Nearly 4.5 years after announcing plans to close the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto, the Jisser family has agreed to sell the low-income residential park to the Santa Clara County Housing Authority for $40.4 million, Housing Authority officials and the Jissers announced on Thursday afternoon.
The agreement ensures the preservation and upgrade of the mobile-home park at 3980 El Camino Real so that the roughly 400 people who live there can remain. The Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners must formally approve the deal on May 23, according to the statement.
The agreement ends what has been a long battle between the Jissers and the park's residents and their allies, which included lawsuits filed by both sides against the City of Palo Alto over its process in closing the park. Supporters of the residents claimed the financial reimbursement offered by the Jissers was insufficient and violated a city ordinance that called for a just replacement of their housing.
Saving Buena Vista became a movement to preserve an important chunk of Palo Alto's affordable-housing stock. Loss of the park would likely have resulted in residents leaving the city, amounting to the largest displacement since the internment of Palo Alto's Japanese community during World War II, according to advocates.
But all of the arguments are now moot.
"We are really happy the Housing Authority could join the community-wide effort to ensure the permanent availability of this important affordable housing resource in Palo Alto," said Kathy Espinoza-Howard, chair of the Santa Clara County Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners, in the announcement.
Joe Jisser stated, "I am pleased we reached this settlement that will enable the families to stay here and also allow the Housing Authority to pursue the park's renovation and upgrade."
The Jissers will retain ownership of a commercial parcel adjacent to Buena Vista on El Camino, which includes a strip mall and gas station, the statement noted.
The sale negotiations took four months and were preceded by months of work by the Housing Authority to obtain a fair market value appraisal, engage the affordable-housing nonprofit Caritas Corporation (which will serve as the master leaseholder), and obtain approval from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to use federal funding, Housing Authority officials stated.
The purchase and redevelopment of the park's infrastructure will be funded through a three-way partnership between Santa Clara County, the City of Palo Alto and the Housing Authority. The city and county previously committed $29 million in affordable-housing funds, and the Housing Authority will contribute $26 million through federal funding from HUD, which will also pay for improvements to the park's aged utilities infrastructure. Residents currently living at the park will retain the right to lease their spaces, according to the statement.
Erika Escalante, president of the Buena Vista Park Residents Association, expressed her gratitude over the news on Thursday.
"I know it's not completely done, but I'm very excited and thankful. It's amazing to reflect back. At times it seemed impossible to get here," she said.
When the possibility of losing their homes first surfaced, she said, it seemed as though the residents were alone in their battle. But then she met Winter Dellenbach, who spearheaded the Friends of Buena Vista group in support of the residents, at a City Council meeting and the two women began to work together. Since then, hundreds of supporters have come out to help the Buena Vista residents.
Escalante said that Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian help was essential in saving the park.
Simitian launched an effort to purchase Buena Vista from the Jissers in January 2015, as the City of Palo Alto was reviewing the Jissers' park closure plan. As part of the closure, residents would have received some relocation costs and the assessed value of their mobile homes, which the residents own.
The council approved the park closure in May 2015, which led to multiple lawsuits and ultimately a Superior Court judge's reversal of the approval last December.
Simitian worked to get the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to approve $8 million toward the purchase of Buena Vista, which it did in January 2015. The board voted unanimously to increase the county's commitment to $14.5 million in June 2015.
The Palo Alto City Council followed suit, approving $8 million initially and then upping the total to $14.5 million in June 2015.
On Thursday, Simitian reflected on the deal.
"Any day you can save 117 units of affordable housing, that's a good day," he said. "When I moved here 50 years ago, Palo Alto was a place of economic diversity and a place of opportunity. There is a threshold question: Is Palo Alto still a place of opportunity?"
Saving Buena Vista is a significant victory toward maintaining the city's economic diversity, Simitian said.
"At one level this was a test — a test of whether or not our region remains a place of inclusivity and opportunity," he said in a statement. "In this instance, at least, I'm gratified to say we passed the test."
Simitian added that the process was complicated because it required five entities to come to an agreement. All worked together to find an equitable solution, he said.
But he also gave credit to the residents of Buena Vista.
"It's hard to overstate the dignity and decency with which the residents carried through this process. Every day these folks got up and wondered if an eviction notice would be in their mailbox. That's a very tough way to have to live, especially for people of limited economic means," he said.
Barron Park resident Dellenbach said that preserving the mobile-home park required the work of the entire community, from neighbors and the residents to church groups, the Palo Alto PTAs, government and nonprofit groups.
"Overjoyed doesn't even begin to describe it," she said upon learning just minutes before of the agreement. "This news transforms what we used to describe as a potentially slow-moving catastrophe into an almost unimaginable victory."
Many people said five years ago that with Palo Alto's high land prices the purchase of Buena Vista would be impossible, but there were so many resources in the community that worked together to make it happen, she said.
"For the first time the residents of Buena Vista can exhale and be secure and feel safe. This puts all of the unpredictability and insecurity to rest," she said. "It took a whole lot of resources, so much intelligence and a whole lot of faith and trust, and it all came together."
Escalante said that she, too, wanted to thank the entire community, from the PTAs to the churches, the city and county and other groups and individuals.
"I am so grateful to live in this community and to know when we needed it they came through. I would not be here talking to you if it wasn't for the community. I am grateful to know that the community values what we bring to the bigger community. That's just amazing," she said.
Simitian said the victory is not just for the residents.
"On a very practical level, this has also been an effort that benefits us all. The people who live at the Buena Vista are mostly working class folks filling the jobs that make our community run. They're working at local businesses, nonprofits, colleges and universities. They're essential to our continued economic vitality. We need them in the workforce," he said. "And if they're forced out of the region, commuting from God knows where, that has traffic congestion implications for all of us as well."
Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff also applauded the outcome.
"This is an extraordinary opportunity to preserve affordable housing for low-income residents, including at least 100 children, in a city where it is desperately needed. Palo Alto's commitment of affordable housing funds to this project are well spent," he said in the joint statement.
U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, who lobbied the HUD for approval of funds, said she is proud to have helped.
"These resources will also help to renovate over 100 units of affordable housing for the community. The efforts of the Santa Clara County Housing Authority, the City of Palo Alto, the County of Santa Clara, and the superb leadership of Supervisor Joe Simitian have brought about a remarkable success for our mutual constituents," she said in the joint statement.
The acquisition is expected to conclude by early fall after the park is subdivided from the the commercial property that the Jissers will retain. Caritas will hold the ground lease and oversee the residents' subleases. The nonprofit will bring in a firm to manage the property, said Katherine Harasz, Housing Authority executive director.
Caritas will continue to assess the park and the residents' needs. The park's water, sewer and electrical systems will be upgraded. Some of the mobile homes might also need work. Although the residents own their mobile homes, Caritas is also committed to helping the residents where they need assistance, she said.
The Housing Authority is the largest provider of affordable-housing assistance in the county, aiding nearly 18,000 households.