Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 6, 2014

Guest Opinion: A closer look at Buena Vista

by Donald Barr and Amado Padilla

As social scientists who are part of the Palo Alto community, the proposal to close the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park raised a series of questions for us. Who are the people who live in Buena Vista? How would the park closure impact their lives? How do we balance the rights of the property owner with the human impacts of closure? Finally, what do other residents of Palo Alto, in particular the neighbors who live close to Buena Vista, think about the prospect of park closure?

In order to answer these questions, we began by recruiting Stanford University students to join us in visiting Buena Vista to become acquainted with the residents. Subsequently, we proposed a research survey of the residents with children to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of Stanford University, the oversight body charged with ensuring that all Stanford research meets federal guidelines for safety and confidentiality of informants.

We found that, of the approximately 115 residential units at Buena Vista, 69 have families with at least one child age 18 or younger. These families have a total of 129 children. These children seem to be thriving, with parents reporting generally positive educational experiences in the Palo Alto schools, access to supplementary educational resources when needed, and no record among the 31 high school age teens of having dropped out of school. The children also enjoy excellent access to health insurance and medical care, with the exception of dental care.

It seems apparent that the lives of 129 entirely low-income children would be profoundly and adversely affected if forced to move to a less affluent neighborhood in the Bay Area. Such communities typically have weak schools, worrisome high school drop out rates (25 percent in Santa Clara County) and fewer health care resources. We also learned that most of the adults worked in Palo Alto or in nearby communities.

Having put a human face to the park families, how do we balance their needs with those of the property owner? Fortunately, this question has been answered, in both state and local law. The State of California and the City of Palo Alto have each enacted comprehensive mobile-home park-closure laws that spell out the rights of an owner to sell, if and only if the owner provides adequate compensation to displaced residents. In the case of Palo Alto, that compensation must be sufficient to ensure that all displaced residents are able to find alternative housing, "located within a community similar to that in which the park that is being closed is located and has similar access to community amenities. ..." (Palo Alto Municipal Code, Chapter 9.76.020b)

To address the question of how Palo Alto residents view our responsibility as a community to Buena Vista residents, we focused on the Barron Park neighborhood, the community that immediately surrounds Buena Vista. On March 31, after obtaining IRB approval, we mailed a short survey to each of the 1,650 addresses in Barron Park, as identified by the City of Palo Alto. (We did not include Buena Vista residents in this survey.) By May 1, we had received 554 completed surveys — a response rate of 33.6 percent, which constitutes a respectable response rate.

In the cover letter explaining the purpose of the survey, we stated, "We will keep your responses strictly confidential, and will not associate your identity with any of your responses." There was a randomly assigned number on each survey, to ensure that only one survey was returned from each address. At all times, we adhered to this assurance of privacy and confidentiality. We have no way of knowing who sent in what response.

We found that 77 percent of respondents agree with the idea that the Palo Alto community should work together to assist the park families who wish to remain in Palo Alto. Eighty-one percent agreed that the Buena Vista children should be able to stay in Palo Alto schools.

We then asked about the level of support for the owner's proposal to close the park. Thirty-eight percent supported this option, while 62 percent opposed it. By contrast, 71 percent supported the option of current Buena Vista residents purchasing the park for market value and keeping it a mobile-home park. However, given a price tag somewhere in the range of $30 million, this option seems unlikely.

We then described a third possible solution. This would involve redevelopment of the Park jointly by a nonprofit housing developer and a market developer, with the creation of approximately 180 new apartments, as originally proposed by the owner. In this case, however, about 80 of those apartments would be made available to current Buena Vista families at rates comparable to their current space rentals at the Park. We asked survey respondents to rank their support for these three options.

Most respondents ranked either purchase by residents or joint redevelopment as their first or second choice. In light of the difficulty in raising sufficient funds to pay the owner full market value for the property, the option of joint redevelopment appears to have broad support.

A parcel map encompassing Buena Vista shows that it actually sits on two separate parcels: a 3.7-acre parcel towards the front of the Park and a 1.15-acre parcel in the back. In fact, the rear parcel is immediately adjacent to a low-income rental apartment complex owned and operated by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation.

Might the property owner and the city willingly compromise, with the owner assured of approval to develop approximately100 new, market-rate apartments on the front parcel, in exchange for making the rear parcel available to PAHC to redevelop approximately 80 low-income apartments for current Buena Vista residents? The 80 new apartments would provide housing for all or nearly all park residents who want to remain — especially those families with children. This would mean an increase in overall density, from the approximately 115 units currently at Buena Vista to 180 units. This increase is consistent with zone changes allowed in the City Code and would not exceed existing height restrictions.

This solution would create what is often referred to as a "win-win" outcome, in which both parties get enough of what they were hoping for, and neither party feels as though they came out the loser. Such a win-win outcome seems also to have substantial support among Barron Park households close to Buena Vista. We believe that it would also have broad support among the Palo Alto community more generally. We hope that all parties involved will consider the win-win option we describe.

Donald Barr and Amado Padilla are on the faculty of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.

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