There has been a certain inevitability to the situation now unfolding at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, located behind El Camino Real in the Barron Park neighborhood.
For more than a decade, the city has anticipated that the owner would eventually convert the property into something else, and when he did would want to evict the nearly 400 residents who live there.
With a recovering economy and the high value of Palo Alto real estate, the Buena Vista owner has a deal in the works with a development company to build multi-unit housing on the site.
So the anticipated nightmare is coming true for more than 115 low-income families, many with school-aged children and others who are disabled, following the owner's notice last month that he wants to clear out the vintage mobile homes and replace them with 180 rental apartments.
State law provides some protections from eviction to those who live in mobile-home parks because the homes aren't really mobile and the residents are largely low-income families or seniors. When these parks disappear it completely uproots the residents and the tight community they generally form.
Palo Alto has an ordinance that goes beyond state law and is aimed at ensuring relocation assistance is provided for the residents at Buena Vista specifically.
The city and the owner of the property have an obligation to do everything possible to help park residents make a move to a "comparable" mobile-home park or "comparable housing." The Mobile Home Park Conversion Ordinance passed in 2000 by the council defines "comparable" as having "similar access to community amenities such as shopping, medical services, recreational facilities and transportation."
In addition, a section of Palo Alto's comprehensive plan includes more specific guidance, saying that, "Any redevelopment of the site must be consistent with the city's 2000 ordinance which addresses ways to help preserve existing units. To the fullest extent possible," the plan says, "the city will seek appropriate local, state and federal funding to assist in the preservation and maintenance of the existing units in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park."
If the closure and redevelopment of the property comes to pass, it would constitute the largest one-time eviction of residents in Palo Alto since the 1942 internment and eviction of 184 of the city's Japanese Americans. And it would be a tragedy for the Buena Vista families, who lack the means or education to cope with Palo Alto's high tempo housing market, and whose children are already dealing with the stress of knowing that they soon might be leaving their classmates at Barron Park Elementary, Terman Middle and Gunn High school. More than 10 percent of the students at Barron Park Elementary are Buena Vista residents.
Support for the residents is coming from many directions, including the Palo Alto PTA Council, the Community Working Group and the newly formed Friends of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. These and other local affordable housing groups promise to be strong advocates for the residents, pressing for other possible options besides relocation assistance for the residents.
The PTA Council's engagement was bolstered by a vote of support for the residents by all 17 of the local school PTAs, which believe correctly that evicting the residents will cause a huge loss of diversity within our schools.
Certainly the park's owner, Joe Jisser, has the right to seek another use for his property, which has been in his family since 1986. Jisser had already redeveloped the portion of his property that fronts on El Camino, once occupied by the All American Market, which has since been replaced by Jamba Juice and Baja Fresh franchises.
Jisser has said for a number of years that increasing maintenance problems led to his decision to finally arrange a redevelopment deal. The poor condition of utility connections on the property have led to ongoing sewage back-ups and other problems, and making the necessary major infrastructure repairs without displacing the residents infeasible.
While no one is really the "bad guy" in this situation, Jisser and the Prometheus real-estate company with which he is working have a major legal and moral responsibility to propose and implement options for the residents. And the city of Palo Alto has plenty of leverage in the matter, since a redevelopment proposal will surely be asking for development rights that exceed what current zoning allows on the property.
Simply trying to save the park for its current residents, however, seems a long shot. The conditions are approaching unsafe and whether the park is merely repaired or entirely redeveloped, the current residents would need to move regardless.
A better approach is to vigorously pursue replacement-housing options for the residents and to work with the current owner to ensure he provides the time and resources needed for them to make successful transitions.