County steps up to save Palo Alto mobile homes

A new, prospective partner has been brought in to help keep residents of Palo Alto’s only mobile home park from moving away.

The Housing Authority of the County of Santa Clara is willing to provide more money and resources to stop the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park from closing, county Supervisor Joe Simitian said during a news conference Wednesday at Palo Alto City Hall.

Simitian called the Housing Authority the “final piece of the puzzle” in the city and county’s work to acquire the property.

In May 2015, the City Council approved the closure of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park after reviewing the owner’s application, submitted in November 2012, and holding appeal hearings surrounding relocation costs, appraisal values and compensation costs.

The mobile home park at the 5-acre property off of El Camino Real is home to around 400 residents who are mostly Hispanic and low-income families.

The property owners, Toufic “Tim” Jisser and his family, filed a federal lawsuit in November alleging his constitutional rights were violated when the city asked him to pay $8 million to move out of the property.

The county’s Board of Supervisors, the Palo Alto City Council and the Housing Authority’s board of commissioners have to approve the new partnership at their meetings on June 21, June 27 and June 28, respectively.

If all three agencies support the partnership, the Housing Authority can move forward on its attempt in becoming the new owner.

“The key to all of this is the fair market value appraisal,” Simitian said, adding that the amount should be reasonable for the current park owner and taxpayers.

The county and city have each provided $14.5 million in affordable housing funds to stop the park’s closure and are capped at that amount. The Housing Authority would fund the remainder of the purchasing price for the property, Simitian said.

Caritas Corporation, a Irvine-based nonprofit, has expressed interest in operating Buena Vista, but would still have to undergo a request for proposals process through the Housing Authority, according to Simitian.

The Housing Authority, which has 2,600 affordable housing units in the county, will hire an appraiser to assess the value of the homes and look for a qualified operator, agency executive director Katherine Harasz said.

She expects the appraisal to be completed by the fall and return to the Housing Authority’s board of commissioners, who could go through the process of eminent domain under guidance from their lawyers to secure the site.

Harasz said the board of commissioners has authorized her to spend up to $250,000 in federal funds from its reserves for any pre-acquisition and due diligence activities for the Buena Vista property.

In the interim, Harasz said she is willing to negotiate with the property owners.

The effort to preserve Buena Vista has led to the largest broad support Palo Alto Mayor Patrick Burt said he has seen, including from community groups, organizations, school board members and elected leaders.

The city has been challenged by the economic changes brought about by booming tech companies in Silicon Valley, and Buena Vista Mobile Home Park is one of the few places where low-income families can live and still have the same opportunities as other residents, Burt said:

“There’s a great deal of hope and belief that this will result in a positive resolution for the Buena Vista residents and fair compensation for the property owners.”

The Housing Huthority’s anticipated role is another step in preserving the homes, Buena Vista Mobile Home Park Residents’ Association president Erika Escalante said:

“There’s always been ups and downs throughout the process but we’re definitely optimistic and happy with the new development.”

Many residents have repeatedly questioned what would happen if they were told to leave immediately or receive a six-month notice to move out, but they continue to maintain a “positive attitude” in their efforts to keep their homes, Escalante said.