In determining how much assistance should be offered to residents of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park once the park is closed, attorneys and Palo Alto officials spent hours on Tuesday wrestling with the question: How valuable are Palo Alto schools?
In theory, it's easy to answer. Everyone agreed that the acclaimed school system is one of Palo Alto's most prized amenities, so valuable that residents are willing to pay a premium and live in substandard conditions just to have their children attend Barron Park Elementary, Terman Middle and Gunn High schools.
In practice, things are far more complex. And now, following the City Council's decision Tuesday, it will be up to appraiser David Beccaria to put a monetary value on a Palo Alto education, a factor that would be added to the relocation compensation that the park's residents would receive upon eviction.
Beccaria already appraised Buena Vista's overall value as part of the Relocation Impact Report that was submitted by the Jisser family, the El Camino Real property's owner, as part of its closure application. He did not explicitly analyze the value of schools, but said this value is already embedded in the appraisal.
Schools are not specifically called out as an amenity that should be considered in relocation assistance in Palo Alto's 2001 ordinance governing mobile-home parks. The ordinance specifies residents be compensated such that they can relocate to a community that offers comparable access to "amenities such as shopping, medical services, recreational facilities and transportation."
The omission of schools from the list sparked an argument between attorneys for both sides Tuesday. Attorney Nadia Aziz, who represents the Buena Vista Residents Association, noted that the Palo Alto ordinance is "not the clearest ordinance in the world" but argued that the words "such as" make it clear that the list is not exclusive and that schools should be part of the equation.
"If you look at what makes Palo Alto Palo Alto, it's the schools," she said. "When you look for housing, in particular in Palo Alto, they list which schools are closest to the real estate listing. The reason why prices are so high here is because of schools. That's a factor that needs to be in consideration when you look at comparable housing."
Councilman Cory Wolbach also seized on the "such as" in the ordinance and argued that the "purpose of including expansive language is to allow for consideration at a future time of items that may not have been included in a specific list." In this reading, schools are fair game.
Margaret Nanda, who represents the Jisser family, vehemently disagreed and took issue with the idea that relocation compensation should be increased to reflect the factor of schools. The language of the ordinance does not include schools, Nanda argued, because city officials considered the issue in 2001 and decided not to include it, as the record suggests. She also noted that the record shows that the city reviewed several other closure ordinances, including one from the City of Monrovia, that list schools as a relocation factor. Even so, Palo Alto decided not to include schools. This, Nanda suggested, was a conscious decision.
Including schools in the appraisal, she argued, would be tantamount to rewriting the ordinance. She reserved her right to appeal the council's decision, suggesting that the question of schools could resurface as part of a future lawsuit.
But a review of the legislative record and interviews with former City Council members who served in 2001 suggests that in fact there was no particular desire to exclude schools from the definition of a "comparable mobile-home park." Nor, for that matter, was there a particular push to include them. In fact, the issue barely came up during the council's discussions in April and May of 2001, when the ordinance was adopted. Though numerous Buena Vista residents spoke at those meetings, schools were not mentioned, and there was no input from the school district, from students or from school advocates.
Former Vice Mayor Vic Ojakian, who took part in a committee that worked on the ordinance, said he doesn't remember the school issue coming up at all.
"Our discussions were tailored around what was basically in front of us," Ojakian said. "There were certain things under state law, things that the state allowed us to adopt, and we did.
"If we couldn't absolutely preserve the living situation, we wanted to make sure we could do as much as we could to create the least amount of harm," he told the Weekly.
Former Mayor Judy Kleinberg, who took the lead in studying the issue with then-City Attorney Ariel Colonne, had a similar recollection. The council was focused on preventing displacement of people and preserving affordable housing, as well as on maintaining economic diversity.
Kleinberg, who visited the park several times in those days, also noted that at the time there were not too many children living at Buena Vista.
"The demographic was middle-age to older. It really wasn't a younger family crowd," Kleinberg said.
Colonne did indeed look at various other ordinances but not for the sake of considering the value to the residents of access to schools. The goal was to "figure out a way to postpone or prevent the conversion of these affordable homes.
"Ariel was looking at ordinances from other communities to see what might be applicable and usable," she said.
So, did the council intend to exclude schools from the list of amenities?
"I don't recall this being a specific exclusion," Kleinberg said.
Like his two colleagues from 2001, former Mayor Bern Beecham said he doesn't recall "any conversation about schools."
"There was a concern about the loss of affordable housing in Palo Alto," Beecham told the Weekly. "To me, it was a balance of principles. We wanted to enable people of all abilities to be in Palo Alto as a social good versus the placement of that burden on a sole property owner."
Because schools didn't emerge as a significant issue during the discussion, Beecham said, that likely explains why they are absent from the ordinance.
"It's likely because no one at the time raised the issue," Beecham said.
Unlike today, when closure and relocation are dominating the discussion, the council's deliberations at the time focused on the issue of how high rents should be allowed to increase. That was the focus of vast majority of comments in 2001, both from the public and from the council. The city had just reached an agreement with the Jisser family to temporarily stave off dramatic rent increases and it was mostly looking at ways to keep rents affordable in the future.
As for the council's consideration of the Monrovia ordinance, there is no evidence to suggest that the council ever considered the relocation benefits in that ordinance. Instead, the minutes from the council's April 30 meeting make it clear that the Monrovia ordinance informed the council's deliberation on a threshold that should be applied for appealing rent increases. The Monrovia ordinance, the minutes state, "had a 51 percent threshold," which means more than half of the park's residents would have to petition against the increases. Palo Alto ultimately went with a lower threshold: 25 percent.
Lawyer: Buena Vista evictions could start next month | April 16, 2015
Buena Vista's closure hangs on new appraisal | April 14, 2015
Buena Vista residents make final plea to save their homes | April 13, 2015
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.