Housing agency eyes complex rehabilitation of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park

Park operator Caritas bows out as Housing Authority seeks to fast-track renovations

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.


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25 people like this
Posted by Winter
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2019 at 8:15 am

Caritas deserves a big thank you for its good work at Buena Vista. That it gave a place to the community as its own was a great help, and its reading program and small college scholarships were appreciated. It really added to BV.

One clarification - the after school tutoring program, the Homework Club, was started and continues as a project of Amado and Deborah Padilla with help of volunteer Stanford, high school students, some from BV.

It's important to remember that a primary goal in the effort to save BV by Friends of Buena Vista, City, County, and BV residents was so all residents could remain. There were no qualifiers to that, including income. It would be entirely counter to that effort to have anyone forced from their homes.

The infrastructure upgrade was in the plan, and now includes replacing homes as needed as Buena Vista as it glides toward its 95th year here in Palo Alto as a mobile home park.

Buena Vista has less space now because about half an acre of it was retained by the former owner and soon a few residents still with homes there will need to move into BV proper. But on the other hand, some residents have chosen to leave, so some space has opened up.

I look forward to a nice playground for the children, a real community room, and trees!

Thank you Housing Authority and welcome John Stewart Co. - may you come to appreciate Buena Vista for its warm heart.

9 people like this
Posted by gail
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 17, 2019 at 11:21 am

like Winter's comment regarding BV

14 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2019 at 11:26 am

I'm having an arithmetic problem here. Someone please help me out! It is quite likely that I am missing or misunderstanding what I am reading in the above article.

What I see is a site with 93 units. The land was already purchased for $40M, correct? There is an additional $40M available for redevelopment, correct? $40,000,000/$400-per-sq-ft (should be more than enough even at current excessive rates for new construction at standard rates) = 100,000 sq-ft, correct? For 93 units, that is 1075 square feet per apartment-- almost the exact same size as a standard mobile home, and, enough for nice 3BR 2-1/2BA apartments.

What I'm wondering is why we don't just demolish the trailer park and put in a nice, new apartment complex? Anybody who understands this better than I do please explain it. And no, GD, I'm not interested in replacing it with 30 units for the very wealthy or whatever.

6 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 17, 2019 at 12:39 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

How does each and every resident feel about their situation...what has happened to date and their outlook about their future? Questions I would like to ask and have answered: What was your rent before the sale? Did it go up after Caritas got involved? If you're in the group whose incomes are over the 80% income limit, what are your plans? And @Winter..."a primary goal in the effort to save BV by Friends of Buena Vista, City, County, and BV residents was so all residents could remain. There were no qualifiers to that, including income. It would be entirely counter to that effort to have anyone forced from their homes". A noble goal but it looks like that might be a tough goal to meet. Do you propose a way to circumvent the law? Lawyers are in the wings, anxious and waiting.

The tone of the article leads me believe that there is a possibility that we should expect to be asked to contribute more, maybe a lot more, to the project. There is no mention of the cost of the work remaining. Infrastructure updates don't come cheap. There should have been a preliminary number put on that before PA ever got involved. I had begged, a few times online, for an update on the status and progress of the BV project. No response! Finally we get an ort of information. This is a start, but please be transparent and current on your reporting...and 'dig down deeper to get to the bottom to stay on top'. lol! Okay, any of you old timer, faithful Frank and Mike listeners would recognize that I stole that line from their morning radio spots...comedic news!

18 people like this
Posted by Roger
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 17, 2019 at 1:14 pm

Wouldn’t it just be cheaper to buy out all residences and bulldoze the place and build new apartments.
Maybe irs me but that seems like a win win.

5 people like this
Posted by history repeats
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 17, 2019 at 3:52 pm

@Roger, knocking it down and building apartments is what the old owner was willing to do. If the housing authority trys to do this, then its purchase of the park would be a complete failure

8 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 17, 2019 at 4:23 pm

Most interesting is the unexpected percentage of BV residents with 80% of average local income. That factoid conflicts with the narrative we were told 2 years ago.

Prediction 1: the housing authority will eventually kick out all residents not meeting - and maintaining - low income criteria in order to build with strings-attached government funding 2 story "low income" multi-family structures owned by a govenment agency. Goodbye American Dream on that land of homeownership where current residents can own their mobile homes and any striving by residents to be independent of taxpayer charity, ever shifting government rules on who is poor enough to live there, and what structures meet ever shifting housing codes.

Prediction 2: Mobile homes will be illegal in Palo Alto within 20 years as ADU rules become ever more flexible and car camping is frowned upon.

30 people like this
Posted by Downfall
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 17, 2019 at 8:09 pm

I agree with Oldster that it is shocking that almost 1/4 of BV residents earn more than 80% of Santa Clara County median income. I thought all these tax dollars, $40+ MILLION, were going solely to affordable housing. In fact I recall at the time articles stated that this money could not be used for anything but affordable housing. The article clearly states that being over 80% of SC county median income puts these residents over the cutoff for affordable housing income limit. So why are these residents allowed to stay? Shouldn't they have to move to make space for people that actually qualify for affordable housing? Why was this not disclosed when all the discussions regarding funding the purchase of the park were taking place? How convenient for BV supporters.

And this line is just such a classic example of wealth transfer entitlement that is so rampant in this state: "Buena Vista residents said on Thursday that they are frustrated by the slow pace of redevelopment." Not only were these residents enabled to continue to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country via a massive public subsidy. Now they are not happy with how quickly they can cash in on the freebies provided by the public funds. The level of entitlement is almost unbelievable.

14 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 18, 2019 at 12:08 am

Indeed, Downfall.

Maybe our City will declare the last BV mobile home "historic" and bus tours will drive by it as a monument to do-gooders and their unintended consequences.

The County housing agency will probably wait a couple of years to see how many of the 80%ers contest eviction orders, then sell most or all of the land at a big profit, and build low income public housing in another County town to get more bang for its bucks. I wonder if any of the 80%ers would be allowed to buy a long term ground lease given the blurb about them having to go to a bank for financing to stay.

Looking forward to the Weekly's next installment in this saga.

14 people like this
Posted by Better Use of Tax Money
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 18, 2019 at 8:42 am

Such an inefficient use of money but when you are paying with other people's money and not accounted for...who cares!

I can't believe I heard that old run down mobile homes will be move out of the lot and then moved back. First there is a high cost to moving the homes. Then who would want to return to old crappy mobile home sthat is structural compromised when move. Would building new homes on site cost that cost a little more be a better investment? The new apartments will be better quality and last longer the low quality mobile homes.

13 people like this
Posted by george drysdale
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 18, 2019 at 9:20 am

As predicted the Buena Vista is a disaster. All this was pointed out a couple of years ago by the people who could count. On the Palo Alto online. The Buena Vista is a classic already. Next: get those stumble bum Santa Clara Board of Supervisors out of town before they commit more economic havoc. Stanford: stand firm you don't have to provide subsidized housing for those who want to live in a super high priced area like Silicon Valley. Numbers count.

George Drysdale initiator and educator

4 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 19, 2019 at 10:23 am

Posted by Better Use of Tax Money, a resident of Barron Park

>> Would building new homes on site cost that cost a little more be a better investment? The new apartments will be better quality and last longer the low quality mobile homes.

Agreed. My simple arithmetic says we could build nice new apartments for what this is costing us. Why don't we do that?

5 people like this
Posted by george drysdale
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 19, 2019 at 11:00 am

As part of the number one lesson plan in secondary but mainly graduate social science classes. The Santa Clara board of supervisors looking to get the Hispanic vote wanted to provide the Buena Vista. Chump Palo Alto government went along with this conspiracy. Laws protect other states from this cynicism by allowing the property owners to develop at the "highest and best use." Not California. By the way, it looks like development of apartment houses in California is crashing. Would you invest in California's rental housing with the customer determining the price? Return to basic economics classes. The internet will destroy rent control in California because you have an instant reminder (if you are literate).

George Drysdale initiator and educator

2 people like this
Posted by Oldste
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 19, 2019 at 5:54 pm

Mr, Drysdale, Yes, the BV deal included Santa Clara County Supervisors wanting to say, "We care!" about hispanic voters but the deal started with BV residents and their allies using the full Palo Alto Process to stay as long as possible despite their trailor park home having reached physical obsolecense years ago making renovation economic nonsense, a renovation believable only by do-gooders spending other people's money. Fact the Couny is already plannig to tear down all the BV mobile homes in phases to build apartment buildings proves that fatal obsolesence of the mobile homes,

The working orchards and farms have all disappeared here. So have tarpaper shack houses with outhouses out back. The last single room occupany homes were cleared out at The President. So, too, will all mobile home parks be gone here unless city halls declare them historic, worthy of maintaining forever. Anyone think that will happen?

Rereading the Weekly article I'm struck by the number of BV residents who have left since the deal was signed. Normal attrition rate? How many knew they'd be evicted for having "too much" income? And, how many might not have had the legal residency required to live in government agency subsidized housing? They probably wish they'd taken the Jisser buy-out offer instead and are cursing the do-gooders who engineered the deal.

Meanwhile, our City Hall is salivating over $25M of Zuckerberg/Facebook cash to build low income subsidized housing for the latest " most worthies" like teachers and fireman. Everytime I pass the new Rinchonada Park firehouse with its nice hotel rooms for firemen pulling overtime pay (and higher pension rates) while living in cheaper locales I shake my head and wonder whom our City Council will favor next with taxpayer largesse.

3 people like this
Posted by george drysdale
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 21, 2019 at 9:19 am

The worse thing about public sector labor unions is that they have too much power. Hence California's huge unfunded liabilities. It goes on and on and it not "Republican heartless" but simple economics, and history and psychology. Private sector workers suffer while the public sector workers feast on their entitlements. FDR said: no public sector unions.

George Drysdale initiator and educator

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