In a fresh attempt to prevent the closure of Palo Alto's sole mobile-home park, city and county officials have teamed up with the Housing Authority of Santa Clara County for a new bid to buy Buena Vista Mobile Home Park -- one that may involve eminent domain.
If the new offer is not accepted by the Jisser family, which owns the property, the Housing Authority could invoke eminent domain to compel the sale, the agency's executive director Katherine Harasz said at a briefing conference Wednesday morning at Palo Alto City Hall. (Watch the press conference here).
The announcement came at a time when the Jisser family, the City of Palo Alto and the Buena Vista Residents Association remain embroiled in two lawsuits surrounding the potential closure of the mobile-home park, which is home to about 400 low-income residents.
Both the Jisser family and the residents are suing the city (in federal and state courts, respectively), with the Jissers protesting the relocation package that they are required to provide to the residents and the Residents Association challenging the City Council's decision in May 2015 to approve the park's closure.
Santa Clara County and the City of Palo Alto had already pledged $14.5 million each in funds designated for affordable housing to purchase the mobile-home park from the Jisser family. But last August, after Buena Vista residents filed a lawsuit against the City, the Jisser family pulled the plug on negotiations, with its attorney stating in a letter that the family "will not be coerced into accepting a sale agreement by the use of litigation as a strong-armed tactic."
Now, county and city officials are preparing to try again and they now have a new partner and a new set of tools at their disposal. Santa Clara Supervisor Joe Simitian said Wednesday morning that all three partners believe that they now have "a path forward, which will allow us to prevent the closure of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park here in Palo Alto, preserve the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park so that it can continue to be home to 117 families and 400 residents."
Purchasing the park, he said, would also prevent "the loss of 117 units of affordable housing that we desperately need here -- not just in Palo Alto but in the entire Peninsula and the South Bay."
In introducing the Housing Authority as the new partner, Simitian lauded the agency as one that has sufficient funds, when coupled with city and county funds, to acquire and improve the park.
The Palo Alto City Council, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners will all have to approve the agreement for jointly pursuing the purchase (the three bodies are set to consider the memorandum of understanding on June 21, June 27 and June 28, respectively).
"I'm hopeful, frankly I'm optimistic, that all three bodies will approve an agreement so that the City, the County and the Housing Authority together can fund the acquisition and improvement of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, preserve the park as a mobile-home park for the foreseeable future, preserve it as a supply of affordable housing in perpetuity, prevent the eviction of residents at the Buena Vista and make sure the housing is here for the people who need it and for a community that desperately needs it for a great many years to come," Simitian said.
The Housing Authority's involvement, Simitian said, has a certain logic because it is "the one governmental entity in Santa Clara County that exists to create and provide affordable housing." It also has experience with eminent domain, having used it to fund Opportunity Center in Palo Alto.
Harasz said that while the agency has invoked the power of eminent domain sparingly in the past, it will consider it for Buena Vista.
"We believe the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners is willing to entertain it in order to preserve this very important affordable housing source," Harasz said.
She said that the Housing Authority will have to have the property appraised by an independent third party. That will be the basis for determining the fair market price that would be paid to the Jisser family, should eminent domain be invoked.
"When you want to build a bridge or you want to preserve open space or you need a parcel of land to create affordable housing and keep people from being homeless, the power of eminent domain is there for the government," Harasz said.
She added that eminent domain is commonly used by government agencies for a variety of public uses.
"It is my personal belief that affordable housing is as much a part of our community infrastructure as preserving open space, setting aside land for roads and bridges and, consistent with our purpose, establishing and preserving affordable housing," Harasz said.
Erika Escalante, president of the Buena Vista Resident Association, said at the Wednesday announcement that the park's residents are grateful to county and city officials for the new development. The partnership, she said, "presents us with a new plan to potentially save our homes and we couldn't be happier."
"It looks like there will be a light at the end of the tunnel," she said.
While Simitian called the deal a "game changer" and said he is now more optimistic about the preservation effort than he had been for the past year and a half, the Jisser family's attorney called the announcement of a possible use of eminent domain "shocking" and told the Weekly that there is "no way it will stand."
Larry Salzman, the attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing the Jisser family in the federal lawsuit against the city, said the family sees the latest plan as "an outrage." It suggests, Salzman said, "that anyone's home or business can conceivably be taken and used for public benefit."
"The park is not for sale," Salzman said. "The whole point of the Jissers' federal lawsuit is that they want to close the park and keep the land in the family for the future. The idea that in America you can have your land taken from you simply because government bureaucrats think they can put it to a better use than you can is an outrage."
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.