By Francesca Segrè
Saul Bracamontes and his wife, Erika Escalante, know the parking spot they rent at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto is extraordinary.
“Right here — it’s the most affordable place in the Bay Area, I think,” says Escalante, who has lived in the park 14 years.
They pay $700 a month to park at Buena Vista, in a city where the median home price is around $2 million.
As long as they keep their spot, André, their 6-year-old son, will go to Palo Alto’s top-ranked schools and be surrounded by high-achieving professional families.
It’s an advantage not lost on Bracamontes, who works as an assistant manager at Whole Foods. “If you stay here, you have a chance to work for Google, go to Stanford, get a good job there,” says Bracamontes. “Anywhere in Palo Alto, you’re going to have a way better chance.”
But Escalante, Bracamontes and the 400 other mostly low-income families at Buena Vista may not get to hold onto their premium spots in Palo Alto for long. The Jisser family, which has owned the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park since 1986, wants to sell it.
“It is their right under the law to go out of business, and they have chosen to do so,” says Margaret Nanda, attorney for the owners of the mobile home park.
Developer Prometheus has expressed interest in buying the prime real estate and turning it into market-rate apartments.
Nanda, who has represented multiple mobile home conversions throughout California, says when property values rise, as they are now, more park owners want to sell.
It’s a transition that worsens the Bay Area’s shortage of affordable housing.
Melissa Morris, an affordable housing lawyer with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, represents the Buena Vista residents. She says closing this park may violate multiple laws, including the federal Fair Housing Act. “Palo Alto is predominately white and wealthy, whereas this park is predominately Latino and most of the residents are lower income,” explains Morris. “So if the park closes and the residents aren’t 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.”
On a state level, Morris points out that Palo Alto is already woefully behind on its obligation to zone for affordable housing. According to its Regional Housing Needs Assessment, Palo Also is obligated to zone for 1,200 affordable housing units by 2014. The city reports it has zoned for 200 units so far.
And there’s another significant sticking point in converting the park.
A local Palo Alto ordinance requires the seller to compensate residents for the cost of their home and the cost of moving to a comparable home in a comparable neighborhood. But what is comparable?
Morris says since schools in surrounding cities are less desirable than those in Palo Alto, the housing must be in Palo Alto. Further complicating matters? There are no other mobile home parks in Palo Alto.
“They are homeowners. They’re not just tenants. To us that means a comparable home ownership opportunity in Palo Alto; that might mean a condo, a townhouse, a single-family home,” says Morris.
In Palo Alto, the median price for a condo is around $900,000, according to the real estate information firm DataQuick.
Nanda, though, says according to state law, “mitigation assistance cannot exceed the reasonable cost of relocation.” She says, “To suggest that a home which is 475 feet and in some cases 62 years old … to suggest that comparable housing is an $850,000 condo is not reasonable and not required by the laws.”
Ultimately, it will be up to the city of Palo Alto to decide whether to allow for the rezoning and conversion of the 4.5-acre property on El Camino Real. A hearing officer will consider the conversion after a residential impact report has been completed by the seller.
Palo Alto city planner Jason Nortz says the local ordinance does not specifically speak to schooling. “It speaks to other amenities like medical facilities, shopping centers,” says Nortz. “It doesn’t specifically speak to schools, but we are aware that schools are an important issue and we’re working with the school district to identify how that issue can be met.”
For now, the city is reviewing the seller’s report on how they propose to compensate residents for the closure.
But Erika Escalante, whose son, André, is entering second grade, doesn’t think she can be convinced to move.
“For the kids they’re losing their homes, they’re losing their teachers, their friends, their whole community,” Escalante says. “You can’t put a price to that.”
But the sellers have. They are currently offering Escalante and the mobile home owners a starting amount of $31,000 to move out.