An effort to save Palo Alto's only mobile-home park from redevelopment took a critical step forward Monday night, when the City Council unanimously agreed to join a partnership that would make the purchase and preservation of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park possible.
By a 9-0 vote that prompted cheers and applause from more than 100 residents of Buena Vista and dozens of their supporters, the council approved an agreement with Santa Clara County and the Housing Authority of Santa Clara County that would allow the three agencies to purchase the mobile-home park from the Jisser family. Under the partnership, the county and the city would each contribute $14.5 million for the purchase, with the Housing Authority paying the balance and investing at least $10 million for infrastructure repairs.
The council's vote comes less than a week after the county's Board of Supervisors similarly threw its unanimous support for the preservation effort, which is being spearheaded by Supervisor Joe Simitian. And on Tuesday, the Housing Authority completed the trifecta of unanimous votes when its own board of commissioners supported the new agreement.
The council's vote on Monday was, in many ways, a foregone conclusion. The city has already committed affordable-housing funds for the preservation effort and every council member has indicated in prior meetings his or her support for retaining the mobile-home park. Even so, more than 150 people attended the council meeting to show their support for the council's action. Most wore yellow stickers with the words, "Keep B.V. residents in P.A.," and almost all rose to their feet to applaud after the vote was cast.
Erika Escalante, president of the Buena Vista Residents Association, told the council Monday that the past four years have been "very difficult of all of us, emotionally."
"It's been quite a journey to simply remain in our homes," Escalante said.
Councilwoman Karen Holman, who made the motion to support the partnership, called it "an example of what hope, intention and action can create."
She also lauded the park's roughly 400 low-income residents for the way they handled themselves since the fall of 2012, when the Jisser family announced its plan to close Buena Vista.
In May 2015, the effort hit a milestone when the council approved the Jissers' closure application, which includes a Relocation Impact Report that lays out the assistance that the residents would get once they are displaced.
The vote brought little closure to the process, however, with both the Jisser family and the Buena Vista Residents Association filing lawsuits against the city (the Jissers' suit was dismissed in a federal court last Friday; the family's attorney, the Pacific Law Foundation, filed an appeal Monday).
In addition, a prior effort by the county and the city to purchase Buena Vista from the Jisser family collapsed last June after the family decided to halt negotiations.
Now, the city and the county hope that bringing in the Housing Authority will change the equation. In addition to the extra funding that the Housing Authority would be able to provide, it would also be able to exercise the power of eminent domain to compel the sale.
Councilman Tom DuBois, who joined his colleagues in supporting the partnership, said he hopes this power would not need to be used. He called the partnership a win-win-win proposition, with the public agencies preserving much needed affordable housing, the residents keeping their homes and the Jisser family getting full-market value for their property, without having to pay the roughly $8 million in relocation assistance to the residents.
Though the Jisser family was not in attendance, DuBois publicly asked them "to be open to a full-market offer and a resolution to this process."
So far, the family has shown little willingness to entertain an offer from the city. Shortly after the proposed partnership was announced, the Jisser family's attorney, Larry Salzman, denounced it as "outrageous" and stressed the fact that the family wants to keep the property.
Throughout the proceedings, the Pacific Legal Foundation has argued that the city's action constitutes as taking of private property. While the federal judge last week tossed out its lawsuit against Palo Alto, claiming its "not ripe for adjudication," Salzman indicated Monday that the ruling will be appealed.
Salzman said in a statement that the court "misapplied the rule that applies only to cases seeking money damages against the government for a taking of private property." In this case, Salzman said, the family is not seeking money. It is asking the federal court "to stop the city's unconstitutional shakedown before the harm is done."
"Federal courthouse doors must remain open to people who have had their property rights violated, just like they are open to every other class of federal civil-rights plaintiffs," Salzman said.
The council, in its comments Monday, focused on the plight of the Buena Vista residents and the new hope that their partnership with the county and the Housing Authority brings to the preservation effort.
Mayor Pat Burt praised the effort to buy and save Buena Vista as consistent with Palo Alto's values and, in a broader sense, American values.
"We believe, as you do, that equal opportunities for our children to have the best chance in life to fulfill their potential through our education system and our community are really values that we hold together as a community," Burt told the gathered crowd. "I want to say that you helped us live up to our values and we hope we will help you live up to yours."
While the council hailed the partnership as a welcome development, Councilman Cory Wolbach warned that the move is just a small step toward addressing Palo Alto's shortage of affordable housing, a problem that has become increasingly urgent in recent years.
"The housing crisis that is destroying our community and our region and harming our national economy is bigger than this," Wolbach said. "We cannot take this action and consider our work complete. This is but a small step forward toward addressing one of our most existential crises."
Councilman Marc Berman concurred and challenged the packed crowd to remain involved in the city's efforts to boost its housing stock.
"Don't stop being an activist," Berman said. "Don't stop coming to council meetings. Don't stop supporting affordable housing. Don't stop supporting housing, because it will take housing of all costs to maintain the amazing community we have, and the amazing region we have in the Bay Area."
The council's vote left the Housing Authority as the last agency that had to approve the memorandum of understanding before the partnership could become a reality. The agency did just that Tuesday, thus authorizing its staff to perform a feasibility study and then potentially make an offer that the Jisser family may not have the option of refusing.
Once the agency buys the park, Buena Vista would be improved and maintained by a nonprofit entity, according to the terms of the agreement.
Katherine Harasz, executive director of the Housing Authority, said in a statement that the agency is "excited to join the effort" to preserve Buena Vista, which she called "a unique source of affordable housing in an area where there are few opportunities for affordable housing."
"Once we have an appraisal and have finished due diligence, the Housing Authority Board will consider acquisition of the Park in an effort to keep these 400 families in their homes, including negotiation and, if necessary, eminent domain," Harasz said.
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.