The legal, financial and political obstacles to saving 117 units of low-income housing at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park are enormous, but they are not insurmountable.
With the City Council set to consider an appeal in April of a hearing officer's decision to approve the closure of the mobile-home park, the city is unfortunately constrained in initiating any activity that could be construed as creating bias as the council adjudicates the appeal and makes a final ruling.
This has effectively muzzled the council and precludes any city analyses exploring how the closure of the park might be averted, including the possible purchase of the property.
And when it does consider the appeal, the council's options are very limited. Its primary role is to determine if the proposed relocation compensation for the residents meets the requirements of state and local laws by covering the "reasonable costs of relocation." It may not consider whether the park's closure is in the best interests of Buena Vista residents or the broader community.
Since the law does not define "reasonable costs of relocation" the council could disagree with the hearing officer and insist on greater benefits, assuming it can justify them based on the testimony from the original closure hearing held last year. Through its actions, residents of the park might get more money when forced out, but the council can't prevent the closure by simply voting down the application.
As it stands now, the required benefits include payment to Buena Vista residents equal to the appraised value of their mobile home, moving expenses, payment of start-up expenses at a new location (first and last month's rent and security deposit), and a rent subsidy equal to 100 percent of the differential between the average rent at the park and the average market rent for "replacement" housing for a period of one year.
Supporters and attorneys of Buena Vista residents argue that the proposed payments fall substantially short of what is required because comparable housing and civic amenities would be much more costly than the relocation benefit calculations suggest, if they were available at all. Also in dispute is how the value of Palo Alto schools should factor into either the appraised value of the mobile home or in achieving comparability at a new location.
But while looking for ways to justify increased relocation benefits is appropriate and worthwhile, we believe the primary goal of the community should be to preserve Buena Vista and prevent the loss of these 400 residents, including 129 children and the affordable housing they occupy.
The soaring cost of housing is undermining our community's ability and desire to maintain or add to our affordable-housing inventory, an important goal of our Comprehensive Plan. Since there are so few opportunities to create new low-income housing, we should be doing everything possible to keep the housing we already have, including the Buena Vista units.
With the city currently legally restricted from pursuing any steps toward acquiring Buena Vista while it considers the closure appeal, and with the park owners showing no interest in discussing a sale to a public agency or nonprofit, we urge the county to step up quickly and help develop an analysis of available options, their costs and legal risks.
Such an analysis would explore how other California cities or nonprofit organizations have acquired mobile-home parks under similar circumstances, the costs and requirements of bringing the park up to code, the use of eminent-domain powers to acquire the land and a comparison of the costs and benefits of retaining the existing mobile-home park or building new affordable housing on the site.
Thanks to Supervisor Joe Simitian, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors has already stepped up by making available $8 million in affordable-housing funds to help with any viable plan to retain affordable housing on the Buena Vista site and prevent its conversion to market-rate housing.
It will take much more money than that to pull off the purchase of the property, but the city has substantial housing funds available, and the Palo Alto Housing Corporation also has resources and experience with obtaining state and federal housing grants.
Right now we need governmental leadership to achieve a reliable and impartial analysis while the Palo Alto City Council is considering the Buena Vista closure appeal. Having boldly opened the door to creative solutions by obtaining the county's $8 million in seed money, we hope Simitian can be as successful in marshaling the help of county housing staff or consultants to move this idea forward.