Intense and persistent efforts over the last year by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian to put together a financial plan and political strategy that could save the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and preserve 117 units of badly needed low-income housing in Palo Alto have finally paid off.
With Palo Alto and the county already having committed to contributing $14.5 million of their restricted housing funds toward the purchase of the park, the breakthrough came with the county Housing Authority agreeing to act as the lead agency and being prepared to provide the additional funding necessary to buy Buena Vista from the Jisser family. Equally important, the Housing Authority has the legal authority to acquire the land at fair market value through eminent domain proceedings should that become necessary, and as proposed, the Housing Authority will also indemnify Palo Alto and the county from any new legal challenges.
All three agencies -- the city of Palo Alto, the county Board of Supervisors and the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Clara -- will consider the plan at meetings over the next 10 days.
With two separate lawsuits currently pending against the City of Palo Alto -- one brought in state court by the residents of Buena Vista and the other in federal court by the owners of the park -- protracted and expensive legal battles over the city's actions and conditions on the Jissers application to close the park and evict its residents could easily have gone on for years.
And while that would have put off the day of reckoning for the approximately 400 residents, it would have prolonged the anxiety, despair and uncertainty for all involved and forced the expenditure of large sums by the city, the Jissers and the law foundation supporting the Buena Vista residents in attorney fees and court costs.
In short, it was a lose-lose proposition regardless of who ultimately prevailed.
Instead, the announcement on Wednesday that the Housing Authority would join Palo Alto and the county and acquire Buena Vista completely shifts the legal and political dynamics, to the benefit of all parties.
The Housing Authority is an independent public agency that is responsible for creating and providing affordable housing within the county, primarily using federal housing funds. Governed by a seven-person board of commissioners appointed by the Board of Supervisors, the Housing Authority has the legal power to buy property at fair market value, as established either through negotiation with the owner or, if a value can't be agreed upon, by a court.
The law grants this power in order that government agencies have a mechanism to acquire land to achieve public purposes, in this case to preserve low-income housing. The process protects land owners by giving them the right to reject any offer and to make their argument about the value in front of a judge. The entire purpose is to ensure that the property owners are ultimately paid no less than what they would have been able to sell the property for on the open market.
While some object to this as a government "taking" of private property, it has a long history and is an important tool for achieving public benefits when a property owner declines to negotiate. (Eminent domain, for example, was used by the Housing Authority more than a decade ago in acquiring the land on which the Opportunity Center was developed.)
The genius of the city-county-housing authority partnership is that it solves several problems that were blocking a clear path to preserving this important low-income housing asset.
It caps the city and county financial investment in the purchase to the $14.5 million in dedicated housing funds they committed almost a year ago. It paves the way for a public agency to acquire the land rather than a nonprofit, which provides the legal ability to use eminent domain if necessary to buy the property. And it makes moot the lawsuits against the city, since they relate to the legality of the city's mobile-home park closure ordinance and the approximate $8 million the Jissers were obligated to pay to the current residents in relocation assistance.
With this new clarity, the Jissers can be assured of receiving fair market value, will not have to evict and make payments to the current residents and won't have to wait out a long legal process with the current law suits.
Simitian deserves accolades for herding many elected officials, forging unanimous support for the $30 million in funding already approved, keeping hope alive for its residents and respecting the owners and their needs.
We strongly urge the Palo Alto City Council, the Board of Supervisors and the Housing Authority commissioners to approve this plan.
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.