When you walk inside the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, you can tell right away that this is home for over 400 people. They’ve painted their units bright colors. There are traditional mobile homes that look like small rectangular bungalows – but there are also little cottages, Airstream trailers, and RVs. Kids zigzag between the park’s six streets on their bikes.
“I was 11 when we moved here with my parents. I practically grew up here,” says Erika Escalante.
Escalante has lived at Buena Vista for 16 years. Now she lives in a bright pink mobile home with her husband and their eight-year-old son. Another baby is on the way. Many of Escalante’s neighbors have lived here just as long as she has. They’ve also chosen to raise their families here.
“Because of the education and the access to great Palo Alto schools. I went to all the Palo Alto schools and I was very happy with the education I got, and I wanted that same thing for my son and that’s why I’m here too,” she says.
Home sweet home
Buena Vista is a diverse community, made up of seniors, families, people with disabilities. The majority of residents are low income, and Latino. People here own their mobile homes, and they pay a small monthly fee – about $650 for a 2- bedroom trailer – to the owner to rent the concrete pad where the mobile home sits.
Escalante takes me on a tour of the park. We walk past the common areas, the main office, and her mom’s house. Her sister also lives at Buena Vista.
There’s a makeshift lost-and-found on a fence post with a key stapled to a paper plate. Across the lane, two neighbors are having a BBQ outside.
“It’s hard to explain what we have here. You just know everybody and everybody is here for each other,” Escalante says.
A long rollercoaster ride
The community has become even closer over the past few years. In 2012, every resident got a letter from the owners saying they wanted to close the park, and sell the land. So, Escalante and a group of other residents formed a residents association. Escalante is the president, and for the past three years, they’ve been fighting to keep the park open.
“It’s been quite a rollercoaster,” she says.
That ride starts with the owners of the mobile home park, the Jisser family. Legally they are allowed to sell the property whenever they choose. But, like most cities, Palo Alto has an ordinance with certain rules requiring sellers to adequately compensate residents who are losing their homes.
James Zahradka is the supervising attorney at the Silicon Valley Law foundation, the organization that’s been representing the Residents Association pro bono. He argues that compensating residents doesn’t just mean buying them out. It means paying them enough so they can find a similar life in another place.
“And we think that means that the housing is able to accommodate a number of people in the household that has similar school districts wherever it ends up,” Zahradka says.
Like the ones Erika Escalante was planning on sending her kids to. Zahradka says they’re also entitled to comparable health care facilities, transportation, parks, and childcare.
“Which makes it frankly a very challenging ordinance to live up to because Palo Alto is such a unique place,” Zahradka says.
The residents and the owners went back and forth for two years, negotiating how much money they should get in their relocation plan. The city finally said that the final offer was adequate. The owner offered residents $50-60,000, on average. Zahradka and the Law Foundation argued that this wasn’t enough. Rent in Palo Alto can cost four times as much as it does to live at Buena Vista. And if they wanted to move their place to another mobile home park in the Bay Area, it would be challenging.
“The term mobile home is really not accurate because the statistics out there are that 90 plus percent of mobile homes never move once they're placed into particular mobile home park,” Zahradka says.
They’d have to rent a place -- or buy something new -- and that would cost much more than $60,000. The Residents Association was allowed to appeal the decision, and they did this past spring.
Standing up for their homes
Palo Alto City Hall overflowed with hundreds of people. Residents of the park, community members, PTA presidents, and Stanford students sat on bleachers, tables, even the floor. People held signs that read “No high school dropouts,” referring to the 103 Buena Vista students who attend Palo Alto public schools. Residents wore black shirts with “Save our homes” in big white letters. One by one, people got up in front of the city council, including 11-year-old Nicholas Martinez.
“I’ve been living at the mobile home for eight years and I love my home and my school. Please help us stay in our homes, and if we leave I will not get the education I have now, and I will not be able to see many of my friends,” he said.
The value of a Palo Alto education was referenced again, and again. Palo Alto is its schools, people said. But Candice Gonzalez also urged the council to consider what the city will lose if it loses the people of Buena Vista.
“It definitely makes me cringe to think about losing what little diversity we have left here. I know the color of Palo Alto is green; let’s shoot for a rainbow,” she said.
Who is responsible for affordable housing?
Then, the owners stated their case through their lawyer, Margaret Nanda. She noted it’s perfectly legal for a mobile home owner to close a park, and acknowledged they need to accommodate residents. But, she also stressed another point.
“The fact that there are no affordable housing options for the residents to go to in Palo Alto, to remain in the schools and in the community that is so dear to them is neither the fault of the park owner nor the park owner’s responsibility. It is not the park owner's responsibility to build affordable housing in Palo Alto. It’s the job of the state, or the city, or the federal government,” she said.
The council had to act like a jury and simply decide whether or not the plan was adequate, and they unanimously decided it was, with a few stipulations. The city called for a peer review of the mobile home appraisals to double check that the right value was being offered; residents can still appeal their individual offers; and the city’s set aside $14.5 million of affordable housing funds to help buy the park when it goes up for sale. Regardless of which way it happens, attorney James Zahradka says saving the park is important for the Bay Area.
“I do think that these folks are kind of the canary in the coal mine for what this overheated economy is going to do to people who are low income and in tenuous housing situations,” he says. “The development boom that's happening puts more mobile home parks in desirable communities squarely in the crosshairs of developers.”
Affordable by design
Down in San Jose, there are 59 mobile home parks that house about 35,000 residents. Zahradka is representing one of those parks, which is fighting a similar battle to Buena Vista.
“If we lose this this mobile home park, it's not coming back,” Zahradka says. “Nobody's developing mobile home parks here or anywhere close by, and so we're going to permanently lose this affordable housing that really doesn't rely on a government subsidy, so it's affordable by design.”
The owners of Buena Vista haven’t officially decided to sell the park yet. But when they do, residents will have six months to move. Erika Escalante has already started looking for new places to live. She says she’d have to move in with her parents and her sister’s family.
“We have been looking at rents. A one bedroom just down the street is close to $2,000. We have looked into Sunnyvale and other mobile home parks, but it’s always in the back of my head: what if that one closes? Then what are we going to do?”
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian has launched an effort to save the Buena Vista mobile home park, utilizing an existing affordable housing fund created by Stanford University to protect properties within a 1.5-mile radius of the campus. The city of Palo Alto and Santa Clara County have contributed $14.5 million each to that fund. Their goal is to buy the land when it goes up for sale, preserve the park, and hire the non-profit mobile home management company Caritas to take it over.