They haven't had much to cheer about over the past two years, but on Monday night about 300 residents of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park stood up to applaud the City Council after it voted to pledge $14.5 million in city funds to preserve the mobile-home park.
With its enthusiastic and unanimous vote, the council agreed to follow the lead of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and earmark the funds toward a possible purchase of Buena Vista, the city's sole mobile-home park and one whose future has been in jeopardy since fall 2012.
That's when the Jisser family, which owns the park, applied to close the park with the idea of converting it to luxury apartments. The application process for the closure hit a milestone last October, when an administrative judge endorsed the Jisser's proposal and cleared its final hurdle in May, when the council officially approved it, thus enabling the Jissers to begin the eviction process.
But after more than two years of anxiety about displacement and numerous unfavorable votes, the roughly 400 residents of Buena Vista got some good news last week, when Santa Clara County supervisors agreed to add $6.5 million toward the effort to save the park, contingent on a similar contribution from the city. The funds supplement the $8 million that the county pledged in January, an allocation that the city had also matched.
On Monday night, the City Council followed suit, raising the total pledged in public funds to $29 million. Every council member present spoke in favor of approving the allocation. Councilman Tom DuBois, who was absent, submitted a letter pledging his own support for the mobile-home park's preservation.
The vote came in front of about 300 residents who packed into City Hall. Most wore "Keep B.V. Residents in P.A." stickers and many carried laminated posters with photos of Buena Vista children, about 100 of whom attend local schools.
The council's discussion Monday was unlike any of its previous deliberations of the topic. While the Jissers' application was pending, the council was limited to a "quasi-judicial role" more akin to judges than to legislators. The position prohibited them from making any policy decision that could indicate bias toward either side in the debate.
Now that the decision on the Jissers' application has been reached and council members are no longer gagged from policy discussion, council members sent a strong signal Monday that they would like to see the 4 1/2-acre mobile-home park preserved. Immediately after hearing from several Buena Vista residents and their advocates from the community, Councilmen Cory Wolbach and Marc Berman made the proposal to commit the money toward purchasing Buena Vista from the Jisser family.
Berman said the past two years have been a time of "frustration" for the council because it had its "hands tied" by the quasi-judicial role. Up until now, he said, the council has fulfilled "legal duties that we were required to, but that none of us really wanted to."
"Today we get to be part of the solution," Berman said.
The council's $6.5 million contribution will be added to the $8 million that City Manager James Keene had earmarked in February for the possible preservation effort, an allocation that the council also approved Monday. The idea is to use county and city funds and an estimated $10 million from a tax-exempt revenue bond to purchase Buena Vista, which would then be managed by the nonprofit Caritas Corporation. The county last month entered into an agreement with Caritas, which is in the process of putting together an offer to the Jisser family.
With both allocations of public funds, the city is following the county's lead. Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, a former Palo Alto mayor, kicked off the preservation effort in January when he and Supervisor Dave Cortese proposed allocating $8 million in county funds for Buena Vista's preservation. Keene made his allocation a month later. On June 23, county supervisors raises the stakes by adding another $6.5 million in affordable-housing funds to buy the mobile-home park, contingent on a match from the city.
Palo Alto's new allocation, like the prior one, comes from the two funds that are supported by developer fees and are designated for affordable housing. Keene's February allocation, depleted the Residential Housing Fund and dropped the Commercial Housing Fund to $8 million. The new allocation reduces the latter fund to $1.5 million.
Several council members and speakers emphasized that the funds are being allocated for precisely the type of use for which they were intended. They also argued that buying Buena Vista would be a great bargain when compared with the cost of constructing new affordable-housing facilities.
Councilman Pat Burt called the allocation "an outstanding use" of the funds. Councilman Greg Scharff concurred.
"I can't think of a better use of affordable-housing funds than to protect people who already live and work in our community and send their kids to school here," Scharff said.
Vice Mayor Greg Schmid said preserving Buena Vista would be a "bargain" for the city, where affordable housing is famously in short supply.
"We recognize that this is the beginning of a process to identify the fair-market value for the property, but we move ahead with confidence that there is nowhere else in Palo Alto where we can provide so much affordable housing at a very reasonable price," he said.
Councilman Eric Filseth offered the briefest speech of all.
"These are affordable-housing funds. These folks are residents. This is a no-brainer," Filseth said to a round of applause.
An even louder ovation greeted Simitian, who approached the podium to answer a question about the timeline of negotiations. Simitian called the negotiations with the Jissers an "iterative" process, with plenty of back-and-forth. The city's allocation, he said, "makes it very clear to the current owner that there is serious money and that this is a serious situation."
The sentiment was widely shared. Councilman Tom DuBois, who was out of town and did not attend the meeting, submitted a letter of support for the allocation. With the limited availability and high cost of land and construction and sensitivity to overdevelopment in the community, he wrote, "we should seize this opportunity, match the County's funding and even look for additional affordable housing funds if required to ensure Buena Vista's future."
Former mayors, council members and school board members have also jumped into the effort to preserve Buena Vista and its 117 units of affordable housing. Gail Price, who had served on both the school board and council, cited on Monday night the overwhelming support that the effort to preserve Buena Vista has received in Palo Alto's broader community.
"In all my years as a Palo Alto elected official, I have never seen this kind of unanimity and support on any issue the protection and preservation of affordable housing and support of Buena Vista residents," Price said. "It is not only the right thing to do, it has the least political risk of any issue I can remember. It demonstrates that Palo Alto cares."
Former Councilman Larry Klein agreed and noted that the city's last affordable-housing project, 801 Alma St., ended up costing more than $600,000 per unit for construction and land acquisition. By that standard, Buena Vista would be a "bargain." He also emphasized that the money would be drawn from a pool specifically designated for affordable housing. Lastly, he brought up what he called "the human element."
"I voted, and many of you have voted, over the years for affordable-housing projects," Klein said. "Those are sort of abstract. We didn't know who the people (living there) were going to be. We were building something new.
"But we do know the 400 people living there now and the 100 children in the school district they are in the community now. I think it would be a very sad day if we didn't do everything we can to keep these people in our community. Don't let them down."
Mary Kear, one of the hundreds of Buena Vista residents who attended the hearing, told the council that the residents of the park are "integrated into the Palo Alto community."
"Our kids attend the schools. We work in the area businesses. Preserving the park for current residents and for affordable housing will forever keep Palo Alto as a place of inclusion, diversity and economic prosperity," said Kear, a member of the Buena Vista Residents Association board of directors.
For Kear and her neighbors, it became clear fairly early in the hearing that the council shares their view. By the end the hearing, the atmosphere was one of jubilation.
While the fate of Buena Vista remains uncertain, the council's vote was a rare victory for Buena Vista residents after years of unfavorable decisions.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss said the allocation of funds for preserving Buena Vista is consistent with Palo Alto's values, including its goals of promoting diversity and preserving affordable housing.
"That really sums up what I think the very core values are for those of us who live in Palo Alto," Kniss said. "You have come here to defend your homes, but on top of this you're supporting each other."
With the discussion concluding, Mayor Karen Holman thanked Simitian, the former mayors who have stepped up to support Buena Vista and the park's hundreds of community advocates and said she hopes to see the effort to preserve the park reach a "happy conclusion."
"My personal goal, my personal hope, is that this December there will be a Posada at Buena Vista to end all Posadas," Holman said, referring to the park's annual holiday party.
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.