As one of the city's few refuges for low-income residents, the trailer park at 3950 El Camino Real has lingered mostly in political obscurity until last November, when the Jisser family announced its intention to shutter Buena Vista and convert it into a 187-unit apartment complex. Even now, with the spotlight shining on Buena Vista and advocates stepping forward to protect its roughly 400 residents from displacement, much remains unknown about the community, including the exact number of people living at the park, the percentage who have special needs or disabilities and the value of each mobile home.
That information — or lack thereof — has become key as the Jisser family tries to complete a mandated Relocation Impact Report, an analysis of the park that determines how much each household would get paid in exchange for leaving Buena Vista.
The family submitted the first version of the report in May but the document was deemed incomplete by the city. On July 10, the family submitted an amended version, which the city is now reviewing for compliance. If deemed complete, the report would be submitted to the hearing officer, Craig Labadie, an attorney retained by the city, who would determine whether the compensation offered to the residents by the Jissers is fair.
Much like the original report, the 67-page amended version illustrates the steep challenges the Jisser family is facing as it tries to comply with the local law for park closure. Many of the residents have either declined to respond to the questionnaires the Jissers' relocation specialist has sent out or have submitted incomplete replies, which suggests that their population could be significantly under-reported in the report's analysis. In many cases, they have also allegedly made major modifications to their mobile homes without acquiring the needed permits, which complicates the effort to appraise home values.
In addition, the Jissers and their relocation agency, Autotemp, are jousting with the city over complex questions pertaining to what "comparable" — the basis for compensation — means, including what the value of a Palo Alto education is, what would constitute a "comparable" community, and, perhaps more fundamentally, what makes a home.
In both the May and July reports, the Jissers offered each household between $20,000 and $57,000 for relocation. Households that cannot move their mobile homes would get a lump sum of $11,000. The city's response to the initial report takes issue with these figures and calls the $11,000 sum "inadequate" because it falls short of what would be needed for a Buena Vista resident to remain in Palo Alto, even if moving into the lowest-cost apartments. The difference between a $600 rent a household may be paying at Buena Vista and the $1,697 per month for a one-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto would be more than $12,000 per resident, the city noted.
Erika Escalante, whose family has lived at Buena Vista for 15 years and who heads the newly formed Buena Vista Neighborhood Association, agreed with the city's assessment that $11,000 won't do very much for residents looking to remain in the community.
"If they want to stay in Palo Alto, that's not going to last very long," Escalante told the Weekly. "The rents are sky-high here, and they aren't taking that into consideration."
The new report includes more details about the site's value and fuller explanations of the resident survey that the park owner had conducted and potential relocation options. But housing advocates, attorneys and Barron Park residents who have stepped up to assist the residents, many of whom are non-native English speakers, have expressed initial concerns about the Jissers' latest response.
Stanford University professors Don Barr and Amado Padilla, who have done extensive research at Buena Vista, told the Weekly that the number of residents tallied by the relocation specialists is far short of what they know to be the real number. They have also taken issue with the Jissers' definition of a "comparable community," particularly as the phrase relates to schools.
Winter Dellenbach, a housing attorney who helped form the group Friends of Buena Vista, also said she was concerned about both park residents being under-counted and the sum offered to each household for relocation. In an interview this week, she called the developer's decision not to revise the offers, which the city in June deemed insufficient, "a puzzlement."
"That's an example of how this report seems to be stonewalling or is, at the very least, unresponsive to the existing critique by the city that goes to the report being complete or not," Dellenbach said.
Among the biggest obstacles the Jissers and Autotemp have faced is the requirement to survey Buena Vista residents. The city's mobile-home ordinance specifies that "no application shall be deemed complete until the questionnaire for each affected resident and tenant and a completed (Relocation Impact Report) have been filed." The questionnaire has to include such information as the names, ages and "any mental or physical handicap or special needs" of the residents. It must also include information about each mobile home, including date of manufacture, purchase price and the type of additions that have been made to each home.
If the city follows the letter of the law, the amended application should be deemed as incomplete as the original one, which included questionnaires from 71 of the 98 households (the remaining six households aren't included because they're either vacant or the tenants moved in after the conversion process was launched).
The failure to get the needed responses was not for lack of effort by Autotemp. The new report includes a spreadsheet showing the efforts the agency made in contacting each household, which included numerous mailings and phone calls and assistance from Autotemp's two bilingual assistants. The company had also taped "contact cards" to homeowners' doors with a specific request that the household contact Autotemp.
The new report concludes that "the likelihood of obtaining 100 percent compliance is not realistic." In some cases, the report states, the residents didn't have information about the mobile home's manufacture date and other characteristics. In other cases, they didn't cooperate, according to the amended report.
"They refused to complete the resident questionnaires either because they believed it would delay the process ... or because they would not reveal to the consultants information they considered confidential," the report states.
Escalante disputed the assertion that residents have not been cooperative. Many have filled out the questionnaires with assistance from an Autotemp specialist, only to receive another questionnaire later, claiming the responses were incomplete, she told the Weekly. In the agency's latest attempt to collect answers, the questionnaires were sent to the residents on July 2, leaving them little time to complete them before the release of the amended Relocation Impact Report on July 10.
"They didn't even give us enough time to mail questionnaires back," Escalante said.
The fact that residents have been getting visits from both appraisers and relocation specialists has also fostered confusion, prompting some to wonder why they're being asked to fill out different surveys from different groups, she said.
The report argues that it's not realistic to expect a 100 percent response rate, stating that "the city must acknowledge the renewed and continuing good faith efforts on the part of the park owner and the housing relocation specialist regarding the resident questionnaire." But if the city agrees with this argument, it runs the risk of under-counting the residents who would be displaced and who would require assistance, said Barr, a housing advocate and Stanford professor whose students have been working with Buena Vista residents over the past year on a research assignment unrelated to the park's closure. He noted that the report pegs the number of children at Buena Vista at 75. According to the school district data, the number is 103, he said. Escalante said Buena Vista's own census shows about 118 children total (103 of whom attend public schools in Palo Alto). If a similar disparity exists in measuring the adult population, dozens of residents are being discounted, Barr said.
For Barr, a sociologist, Autotemp's approach to getting answers isn't good enough. Some households, he said, have residents with disabilities who may require a special contact with trained mental-health specialists.
"My understanding is that some of the folks there do not like strangers coming to their doors as part of their mental disability," Barr told the Weekly. "How are you going to best help that person through the relocation process? I assume you'd need someone with mental-health training to approach that person and to get their input.
"I haven't seen anything in the report addressing this. If that (report) meets the standard of law (for definition of 'complete,'), I guess that's the law. I can't accept that it's really complete until they're able to speak to everyone," Barr said.
Attorneys working on the report, Margaret Nanda and Brian Grasser, also had a hard time tallying and estimating the value of all the improvements and additions to each mobile home. While the changes are myriad (an average mobile home at Buena Vista is just under 42 years old and has undergone numerous modifications), official documentation is scarce. Of the 68 homes that were shown to have improvements, 66 didn't have associated permits. In many cases, the report states, the homeowner "doubled the square footage of the mobile home by enclosing the mobile home in siding and then continuing said siding as walls, creating another enclosure equal to, or exceeding, the initial dimensions of the mobile home."
"In one case, a homeowner has enclosed the space surrounding his mobile home, which resulted in an entire tree becoming part of his home, which now extends through the roof of his home," the report states.
Given the lack of permits, the report argues, the homes "cannot be resold with the unpermitted improvements." If the homes were valued without the unpermitted improvements, they would have "no legally transferable value."
"The homes have value only because they are situated on land in Palo Alto, land owned by the park owner," the report states. In buying the mobile homes from the present owners, the report argues, the Jissers will essentially be paying a premium on land they themselves own.
"If the homes were not situated on the park owner's property, they would have little or no value given their age and condition," the report asserts.
By local law, the Jisser family is required to "provide the purchase price of comparable mobile homes in comparable mobile home parks."
Further, the city's ordinance defines "comparable mobile park" as one that is "similar in condition, age, size and amenities to the park that is being closed and is located within a community similar to that in which the park that is being closed is located and has similar access to community amenities such as shopping, medical services, recreational facilities and transportation."
In this context, the word "comparable" is a tricky one, subject to various interpretations. The original Relocation Impact Report concluded that there are no comparable apartments or condominiums in the area whose rental cost would be comparable to that of Buena Vista. The city decided that this finding isn't good enough and called the applicant's failure to calculate the cost of comparable rental housing a "significant" omission.
One amenity that's often touted in discussing the value of living in Palo Alto is the quality of local schools. The prospect of students being forced to leave their schools has been a leading concern for Buena Vista residents, some of whom had attended City Council meetings in recent months to plead their cases for keeping the park open.
For Barr, the words "such as" in the ordinance imply that the amenities listed in the definition are meant to be illustrative rather than all-encompassing. The quality of schools should be factored into the equation, he said, when considering possible options for relocation of Buena Vista children.
"Most of the children here have been in (Palo Alto) schools since Day One," said Escalante, a graduate of JLS Middle and Gunn High schools.
Her younger brother, she noted, is now in middle school and "doesn't know anywhere else."
For the Jisser family, the exclusion of schools from the legal definition is significant. The revised Relocation Impact Report specifies that the words "comparable schools" do not appear in the ordinance's definition for "comparable housing." But even if they had, the report argues, other schools in the region can be considered comparable. (See sidebar.)
Debates about the meaning of "comparable" aside, the amended report also provides information about other mobile-home parks in the 35-mile radius and moving companies that could handle the relocation. The new report includes these waivers from those residents who had moved into Buena Vista after the conversion process was initiated. as well as more information about different parks and fuller explanation of why some parks on the list are ranked above others.
Acting Planning Director Aaron Aknin said the city has 30 days from the July 10 submission to review the new report. If deemed complete, the hearing in front of Labadie will take place within 60 days of the finding. His decision can then be appealed to the City Council.