What was once a 1920s campground is now a site engulfed in controversy over the use of the multimillion-dollar property, today used as a mobile home park. The Buena Vista Mobile Home Park of Palo Alto, California, is currently home to 104 mobile homes, 12 studio units, and one single-family residence, but if park owners Toufic and Eva Jisser are approved by the city it could very likely to be sold for more than $30 million and converted to luxury apartments for the area’s tech elite. Buena Vista residents are protesting against the deal, arguing it will be impossible to maintain their quality of life if displaced—among other issues, the average monthly rental in Palo Alto is roughly four times the cost of living in the Park. On October 18 the City of Palo Alto began to review an amended Relocation Impact Report submitted by the Jissers, nearly a year after the owners first announced their intention to sell.
In the September of 2013, the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park Residents Association offered to pay $14.5 million for the property; finances were raised from mortgage funding, loan programs from the U.S. Department of Housing and Community Development, and the California Department of Housing and Community Development. The offer was denied, with the property owners instead focusing on satisfying the residents through financial compensation. The San Jose Mercury News reported that homeowners would receive $11,000 in relocation assistance and $21,000 if their mobile home cannot be relocated—finances that some argue are not enough to compensate for the move.
Buena Vista is recognized in the city’s comprehensive plan as one of the largest sources for low-income housing. In July, KQED reported that, without it, Palo Alto will be even farther from its obligation to zone for affordable housing: “According to its Regional Housing Needs Assessment, Palo Alto is obligated to zone for 1,2000 affordable housing units by 2014. The city reports it has zoned for 200 units so far.” Besides eliminating low-income housing, the sale of the Park could also violate multiple laws like the federal Fair Housing Act, according to Melissa Morris, an affordable housing lawyer. She explained to KQED:
Palo Alto is predominately white and wealthy, whereas this park is predominantly Latino and most of the residents are lower income. So if the park closes and the residents are provided with a way to stay in this community, it means the closure of this park has a disparate impact on Latinos, a protected category under fair housing laws.
In the Relocation Impact Report, sellers must state how residents will be compensated for the cost of their home and the cost of moving to a comparable situation. But what is comparable? The city ordinance states residents must be able to access similar things like medical facilities and shopping, but doesn’t include a major factor: schools.
This is the big issue with Buena Vista residents. “Quality public education is the main reason many of the park’s residents are fighting to stay,” according to NPR. “The Palo Alto schools rank sixth among more than 1,000 districts in the state, and test scores for all ethnic groups have regularly exceeded statewide averages.” The low-income, predominately Latino families understand that the schools in Palo Alto are essential to the future of their children—and know moving from Buena Vista puts those bright futures at risk.
The Jissers’ lawyer, Margaret Nanda, argues that her clients have a constitutional right to sell the property, which is part of the gamble of living in a mobile home park. In Pacific Standard, Lisa Margonelli examined the use of the mobile home parks as residences for the Baby Boomer generation and found that with the perks of modular homes comes risk:
All is not right in the mobile-home park: Residents have to contend with a parallel world of second-class legal rights and financing that needs to be changed before manufactured homes are a really good investment. The legal problems start with the parks themselves. Because most residents own their homes but not the land under them, they have the rights of neither renters nor homeowners. Rent control is rare in mobile-home parks…. But residents don’t really have the ability to move if landlords raise rents because moving a full-size manufactured home can cost as much as $25,000. Sometimes park owners can raise rates indiscriminately and even take over homes or sell the land under the park for another purpose.
The battle over the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park isn’t over yet, but the strife of the residents isn’t a unique situation. Arguments between owners and residents have happened all over the U.S.—in Dallas, San Jose, and Palm Beach, among other places. The conflict is one that strays into a very messy conversation about what is legal, what is moral, and whether it matters if something is immoral if it’s still legal.
As for Buena Vista, the City has 30 days to determine whether the Relocation Impact Report is complete and to decide whether the families of Buena Vista are leaving their homes.