With the City Council just days away from making a decision on the closure of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, supporters of preserving the low-income community in Barron Park are making a renewed push to keep Palo Alto schools at the center of the conversation.
The question of whether the value of a Palo Alto education should be included in the relocation benefits offered to the park's roughly 400 residents is at the heart of the dispute over the closure application. The relocation package offered by the property owners, the Jisser family, is based on an appraisal that did not specifically consider the value of schools in determining the cost of relocating to a "comparable community." While local law does not list schools as a factor that needs to be considered, Buena Vista residents, their attorneys and supporters have argued that Palo Alto's vaunted education system is one of the city's most defining characteristics.
From the perspective of Mike Pyatok, a Buena Vista supporter and the architect of such affordable-housing projects as Palo Alto's Oak Court and Treehouse, schools are by far the most important characteristic of living in the city. Pyatok made a plea this week for the council to do anything it can to prevent the residents' eviction.
The New York native recalled his own childhood in "one of the worst tenements of Brooklyn," a four-story walk-up with 100 units per acre. He said he lived in one cockroach-ridden room with his mother and a brother until he turned 22 and went to Harvard University, where he completed his education as an architect.
Thanks in large part to Franklin Roosevelt's rent-control legislation, Pyatok was able to stay in that neighborhood and attend local schools, including an "outstanding" public elementary school, PS 107. Pyatok credited the school for helping him get into a good high school and land scholarships to the Pratt Institute and, ultimately, Harvard.
"As an architect of over 40,000 multi-family dwellings and a winner of hundreds of design awards and housing competitions I would be the first to assure you that the single-most important measure of good housing is not the quality of fixtures, finishes and furnishings not how good it looks from the outside," Pyatok told the council. "The single-most important measure of the quality of family housing is how good is the school system in which that housing is located."
Pyatok called it "not just negligent, it is criminal" that the Buena Vista appraisal left schools out of its scope.
The council likewise agreed on April 14 that the value of schools should be considered in the appraisal, voting to tentatively approve the closure application but ordering an added appraisal specifically of the worth of access to local schools and safety.
On May 5, however, the appraiser who was commissioned to perform this analysis, David Beccaria, wrote a defiant letter stating that his company will not go forward with this assignment. He also contended that any further communication with him about the methodology would be considered "pressuring the appraisal."
The council is scheduled to take a formal vote on the closure application on Tuesday, May 26. It could opt to allow the closure process to move ahead without changing the appraisal's scope so that it includes schools.
Joining Pyatok in support of Buena Vista residents, Amado Padilla, a professor of education at Stanford University, also addressed the council on May 11. Padilla, a former member of the local school board, said he and several Stanford students are surveying the approximately 85 Buena Vista residents aged 12 to 24. In general, he said, the youth reported a "positive relationship with teachers" and "a high level of stress at a prospect of having to attend schools at another community." They consider schools to be their "home away from home," he said.
"Breaking the bonds with the teachers and friends they have in schools is weighing heavily on them," Padilla said.
Padilla also joined Stanford professors Donald Barr and David Gursky in cosigning a letter highlighting research that considers the correlation between educational attainment and poverty levels. The professors said they had interviewed all the Buena Vista families with children 18 and younger and looked at numerous studies that examined the topic. Their survey indicated that there have been no high school dropouts in the largely Hispanic community of Buena Vista, even as the dropout rate among Hispanic students in Silicon Valley was 29.3 percent in 2011.
They also pointed to a study conducted by Raj Chetty and Lawrence Katz of Harvard University that considered the impact of moving from an impoverished community to a wealthy one when it comes to college attendance. The study concluded that the outcomes of children who move into better neighborhoods "improve linearly in proportion to the time they spend growing up in the area."
Because Buena Vista families would likely have to relocate to more impoverished communities than Palo Alto, the Stanford professors wrote that they would expect "the likelihood of college attendance to decrease with every year the families live in lower-income communities as compared to having remained in Palo Alto."
Barr, Grusky and Padilla also point to a study by Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Katz focusing on the relationship between the environment in which a child grows up and income earned as an adult. The research showed that the association between the two factors is strongest for children who moved before the age of 13. Children in poor families who moved to wealthier neighborhoods when they were younger than 13 saw an increase in lifetime earnings of $302,000, according to the paper.
"While the data in the study refer to children who moved from a high-poverty neighborhood to a low-poverty neighborhood, it is reasonable to assume that low-income children who move from a ... neighborhood such as Palo Alto to a high-poverty neighborhood will experience an analogous decrease in lifetime earnings of a similar magnitude," the paper from the Stanford professors states.
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.