Two years after the Santa Clara County Housing Authority saved the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto from closure, staff with the county agency say that a complex rehabilitation of the property at 3980 El Camino Real still lies ahead. And to make it happen, the Housing Authority on Nov. 1 is parting ways with Caritas Corporation, the nonprofit organization that has been managing the affordable-housing community of nearly 400 people, and taking charge of the park's rehabilitation itself.
During its tenure, Caritas, which specializes in preserving and improving mobile home communities in California, oversaw essential repairs to the mobile homes; made improvements to the park's security, grounds, parking lot, community bathroom and laundry room; created the park's first community space inside a new mobile home; and provided an after-school program and a summer-reading program through a partnership with Stanford University and volunteers, according to the Housing Authority. It also conducted a survey of residents to collect economic and other demographic data.
Katherine Harasz, executive director of the Housing Authority, said Tuesday during a press briefing that her agency and Caritas determined that the park is now stable and that the county should take the lead on planning, redevelopment strategy and improvements to the park's infrastructure.
"We wanted to move quicker. The complexity of what's in front of us justified the Housing Authority taking over," she said.
The John Stewart Company will be the park's new operator and day-to-day manager, with oversight from the housing authority.
Warren Reed, vice president for the John Stewart Company's South Bay Region, said in an email: "The John Stewart Company has worked closely with the Santa Clara County Housing Authority as their property manager for many years at their affordable properties, and is excited to join their team at Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. The John Stewart Company also has many years of experience managing and assisting Owners during their redevelopment of affordable Mobile Home Parks."
In a joint statement with Caritas, Harasz said: "We're grateful for Caritas' good work as an essential primary player in stabilizing the park. We are pleased to have John Stewart join our team at this juncture (to operate the park) and look forward to working together to make certain this affordable housing asset will continue serving low-income Palo Altans for generations."
Caritas CEO Randy Redwitz said in the statement that the Housing Authority's ability to "access a broader range of housing finance sources will maximize the redevelopment options. We know Buena Vista is in good hands and its residents will continue to thrive."
Among the challenges facing Buena Vista is the need to modernize the aging infrastructure and homes.
"Part of the planning is that when we bring the site up to the current planning and zoning standards, there will be less space," Harasz said. "That's one of the really challenging issues for the park. The park's rehabilitation is going to be challenging because it will touch on every area of the park."
The improvements will have to be undertaken in phases because the Housing Authority will want to rebuild everything, including the 12 studio apartments on the site, she said.
The Housing Authority bought the mobile home park from the owners, the Jisser family, for $40.4 million in September 2017. Funding for the purchase and renovations came from the city of Palo Alto and Santa Clara County, each of which committed $14.5 million, and the Housing Authority, which contributed an additional $26 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. An agreement among the three local entities restricts the property's use to affordable housing for 75 years.
The Housing Authority must now figure out the costs of the infrastructure and housing renovations and how to pay for them. The agency still has the county's $14.5 million share to put toward the redevelopment, but Harasz said the redevelopment could cost more. A number of public funding sources could be tapped, such as low-income-housing funds, tax credit funds, Measure A and other state and local funding.
About one-quarter of Buena Vista's households might not be eligible for such public funds, however. An economic survey by Caritas of the mobile home park found that 24% of the 93 households earn more than 80% of Santa Clara County's area median income, which puts those residents above the affordable-housing-income limit. For those households, private financing might be needed to pay for renovation of their homes, Harasz said.
The other 75% of households would qualify for public housing funds. Thirty-three households, or 35%, are extremely low income, meaning they earn 30% or less of the county's area median income; 27 households, or 29%, are very low income, earning 50% or less of the area median; and 11 households, or 12%, are low income, earning 80% or less of the area median, the Caritas survey found. Of the park's current 345 residents, about 100 are children under the age of 18. Six residents have been identified as having a disability, Harasz said.
Some families have moved out since the Housing Authority's acquisition and will likely not be replaced, reducing the number of households currently residing in the park from about 117 to 93, Harasz said.
The Housing Authority met with residents on Wednesday night to discuss the transition. Two longtime employees who have worked with the residents — the on-site property manager and the maintenance worker, with whom the residents have relationships — will stay on and work for John Stewart. Over the next 90 days, staff will meet again with residents to discuss the rehabilitation work and to kick off the planning process, she said.
Buena Vista residents said on Thursday that they are frustrated by the slow pace of redevelopment.
In March 2018, Caritas had unveiled its timeline for the redevelopment at a community meeting, which included selecting an architect in June of that year, site design from June 2018-March 2019, construction design through December 2019 and new-home construction from January 2020-December 2021.
"All current homes will be moved off-site. Everyone will get a new home," Caritas Chief Operating Officer Tracy Bejotte told the residents at the 2018 meeting.
But now it seems as though the Housing Authority is basically starting from scratch, residents said.
The meeting didn't answer questions the residents had regarding why it is taking so long to remodel the park and what will happen there.
"Caritas came in like gangbusters. I think that as time went by they took a look at things" and saw the project was bigger than what they wanted to handle, said Mike, who declined to give his last name.
"I think everyone is well-intended, but it's been four years since the Jissers wanted to sell the property. I don't see any changes," he said.
Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Joe Simitian said the effort to save Buena Vista wouldn't have been possible without Caritas.
"Caritas was an early and essential partner, they've made sure that Buena Vista will both survive and thrive in the years to come. Our community, and I personally, are deeply grateful for all they've done," he said in the joint statement.
The John Stewart Company, which is based in San Francisco, currently manages a large share of the Housing Authority's 2,200-unit portfolio and has much experience in affordable-housing management and compliance matters, the Housing Authority said in its statement. John Stewart runs the Opportunity Center for the homeless in Palo Alto.