Residents of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park have filed a lawsuit against Palo Alto, challenging the city's decision in May to allow the mobile-home park's closure and requesting that the Santa Clara County Superior Court bar the property owner from issuing eviction notices.
The lawsuit, which was filed Monday by the attorneys for the Buena Vista Residents Association, comes at a time when the City Council is actively trying to raise money to buy Buena Vista from the Jisser family and preserve the site as a mobile-home park.
Weeks after it approved the park's closure on May 26, the council agreed to allocate $14.5 million from the city's affordable-housing funds toward the preservation of the city's sole mobile-home park, which is home to about 400 mostly low-income, Latino residents.
Earlier this month, the city changed the guidelines in its commercial-housing fund to allow this allocation -- a move that was welcomed by the park's residents.
The residents association is now asking the court to overturn the city's approval of the closure application, which allowed the Jisser family to begin the six-month eviction process, though that has yet to happen, according to residents.
The Jisser family launched its effort to close and redevelop the Barron Park community in the fall of 2012 and revised its closure application five times before winning the approval of an administrative officer and, ultimately, the City Council's.
Now, the nonprofit organization representing the park's residents is asking the court to reverse the council's vote. The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley argued in its complaint that city officials have denied the residents association a fair hearing; that the city "ignored its obligation to affirmatively further fair housing throughout the closure process"; that Buena Vista's closure runs counter to the city's Housing Element; and that the mitigation measures that the city approved as part of the closure application would not allow residents to move to "comparable housing."
In the suit, attorney Kyra Kazantzis criticizes the city for the process that was used to conduct the closure hearings and argued that the decision to allow Buena Vista's shuttering clashes with the federal Fair Housing Act, which requires cities that receive federal funds for housing to act "in a manner affirmatively to further fair housing," and the state Housing Element Law.
The suit points out that the city's own Housing Element, which the council adopted in 2014, includes an objective to "preserve the 120 mobile home units in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park as a low and moderate income housing resource" and commits the city to 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."
The lawsuit claims that the city's inaction before January 2015 and its decision to approve Buena Vista's closure without taking "concrete action to attempt to preserve it are inconsistent with the Housing Element of the General Plan."
Even though the city pledged funds to preserve Buena Vista (adding it to the $14.5 million pledged by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors), the suit contends that this action came too late. The suit also notes that the City Council took "no action to preserve Buena Vista until after it had already approved Buena Vista's closure."
Yet before the May hearing, the council was expressly discouraged by the city attorney's office from commenting on Buena Vista or taking any action to preserve the park. In evaluating the closure application, the role of the council was more akin to a judge than to a legislative body, and the city wanted to preserve its neutrality and avoid accusations of bias.
Some of the residents association's complaints pertain to the process used to conduct the closure hearings. Before the hearings, the council voted to adopt a process that allowed each side to have one expert witness and no cross-examination of witnesses by the attorneys. The lawsuit contends that by not allowing the residents association to subpoena material witnesses, including the park owner, or allowing the cross-examination of the Jissers' appraiser, David Beccaria, Palo Alto denied the residents association a "fair hearing."
"Because of the denial of a fair hearings, the Association and its members suffered harm" the suit states.
The suit also criticizes the city for not insisting on more relocation assistance for the park's residents. The city's ordinance requires the park owner to provide enough assistance to allow residents who can't relocate their mobile homes to a different park enough money to cover the cost of buying or renting "comparable housing" in a "comparable community."
The relocation assistance offered by the Jisser family in the closure application includes the cost of moving the mobile home or, for those who cannot move the home, the appraised value of the home. It also includes moving costs, expenses for a temporary hotel stay; first and last month's rent; and a year of rent subsidies equal to the difference between the Buena Vista rates and those at their new homes.
The suit calls the approved relocation-assistance package "grossly inadequate" and claims that it will eliminate "any opportunity for Buena Vista residents to relocate to comparable homes in a community comparable to Palo Alto."
"Instead, virtually all Buena Vista families will be forced to leave Palo Alto," the suit states. "Many will be forced to leave the Bay Area altogether, meaning that they will be leaving their jobs, schools, health care providers, friends and community."
The suit argues that the relocation-assistance package should have also incorporated the value of Palo Alto schools, a subject that was central to the closure hearings and that the council tried to include in its approval.
Ultimately, that condition was left out after Beccaria, the appraiser, argued that the value of schools is already included in the appraised values and threatened to quit. The council responded by commissioning a peer review of the methodology used in the appraisal. The suit argues that this action was not enough.
"By failing to ensure that the Latino residents of Buena Vista will retain access to high quality schools, economic opportunities, and other amenities in Palo Alto, the City affirmatively failed to further fair housing," Kazantzis wrote in the lawsuit.
The residents association is asking the court for an injunction prohibiting the Jisser family from issuing six-month closure notices and for a writ of mandate forcing the city to reverse its approval of the closure application.
The association is also asking that the court require, as a condition of closure, "a program of mitigation assistance that will adequately mitigate the closure of the park on displaced residents, including monetary relocation assistance that is sufficient to allow residents to relocate to comparable housing in a community that is comparable to Palo Alto."
It remains to be seen what impact, if any, the suit will have on the city's effort to help purchase Buena Vista or on the Jisser family's decision about selling the mobile-home park.
Kazantzis told the Weekly that Buena Vista residents are hopeful that the mobile-home park will be saved after the Caritas Corporation earlier this month made an informal offer to the Jissers to buy the park, in part with the $29 million from local and county funds.
"We very much appreciate that the City of Palo Alto (and the County) has dedicated funding for the Park's preservation, and we hope that that funding can be used to save the Park," Kazantzis said in an email. "However, as attorneys, we have an ethical obligation to protect our clients' legal rights.
"If the sale doesn't happen and the park is closed, filing the lawsuit by the statute of limitations deadline -- which was Monday -- gives the residents the best chance of ensuring that their right to adequate relocation assistance is preserved."
The Weekly has compiled an archive of news coverage capturing the many voices of the people involved in the fight over Buena Vista.