Running Out of Time

Residents and city activists fight to save Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, the last community of its kind in Palo Alto.
Running Out of Time

Dressed in a faded green-blue windbreaker, an older man laughs to himself and zooms by on an electric scooter on a roughly paved street behind a shopping center. He sports a pleasant smile and an aged complexion, a mane of the same salt and pepper hair that grows as a heavy beard on his chin.

Meet Casey Hornback, a resident of Palo Alto’s Buena Vista Mobile Home Park (Buena Vista.) Buena Vista, the city’s last mobile home living area, sits on a four-acre plot of land tucked behind the intersection of El Camino Road and Los Robles Avenue. A quiet and discreet alleyway, contiguous to the shopping center that holds Baja Fresh and Jamba Juice, leads into the seemingly hidden Buena Vista community that Hornback calls home.

Buena Vista was first established in 1926, making the 88-year old mobile home park the oldest and one of the last affordable housing options in Palo Alto and the greater San Francisco Bay Area. The plot of land is currently home to approximately 400 residents: singles, couples and families. Of the 129 children growing up at Buena Vista, 99 receive an education at Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) schools, with most of the younger children attending nearby Barron Park Elementary School. Most of the Buena Vista inhabitants are categorized as those of the “working poor” class, many of whom are racial minorities living off a low-income salary.

In 2012, the owners of the property filed a request with the City of Palo Alto to close Buena Vista and relocate the residents. The Jissers, who purchased Buena Vista 27 years ago, announced that after shutting down the park, they would sell the 4-acre plot of land to Prometheus Real Estate Group for around $30 million. After obtaining the space, Prometheus would up-zone it and create 180 “upscale” apartments to be sold at luxury prices for “young tech workers.”
For the hundreds of residents currently calling Buena Vista home, the Jissers’ request for closure has caused immense distress. The City of Palo Alto ultimately cannot prevent the owners of Buena Vista from selling property, but it has the power to demand relocation services for dislocated mobilehome inhabitants. Under the California Mobilehome Residency Law, the owners of mobile home properties are required to provide relocation payments if they sell their land, and the owners of Buena Vista are no exception.

Last month, on Feb. 20, after five failed attempts, over a year of negotiations and revisions, the owners submitted a Relocation Impact Report (RIR) documenting their promised relocation services to the Buena Vista residents. On its sixth attempt, the RIR was approved by the city. Whether or not these proposed offers — which include the purchasing of each resident’s home at an appraised value and paying the difference between Buena Vista rent and the rent cost of the resident’s new affordable housing for 12 months — are enough to mitigate the losses that will be experienced by the residents is a topic of debate among many residents of Buena Vista and the greater Palo Alto community.

Because the RIR has been approved, a court hearing, during which a judge will decide whether the request to sell the property can move forward, will be announced in the next couple of weeks. For the Buena Vista owners, this is a significant step toward their goal of selling the property.

Casey Hornback, pulling over off his scooter, grins and immediately agrees to offer some thoughts. He shares the personal obstacles that would follow the potential shutting down of the park.

“[The closing of Buena Vista] would certainly impact me because I’d obviously have to move away, away from my work nearby,” Hornback said. “I support myself with a job in the area, which I’d have to leave. That wouldn’t be ideal, but at least I got places to go, family and friends to stay with. My children are all grown up, so it’s not so bad if I’m forced to pack up my car and go. I guess I could live in my truck again too.”

A bigger issue, Hornback suggests, is the one families with children would face.

“The families with the little ones — it will be a big struggle for them,” he said. “I raised my kids — they’re grown. They went to all the schools: Terman [Middle School], JLS [Jane Lanthrop Stanford Middle School], Jordan [Middle School], [Henry M.] Gunn [High School], Paly [Palo Alto High School]. I got real lucky and I’m glad they got educated here. The families living here now, with the kids, they can’t just go ‘poof’ and find a place to live right here in Palo Alto. These people would be losing out in terms of an education for their kids. That is a big, heavy wound. Who knows where they’d go?”

As Hornback scooters off, a man in a red flannel and cowboy hat exits his mobile home a couple doors down the alleyway street. Roberto Munoz has been a resident of Buena Vista for 10 years. He lives in his home with two daughters and his wife and maintains a job in Portola Valley. Munoz says the mobile park has granted him and his family countless opportunities, and that their life will be deeply impacted if Buena Vista faces closure. His words echo Hornback’s previous suggestions that families with children, in particular, will face difficult obstacles if the park is sold.

“I have two young daughters,” Munoz said. “[My daughter] Jennifer is studying at Terman. I have a baby girl who is two years and three months. It won’t be long till she is to start kindergarten. PAUSD is a great school system and I want my kids to be able to learn at these schools, too.”

Munoz states that if he and his family were eventually forced off the Buena Vista property, their hopes for staying in the city would disintegrate, and they would most likely move away due to the high costs of Palo Alto living.

“It’s just impossible for us,” Munoz said. “I work nearby, and my wife is a house cleaner in Palo Alto. We work a lot, and we work very, very hard. But there is no way we could afford a home, not even a little apartment in Palo Alto — I’ve looked. It’s so hard.”

Jennifer Munoz Tello, Munoz’s 12-year-old daughter, is just one of the many residents of Buena Vista whose life would be affected were the mobilehome park to be closed.

“I have lived here at Buena Vista for ten years — almost my whole life,” Jennifer said. “This place is my home. When my dad told me that a letter came in the mail saying [Buena Vista] might be closing, I just started to cry.”

Jennifer fears that being uprooted from her community will force her to deal with the daunting task of having to reestablish her social circle. Having lived in Buena Vista for nearly her whole life, friendships run deep.

“When I found out [about the prospect of Buena Vista being closed], I thought about my friends,” Jennifer said. “I will lose all of my friends that I’ve made growing up. I have made some very good friends who I really care about. It’s gonna be hard to just leave like that. It’s gonna be hard to move away and have to make all new friends. It’s just gonna be hard.”

Jennifer also voiced her fear of leaving the school district she grew up with.

“I don’t know if there is any district greater than [the one] here,” Jennifer said. “The teachers are so nice to me, and I have gotten a lot of help throughout my [time in school]. I don’t want to leave them, the schools and the teachers.”

Twenty-eight-year-old mother Erika Escalante shares similar worries about the changes in education and general communal lifestyle that would come with the potential shutdown of Buena Vista. Escalante believes that a lot of the opportunities she has been granted in her adult life have been beneficial results of her family’s decision to move to the park when she was a young girl, 16 years ago — the same age as Tello is today. Today, Escalante works at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation site in Burlingame as a coordinator of the Circle of Care program, and raises an eight-year-old son at home.

“We’re here for the community,” Escalante said. “The schools, the safety, the opportunities. A lot of my family lives here — my parents, my siblings too. Buena Vista has allowed us to not only live and raise our children in a great community, it has allowed our family to stay together in close proximity all these years and support one another. Even if Buena Vista shuts down, I will not give up. I want my son to be able to finish his education with PAUSD.”

Escalante, aware of the RIR submitted, questions the quality of the owner’s proposals and criticizes the appraisal procedure.

“They’re saying that they’ll purchase our mobile homes at the value the appraisers say they’re worth,” Escalante said. “These people are saying our homes are worth less than half of what they really are. They seem to be putting the minimum value on our homes. I researched and found a home very similar to mine in an East Palo Alto mobile community, and it’s price is multiple times more expensive than what these appraisers told me mine was worth. That’s concerning. I hope that the city and hearing officer really pay attention to that [when they make their decision.]”

Sitting on a plastic chair outside his mobile home is resident Tim Wood. Tim has been living in Buena Vista for decades and has called Palo Alto home for almost his entire life. The closing of the park would drastically impact his life.

“I’ve lived in Palo Alto for over forty-some years, and I am in my fifties,” Wood said. “I have lived in this community for so long and Buena Vista allows me to continue to [live here]. It [would be] hard to live here [without Buena Vista] because I don’t have a job because I am disabled. If this place gets closed, I don’t really know what I’ll do. Maybe some of my friends and I will pool our money and get a mobile home in Fremont. I hope we get more time, and they pay us what we deserve. I don’t want to leave my home here.”

The struggles vocalized by Hornback, Munoz, Tello, Escalante and Wood are just a few of the many concerns regarding the damage that would be inflicted upon residents forced to leave their homes at Buena Vista. Support among Palo Alto citizens living outside the mobile home community has grown since the owners submitted their request to sell the land 15 months ago.

Winter Dellenbach, a city resident, has organized a Buena Vista advocacy group that aims to fight the mobilehome shutdown. Specifically, Dellenbach’s Friends of Buena Vista hopes to “work together to ensure residents have the option to remain in Palo Alto, ensure students will finish their education in Palo Alto, replace any of the 108 units of Buena Vista affordable housing that may be lost and work with residents to guarantee their fair treatment and their rights upheld.” The mobile home park and its residents have garnered additional support in other corners of the community, as well: from the Palo Alto School Board, Palo Alto Human Relations Commission, various churches, the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center and countless other organizations.

Dellenbach urges students and citizens alike  to become active and aware of the Buena Vista situation through joining Friends of Buena Vista or attending City Hall meetings and hearings to support the park in numbers. She stresses that a shutdown could result in something detrimental for Palo Alto as a whole.

“This is a huge issue that could not only hurt the lives of Buena Vista residents, but the overall Palo Alto community,” Dellenbach said. “If we shut down this place, we, as a city, would lose a huge chunk of our economic and ethnic diversity. It has been shown over and over that it’s better for a community to be diverse than for a city to homogenize. By supporting a variety of people, from different backgrounds and economic levels, we are benefiting the whole town. [A diverse population] brings different perspectives and cultures and experiences, which is highly beneficial for Palo Alto.”

Additionally, Dellenbach is skeptical about the recently approved RIR, and points to the reality of the housing market and decline of low income housing options as a part of her reasoning.

“There are very few mobile home communities in the Bay Area, especially in the immediate and nearby cities,” she said. “Additionally, given the economic boom and housing market, there are very, very few available spaces at these other parks. The housing in Palo Alto is too expensive so there is basically no way the residents could remain in this town. It is difficult to guarantee that even a handful of these residents would be able to find living affordable living arrangements somewhat close by, let alone 375 of them. Where are we going to suddenly find 100 plus units of affordable housing in the Bay Area?”

The pay-the-difference component of the RIR, which would cover 12 months of rent for the relocated residents, is a meager offering in Dellenbach’s eyes.

“[The owners] say ‘I’ll pay the difference’ but it’s ultimately just for one year which really isn’t very helpful,” Dellenbach said. “Consider the large population of Buena Vista residents who have depended on the affordable housing units for multiple decades: the elderly and disabled individuals.”

Margaret Nanda, the Jisser family’s attorney, defends her client’s choice and right to relocate the residents and sell the land, as well as the proposed mitigations they have recently submitted. She encourages people to consider the legality of the situation and the constitutional right of a private-property owner to make decisions for their property.

“The Jisser family has provided the cheapest housing in Palo Alto for decades,” Nanda said. “They’re now looking to sell the land because the father who initially purchased it is retiring. They have the legal right to be doing this.”

However, Nanda acknowledge the problem of relocating residents and the effects of relocation on families and children in the school district.

“The Jisser family is well aware of the situation and hardships faced by the residents at Buena Vista,” Nanda said. “We are aware that there were alternative options to pursue besides the one we chose. However, the Jissers have made an informed decision as to how they will sell the land and will carry that plan out. Yes, families will be relocated and their children might be moved out of the district schools, but when people consider the situation, they should think about this: is anyone living in Palo Alto perpetually entitled to the services and education provided here? No, not really.”

Additionally, Nanda insists that the Jisser family has appropriately outlined its responsibilities in the recent RIR. She asserts that many of the publicized complaints regarding academic relocation and a shortage of low-income housing are immensely important, but ultimately, not an issue directly associated with the legal obligations in place for the Jissers.

“It is not the private owner’s responsibility to guarantee all the children at Buena Vista a Palo Alto Unified School District Education,” Nanda said. “Education is not a topic in the city ordinance which outlines the expectations for mobile home closure. Overall, whether or not there are enough low-income housing units in Palo Alto and the Bay Area is an area of focus for the city, for government and not for private home-owners. What people need to consider before coming to conclusions is what exactly are the responsibilities of the land-owners? What obligations do they need to fulfill under the law?”

Claudia Keith, the communications officer for the City of Palo Alto, asserts that the city has “very little authority” in the outcome of the Buena Vista situation, as the private property owners have the legal right to sell the land.

“There are many limits placed on the city,” Keith said. “Once the RIR package is approved, a hearing officer will look at it and determine if it’s adequate. The city itself has a very limited role.”

In response to the shortage of low income housing in the city and larger Bay Area, Keith says the city “is in wide agreement that [the lack of affordable housing] is a complicated topic.”

“There is recognition of the issue,” Keith said. “It’s a separate conversation from Buena Vista though. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future in terms of additional affordable housing. But affordable housing is certainly a topic of conversation for the city.”

While Dellenbach too concedes that the Jissers have the legal right to sell property, she suggests that within the realm of options for selling the Buena Vista land, the family had various other viable options that they chose to shut down.

“The [Buena Vista residents] have twice attempted to purchase the land themselves in order to save their homes,” she said. “They were rejected both times by the owners. Something like this could realistically happen, however, if the city and residents were willing to contribute. Guarantees could be made that the land would be continued to be used for affordable housing. A third-party entity could purchase it, such as the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a nonprofit that manages high quality, affordable living.”

After receiving phone calls and emails from reporters across the country and even internationally, Dellenbach suggests the shutdown of Buena Vista will become a topic of discussion reaching far beyond  Palo Alto city limits.

“The whole world is watching,” Dellenbach said. “Palo Alto Online is not the only news source covering this story. NPR (National Public Radio) wrote a long feature on Buena Vista, and I’ve received requests for information from places as far away as Japan. Palo Alto is a well-known place and the displacement of almost 400 of our neighbors is not an issue to be taken lightly.”

Dellenbach believes shutting down Buena Vista and evacuating residents would undoubtedly raise unpleasant questions regarding the integrity of Palo Alto as a city.

“We’re that city in the Silicon Valley, famous around the world for inventive thinking [and] technological successes,” she said. “We’re the home of Apple and Google, eight billionaires and countless millionaires. Our citizens could easily raise the funds to purchase this land, or at least support its residents. We are a center of innovation, known for tolerance and flexibility — and we can’t find a basic solution to help save 375 human beings their own existence?”

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