Buena Vista Mobile Home Park residents received a hopeful pre-holiday present from the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Clara on Tuesday when its board of directors unanimously agreed to seek acquisition of the mobile-home park during a closed session meeting.
The decision authorizes the Housing Authority to make an offer to purchase the Palo Alto mobile home park, whose 400 low-income residents currently face eviction. The buyout, if accepted by the property owner, the Jisser family, would put the park's ownership in the hands of the housing agency. Funding would come from a three-way partnership with the City of Palo Alto and the County of Santa Clara.
The city and county pledged $14.5 million each to purchase the park, but negotiations with the Jissers broke down last August after attorneys for the residents sued the city over its May 2015 approval of the relocation package, which residents said was inadequate. The Jissers filed their own lawsuit against the city, which was rejected by a lower federal court in June.
The city and county decided to try negotiations with the Jissers again, this time through the housing authority. The three entities approved a tentative agreement to acquire the park in June.
Housing Authority Executive Director Katherine Harasz said she will make a written offer to the Jissers based on the property's assessed market value. She declined to specify the amount, saying she wanted to give the owners the courtesy of making the offer in private before discussing it publicly. She said she expects the offer will be made quickly. After that, a period of negotiation would be required.
City and county leaders have viewed the purchase of Buena Vista as a way to ensure the permanent availability of an important affordable-housing resource for the community.
The Housing Authority has been working extensively to do “due diligence" since its June tentative agreement with the city and county to identify a fair market value appraisal, secure a potential park operator and renovate aging facilities if the acquisition is successful, said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who has spearheaded efforts to preserve the park since last January.
“I think we're on the right track and that's very gratifying," he said. "After almost two years of effort, our goals remain the same: to preserve 117 units of desperately needed affordable housing; to prevent the eviction of more than 400 members of our community; and to ensure that the property owner receives full and fair market value for the property.
"We're well positioned to make all of that happen," he said.
Erika Escalante, president of the Buena Vista Homeowners Association, said "I have to say we are very excited about the decision from the Housing Authority, we feel very positive. It is one step closer to saving our community."
Winter Dellenbach, founder of the group Friends of Buena, said she is thrilled with the Housing Authority's decision.
"This has been a long time coming," she said. "While we certainly don't see this as the end, we are hopeful that it is perhaps the beginning of the end."
"We are very hopeful the family will seriously consider the offer," she added. "I'm thinking 2017 may be the lucky year for everybody."
Harasz called the housing agency's move an "extraordinary opportunity" to preserve affordable housing "in a region where it is desperately needed.
"Over the past six months, we’ve worked diligently on behalf of those families to understand the details of a potential purchase, and our board will determine how best to move forward with our partners, the county and the city," she said.
The Housing Authority took an unusual step when it agreed to consider buying Buena Vista. The agency is in the business of owning low-income housing, but it had never owned a mobile-home park. If the agency successfully purchases the property, it would give operations over to a nonprofit group with experience in running parks, Harasz said. (The Housing Authority has an exisiting negotiation agreement with The Caritas Corporation, a nonprofit that maintains and manages mobile home parks throughout California.)
The new agreement with the Housing Authority could also pave the way for taking the property through eminent domain if negotiations for a purchase fail, Harasz said. In that case, after the period of negotiation to purchase the park, the housing agency would go back to its board to decide on an eminent domain resolution of necessity.
If the purchase is approved, the Housing Authority will file a petition in Superior Court for eminent domain, Harasz said. In such proceedings, the housing agency would have to show a legal issue such as a necessity under the law and that it can offer just compensation, she said.
Norman Matteoni, an attorney for the Jissers, said an offer would be sent to his client on Tuesday.
The possible offer "was not unexpected," he said. In August the Housing Authority asked to send an appraiser to the property.
"I'm certain my client will review the offer and consider it," he said.
Matteoni said he did not know the amount of the offer.
Matteoni did not address the issue of potential eminent domain proceedings in relation to his client. From the perspective as a land-use attorney, however, he said that challenges to eminent domain cases have become more frequent in the last 10 years.
This is mainly due to a 2005 case, Kelo v. City of New London, which challenged eminent domain of a residential property by the city of New London, Connecticut, for an economic redevelopment plan. Prior to the challenge, only seven states prohibited eminent domain for economic development except to eliminate blight.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of New London. It sparked major public backlash, resulting in many states adopting more stringent requirements for eminent domain other than for roadways, schools and waterways, Matteoni said.
"Some of those challenges (to eminent domain) have been successful," he said.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture its coverage of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park since 2012. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.