The Palo Alto City Council abdicated its duty when it approved relocation payments for Buena Vista Mobile Home Park residents, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled on Wednesday.
The decision by Judge Brian Walsh found the city did not have sufficient evidence to support its finding that the relocation assistance offered by the park's owners is adequate to prevent adverse effects on the park's 400 residents.
The 19-page judgment effectively stops the clock on any evictions from the property -- a stinging setback for the owners, the Jisser family, who have been trying to close the park since November 2012.
"As is readily apparent, the evidence upon which the relocation assistance is to be based, i.e., the updated appraisals and market survey, does not even exist. Thus, the City Council approved the closure of the park relying on the mitigation measures which are based on appraisals that have not been conducted, a market survey that has not been performed, actual moving costs that are unknown, and assistance for disabled and handicapped residents that is unspecified," the court wrote.
The City Council approved the Jissers' relocation-assistance plan in May 2015. It included payments to residents for the on-site value of their mobile homes and reviews by an independent appraiser within six months of a tenant's eviction.
The Jissers originally agreed to pay relocation costs for residents to move within 35 miles of the park, an estimated cost of $4,870 and $5,250 per household; a rent subsidy of $3,500 to $5,300 per household; and the costs of moving personal property and a two-night hotel stay, among other reimbursements.
Residents who could not move their mobile homes would be paid the fair-market appraised value of their homes, estimated at between $5,500 and $45,000, along with other costs. Partial rent subsidies ranged from $3,300 to $30,600, depending on if the residents moved to another mobile home in another park or into an apartment.
But during a May 2014 hearing front of the city's hand-picked hearing officer, Craig Labadie, to determine if the plan was adequate, the Jissers' relocation consultant David Richman stated that on average the proposed package was not enough for residents to purchase new mobile homes within 35 miles of the park without additional financing in the range of $20,000 to $50,000 per household.
He also stated that residents moving to an apartment would not find one in the Bay Area for the same amount of rent they paid to live in the park, the court noted.
The Jissers then presented an amended plan during the hearing. They stated that because the appraisals were old and only a partial rent subsidy was being offered, they would have their appraisers perform new evaluation six months prior to relocating any resident, among other concessions. Labadie approved the park closure with those concessions, but the Buena Vista residents appealed the decision to the Palo Alto City Council.
The council approved Labadie's determination with modifications: the updated appraisals for each home were to be completed no more than six months before the expiration of the notice of tenancy termination; the updated appraisals would be prepared according to the 2013 methods used by the appraiser; and an independent appraiser would review the new packages to ensure they are adequate and reasonable.
The residents filed the lawsuit against the city in August 2015.
On Wednesday, Walsh issued a stinging rebuke of the city's decision, noting the city did not have any evidence showing the amount of relocation assistance that would actually be provided or that the measures were adequate and would not negatively affect the residents.
"In fact, the City Council abdicated its duty to make such a determination by delegating its purview to the hearing officer (Labadie) and Richman to make determinations at some future point in time," the judge noted.
The city did not show that these updated costs were reasonable and appropriately reflected the Palo Alto location of the assessed units and market conditions, the judge noted.
The city and the Jissers' attorneys had argued that council members only needed to know the "categories" of relocation assistance when they approved the plan, a notion the judge firmly rejected.
Further, the city's mobile-home conversion ordinance lists a "lump sum" for relocation, which requires the city to know and make a determination based on an amount, Walsh ruled.
Nadia Aziz, senior attorney with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, which represents the Buena Vista residents, said she is "extremely pleased" with the court's ruling.
"The residents have been given hope this holiday season that their park will be saved, especially with the Housing Authority's decision yesterday," she said.
The court ruling is the second piece of good news for Buena Vista residents in 24 hours.
The Housing Authority of the County of Santa Clara's board of directors voted unanimously in closed session on Dec. 20 to negotiate purchasing the mobile-home park with the Jissers. If the Jissers agree, the Housing Authority would use county and city funds -- as much as $29 million -- to purchase the park. The county authority would own the park, and a separate nonprofit would improve and operate the site.
Palo Alto City Attorney Molly Stump said her department would consult with the City Council regarding an appeal as an option when it reconvenes in January.
Stump said the judge's ruling was narrow. He wanted to see a specific, fully updated compensation package, she noted.
"He basically said, 'Go back and do the math,'" Stump said.
If the city doesn't file an appeal, the council would have to go through the process of approving the plan again with hard numbers, she said.
Although the council approved $14.5 million toward purchasing the park and has expressed support for the Housing Authority purchase, "The city's interest is in providing a fair process and outcome for everyone," she said.
The Jissers, as real parties of interest in the case, also have the right to appeal the judge's ruling, Stump added. The Jissers' attorney, Margaret Nanda, could not immediately be reached.