Amid the ongoing Bay Area housing crisis, in which the stock of low-income housing is shrinking and elected leaders are scrambling to enact policies to get hundreds if not thousands of new homes built, a 29-space mobile-home park at 1893 Woodland Ave. in East Palo Alto sits half-empty.
One of the city's last bastions of affordable housing, Glory Mobile Home and RV Park charges tenants between $200 and $400 a month to rent their spaces, which are price-restricted under the city's rent-stabilization ordinance. The rent is outside of whatever amount residents pay for the mortgage on their mobile home or RV or to rent a mobile home.
Known for decades as City Trailer Park, then renamed Creekside Trailer Lodge in 1972 and then Woodland Glory Mobile Home Park in 2003 before current owners dropped the "Woodland," the park sits on a triangular property sandwiched between San Francisquito Creek and West Bayshore Road. It is shrouded by mature trees and shrubs on the creek side. Blink and you might miss it.
D.J. and Dora Arnold, who purchased the land in 1943 as their homestead, turned it into a trailer park in the 1940s or '50s for travelers driving up and down what later became U.S. Highway 101, according to Barbara Averell. Dora Arnold wanted her tenants to be protected, so she sold the park to Kenneth Averell, whom she trusted, to carry on her legacy. The Averells purchased the park in 1972 and sold it in 2003. (Learn about the changing ownership of Glory Mobile Home and RV Park here.)
Today, Glory's mix of older RVs and barracks-like trailer homes rest mostly on hard, paved surfaces. Signs of life sprout from planter boxes in the form of cultivated flower gardens. On a recent day, a dog barked from the confines of a fenced-in area; a bicycle perched on a front porch.
At the property's south side, another story unfolds. Here, many RVs are empty. Plywood covers windows; signs pasted to doors indicate they are closed to habitation; and moss and lichens grow on the metal surfaces. Some vacant RVs tilt slightly to the side, like sailors on a weekend bender.
The park, populated by teachers, tradesmen, veterans, seniors and young families starting home ownership, feels more and more like a ghost town these days, some residents said. Glory's owner, Woodland Glory Investment, LLC, of Morgan Hill, also called MAStar Professional Corp., hasn't rented out the empty spaces to newcomers since it bought the property in 2015, residents said. Instead, the owner built a fence on top of some of the empty spaces to keep squatters off.
Why is Glory Mobile Home and RV Park largely vacant, with only 12 full-time occupants?
Shirley Gibson, directing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, claims Woodland Glory Investment/MAStar has quietly been closing the park for the past three years. The property owner has "engaged in a systematic strategy of starving this park out of existence," she wrote in a December letter to the East Palo Alto Planning Commission. The owner has allegedly denied new tenancies, attempted to evict current residents and failed to maintain the infrastructure needed to effectively manage the mobile home park.
The park could be filled to capacity, some residents maintain. Joe Antoni, a retired electrician, rents a space at Glory for his RV and lived there for nearly 20 years before moving to Carson City, Nevada. But he still returns to his RV during frequent visits to East Palo Alto, he said. He isn't renting his trailer out, but if he did, it would be lucrative, he claimed. Any reasons the owner might give for why tenants wouldn't want to move in aren't valid, he said.
"I have so many friends in the Bay Area who would love a trailer spot. My electrician friends in the Bay Area are making tons of money. They're willing to pay me $1,000 a month," he said.
Antoni said many people he knows have come from places like Tennessee, and they are earning more than double the amount they did back home.
"There's a lot of work in the Bay Area. There are so many out-of-state people — four or five guys are sharing a one-bedroom apartment in places like Stockton, and they don't want to commute. If you could snap your fingers, those spaces could be filled up. I personally could fill them in a week — all with electricians I know who are living in Tracy," he said.
Margaret Nanda, an attorney representing the Glory's owner, said during a Dec. 10, 2018, East Palo Alto Planning Commission meeting, that Glory infrastructure can't accommodate modern mobile homes or RVs. Empty spaces can't be occupied because newer mobile homes are too large to fit in the lots. RVs could potentially go there, but the park's utility capacity is old and can't accommodate newer RVs, she said.
Far from taking a thriving park and "starving it," as Gibson said, the owner purchased the property in 2015 when it already had a greater than 15% vacancy rate, Nanda noted. That vacancy threshold is significant under East Palo Alto law, indicating the park was already undergoing a "change of use."
Now, Woodland Glory Investments — which is made up of eight investors — intends to close the park by January 2020 and redevelop the 1.07 acres. In November, the owners' representatives met with residents to tell them of the plan.
Track Glory Mobile Home and RV Park's history through our timeline, which can be found here.
A loss of a scarce commodity
If Glory's owner does shutter the park, the city would lose 29 spaces of low-income housing currently protected by the city's rent-stabilization program, which caps the rent increase that landlords can charge. Glory's closure and the site's redevelopment would remove the site from the program. New developments aren't required to maintain rent-restricted units under the state's Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act.
Such affordable housing — and land to put it on — is critical, housing advocates say. East Palo Alto residents have been grappling with increasing rents; in 2017, the school district reported that more than 40% of its students were either homeless or in unstable housing, such as with multiple families under one roof, or living in garages.
Most recently, the city has been struggling to help a growing population of RV dwellers who are living on the streets, most of whom can't afford more permanent housing. The City Council voted unanimously in July 2018 to support a pilot RV Safe Parking initiative on city-owned land at 1798 Bay Road, with the city funding two-thirds of an estimated $300,000 to make improvements there. The program provides a temporary place for up to 20 RVs owned by East Palo Alto residents to stay overnight and receive services to help them regain housing. Nonprofit organization Project WeHope, which is administering the Safe Parking program, opened the one-year project in early May.
With the growing need for housing, closing Glory makes no sense, affordable-housing advocates said during the December 2018 planning commission hearing on Glory. Elizabeth Jackson, whose brother owns an RV at Glory, said the park's precarious position has been a problem for more than 20 years. She was hoping the city would do something a long time ago to preserve the park as affordable housing.
"My brother was fixing up his unit a little bit, but now he can't do anything. He doesn't know what to do, whether you're going to close it or change the usage or build big condominiums that these people will not be able to afford.
"Do not change the usage. Please leave this as affordable housing for people in the community. If you have to go and buy this — if they want to sell it (I can understand if landowners want to sell and do something else ) — that's fine," Jackson said. "But there is a great need for motor vehicles such as these — (for) recreational-vehicle-usage spaces to rent in the city."
Referring to the city's RV Safe Parking program, she asked rhetorically, "Why do a temporary one when you already have a permanent one?"
Maureen Larsson, vice-chairwoman of the city's Rent Stabilization Board, agreed that Glory is important to the city's housing mix.
"Mobile home parks are a key component in affordable-housing solutions," she said in an email to the Palo Alto Weekly. "In this very expensive area, these parks provide both workforce and long-term housing for veterans, seniors, singles and lower-income families.
"They also provide community and independence for residents. Through the years, I've known many residents of Woodland Glory, including single mothers, Vietnam (War) veterans, a beloved community leader, several disabled people who valued their independence, and young couples who couldn't afford other housing," Larsson said.
She noted that low-rent housing has been steadily eroding on the city's west side. Another mobile-home park, the 44-space Trailer Town at 1982 W. Bayshore Road, closed to make way for a 90-unit, market-rate condominium complex, Woodland Creek, which was built in 2002. The city's largest owner of rental housing, Woodland Park Communities, also has ambitious plans to build 602 apartments on the border of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Three-quarters of them would be market rate and non-rent stabilized, though Woodland Park Communities is keeping the same number of existing low-income apartments.
"The west side of town is being gentrified from its outer edges," Larsson said. "Converting Woodland Glory would mean a portion of vital rent-stabilized housing is lost forever."
Rent-controlled mobile-home parks offer greater protections against rapid-rising rents than rent-controlled apartments, according to Gibson. Under Costa-Hawkins, when a tenant moves out of a rent-controlled apartment, landlords are able to set a new rent without any regulatory limitation. They can charge whatever amount they can get someone to agree to pay, regardless of actual "market rate," she said.
Mobile-home parks, with rent control, on the other hand, have limits on these kinds of increases. The space or ground beneath the mobile home remains under the rent control, even if a new buyer purchases the home sitting on top of that patch of land or moves a new home on top of it. The rates for that land do not rise to market rate and can only rise within the legal percentages allowable under the rent-stabilization law, Gibson said.
She said the city could try to discourage the owners from converting the park, using regulatory carrots or sticks, but short of forcing eminent domain or buying the property, the city can't force a property owner to maintain a use.
A tale of two mobile-home parks
When the owners of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto, located less than 4 miles away from Glory, wanted to close the 117-unit park in 2012, the public outcry against the eviction of the park's low-income tenants was swift. Residents themselves staged protests, neighbors and community members lent support, and city leaders studied ordinances and regulations to figure out what could be done to preserve the unique neighborhood. At hearings, tempers flared.
In the end, Santa Clara County, together with the city of Palo Alto, contributed more than $29 million of the $40.4 million deal to buy the park and operate it under the auspices of the county Housing Authority, which kicked in $26 million toward the purchase and infrastructure improvements.
For Glory Mobile Home Park, there has been no such outcry. In fact, its potential closure only came to the city's attention when a tenant, Vida Capital Group, LLC, — a Palo Alto company that has been buying up trailers at Glory and subletting them — filed a complaint with the city's planning department about the 15% vacancy rate, prompting the planning commission to decide if the park is undergoing a change of use.
Unlike with Buena Vista, the chief arguments made to the city regarding Glory's demise have had less to do with a moral case for preserving low-income housing and more to do with whether owners are following the letter of the law as they proceed with the park's closure — and whether tenants will get their fair share of compensation to leave.
California mobile-home residency and RV occupancy laws allow a park owner to terminate occupancy of the park when it undergoes a "change of use" — defined under East Palo Alto's Conversion Ordinance as having a vacancy rate that's greater than 15%. City staff, after a May 2018 inspection, estimated the park had a 41% vacancy rate.
The planning commission voted 6-0, with Vice Chairman Uriel Hernandez abstaining, on Dec. 10, 2018, to affirm that the park was undergoing the change of use and to direct the owners to file a conversion-impact report, which would outline the tenants' compensation, among other information. That document is currently under internal review and not yet publicly available, city Planning Manager Guido Persicone said. Until the city approves the report, closure is not a certainty.
Gibson, who represents one current and one former tenant, said her focus is to make sure that her clients get just compensation. In her December letter to the planning commission, she asked that, besides future prospective impacts, the impact report include a description of and estimated economic impacts for the three years the park owners had been changing the park's use without city approval.
She also wants compensation for residents who have left the park already and were denied full value for their homes because the owner began the change of use prior to submitting their notice to the city. The slow-moving closure, she said, reduced the value of tenants' homes and their ability to sell their units.
Woodland Glory Investment LLC also brought an eviction lawsuit against a tenant occupying another unit, allegedly based only on the position that the owner didn't want anyone living in that space, according to a June 4, 2018, deposition of one of the owners in that case. That violates the rent-stabilization ordinance's just-cause eviction clause.
"The gradual cessation of use of a portion of this park has had serious impact on a variety of stakeholders," Gibson wrote to the commission. "Former homeowners were deprived of the true value of their investment. Current homeowners have seen their homes lose value in a deteriorating park. Current and former residents have suffered the lack of management and maintenance of the park. And prospective residents in the community have been denied access to an affordable-housing opportunity that is a rare and precious resource in the current housing market."
A call seeking an interview with Woodland's managing partner, Mingchua Kuang, was not returned. Nanda, who was out of town this week, said she had no comment before press time.
But at the December planning commission meeting, she noted that one reason it has taken so long to close the park is because it is mired in litigation, residents said. Since her clients purchased the park in February 2015, there's been a dispute over the acquisition involving the previous owners, 1893 Woodland EPA LLC. Also, Woodland Glory and Vida Capital are in litigation over Vida's sublease of some of the RVs it owns — Nanda said they are running a business there without consent from the property owners. A further dispute revolves around whether Vida ever had rental agreements with the owners to rent some of the spaces. Vida's attorney has not returned a request for comment.
For Glory, a muted outcry
Glory is no Buena Vista, which has a large number of children who attend the Palo Alto Unified School District and local workers who say moving would mean a devastating loss of jobs and income.
At Glory, most of the tenants are seniors who admit they aren't necessarily interested in preserving their aging RVs and mobile homes. Many are retired or near retirement, but that doesn't mean they aren't concerned about their futures.
Gibson said it is too early to say at this point how much of an opposition will be mounted.
"Until the park owners actually articulate a plan to close or convert the park in their impact report, there is nothing concrete here to oppose. The four-year fight over Buena Vista started with the park owner's application to close the park. We're not quite there yet with Glory.
"I'm not going to comment on the potential practical or strategic obstacles to the opposition, since Legal Aid is likely to be involved in any opposition when it does happen."
Larsson said she thinks East Palo Alto residents are overwhelmed with the number of development projects that are in the pipeline right now.
"If the park residents are protesting or fighting against the conversion, it doesn't seem to have been reported on or involve the many tenant advocates in town. The city's involvement hasn't made a big splash like other projects even though it's been on the Planning Commission's agenda," she said.
The park's location, at the end of the city's southwest side, means many aren't even aware of its existence, much less that owners want to convert it," she said.
Asked if they were concerned about the park's closure, some residents were matter-of-fact. Relocation money and trailer buy-outs, provided they are substantial enough, would be acceptable, some said.
Keith Beachkofsky, 63, a former mobile-home owner, said he lived at Glory for nearly 20 years. He found a house in another state that was cheaper. Glory's closure doesn't surprise him, given its vacancies and run-down conditions.
"I knew it was possible it would close because it was old. I was able to stay in the area for a long time, but it was getting too expensive, and there was the traffic from Google and Facebook," he said.
Beachkofsky, a welder, paid $300-a-month rent. He owned his own mobile home outright. Gibson is representing him to try to recoup the value of his home, which she said he was denied. A representative of the park owners told him he would not be allowed to sell his home on his space to a subsequent occupant, he claimed. He ended up selling his home to the park owner at a significant discount, Gibson said.
Tim Gallegos, 62, another of Gibson's clients, is a U.S. Navy veteran who has lived at Glory for 12 years. He resides in one of the barracks-like mobile units currently owned by Vida Capital: khaki-colored, plain, with wooden steps leading to either entrance and no other adornment. The home is one of four that is paid for by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as Section 8 housing.
There's a kitchenette, a small living area with a television and an executive-style swivel chair and a sleeping area. Gallegos said he's tired of the cramped living and would like to find another place.
The park-closure plan would potentially give residents a sum based on the difference between the rent they now pay and costs at their new location — a 24-month payment, with 48 months for disabled and elderly residents. But Gallegos is concerned about residents' finances in the long run. They now pay $280 a month rent. They might have to pay $2,000 to $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Finding another affordable mobile-home park would also be difficult. Many aren't rent-controlled and rents can rise to unaffordable levels.
"Finding places around here is not easy. The loss of affordable housing is a disgrace," he said.
He doesn't intend to leave until he gets what he considers a fair deal.
"I'm sticking around. I want my money," he said on a recent afternoon.
Antoni pays $282 a month to rent his place at Glory. At 58 years old, he's one of the younger residents, he said. He fears the closure might be harder on older residents who might not have the wherewithal to hunt for and secure other accommodations, such as a 70-year-old retiree who has lived in the park for three decades, he said.
"It's not like she can run over and buy a place," he said.
But he isn't against selling his unit and moving out. Glory's closure is inevitable, he believes, and he's taking a pragmatic view. As an electrician, he sees not its promise, but its demise in the aged wiring that must be replaced and the other infrastructure.
"It's not going to ever work again. It's not financially feasible to make it into an RV park that's rent-control restricted," he said.
Thus far, the park owner has not said how it plans to redevelop the Glory property. According to city staff, the site is currently zoned for medium-density residential, 12-22 units per acre.
Antoni said the previous owners planned to build 17 condominiums on the land. He thinks the proposed relocation compensation as presented by the owner's representatives at the November meeting with residents is fair to the tenants — and the owner.
"The first condo they build will pay for all of us people to get out of there," he said. "That's the nature of the business. I'm ready. Send me the check."
Correction: The condominiums at 1982 W. Bayshore Road are called Woodland Creek.