ANATOMY OF A PARK CLOSURE
—Carl Eric Leivo, Ph.D.
Upon tearing open a letter in September 2012, a Park resident learned that the owners planned to shut down Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. He was devastated. He had lived in the Park for over 20 years and raised his children there. The Jisser family and other investors bought Buena Vista MHP in 1986. Thirteen years later, the family bought out the investor partners. To pay for the buy-out and other costs, the family proposed to increase monthly space rents by up to $100 per space. Park residents appealed for help from the City of Palo Alto. The City adopted a park closure ordinance in 2001 and the space rent increases were not authorized (Buena Vista Mobile Home Park Resident Impact Report, May 2, 2013 pp. 6 & 7).
Vintage trailer, not up to code
Buena Vista is a makeshift museum of mobile home history. When it was originally built as a tourist auto camp in 1926, it offered great vistas of the surrounding countryside. Now, vintage trailers, recreation vehicles, mobile homes from the 1970s, and contemporary manufactured homes occupy spaces in the Park. This all-age park hides behind a commercial center off of congested El Camino Real. Health and safety violations abound. This low-income neighborhood scene contrasts sharply from the rest of upscale Palo Alto including Silicon Valley corporate offices, Stanford University, the quaint downtown, and wealthy residential districts.
The Jisser family submitted an application to close the park in November, 2012, as required by the City’s Mobilehome Park Conversion law. They planned to work with Prometheus Real Estate Group to develop a 180-unit apartment complex (p. 9). The City does not require rental apartment builders to offer affordable, below market housing units. (Dremann, Sue. Palo Alto Online, Dec. 14, 2012).
The only mobile home park in Palo Alto has 104 spaces and houses approximately 400 individuals. Most residents completed survey forms which documented that:
- Homes average almost 42 years old.
- The oldest home is 62 years old and the newest is 2 years old.
- Homes average 456 square feet and typically have two bedrooms.
- One third of the homes meet the definition of a mobile home.
- Two thirds of homes are defined as recreational vehicles according to the CA Health and Safety Code.
- The average market value of homes in Buena Vista is $18,816 (Impact Report, p. 40).
Park residents reached out and community groups rallied to their cause. Supporters included The Community Working Group, the Palo Alto PTA Council Executive Board, and the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center. Sixty Palo Alto residents even formed Friends of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park (Dremann, Palo Alto Online).
Residents considered purchasing Buena Vista MHP. David Loop, a GSMOL Vice President representing resident owned parks, concluded that the idea was feasible. The Jisser family must agree to sell the park at its current market value. Professional appraisers determined that the park was worth $14,500,000 (Smith & Associates, Inc., April 18, 2013, p. 2). The problem was, the apartment developer proposed to pay the Jisser family roughly $30,000,000.
Street scene at Buena Vista Mobile Home Park
The Palo Alto law required the Jisser family to propose money payments to families that would be displaced if they closed the Park. Payments included a fair price for their home. Estimated home values ranged between $5,500 and $45,000 although the appraiser raised the specter that homes with code violations may have no value at all. Families would receive apartment rent subsidies for one year. For example for a one-bedroom apartment, the monthly subsidy would be $1,141 (The average apartment rent in Palo Alto of $1,826 minus the average space rent of $685). Displaced Park residents would be paid first month, last month and security deposit costs for apartments (estimated at $5,478). Moving costs would average $990. Twenty one households reported having at least one member who was disabled and would receive payments on a case-by-case basis. Generally, the Jisser family would pay park residents almost $4,000,000 in total. The proposed payments were approved by Craig Labadie, a Hearing Officer appointed by the City. His decision can be appealed to the Palo Alto City Council.
Prometheus Real Estate Group withdrew their apartment project proposal in July 2014. Nevertheless, the Jisser family continued with the park closure process. In the meantime, Park residents try to lead normal lives as much as possible. On a quiet morning at the Park the peace is only disrupted by a resident’s broom scuffing as he sweeps oak leaves on the parking space/patio in front of his recreation vehicle.
BUENA VISTA MOBILEHOME PARK CLOSURE UPDATE
There was an Appeal filed on October 14, 2014 regarding the Hearing Officer’s decision approving the Impact Report. A City Council hearing on January 12, 2015 was held to adopt procedures for the Appeal Hearing which is to occur April 13, 2015. In the meantime, there has been some exciting news which brings new hope to the residents of the park and their supporters. Thanks to Supervisor Joe Simitian, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors has already stepped up by making available $8 million in affordable-housing funds to help with any viable plan to retain affordable housing on the Buena Vista site and prevent its conversion to market-rate housing. There are other non-profit organizations which could also add to this $8 million in funds. Right now, governmental leadership is needed to achieve a reliable and impartial analysis while the Palo Alto City Council is considering the Buena Vista closure appeal.
—Marie Pounders, GSMOL Region 8 Manager and SLOMAP President