By Aldo Toledo | Source |
PALO ALTO — Four years after dozens of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park residents gleefully applauded the news that a deal had been approved to save their haven from being closed and redeveloped, 94-year-old Clara Maupin has long stopped celebrating.
Maupin still lives in the same run down, rat-infested trailer she’s owned in the mobile home park for 15 years. And try as they have, her family and friends can’t get her moved into one of the few prefabricated homes being installed in the park today because they’re only available to renters and a few dislocated trailer owners.
“How can they go ahead and put all these new houses around me and I’m stuck with the rats?” Maupin said. “It’s like people are giving me hints to get out of here, and now I’m packing up my stuff. Eventually I have to get out of here. They clearly don’t want me here.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The future seemed bright when Santa Clara County and Palo Alto chipped in $14.5 million each and the Santa Clara County Housing Authority $11 million to buy and revitalize the 4.5-acre park and its 117 homes in 2017.
The purchase preserved the last bastion of housing affordability in Palo Alto, one of the few remaining mobile homes parks left on the Peninsula where most houses fetch well over $1 million.
The Jisser family as early as 2012 wanted to sell their property in Palo Alto’s Barron Park neighborhood to any residential developer interested in the prime location, a move the city initially authorized. But that would have displaced about 400 residents — mostly low-income Latino individuals and families — and following lengthy appeals and legal maneuverings, a judge in December 2016 told the city it needed to calculate relocation costs for each tenant before the park could ever close.
Fearing they’d be forced out of the one of the few affordable pockets of Silicon Valley’s most expensive real estate, park residents gathered forces and were eventually joined by neighbors, who together created the group Friends of Buena Vista.
Group members and allies often packed a series of meetings held to discuss the park’s fate, and their efforts snowballed into a campaign that attracted national attention.
In 2017 the park was finally saved when the Jisser family accepted the $40 million price offered by the city and county. Two years later, the federally-funded Santa Clara County Housing Authority announced plans to revitalize the property.
Caritas Corporation, a nonprofit that specializes in improving and preserving 20 or so California mobile home communities, was brought in by the housing authority to “stabilize” the park’s operation and make needed improvements to security and some aging facilities.
Improvements indeed were made, such as putting in speed bumps and repainting and revamping the laundry room and common bathrooms and showers, said Flaherty Ward, the housing authority’s assistant director.
In 2020, the agency also bought 18 brightly-colored prefabricated homes; it has set up seven so far. The current redevelopment plan calls for putting in the last of them by the end of June
Residents acknowledge the park has come a long way from a decade ago, when it was notorious for its vandalism, blight, broken equipment, rats and cockroaches.
But for those like Maupin and Rene Escalante, who has lived in Buena Vista more than 20 years, not enough has changed when measured against plans presented to them in community meetings after the property was bought — certainly not the overhaul that was promised to residents.
According to the Palo Alto Weekly, the chief operating officer of Caritas unveiled a redevelopment timeline during a March 2018 community meeting that called for all mobile homes to be moved off site so “everyone will get a new home.”
That’s a far cry from getting a few new trailers and fixing up some things, Escalente said. “It seemed like they promised us the sky, but we got very little. … But for us living in Buena Vista, we’ve gotten used to being lied to.”
After running the park for about two years, the housing authority parted ways with Caritas in 2019, saying it was time to transition into the redevelopment phase of the project. It hired John Stewart Company to take over the management duties.
“They actually manage much of our portfolio and have a lot of experience working in situations similar to Buena Vista,” Ward said.
“Everything from utility lines to site access and vehicular and pedestrian access, it all needs to be upgraded,” Ward said. “Some of the biggest pieces of this puzzle we’re working on include site constraints. The park spaces themselves are actually really small. That presents a problem for new homes and moving homes around.”
In the coming months, Ward and housing authority staff are considering buying new coaches and starting a home buyers program to replace aging trailers.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, one of the leaders in the effort to keep the mobile home park from being dismantled, said in an interview Thursday he didn’t want to speculate on the housing authority’s future plans without seeing them.
Simitian acknowledged that “the (redevelopment) plan has clearly taken longer than originally anticipated,” but attributed the delay to the switch in management from Caritas to John Stewart Company, a recent change in leadership at the housing authority and the effects of COVID-19. Those were “significant” changes, he said.
Despite the setbacks, however, critics shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that saving Buena Vista was “no small accomplishment,” he added.
“It’s entirely understandable people are looking forward and thinking ‘what’s next?’ ” Simitian said. “But the starting point was to make sure 400 people weren’t suddenly on the street. Buena Vista is and will always be a work in progress. But it’s a much happier story than the one that could’ve been written, which is the eviction of hundreds of low-income people.”