of park closure.
"These impacts include not only disruption to the lives of the residents and their families, but also loss of economic and cultural diversity for the City of Palo Alto," he wrote.
Yet he also concluded that the Jissers have met their burden in offering Buena Vista's residents "reasonable costs of relocation," as required by state and local law. This being the case, he ruled that the Relocation Impact Report merits approval.
For the Jissers, the ruling is a significant milestone in a process that was launched nearly two years ago, when they submitted their initial closure application. In February, Palo Alto officials deemed the Relocation Impact Report complete after five iterations and numerous revisions to the compensation package. Labadie's decision largely confirmed the city's conclusion, paving the way for the closure to proceed.
"Although I am mindful of the impact this decision will have on the lives of park residents, my factual and legal conclusions must be based on evidence and reasoned analysis, not emotion or sympathy," Labadie wrote. "After careful consideration of all the information presented, my ultimate conclusion is that the park owner has met its burden of proof by proposing a package of mitigation measures which, taken as a whole and with certain supplemental conditions, do meet the criteria set forth in the City's Mobilehome Park Conversion Ordinance for mandatory approval of the application to close the Buena Vista Mobilehome Park."
The package of relocation benefits was most recently revised on May 14, when the Jissers' attorney offered at the conclusion of the public hearing to increase the level of subsidies. The relocation benefits provided to the residents in the current report are: the full appraised value of each mobile home; a rent subsidy equal to the entire difference between the average space rent at the park and the average market rent for replacement housing; start-up cost equal to three months' rent; moving expenses; and special assistance for handicapped and disabled residents. Labadie also stipulated that the compensation should be based on updated appraisals for the mobile homes, reflecting market conditions within six months of relocation. The Jisser's attorney, Margaret Nanda, offered the updated appraisals on May 14 -- five minutes prior to the end of the three-day hearing -- in response to the concerns from residents.
At the public hearing, Nanda argued that "in all respects, the RIR complies with the express terms of Palo Alto's conversion ordinance." The park, which the Jissers bought in 1986, has always been a private property, she said.
"It is the legal right of the private-property owner in California, and specifically a mobile home park owner ... to close, convert or cease the operation of a mobile home park," Nanda said on May 12.
Melissa Morris, representing the residents, made a case in her closing comments on May 14 for preserving the mobile-home park, calling it "an important part of the Palo Alto community."
"It's one of the community's only sources of affordable housing, so its preservation is important, as is making sure that if the residents of Buena Vista are forced to leave their homes that they do get adequate compensation," Morris said.
Labadie concluded that the benefits listed in the amended Relocation Impact Report meet that standard.
"Taken as a whole, the above mitigation measures will substantially lessen the adverse impacts of park closure on residents who are required to relocate," Labadie wrote. "With the assistance of the housing relocation specialist, the relocation benefits to be provided by the park owner will go a long way toward helping individual residents pay the cost of relocating into alternative housing."
Labadie's decision is tentative and attorneys from both sides will have 14 days to respond to the ruling. Residents will have a chance to appeal the decision to the City Council, a move that Palo Alto officials fully anticipate. Labadie also offered to hold his decision in abeyance, effectively suspending it, if the two parties request time to come up with an agreement that would either avoid an appeal altogether or narrow the issues that the council would rule on.
While the ruling makes it increasingly likely that the park will close, the question of what will replace it remains open. In July, real-estate giant Prometheus, which was planning to build a 187-unit, luxury-apartment complex on the site, pulled out of its deal with the Jissers. The roughly 4.5-acre site at 3980 El Camino Real is zoned R-15, which means it can accommodate low-density, multi-family housing.
After attorneys from both sides respond to Labadie's ruling, he will issue a final decision within a month. Residents will then have 10 days appeal the decision to the council.
Study sheds light on Buena Vista children (March 2014)
Buena Vista owners reject residents' $14.5M offer (September 2013)
A history of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park (July 2008)