California family faces gov't roadblock in bid to develop mobile home park

The Jisser family has owned their mobile home park in California’s Palo Alto since 1986, and now they want to turn their investment into apartments or condos – but they’re running into stiff resistance from the local government and angry activists, in a battle that’s landed in court.

For months, affordable housing advocates have demanded that the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park remain open for several hundred tenants, many of whom are elderly and disabled – and rely on disability checks to pay the rent of roughly $1,000 a month.

“I was raised in Palo Alto, and I can't afford to live here ... except for living in this trailer,” said one such tenant, Mike Helmer.

Government leaders, in response, initially considered simply buying the four-acre property, in order to preserve it for the residents.

But owner Joe Jisser doesn’t want to sell – just do something different on this prime real estate. Yet if he tries to redevelop the land, he’s also facing a potentially prohibitive cost.

Under state law, Jisser, who is represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, would have to pay tenants “reasonable moving costs and rent subsidies” if he redeveloped the property. But in Palo Alto, where one-bedroom apartments go for $2,500 a month, the city said those costs amount to $8 million.

Jisser says that’s unfair and unconstitutional – and is suing the city in federal court, in a case that could work its way all the way up to the Supreme Court.

“Eight million dollars to close a mobile park down, mostly due to affordable housing not being available in Palo Alto -- it's feels like extortion,” Jisser said.

He added that the government is “forcing us to either pay an extreme amount of money to shut down the business, or they're forcing us to stay in business which is technically taking the land from us and saying you can't do what you want with it.”

Jisser also disputes the rationale behind keeping the park the way it is.

"You can house more people in smaller areas more efficiently today,” he said.

While many in the community hope for more affordable housing in Palo Alto, Jisser says the high cost of living is not his fault – and he shouldn’t have to pay what amounts to public housing subsidies.

Meanwhile, city plans to work with a nonprofit to buy the property hit a wall when the family did not want to sell. A local official voiced frustrated about the impact the litigation has had on the situation.

“I’m hoping that at some point the dust will settle and we can get back to the bargaining table, and talk about whether or not we can pull an offer together that can take this property on, and keep it as an affordable source of housing for folks here in the community,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said.