Residents of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto are appealing a recent decision by a hearing officer that paved the way for the park's closure.
Hoping to save their homes, the Buena Vista Residents Association on Tuesday filed an appeal that challenges last month's finding by hearing officer Craig Labadie that the mobile home park owner's proposal to compensate the residents is adequate. Residents were facing a Tuesday deadline to appeal the ruling to the City Council, a move that was widely expected.
The appeal filed by the residents' attorneys argues that the mitigation package offered by the family of park owner Toufic Jisser isn't adequate to compensate the roughly 400 residents who would be evicted should the city's sole mobile home park shut down.
The mitigation package offered by the Jisser family in the Relocation Impact Report -- a document put together by the Jissers that lays out its plan to assist the displaced residents of Buena Vista -- consists of the appraised value of each mobile home; a rent subsidy equaling the difference between the average rent space at Buena Vista and the average market rate for a replacement house; "start-up costs" equal to three months of moving expenses; and special assistance for disabled residents.
Hearing officer Labadie reached his decision in favor of the Jissers after an emotional three-day hearing in May, featuring testimony from residents and a last-minute agreement by the Jissers to raise their rent-subsidy level from 40 percent to 100 percent.
In their comments, Buena Vista residents argued that the park's closure will force them to pull their children out of Palo Alto schools and leave the city, where affordable housing is in short supply.
Labadie noted in the Sept. 30 decision that the two parties have "very divergent views" on the issue of "reasonable costs of relocation."
"Unfortunately, the law does not provide any empirical formula for calculating the appropriate amount of relocation assistance in the context of a private mobile home park closure application," Labadie said.
The appeal argues to the contrary. In reviewing the mitigation package, the appellants contest that Labadie should have referred to the California Relocation Assistance Act, which focuses on individuals displaced as a result of actions made by a public entity. This could mean an acquisition of real property by a public entity or the "rehabilitation, demolition or other displacing activity pursuant to a program or project of a public entity as to real property on which the person is a residential tenant."
The state act also sets guidelines and formulas for calculating relocation assistance, including a cap on payments made by tenants for replacement housing.
Labadie noted that it's difficult to determine whether these guidelines would have raised or lowered the level subsidies (neither side had made the calculations). He also concluded that this question isn't relevant because the state act doesn't apply to the Buena Vista residents because the park's closure is an action by a private entity, not the city.
"It is undisputed that the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park is not being acquired by the City of Palo Alto, either directly or by a private party having an agreement with the city or acting on the city's behalf," he said.
And though the city has a regulatory role in the closure process, this role is "insufficient to convert the park owner's proposal for closure of a privately owned mobile home park into a public project undertaken by the city," he added.
The appeal disputes this interpretation. The state act, the appeal states, applies "not only when a local government undertakes a project that leads to displacement, but also when it participates in such a project."
In 2001, the city crafted an ordinance that stabilized rents at the mobile home park and created a process for shutting the park down. The city also served as an "intermediary" for the owner and residents and approved the Relocation Impact Report submitted by the Jissers, the appeal notes. Therefore residents should be entitled to the provisions of the state law.
The appeal also makes a case that the offer deemed by Labadie to be sufficient is far from so. The Jissers, the appeal notes, have "failed to identify a single mobile home park that would accept any homes or trailers within 35 miles of the park."
Furthermore, the residents are arguing that the appraised values of the mobile homes -- ranging between $5,500 and $45,000 -- are far too low because the appraisal didn't consider the homes' "in-place value." Though Labadie specified that his approval hinges on an updated appraisal, the residents note that the new estimate would be conducted by the same appraiser who undervalued the homes the first time around.
The appeal also challenges the hearing process and argues that the residents were deprived of a fair hearing. That's because neither the Jissers nor some of their expert witnesses actually testified at the three-day hearing, depriving the Buena Vista Residents Association of a chance to cross-examine them. The decision by the Jisser family to change the offer at the very end of the hearing also kept the residents from commenting on the inadequacy of the amended mitigations, the appeal states.
Closing Buena Vista, the appeal states, would also conflict with the city's Housing Element and with the Fair Housing Act, which Labadie deemed to be beyond the scope of the hearing. The appeal points out that federal and state laws recognize that actions that have a disparate impact on protected groups of people may constitute "illegal discrimination" even if these groups aren't overtly targeted. The city has an obligation, the appeal maintains, "to affirmatively further fair housing."
"The closure of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park would certainly have a discriminatory effect on Latinos in Palo Alto and would likely also have a discriminatory effect on people with disabilities and families with children," the appeal letter states. "Accordingly, any relocation assistance must ensure that the residents can access housing in communities that have opportunities similar to those in Palo Alto. Moreover, failing to preserve the Park and allowing the displacement of its current residents in the Park would be a violation of the city's obligation to affirmatively further fair housing."
The appeal was filed by Nadia Aziz and Kyra Kazantzis of the Public Interest Law Firm and Fair Housing Law Project at the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley. The legal team also includes Navneet Grewal, S. Lyn Martinez and Sue Himmelrich of the Western Center on Law and Poverty and Matthew Dolan of Sidley Austin LLP.
According to an appraisal conducted during the closure process, the property is currently valued at about $14.5 million under its current use. If the property is rezoned to accommodate a multi-family housing development, the value would jump up to $28.8 million. In April 2013, residents made an offer to the Jissers to buy the park for $14.5 million, but the offer was rejected in September. Labadie notes that the owner has reiterated after the hearing an unwillingness to sell the park to the residents.
Yet it's far from clear what type of development the five-acre site at 3980 El Camino Real will ultimately accommodate, should Buena Vista close. The developer Prometheus Real Estate Group had entered into an agreement with the Jissers in 2012 to develop 180-units of high-end housing on the site. In June, the real estate giant filed a quitclaim deed, nullifying this agreement.
Speculation about Buena Vista's future has also become a hot topic in the City Council race, with candidates generally agreeing that the city should take some role in assisting Buena Vista residents, should the park close.
At an Oct. 2 forum, candidate Eric Filseth called Buena Vista's pending closure a "huge tragedy" while candidate Lydia Kou said the city should consider extending a loan to a nonprofit to develop affordable housing at the Buena Vista site, a deal comparable to one that the city made last year with the Palo Alto Housing Corporation to a housing development on Maybell Avenue that voters ultimately shot down.
Candidate A.C. Johnston said it should be a "priority for the council and the city to find a place for additional affordable housing." He said he is sympathetic to the park's residents.
"I want to find ways to help them," Johnston said.