Cars are parked near the Los Robles Avenue entrance of the Buena Vista Park in Palo Alto, Calif., on Wednesday, July 1, 2015. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group)
PALO ALTO — The owners of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park claim that the city is violating their constitutional rights by requiring $8 million in tenant relocation assistance as a condition to close the facility, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday.
The “staggering financial demand” runs afoul both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, states the lawsuit, which was filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the Jisser family.
“I think it’s a basic American principal that property owners have the right to decide for themselves how to productively use their property and that’s under attack here in Palo Alto,” said Larry Salzman of the Sacramento-based law firm.
Salzman said the Jissers, who have owned the mobile home park at 3980 El Camino Real since 1986, want to close Buena Vista so they can retire.
“The Jissers don’t want to sell their property,” Salzman said. “They want to change the use. They want to build something else on that land. … They want to keep the land that they bought, worked on and has been a big part of their family for decades to help their family for generations.”
The lawsuit also alleges that the city violated California state law by requiring the owners to pay more than the “reasonable costs of relocation” for tenants to move to another mobile home park.
City Attorney Molly Stump said there is no merit to the claims in the lawsuit.
“We are confident that the city followed both state law and the process that is set out in our own municipal ordinance related to the closing of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park,” Stump said in an email.
The Buena Vista Mobile Home Park Residents Association, which is also suing the city, claims that the relocation assistance is inadequate and does not comply with local or state mobile home park closure laws.
Buena Vista is home to about 400 mostly low-income Latino residents.
In May, the City Council ruled that the owners could proceed with closing the mobile home park. Tenant relocation assistance approved by the council included a rent subsidy equal to 100 percent of the difference between average rents for apartments in the Palo Alto area and average rents at Buena Vista for one year.
The Jissers were also told to pay tenants 100 percent of the fair market value for their homes.
The $8 million estimate is based on an appraisal done in 2014, and the figure could increase, Salzman said.
In addition to being unconstitutional, the city’s mobile home park conversion ordinance is more restrictive than state law, according to Salzman. The city’s ordinance requires owners to make a lump sum payment to tenants for the cost of buying a comparable home, moving personal property, first and last month’s rent and the loss of investments that can’t be recovered.
“I do find this situation fairly tragic,” Salzman said. “It has been portrayed often as a fight between the Jissers and their tenants. It’s a situation where the city’s policies have failed both the tenants and the Jissers.”
And, the city is forcing a situation where the Jissers, as private property owners, are taking on a burden of providing affordable housing, which is a public benefit that should be paid for by the community as a whole, Salzman said.
“No one should be forced to carry on a business that they want to close,” he said. “The city is treating the Jissers as an ATM to solve a problem they didn’t cause — the lack of affordable housing in Palo Alto.”
The Jisser family, which has largely remained silent on the issue, talked about their business and why they filed a lawsuit in a video posted to YouTube by the Pacific Legal Foundation.
Joe Jisser, who manages Buena Vista on behalf of his immigrant parents Toufic and Eva Jisser, said the family worked hard and wants to preserve its property rights. Toufic and Eva moved to the United States from Israel to pursue a better life, according to the lawsuit.
“I know there’s a lot of other families in this business who are going to be treated this same way if somebody doesn’t stand up to the city,” Joe Jisser said in the video.
The owners in August rejected a bid from Caritas Corp., a nonprofit organization, to buy and preserve Buena Vista as a source of affordable housing. Margaret Nanda, a private attorney for the Jissers, said at the time that the decision was influenced by a lawsuit filed by residents association.
Filed in August, the residents association lawsuit seeks to overturn the council’s decision to close Buena Vista, as well as to block the owners from issuing eviction notices. In addition, the filing alleges that shuttering the mobile home park without providing adequate relocation assistance is a violation of laws that require cities to further fair housing.
Stump said at the time that the city was confident it provided a process that was fair and legal.
In an email Thursday, Kyra Kazantzis, an attorney for the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley representing the residents association, said the owners’ lawsuit was surprising because it “seems to challenge the city’s approval of a relocation plan that the park owner himself advocated for.”
The association has “continued to hope that the matter could be resolved outside litigation and that the owner would fairly consider generous purchase offers from a non-profit mobile home park management company,” Kazantzis said.
The Jissers’ lawsuit, she added, puts “the possibility of resolving this matter out of court disappointingly farther out of reach.”