Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 16, 2014

Buena Vista owner makes 11th-hour offer

Hearings conclude, but judge's decision on compensation for mobile-home-park residents is months away

by Sue Dremann and Elena Kadvany

The owner of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park upped his offer Wednesday night to the nearly 400 residents who would be evicted should the Palo Alto park close, promising to reassess and pay for the value of their mobile homes within six months of their relocation and also to pay them a higher rental subsidy than he'd previously offered.

Attorneys for Toufic Jisser, who is seeking to close the park and sell the El Camino Real property that his family purchased in 1996, submitted the amended plan five minutes prior to the end of a three-day hearing to determine the compensation terms offered to residents.

Residents, experts and neighborhood supporters had argued for three days before Administrative Judge Craig Labadie that the sums proposed in a Relocation Impact Report were grossly inadequate.

What, if any, impact the 11th-hour changes to the report would have on Labadie's decision is unclear. Melissa Morris, senior attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, representing the residents, told Labadie Monday that the report should be rejected outright.

"It's impossible to respond to these amendments now, but we will respond in writing," she said Wednesday after the Jissers' attorney, Margaret Nanda, announced the amended plan.

In February, the city finally deemed complete the fifth iteration of a Relocation Impact Report submitted by the Jissers. They offered to buy residents' mobile homes for their appraised values and pay for the "startup costs" of relocating, which includes first- and last-month's rent, a security deposit and 12 months of rent subsidies that reflect the difference between the rent at Buena Vista and the rent at the new locations.

The level of startup costs would vary based on the kind of housing the residents move into. For those moving into one-bedroom apartments, this sum would range from $12,000 to $16,300. For those moving into three-bedroom apartments, the sum would range from $20,000 to $30,600. The Jissers were to partially subsidize rent increases, at 40 percent, at new locations for 12 months. Wednesday's amendment pledged a 100 percent subsidy.

On Monday, Nanda defended the Jissers, characterizing the family as decent property owners well within their legal right to close the park.

"The park is and always has been private property. It is the legal right of a private property owner in California and specifically a mobile-home park owner ... to close, convert or cease the operation of a mobile-home park. The park owner has the right to close the park," she said.

She pointed to the average rent of spaces at Buena Vista — $685 per month — and to the fact that the Jissers raised rents once in 2008 and again in 2010, effective Jan. 1, 2011, and have not since.

"Thus, for a period of 29 months, the park owner has not raised rents on a park-wide basis," she said. "Certain space rents have been increased when there's been a vacancy, per the terms of the rent-control ordinance. I would ask how many other rental properties, whether they be apartments in Palo Alto or other mobile-home parks, have not raised rents in 29 months."

But speaker after speaker on Tuesday and Wednesday spoke against the park closure, hammering on two main points: one, that housing costs Bay Area-wide are so high that the benefits proposed by the Jissers would not come close to compensating the residents for their losses; and two, that the plan does not provide comparable compensation, which stretches beyond financial reimbursement. If the park closes, residents said, they would have to move so far away to find affordable housing that they would lose jobs, homes, access to comparable local schools and their community.

A supporter of Buena Vista residents, Cybele LoVuolo-Bhushan, said Wednesday the relocation-plan appraiser low-balled the value of the residents' mobile homes, citing two examples. In one case, the appraiser valued a home at about $19,000, but an outside appraiser valued it at $50,000. A second home was valued at about $28,000 by the report appraiser, but the second appraiser said it is worth $60,000.

Other supporters told Labadie the relocation amounts do not take the area's hyperinflation into consideration.

A low-end compensation estimate per family should start at $200,000 and should include an inflationary index, some said.

Nanda said Wednesday's revised offer came in response to residents' testimonies. A reappraisal of the mobile-home value within six months of relocation is a fairly common provision in conversion ordinances, but it was not written into Palo Alto's, she said.

Winter Dellenbach, founder of the group Friends of Buena Vista, said the changes throw confusion into the situation. The revisions were not part of what was considered by Labadie during the three-day hearing, and residents and attorneys did not have the opportunity to address their adequacy.

The changes' impact on the City Council's February ruling on the RIR is also a question, she said. The city only found the report complete after four iterations, but the council did not vote on the latest revisions, she said.

"There's no way of quantifying what is being offered," she said.

As part of the hearing, attorneys for both sides called expert witnesses.

Kenneth Baar, an attorney who has worked on housing-policy issues and served as a consultant to numerous cities on mobile-home-park issues, testified on behalf of the residents.

He countered Nanda's assertion that the Jissers kept rent low at Buena Vista. The $685 per month average is, indeed, lower than average mobile-home-park rent levels, but Buena Vista is a denser-than-average park, with 25 spaces per acre, he said. A density of 12.5 spaces per acre is more common.

"We could debate about the specific numbers or details, but there's such a distance between what is being proposed and what is needed to move within this area that there's no way the proposed mitigation is going to provide these people with replacement housing in just about every case, or the vast majority of cases," Baar said.

With the hearing concluded, a ruling on the compensation terms is expected in late August at the earliest, Labadie said Wednesday.

Attorneys for both sides will now submit opposing briefs and additional expert reports for and against closing the 60-plus-year-old park. Labadie set a June 16 deadline for the Jissers' attorneys and a July 16 deadline for the residents' attorneys' briefs. The Jissers would then have a week to respond.

Labadie said he will review the materials and issue a preliminary ruling about a month later. Lawyers from both sides will then offer rebuttal arguments in writing, after which Labadie will issue a final decision. After that process, either side could appeal the ruling to the Palo Alto City Council, he said.

WATCH IT ONLINE

The Palo Alto Weekly video-recorded the three Buena Vista hearings, which are posted at www.ustream.tv/recorded/47498513.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann and Online Editor Elena Kadvany can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com and ekadvany@paweekly.com.

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