Isabelle Ramirez, far right, a resident of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, peers into a newly delivered mobile home at the park on Thursday, February 16, 2023 in Palo Alto, California. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
PALO ALTO — Shortly after a major new mobile home was installed at Buena Vista Park, neighbors Sabrina Ramirez and Isabel Ramirez peered excitedly through the windows.
“Two stories!” said Isabel. “Can you imagine?”
For the two women, the slim tiny home with several rooms – complete with attic, fully equipped kitchen, bathroom and bay window – is a dream. They currently live in shabby caravans and mobile homes that are showing their age; most have leaking roofs, plumbing problems and cannot be moved.
For the first time in years, Sabrina and Isabel, who are not related to each other, saw what the future holds for Buena Vista Mobile Home Park — one of the few such parks on the peninsula where most homes fetch well over $1 million. Santa Clara County Housing Authority officials this week unveiled plans for the redevelopment of the mobile home park to include a new apartment building and new housing options for current residents, like the model mobile home that rolled into the park Thursday.
The Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto, Calif. on Thursday, February 16, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
While the agency’s 2017 purchase of the site preserved the last bastion of affordable housing in Palo Alto, the past six years have been very disruptive for the Buena Vista community, and many families have left.
The housing authority recently told the Palo Alto City Council that it would take time to ensure residents would be disturbed as little as possible during construction. The agency intends to keep two-thirds of the site as an RV site and the other as a 60-unit residential building. The 10-unit motel where the new apartments will be built is slated for demolition next month.
Current residents like Sabrina and Isabel, who own their homes but rent a lot at the park, have an opportunity to fund a new mobile home with the housing authority, using grants, state and regional funds to reduce the burden on residents as small as possible.
“Our goal is to have zero mortgage payments for households,” said Flaherty Ward, director of real estate for the county housing authority. “We will buy their current home from them and if they wish we can top up the financing to make it affordable for them to get a new home.”
While Sabrina is excited about the new developments, Isabel – who has lived in the park with her husband and three daughters since 2007 – is not so convinced. She said it has been a difficult and long journey to reach this point.
“My roof is about to collapse, I can see it,” Isabel said. “There are still problems here. But where should I go? I have to wait.”
Isabel estimates that around 25 families have left in recent years as most of them simply have not been able to keep up with the constant changes.
Sabrina Ramirez, left, chats with Isabelle Ramirez, they are not related, both are residents of the Buena Vista mobile home park in Palo Alto, Calif. on Thursday, February 16, 2023. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group )
Back in 2012, the park’s previous owners, the Jisser family, wanted to sell the property in Palo Alto’s Barron Park neighborhood to a residential developer interested in the prime location, a move that was initially approved by the city. But that would have displaced about 400 residents — mostly low-income Latinos and families — and after lengthy appeals and legal maneuvering, a judge in December 2016 told the city it had to calculate moving costs for tenants before the park could ever close.
Fearful of being evicted from one of the few affordable areas of Silicon Valley’s most expensive real estate, park residents gathered strength and were eventually supported by neighbors who together formed Friends of Buena Vista.
Group members and allies often organized a series of meetings held to discuss the park’s fate, and their efforts resulted in a campaign that drew national attention.
In 2017, the park was finally saved when the Jisser family accepted a $40 million offer from the city and county. Two years later, the state-funded Santa Clara County Housing Authority announced plans to revitalize the property.
Caritas Corp., a nonprofit organization specializing in the improvement and preservation of approximately 20 California mobile home communities, was brought in by the housing authority to help stabilize park operations and make necessary improvements to safety and aging facilities.
In 2020, the agency also purchased 18 brightly colored prefab homes for specific residents. Not much has happened at the site since then, but residents say the park has come a long way from a decade when it was notorious for vandalism, fire rot, broken equipment, rats and roaches.
Ward said the housing authority still has work to do: the current blocky renders aren’t final yet, and the setup of the apartment building and mobile home can still be tweaked.
The housing authority also anticipates more people leaving the park — or choosing to give up homeownership to become tenants in a new apartment — to complete their redevelopment plan and ensure people get the homes they need. Many residents who showed up for Palo Alto’s council meeting this week were shocked to realize that some large families may have to share a small space. But Ward said the goal is for everyone to end up in a home that’s the size of their family.
This kind of misunderstanding was common. Isabel said she couldn’t attend park meetings in the middle of the week because she works late shifts and others don’t go to meetings and are left in the dark. She accused the housing authority of not communicating enough with residents.
Also, recently elected Palo Alto Councilwoman Julie Lythcott-Haims wants the housing authority to focus on communications.
“I would suggest that when you come back with the next update, that you bring someone from the Buena Vista community to the podium who works closely enough with the housing authority that we can trust it to reflect residents’ viewpoints.” the presentation,” she said. “We really want to be sure that what we hear and what we decide is actually what community members think is best.”