Acknowledging the long odds and the short window of opportunity, Santa Clara County officials on Tuesday reaffirmed their commitment to avert the likely closure of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park.
By a unanimous vote, the county Board of Supervisors authorized staff to conduct a competitive process for identifying a partner who would help preserve the mobile-home park as a "permanent source of affordable housing." The partner is expected to be a nonprofit that would join the county and Palo Alto in acquiring the 4.6-acre site from the Jisser family and that would then be responsible for maintaining Buena Vista.
Before the vote, the board acknowledged that time is of the essence. The Jissers' two-year quest to close Buena Vista moved forward last week, when the City Council tentatively approved the closure applications while mandating new home appraisals that take into account the park's safety and the value of having Buena Vista's children attend Palo Alto schools. The council is set for formalize its approval of the closure application on May 26.
Even so, hope remains for preserving the low-income and mostly Hispanic community, which is home to about 400 residents, including about 125 children.
The county has already allocated $8 million toward Buena Vista's preservation, and Palo Alto City Manager James Keene followed suit by earmarking another $8 million for the cause, pending council approval. The county also has an additional $3.3 million in affordable-housing funds available through its general-use permit agreement with Stanford University.
The key now is finding a partner who would join the preservation efforts. And as Supervisor Joe Simitian noted Tuesday, there is not much time left. After May 26, the Jissers would have the ability to post notices of vacancy and begin the six-month process of evicting the park's residents.
"We're scrambling. Time is our enemy," Simitian said Tuesday.
Both Simitian and county staff also emphasized that they have no intention of having the county become involved in maintaining a mobile-home park. That task would go to a third-party nonprofit that specializes in preserving such parks. The board's vote allows the county to engage in an "informal competitive bidding process" to find the appropriate nonprofit. So far, at least three have approached the county to express interest in such a partnership, he said.
Gary Graves, the county's chief operating officer, emphasized that the county's role is largely to "facilitate" a partnership between a third party and the property owner. He said his office is talking to county counsel to make sure "we're walking the fine line very carefully" in ensuring that the county's role is limited.
"There has been some effort in terms of trying to identify who has the experience doing this and how we would arrange an agreement with them in terms of what exactly they would do so as to make sure we are at an arms length and not in any way involved," Graves said.
Yet even with the tight deadline, Simitian said he is far more optimistic today than he was in January, when he and board President Dave Cortese first proposed allocating $8 million in funds for Buena Vista's preservation. In addition to the city earmarking $8 million of its own money, Palo Alto's state and federal representatives are looking for other funding sources.
There is also the possibility of the Buena Vista residents narrowing the funding gap through a tax-exempt revenue bond and pooling the bond proceeds with county and city funds. Simitian said he would expect such a bond to potentially bring in another $8 million to $10 million for Buena Vista's preservation.
"If you take the purchase price of the property, which is yet to be determined, subtract the portion of cost that could be borne by a tax-exempt revenue bond and then look to city and county to use affordable-housing fund to split the remaining cost, you're in the ballpark in terms of being able to put the offer on the table that is appealing to the current owner," Simitian said.
He also noted that the county's and the city's bid to preserve Buena Vista has one advantage over potential commercial buyers. He estimated that the relocation benefits that the Jissers would have to pay to each of the roughly 100 homeowners would be roughly $60,000, pushing the total to around $6 million. The public entities, meanwhile, would not have to pay this sum because there would be no relocation associated with their purchase of the site.
Despite this advantage, Simitian emphasized Tuesday that the preservation effort is now "a race against the clock."
"The challenge is that no matter how substantial the relocation allowance is, there's really nowhere for anybody to go," Simitian said. "So then the question is: How do you actually avoid the closure of the park and its sale for subsequent development and preserve it?"
The county quickly approved his request and directed staff to explore the various options in the nonprofit world. The potential partner would assume the liability for the tax-exempt revenue bond and then would own, maintain and manage the park. Cortese said at the conclusion of the discussion that the county knew all along that "this is long odds and an uphill battle to try to get this done.
"But whatever process comes about involving third-parties or anything else, I think really almost from a moral standpoint we have very little alternative at this point, given the board's appetite to keep the affordable housing there," Cortese said.
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.