In less than a month, Palo Alto's most well-known and debated housing for low-income families will be officially saved from closure and redevelopment. It is a tribute to the extraordinary work over more than four years by many people and organizations, including funding approved by three public agencies, the indefatigable efforts of Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, a determined residents' group that organized to save their modest homes and an owner who came to accept that this was the best outcome for all parties.
If all goes according to plan, the nearly 400 residents of the 90-year-old Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, located behind a small retail center on El Camino Real in the Barron Park neighborhood, will soon pay their rent checks to the Housing Authority of Santa Clara County instead of the Jisser family. And they will finally have the comfort of knowing their housing is secure and no longer subject to the threat of development that would drive them from Palo Alto, and possibly the Bay Area.
Escrow on the sale of the property by the Jissers to the Housing Authority is set to close on Sept. 1 for $40.4 million, an enormous sum for both the Jissers and the public agencies that are contributing funds to make the deal possible. No one need feel sorry for the Jissers, as they are ending up with more money than they could have ever reasonably expected and are spared the considerable expense of paying relocation benefits to the current residents and for probable litigation for years into the future.
In the end, the family accepted the fact that the Housing Authority was prepared to exercise its eminent domain powers to force a sale of the property and became willing to negotiate a sale price without the complications and expense of a court dispute over the adequacy of a fair-market-value determination.
Palo Alto committed $14.5 million from its restricted affordable-housing funds to support the purchase, and Santa Clara County has agreed to provide the same amount. The Housing Authority, which receives most of its money from federal housing programs, will cover the remaining balance and will pay for needed improvements to the housing units and utility infrastructure. It will contract with a nonprofit experienced in operating mobile home parks to carry out repairs and ensure compliance with building codes.
A detailed assessment of what improvements are necessary will be done as soon as the Housing Authority takes ownership and meets with the individual residents.
A city staff report states that some units will likely need to be relocated within the park to meet setback and other requirements. It also revealed that there are currently "some" vacancies, which will make any required relocations or removal of units less disruptive.
One of the last remaining requirements for the sale of Buena Vista to the Housing Authority is approval by the City of Palo Alto, scheduled for Monday night's City Council meeting, of reconfigured property lines and easements to carry out the terms of the sales agreement. Five different parcels will be consolidated into three: a 4.5-acre parcel on which most of the existing mobile homes sit, a 1-acre commercial parcel along El Camino that contains the small retail center and parking lot, and a 0.7-acre parcel that contains a gas station and a small number of residential units.
Only the 4.5-acre parcel is being purchased by the Housing Authority. The Jisser family will retain ownership of the other two parcels and will temporarily lease the small parcel with housing units to the Housing Authority to allow sufficient time for the agency to relocate the current residents into units on the larger parcel.
The parcel boundary changes are technical and non-controversial but are necessary to align the property lines with the details of the deal struck between the Housing Authority and the Jissers. No changes to the existing zoning are proposed, but the parcel with the gas station is currently zoned for mixed use and could be redeveloped by the Jissers into housing in the future.
The imminent escrow closing of the sale of Buena Vista is a milestone in a journey that many thought would never conclude successfully. Some in the community harshly criticized the notion of using public funds — even those expressly paid by private developers to fund such housing — to preserve low-income housing. But far more people looked at Buena Vista as an opportunity to preserve a small neighborhood of families that brings valued diversity to a city that is rapidly losing it.
The residents of Buena Vista are valued employees in our restaurants, retail stores and schools and provide needed services to Palo Alto families. In a community that has lost so much of its diversity in the last 40 years, we should celebrate the collaboration that has resulted in saving this unique housing community and its residents.