When Legality Conflicts With Morality in the Closure of a Mobile Home Park
Published: Feb. 19, 2015. Verde, Vol 16.3 (as of the deadline this has not been published but it will be on this date).
About: Palo Alto has approved the closure of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, which provides affordable housing for 400 mostly low-income Latino people. To expose the injustice, I read through an 80-page compensation plan and talked with numerous residents as well as community leaders to provide in-depth coverage on the issue. My reporting partner helped by conducting interviews in Spanish and writing portions of the story.
Consider the dandelion. Starting as a seed wedged between a crack in the cement sidewalk it slowly reaches upwards, out into the light to become a flower. The dandelion defies the odds. In a place where it is not supposed to exist, where it is not watered and often trampled down by our feet, it still manages to grow — thrive even. Some may call it a weed, but others see the beauty in it. For a dandelion is beautiful, especially one that flourishes in the concrete jungle of urban development. We’ve all blown the top off of a dandelion and watched the little seeds float away in a gentle wind, but do we ever stop to wonder where they’ll end up?
Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, a stone’s throw west of El Camino Real, is Palo Alto’s dandelion in the sidewalk. There are 117 homes in the 60-year-old park — the only one of its kind in the city — providing the rare opportunity of affordable housing for its 400 residents. Though the families are low-income, they have still managed to carve out a life for themselves in the heart of Silicon Valley, getting by on a rent of $685 a month in a city where even a studio apartment rents for well over $1000.
These are people like Mamá Luz, a 61-year-old Mexican woman who married at 14 and doesn’t speak English, who can’t read and lost the toes on her left foot to diabetes but still manages take care of her six grandchildren and retain a weathered sense of optimism through it all. She collects cans to help pay the bills each month because her daughter can’t make enough working minimum wage late nights at Jack-in-the-Box.
These are people like Jennifer Guzman, a seventh grader at Terman Middle School who wants to become a teacher and is part of three generations that have found a way to stay together in the mobile home park. She’s spent many school nights staying up late to listen to the city council discuss Buena Vista but never complains; she wants to support her family, and besides, it is comforting to know that many others are offering their support as well.
And these are people like Rosa, whose name has been changed, a woman with an engineering degree from San Jose State but no social security number, who works in cleaning and lives just a few trailers down from her sister. She is an immigration reform activist and hopes to qualify for an engineering job one day, but she has put that on hold for now. She can only fight one battle at a time.
For three years, Tim and Joe Jisser, the owners of Buena Vista, have expressed interest in redeveloping their property, which could double in value if they are able to shut down the park. To close the park, they were required by the city of Palo Alto to follow the guidelines of a special ordinance and prepare a Relocation Impact Report. This report is crucial, as it outlines the compensation the residents will receive and where they will be able to relocate to.
A mobile home is, in reality, not very mobile. It is difficult and dangerous to move one, and thus the vast majority of residents will find their homes going to the landfill, not to a new mobile home park. In theory, the substance of the RIR should provide these residents — as well as those who do seek to transfer their mobile homes — with enough compensation to find “comparable housing” within a 35-mile radius of Buena Vista. Over the past few years, it has been the city of Palo Alto’s job to determine whether the RIR meets the standards set forth by the ordinance. After five attempts, the owner’s RIR proposal was deemed complete by the city last January.
“However, ‘complete’ doesn’t mean we are satisfied with the substance of it,” city attorney Molly Stump says. “As a practical matter, it [the RIR] is not adequate to sustain these families. Is it fair? That’s more complicated, since it involves the owner’s right to go out of business. It requires a judgment of how to balance these rights and interests.”
The hearing officer whose job it was to make that judgment approved the closure and the RIR last fall, stating that he based his decision on evidence and analysis and not on sympathy. There will be an appeal in late April, but unless the residents can reach a deal with the owners, the end will likely be inevitable and the residents forced to move. The owners, as everyone involved in the case will admit, have a legal right to shut down the mobile home park that they own. The residents of Buena Vista have the misfortune of owning the homes they sleep in but not the land they live on.
Now it all comes down to the Palo Alto City Council. It is the entity that will be presiding over the appeal, essentially acting in the role of impartial judge. The city council represents the last chance for the residents of Buena Vista to receive the fair compensation the law requires so that they will be able to move into “comparable housing.” The question the city must grapple with between now and April is how to define fair compensation and “comparable housing” when every apartment within 35 miles of Buena Vista costs 30 times more than the value of a Buena Vista home. Even more importantly, in a city where real estate values are increasing exponentially, the council must attempt to keep one of the last bastions of affordable housing alive.
Changing the Conversation
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian doesn’t believe the end is inevitable. He wants people to stop acting like it’s a foregone conclusion and shift the conversation to how to save the park.
“No matter how robust the compensation plan may be, it is hard to imagine where and how these folks can relocate,” Simitian says. “To me it raises the question: relocate to where?”
The park residents offered the owners $14.5 million (raised from state grants and charities) to purchase the park last year. They rejected it. The market value in Palo Alto for a property like Buena Vista — 4.5 acres — is twice that amount, if not more.
Simitian remembers a time when things were different. He grew up in Palo Alto in the ‘60s and his father, on a teacher’s salary, could still afford to buy a house there. Some of his best friends in high school were the sons of automechanics and custodians, also able to live in the area, where they all went to school with Bill Hewlett’s daughter. It wasn’t considered unusual. In the hopes of preserving Palo Alto’s diversity, Simitian has found a way to inject a surge of energy into Buena Vista and give the residents renewed hope.
In the last decade, Simitian has spent a dozen years in legislature as a state senator, but before that, in 2000, he was the county supervisor. When Stanford University wished to expand, it was required to establish an affordable housing fund that Simitian helped create. On Jan. 27, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, in response to Simitian’s request, allocated $8 million from this fund for the residents, which could very well serve as a catalyst leading other organizations to pledge funds. But the residents still need to come up with another $8 million before they will meet the minimum fair market value and, even then, it’s ultimately the owners call whether or not they want to sell.
A Door for Mamá Luz
On a cool Saturday afternoon in January, a group of Buena Vista residents carry tools, wood and metal sheets in and out of trailer number 25. Several men measure and cut wood and metal and arrange it around the rim of the trailer. Children run around, scolded every now and then. The men speak in Spanish, making jokes as they work. This is where Mamá Luz lives. Up until today, she has not had a door on the front of her house, a Pace Arrow Motorhome with a kitchen and living room on the side. The management has not permitted Mama Luz to put on a door, despite her three building proposals. This has invited people to try and break in — Mamá Luz caught a thief just the other day. At night, the cold creeps through and Mamá Luz sends her grandchildren to sleep in their Uncle’s home in Mountain View. Still, she says that it is better than living under a bridge and most certainly better than life in Mexico, where she grew up.
“In Mexico we had to walk barefoot, here at least we can find shoes,” she says.
In the legal hurricane surrounding Buena Vista, Mamá Luz and her family remain in the eye of the storm. She is aware of what is happening, but feels, like most residents, that there is not much she can do other than to keep living her life. She picks up her cans, making about $5 a day. She takes care of Ernesto, the three-month-old. She hangs up her portraits of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Sundays. Today, she is adding a door.
Simitian’s $8 million proposal has given the community some tentative hope. Perhaps they will be allowed to stay in their homes, and although Mamá Luz and other residents are hesitant to put too much work into their trailers with the future of the park still up in the air, they feel that this time Simitian’s plan could be the answer they have all been waiting for. Regardless, they must still search for a Plan B.
When asked for Doña Luz, one of the men yells for the woman of the house, to come out. Barefoot besides her black socks, limping a little, comes Mamá Luz. By her side is a woman in a blue and orange paisley robe. The men are neighbors, Mamá Luz explains, and this is Amanda Serrano, one of her close friends. Today everyone is here to help put up a barrier against the cold.
“We take care of each other,” Serrano says, almost defensively. Like family, adds Mamá Luz.
From behind the stacks of metal sheeting, Serrano picks up a stack of folded housing applications.
“We went to visit apartments on Alma street,” Serrano explains. “But the waiting list is long.” Like many of the places Mamá Luz, Serrano and other Buena Vista residents have visited, the Alma street apartments seem unattainable.
“They only have studio apartments, and they only want couples or families with one kid,” Serrano says. Not to mention the requirement of a stable job that earns at least $2,000 a month. Many residents, like Serrano, who has a mechanical heart, are unable to work a full-time job due to health reasons.
While Serrano and her boyfriend, Arturo Saucedo, have a little bit more flexibility as a family of two, most of the trailer parks residents simply won’t qualify for low income housing anywhere else. For people like Mamá Luz, with three generations to support, and unreliable income from selling bottles, these housing options are completely out of reach.
When asked where she plans to go if the closure is finalized, Serrano shakes her head.
“We will be homeless,” she says. It is that simple.
But Simitian’s plan still stands as a glimmer of hope, and for the meantime it has boosted morale enough to invest in a door to keep out the cold.
Where Will They Go?
Perhaps the most illuminating moment in this contentious issue occurred during the May hearings in the cross examination of David Richman, a Housing Relocation Specialist from Autotemp, the city-appointed relocation services company. Sue Mulrich, an attorney for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, cross-examined Richman. She noted that, as reported by the RIR, the average appraissal value of a home in Buena Vista is $18,000, on top of the start-up costs, which are approximately $4,000 and will be provided by the owners.
Richman admitted that for any residents seeking to move to another park, in addition to the mitigation from the appraisal, they would still need to spend at least $20,000 to purchase a new mobile home. This extra $20,000 (and potentially as high as $50,000) is not covered by the owner.
Many residents will not move into another mobile home park, and Mulrich pressed Richman as to what he had in mind for these residents.
Mulrich: “Can you tell me what segment of the housing market could provide rentals for the current homeowners in the park at their current level of [rent at Buena Vista]? Is there any?”
Richman: “Could any of the residents rent an apartment for $685?”
Mulrich: “Find one to rent.”
Richman: “In the Bay Area? Probably not.”
Mulrich: “So what’s going to happen? It’s your job to find them relocation, you’re going to relocate them, is that correct?”
Richman: “We [Autotemp] provide advisory assistance to relocate, yes.”
Mulrich: “Okay, so if you have somebody from this park who wants to move to an apartment in the Bay Area at relatively the rent they are paying now, there is no such thing, is that what I’ve understood you to have said?”
Richman: “That is correct.”
If Richman, the very person appointed by the city of Palo Alto to assist the residents in finding comparable housing, cannot come up with even a single place where the residents could realistically afford to relocate to, then what is to become of them? At this moment, the question has yet to be answered.
The City Offers One Last Chance
At the City Council meeting on Jan. 12 to determine whether or not to allow the residents an appeal, there were scores of Buena Vista residents and many supporters from outside the park. The residents passed out yellow stickers saying “Keep B.V. Residents in P.A.” and quieting the little children they’d brought with them. The lawyers presented their arguments, before opening the floor to the public. 26 citizens went up that night, mostly non-residents, and each one adamantly argued that the residents should be allowed to appeal.
Ruth Lowy, a neighbor of the Buena Vista residents, expressed her disbelief at the cavalier manner in which Margaret Nanda, the owner’s lawyer, spoke of the park’s closure as “going out of business.”
“This is not a department store, this is not a pharmacy, this a community of people,” she said. “You need to weigh and balance dollars with people’s lives.”
By the time Nanda came up at the end to make her final points, one couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for her.
“As perhaps the most unpopular person in the room other than Mr. Jisser…” she began her concluding speech, before going on to explain how the hearings were open to the public, transcripts of the hearing would be provided to the city council and that many people in the room had not read or understood the decision that had been handed down. “It is a very carefully decided opinion,” she said.
Afterwards, Nanda was approached to hear her side things. Over the past three years she’s been quoted in all manner of publications, from Mercury News to NPR, and hardly any of the stories have portrayed her positively. She is tired. She is agitated.
“I’ve never known a reporter to take both sides,” she said. “I’ve never known a reporter who has read up on the issue or actually comprehended it. With all due respect, I decline.”
The Residents Make Their Last Stand
The weekend before Simitian’s proposal is passed, the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park Association is hosting a thank you potluck for the park’s residents. As guests arrive, Erica Escalante, the president of the Association, hands them blank index cards and a pen. Others pass around clipboards and collect signatures to show support of Simitian’s proposal.
Eventually, when 30 people have gathered around, Escalante stands up to address the small crowd. First in English, then in Spanish, she says that the notecards are for any questions or concerns the residents might have about Simitian’s proposal and the closing of the park.
“I don’t want these blank,” Escalante says. “We want to answer your questions.”
Escalante first moved to Buena Vista when she was 11. She went through the local schools, and after college came back to start a family. Naturally shy, she was reluctant at first to take charge of the association when it started three years ago, but she knew it would be important to have a leader who was bilingual. Now 29, she works at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation while also caring for her son. Leading the association is another full time job. After three years of speaking at City Council meetings, protests and interviews, she stands a seasoned veteran and leader in the park. She is also one of the main reasons why Buena Vista has not yet closed, having contacted various law foundations and gaining legal protection for the park’s residents. (A mobile home park in Sunnyvale, was recently shut down by Nanda in large part because its residents were not organized).
The association is currently a private non-profit, meaning it is limited in who it can receive money from. However, Escalante and the others are working to have the association become a public non-profit, which would allow it to seek donations from individuals and local companies (the residents are already talking about soliciting funds from Facebook and Google).
Escalante reads a card, asking what will happen to the kids and school if the residents are forced to leave. Melodie Cheney, the association secretary, nearly jumps out of her seat to answer the question.
“The superintendent [of Palo Alto Unified School District] said that as long as the parents can get their kids to the school they can stay through high school,” Cheney tells the group. “Though they have to be enrolled already.”
Much of the rest of the meeting is devoted to figuring out how to boost morale and raise the attendance of association meetings. According to Escalante, 95 percent of the 400 residents over 18 are part of the association, which represents them legally, yet there are only 30 people here.
By the time the meeting ends it is very cold and very dark out, but the residents are optimistic. They have $8 million coming their way. And, at least for those who come to the meetings, they have each other.
Life Goes On
As legal battles rage and proposals come to pass, the park itself goes unnoticed. Here in Buena Vista, on a Friday in the late afternoon, Jacqueline Chavez is practicing for her Quinceañera, her traditional 15th birthday celebration. Mexican folk songs play from the speakers propped up on a chair. Chavez’s mother, who works as a nanny, hired a dance teacher, and once a week for the past month, Chavez and her friends have been learning a traditional dance. With the party only a few weeks away, they now know the steps well as they practice through the afternoon, their teacher counting the rhythm of the music, uno… dos … tres, their parents and others watching from doorways.
After the dance rehearsal, Citlali, Mamá Luz’s five-year-old granddaughter, rides up on her scooter, the dollar in her hand flapping every time she pushes a foot off the ground. She stops in front of Chavez’s house and requests two bags of cheetos which she exchanges for the dollar.
At Mamá Luz’s home, Amanda is over again helping paint the walls of the trailer burgundy red. The new reinforcements have helped to keep out the cold, allowing the kids to stay at night.
Commuters drive by, barely noticing the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park sign on their way home from work, or perhaps acknowledging it momentarily from the news. Lawyers and relocation experts dispute over the monetary value of a home and an education. Palo Alto residents stress the need for diversity in their community. Yet behind the Valero gas station on El Camino, in the eye of the storm, with Mexican music blasting and red paint on the walls, life goes on, regardless of what tomorrow may bring.