A district court in San Jose is scheduled to rule on May 26 whether to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the owner of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park against the City of Palo Alto regarding compensation fees he was ordered to pay families if they are evicted.
The court hearing – which Buena Vista supporters are planning to attend – is the latest development in the ongoing fight over Palo Alto’s only mobile home park’s future.
Upon approving mobile park owner Joe Jisser’s bid to sell Buena Vista in 2013, the Palo Alto City Council determined Jisser should pay $8 million in relocation fees to the 67 displaced families of Buena Vista — roughly $119,400 per family. Jisser sued the city, arguing that $8 million constituted a “staggering financial demand.”
Jisser could not be reached for comment, although attorney Margaret Nanda, who represents Jisser, told Palo Alto Online in August that he still plans to negotiate the sale of the property and shut down the mobile home park, regardless of the lawsuit.
With the soaring costs of living in Silicon Valley creating job shortages in service industries and displacing working class people en masse, it is currently one of the few affordable housing options in the city. With an 82 percent Latino population, the community in Buena Vista is considered one of the most diverse in Palo Alto, as explained in a 2014 Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) statement of support.
What will happen to the roughly 100 students who live in Buena Vista has been one of the top concerns for residents and supporters.
The Palo Alto school board will allow students to stay enrolled in their schools until the end of the school year, even if families are forced to relocate halfway through next year, according to Stanford Education Professor Amado Padilla, who conducted a 2014 study among Buena Vista’s teenage population to determine the importance of Palo Alto schooling.
But even if that permission is granted, many families may not be able to continue sending their kids to Palo Alto schools, because they will need to move too far away to afford a new place to live.
Padilla’s results found that, if forced to relocate to a less-affluent neighborhood in the Bay Area, students in Buena Vista would attend lower-performing schools with higher drop-out rates, placing them at risk of dropping out themselves. Students would also likely have fewer health care resources available elsewhere than they do in Palo Alto schools.
Padilla also found that, regardless of the existing risk of eviction, Buena Vista teenagers were optimistic for the future, and families reported that children seem to be thriving in local public schools.
“They don’t want to move, especially those so close to graduation,” Padilla said.
Buena Vista residents have been facing the prospect of eviction for several years. So long as he fairly compensates residents for the value of their homes, the costs of relocation and the benefits of living in Palo Alto, Jisser is legally allowed to evict residents.
The question that arises in the compensation dispute is how to measure the value of Palo Alto’s public schools.
“This education has to be worth something,” Padilla said. “But how do you put a price on that?”
Students attend schools including Barron Park Elementary, Terman Middle School and Gunn High School. These PAUSD schools, some of the best in the country, provide many benefits for the low-income residents of Buena Vista that they wouldn’t have access to elsewhere.
“A Palo Alto education is a family’s way out of poverty — a golden door to a better life,” Winter Dellenbach, president of Friends of Buena Vista, said last year in a statement.
Buena Vista is a tight community. Homes are painted vibrant colors, with potted plants lining the streets and personal touches like wind chimes and welcome mats at each door. Children are regularly spotted in small groups, biking and skateboarding between homes and parked cars. As resident Misael Morales said: “Neighbors here have known each other for life.”
“If we move, we’d get divided from neighbors, and friends,” said Morales. Morales has a seven-month-old son and a 10-year-old brother, both of whom would likely not be able to attend PAUSD schools if evicted because the drive would be too far.
“I’ve lived in many places not by choice, but by necessity,” said Nicolas Martínez, a Buena Vista resident. “When we moved into Buena Vista, it became an ideal place to raise our two kids to offer them the education that I didn’t have.”
Residents are preparing for the possibility that they will have to move soon.
Once the court establishes an amount appropriate for compensation, the owner is free to provide residents with their fraction of the lump sum and evict them with six months notice. Efforts to save the community, including a $29 million bid from Santa Clara County to buy Buena Vista as publicly funded affordable housing, have so far failed.
Should they be forced to relocate, the Buena Vista community would be scattered across the Bay Area in an effort to find affordable housing. Even with PAUSD’s offer on the table, a daily commute to Palo Alto may simply not be possible for some of these families. Many families are also dependent on public transportation, and if they can no longer reach local bus and Caltrain routes, access to PAUSD schools can become even more limited.
“It depends on where we go,” Morales said about the PAUSD deal. “If we stayed in Mountain View or East Palo Alto, then yeah, we’d keep going to schools here. But we’re looking at Los Banos.” Los Banos, located in central California, is a two-hour drive south from Palo Alto.
While distance poses a very real challenge, some believe that it might be worth the trip if it’s within reason. Stanford University senior and former Buena Vista resident Karen Camacho believes residents of Buena Vista have much to benefit from PAUSD schools.
“Without attending a school district with high-achieving schools, I would not have found the resources and support I needed growing up,” said Camacho, who graduated in 2012 from Gunn High School. “It was because of the affordable housing in Buena Vista that my family was able to live in Palo Alto and benefit from its incredible schools.”