The Caritas Corporation, a nonprofit organization that manages 20 mobile-home parks throughout California, has joined the last-ditch effort by Santa Clara County and Palo Alto officials to avert the closure of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park.
Caritas, a company based in Irvine, has entered into a contract with Santa Clara County that, in its first phase, requires the company to put together a purchase and sale agreement with the Jisser family, which owns the 4.5-acre mobile park.
The Jissers have been moving ahead with a closure application for Buena Vista since the fall of 2012, a process that could conclude on May 26, when the City Council is expected to formally approve the application. After the vote, the Jisser family will be able to launch the six-month process of evicting the park's roughly 400 residents.
While the future of Buena Vista remains uncertain, the entry of Caritas into the preservation process has offered another shred of hope to the residents of the predominantly Hispanic and low-income community in Barron Park.
Erika Escalante, president of the Buena Vista Residents Association, said the last few months have been difficult for the park community, with residents bracing for the prospect of imminent displacement. Now, with Caritas joining the effort, the focus has turned to putting a plan together that would allow families to keep their homes.
"We've met with Caritas a couple of times and we're very excited and encouraged about the potential of this plan," Escalante said Wednesday.
The company was formally introduced to the community on Wednesday afternoon by county Supervisor Joe Simitian, a former Palo Alto mayor who is now leading the drive to avert Buena Vista's closure.
In January, Simitian led the Board of Supervisors in allocating $8 million for the park's preservation. He also noted that an additional $3 million is available in affordable-housing funds for the potential purchase. Shortly after he announced the allocation, Palo Alto City Manager James Keene designated $8 million from the city's affordable-housing funds for Buena Vista's preservation, an allocation that is subject to the council's approval.
At the same time, Simitian has been reaching out to the philanthropic community about possible contributions that would help pay for the park's run-down infrastructure. While he told the Weekly he is encouraged by the response he has received so far, potential donors are waiting to see the extent of the assistance that would be necessary to preserve the park.
The effort still faces steep hurdles. The Jisser family has been reluctant to discuss any possible sale of the site while its closure application remains open. The public entities are still trying to figure out what the price could be and whether there will be enough resources to cover it.
Yet the county's agreement with Caritas is significant given the council's and the supervisors' reluctance to get into the mobile-home-management business. In late April, the Board of Supervisors authorized county staff to negotiate with nonprofits that could potentially own and operate Buena Vista. On April 28, the county entered into its agreement with Caritas.
Caritas' 20-year track record of successful "rescue operations" have prompted the county to select it over other nonprofits that expressed interest, Simitian said. If enough resources are found to acquire Buena Vista, Caritas is prepared to "acquire, own and operate the site in perpetuity as an affordable mobile-home park community," he said.
"The two things we need are resources and partners," Simitian said. "Caritas Corporation is now under contract with Santa Clara County to be that partner. My hope and expectation is that Caritas, working with the county, will be able to negotiate a market-rate purchase of the park from current owners."
In addition to the roughly $19 million already available in public funds, officials from the city, the county and Caritas can also look to a tax-exempt revenue bond, predicated on the cash flow of the property. For Caritas, issuing bonds has been a standard practice. The company's information brochure notes that Caritas' purchase of mobile-home parks is financed "by conduit, non-recourse tax-exempt bonds issued by a public entity, including counties, cities or a joint-powers authority."
"If a public entity is willing to pledge housing funds or provide credit enhancement, the bond issue for the entire purchase price can be sold at a lower interest rate," the Caritas brochure states. "Because the seller receives all cash, the purchase price is often lower. If structured properly, these savings generally result in increased rent relief for residents and enhancements to the park communities."
John Woolley, the company's chief operating officer, said his company has long been aware of the myriad of challenges facing Buena Vista residents. Caritas, he said, believes there is a "workable solution" to these problems. He stressed that the company is a "mission-based" organization, rather than a profit-based one, that self-imposes rent control on its properties.
"It's going to be a very challenging process but it is very achievable," Woolley said. "We believe our unique experience and skill set position us well to turn Buena Vista into a spirited and caring mobile-home community."
The contract that the company signed runs until the end of 2015 and does not include any spending from the county. Woolley said Caritas will commit to working with the Jisser family to "understand their development goals and develop a proposal that appeals to them."
The company will also work with its partners in the city, county and philanthropic communities to identify the needed resources; continue to meet with Buena Vista residents to make sure any plan would meet their needs; encourage city officials to expedite the approval process for the needed upgrades to Buena Vista; and reach out to local philanthropic groups for potential contributions.
"Caritas is genuinely excited about the prospect of redeveloping the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and we look forward to transforming it into an exciting, lively community of which the city, the county and the community can be very proud," Woolley said.
Santa Clara County in a 'race against the clock' to save Buena Vista | April 22, 2015
Attorneys debate the value of a Palo Alto education | April 17, 2015
Lawyer: Buena Vista evictions could start next month | April 16, 2015
Buena Vista's closure hangs on new appraisal | April 14, 2015
Buena Vista residents make final plea to save their homes | April 13, 2015
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.