Constrained by advice from the city attorney aimed at keeping council members narrowly focused on their legal responsibilities, an emotional two evenings of public testimony and council discussion came to an anti-climactic end Tuesday night as the council unanimously gave permission to the owner of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park to close it down.
There was never really any suspense over this outcome, as the City Council's options were limited to determining the adequacy of the relocation benefits being offered current residents and ensuring compliance with state law and Palo Alto's mobile-home park closure ordinance. Blocking the park's closure was never an option, and all agreed that the Jisser family had the right to finally move forward with plans that are more than a decade old.
But neither the city's limited jurisdiction nor the inevitability of the outcome dissuaded dozens of speakers, some through tears, from urging the council to find a way to keep the park open and prevent the displacement of some 400 low-income residents, including 129 children.
In the end, the council found a way to help the residents financially, primarily by mandating that critical final appraisals of each unit reflect the value of being able to send children to Palo Alto schools. The propriety of this was aggressively challenged by the attorney representing the park owner, who argued that the city's ordinance did not specifically mention schools as an "amenity" to be considered in establishing value.
The independent hearing officer who heard days of testimony last year and who ruled the closure application met all legal requirements decided that the value of the local schools should not be a factor in appraising the units. It was this ruling, viewed by many as wrong-headed given the significantly higher real estate values in Palo Alto widely believed to be school-driven, that gave the City Council its best opening to improve the relocation benefits that will be paid to residents should the park be closed.
All the protests and threats of legal challenge by the Jissers' attorney on this point rang hollow, and the council did the right thing to require consideration of the value of access to local schools when appraising their units.
The posturing and wrangling among lawyers on each side, the city attorney and the City Council made for an unusual and dramatic evening, but mostly served to divert attention from the impending threat of Palo Alto losing its most affordable housing stock and the diversity it brings to the community.
Although the council's actions will not be finalized until next month, it is now time for Palo Alto and regional leaders, foundations and philanthropists to mobilize and pull together the financial resources needed to make an offer to buy the property and retain the mobile-home park.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian is already hard at work on this challenge and has identified almost $20 million in city and county funds that could be used to help purchase the park and is working to identify additional government, nonprofit and private resources.
Several nonprofit organizations that exist to purchase and operate mobile-home parks in California for the purpose of preserving low-income housing are evaluating the Buena Vista situation, and at least one is funding a full market appraisal of the property to determine how much will likely be required to acquire the park and make the utility infrastructure improvements and deferred maintenance possible.
These are hopeful signs deserving of strong support and a full-court press by city and county staff, the Palo Alto Housing Corporation and local foundations that recognize the importance and value of preserving an existing 140 units of low-income housing that could never be duplicated without a substantially more expensive redevelopment project.
While time is the enemy, since the Jisser family will be able to begin the six-month closure process as soon as next month, there is no reason to believe the Jissers would walk away from a fair-market cash offer for the park.
Even with the "victory" of the council's approval of the modified relocation-assistance package, the Jissers (or a buyer intent on redeveloping the property) face a long and emotional process of eviction, payment of in excess of $5 million to the current residents, possible extended legal battles and an unfavorable development climate that will bring opposition to any proposal that exceeds current zoning.
Government is rarely good at moving fast, but that is what is needed for this housing to be preserved. Simitian has stepped up and made saving Buena Vista a personal priority and a viable idea. Now it's time for others who care about affordable housing and diversity to join the effort and persuade the Jissers that a win-win solution is within reach.
Attorneys debate the value of a Palo Alto education | April 17, 2015
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.