The owner of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park has broken off negotiations with Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian and the nonprofit Caritas Corporation over a potential sale -- and preservation -- of Palo Alto's sole mobile-home park.
Margaret Nanda, attorney for park owner Joe Jisser, notified city officials and Simitian in a letter Monday that the Jisser family will be declining the offer by Caritas to purchase the park, which is home to about 400 mostly low-income and Latino residents.
The announcement was made exactly a week after the Buena Vista Residents Association filed a lawsuit against the city, challenging the council's decision in May to approve the mobile home park's closure.
Nanda wrote in the letter that the Jisser family has been negotiating "in good faith" with Caritas and Simitian over a potential purchase of Buena Vista. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the Palo Alto City Council had each voted to contribute $14.5 million toward the purchase, arguing that the purchase of Buena Vista is important to both retain affordable housing in Palo Alto and prevent a displacement of hundreds of residents, including about 100 students. Earlier this month, Caritas made an offer to the Jisser family, which has been formally pursuing Buena Vista's closure since the fall of 2012.
Nanda wrote that "because of the threat of legal action from the very same Resident's Association, the Jisser Family has not been able to honestly negotiate with other interested parties."
"These threats of possible litigation have been clear attempts to place a virtual wall between the Jisser Family and other potential buyers, thus eliminating an opportunity to establish a fair market value for the Buena Vista site," Nanda wrote. "The Jisser Family will not be coerced into accepting a sale agreement by the use of litigation as a strong-armed tactic.
"Now that the lawsuit has been formally filed, the Jisser Family has decided that it cannot negotiate with Supervisor Simitian or representatives of Caritas any longer. The Jisser Family notified Supervisor Simitian today that it will decline the offer to purchase the Park by Caritas."
In addition to notifying the city about the end of the negotiations, the letter also served as an official acceptance by the Jisser family of the city's decision to approve the park's closure. In voting unanimously to approve the closure application, the council turned down the appeal from the residents association, and validated the Relocation Impact Report submitted by Jisser, a document that lays out the relocation-assistance package that each household will be offered once the park is closed.
The relocation assistance includes first's and last month's rent, moving costs and a year of rent subsidies, equal to the difference between the residents' rates at Buena Vista and at their new homes.
The decision not to pursue the sale deals a potentially fatal blow to elected officials from Palo Alto and Santa Clara County to preserve the park, at 3980 El Camino Real, as a source of affordable-housing.
The effort to save Buena Vista has attracted an upswell of community support, with residents packing into Council Chamber for public hearings last spring to lobby the council to help preserve the park. By approving the closure application in May, the council reaffirmed a decision made last year by Administrative Judge Craig Labadie on the validity of the Relocation Impact Report.
In his ruling, Labadie acknowledged that the impacts of Buena Vista's closure will include "not only disruption to the lives of the residents and their families, but also loss of economic and cultural diversity for the City of Palo Alto." He also concluded that the park owner "made a thorough evidentiary presentation regarding the merits of the closure application and asserted his right to close the park, subject to providing adequate relocation assistance to the residents."
The council also reviewed and ultimately approved the report, though in April council members made an effort to increase the relocation assistance offered to residents by including the value of a local education in the appraisals. That attempt fizzled after the appraiser, David Beccaria, refused to change the methodology, accused the city of pressuring him and threatened to quit. The council's final approval in May included a condition for updated appraisals and a peer review of the methodology used by Beccaria.
In challenging the council's decision, the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley is asking the Santa Clara County Superior Court to overturn the approval of the closure application and to prohibit the Jisser family from launching the six-month eviction process.
The suit against Palo Alto characterizes the council's approval as "a failure to affirmatively further fair housing" and argues that it will "exacerbate racial and ethnic segregation in Palo Alto." The suit also claims that the city denied Buena Vista residents a due process during both the administrative and the appeal hearings and that the city failed to follow its Housing Element, a state-mandated document, by not taking any action to save Buena Vista until after it had approved the closure application.
The suit notwithstanding, Kyra Kazantzis of the Law Foundation said her clients "very much appreciate" the funding that the city and the county dedicated for Buena Vista's preservation and hope that the funding can be used to "save the park." Kazantzis also told the Weekly in an email last week that the residents very much hope that the park is preserved by a nonprofit organization's purchase of the mobile-home park -- a hope that was all but dashed by Jisser's announcement Monday.
Kazantzis noted, however, that as attorneys her group has an "ethical obligation to protect our client's legal rights" by filing the suit by Aug. 24, the deadline under the statute of limitations.
Simitian, who has been at the forefront of the negotiations over Buena Vista, called the decision by Jisser to halt the negotiations a "bump in the road" but by no means the end of the preservation effort.
He said he has had long conversations with both Kazantzis and Joe Jisser over the past few days. He called the news of the halted negotiations "regrettable but understandable."
"The Law Foundation says, 'We have a duty to represent the clients vigorously and that's particularly the case when there's no certainty whether or not we can get a deal that preserves the park,'" Simitian told the Weekly. "And Mr. Jisser, through his attorney, says, 'I can't really negotiate a deal with Caritas, the city and the county when I don't have the ability to go out into the market and determine what an alternative offer might look like.'"
Litigation, he noted, is inherently "adversarial and not collaborative," which made Jisser's decision to halt negotiations not surprising. However, Simitian also noted that the letter from Nanda does not preclude future discussions about the acquisition of Buena Vista.
"It has been made clear to me that once the owner feels he has the ability to go out into the larger market and do a little comparison, we can resume the conversation," Simitian said.
The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley also remains hopeful. In response to Jisser's notification, the nonprofit said in a statement that Buena Vista residents "hoped and continue to hope that negotiations with Caritas would be successful so that their homes and their community could be preserved."
Attorneys for the residents had requested that the Jisser family extend the Aug. 24 deadline for filing the lawsuit so that negotiations can continue -- a request that Joe Jisser declined, according to the Law Foundation.
"This forced the residents' association to file a lawsuit on the last day it could as a last resort to preserve its legal rights, despite their hopes that negotiations would succeed," the statement read. "His letter is surprising and disappointing, but the Resident's Association is still hopeful that an amicable resolution can be reached"
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.