The Buena Vista mobile home park in Palo Alto is a close-knit community. But can they resist the march of developers who want to build flats for tech workers?
Its not a big mansion, Amanda Serrano says of her ageing off-white trailer in plot 59 of the Buena Vista mobile home park in Silicon Valley. But I feel happy here. Its my own trailer.
Serrano, a 48-year-old care assistant, says the park in Palo Alto is the first place shes lived where she feels comfortable living openly as a transgender woman, in a relationship with her boyfriend Arturo Saucedo.
But life is about to become uncomfortable for Amanda, Arturo and 400 other low-income, mostly non-native-English-speaking residents who call Buena Vista home. They are facing eviction from the 4.5-acre plot, so its owners can sell it for development into luxury apartments for young tech workers.
Its prime location on El Camino Real at the heart of Silicon Valley, just miles from the headquarters of Facebook and Google, means it could be worth as much as $55m (36m). But if the sale goes ahead, Amanda, Arturo and the rest of the community will be forced to leave not just Buena Vista but, for many, Palo Alto, or even the US.
The influx of young tech developers with big wallets has sent rents across Silicon Valley into the stratosphere. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Palo Alto is $2,600 (1,725), an increase of more than $1,000 (663) over the past five years. According to US Census figures, more than 20 million people, or 6% of the population, live in trailer parks. In California alone, 393,000 families live in trailers.
The Buena Vista trailer park is hidden between a small shopping mall and a petrol station, and began life in the 1920s as a rest stop for those travelling along the west coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a 40-mile drive to the north. Residents pay between $700 (464) and $1,000 (663) a month in rent. Houses on neighbouring streets are selling for well in excess of $1m (663,000).
Amanda, who earns just over the minimum wage helping local, elderly people in their homes, knows that she and Arturo, who works as a housekeeper in a neighbourhood hotel, wont be able to find anywhere they can afford nearby. Across the street from Buena Vista, a 700 sq ft one-bed apartment in a new development is being marketed for $2,895 a month. How would I ever be able to pay that? she asks, as tears well up.
Its not just the money. Amanda has made friends in Buena Vista, and says she feels relaxed among her neighbours even if her tiny Coachman trailer is rigged with CCTV cameras that play a constant live feed on one of the two giant TVs above the bed.
These people accept me and I get along with everybody, she says, as her dogs, Princess and Ruby, a poodle-bichon and a corgi-chihuahua, play at her feet. Since they have been talking about closing this place, I have been facing a lot of health issues. I have depression and anxiety.
Amanda came to California from Nicaragua 38 years ago. Id rather kill myself than be homeless, she says. I suffered a lot a long time ago, while I was homeless. I am so scared. I have been assaulted in other cities because of this, she says, gesturing to her face and body. Here I work, I come home. I am safe.
Most of Buena Vistas residents who are able to work many are disabled, housebound or elderly are employed within a few minutes commute of the park, doing the low-paid jobs that help keep Palo Alto running. Among them is Melodie Cheney, 57, who has worked as an administrative assistant at a nearby college for the past 18 years.
This is like my second family, she says. Im a single female. I know my neighbours. We watch out for each other. This is the closest community Ive ever come across.
Don Roberto Munoz, 40, affectionately nicknamed the cowboy because of his trademark hat, works servicing the septic tanks of nearby multimillion-dollar mansions. He lives with his wife and two daughters in a classic silver Airstream trailer, surrounded by potted plants, and has been unable to answer his daughter Jennys questions about whether she will be able to finish high school. Anxious, she has been unable to sleep at night. If he told her the truth, he says, he would have to say: Its impossible. To pay the rents around here in Palo Alto is crazy. My wife works part-time, I work full-time, but still we wont have the money.
Last week, Jenny, 14, told the worlds most powerful grandmother about her sleepless nights. Hillary Clinton had flown into town for a campaign fundraiser, and Jenny was invited, to help raise the plight of Buena Vistas residents with the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. I told her that living at Buena Vista had been a huge part of my life and I was worried that I wont be able to stay here, Jenny says. She reports that Clinton seemed concerned, and said she would try to take up Jennys invitation to visit her familys trailer. She said it wasnt right that I would have to leave my education and try to fit in a different community far away.
Munoz says he chose to come to Buena Vista not just because it was affordable, but because of the friendliness of the multiracial community in the heart of such a white and wealthy town. When we arrived here 11 years ago, I said, This is the place we are looking for. We have all the different cultures in here, he adds, counting off the home countries of his neighbours on his fingers: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Brazil, Mexico, China. Across the potholed road on which children race tricycles and play in water fights, Saul Bracamontes, 30, and his wife Erika Escalante, 29, live in the most well-appointed trailer on the site, with their eight-year-old son, Andre. While some of the other mobile homes are patched up with sheet metal and corrugated iron, Saul and Erikas trailer is double-glazed and painted a colour they call firecracker red. (I know it looks pink, but its not, Bracamontes says.)
Escalante, the president of the Buena Vista Residents Association and programme coordinator at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, has lived in Buena Vista since she was 11, when her father Rene, a retired construction worker, moved into the park so he could send his children to the nearby school. Barren Park Elementary is just a 10-minute walk away, and is particularly well equipped: every student is issued with a free iPad instead of a notebook. More than 100 schoolchildren from Buena Vista are enrolled in Palo Altos schools.
All of Renes children went to university, the first generation of the family to do so. Erika, who lives a few doors down from her parents and sister, is hoping to follow her dads example and save enough money to send Andre to university. But the family fears this wont happen if they have to move.
We might be able to stay in the area, Saul says, but it will be living pay cheque to pay cheque; we will not be able to save. Even if we can stay, Erikas parents will not be able to afford to stay the family will be torn apart. Andre will no longer be able to roam between his grandparents, aunts and parents trailers, and Erika will have to cut down her hours to take care of him after school.
The Escalantes arent the only family who have lived in the park for generations. Blanca Fonseca moved with her family from Mexico City in 1981, when she was 14, and has watched its transformation from all Caucasian seniors to 90% Hispanic parents with their children. The park (total population 400) now houses 10% of all the Hispanic people living in Palo Alto.
I stayed 33 years in this trailer, she says of the small plot she shares with her husband, a waiter at Reposado, a high-end Mexican restaurant in downtown Palo Alto. A photo of the couple standing outside the trailer on their wedding day takes pride of place on the sideboard. We decided to work hard and stay here to save money, so that we would have enough money for my son to be the first person in the family to go to university. I wanted him to have a better life, and he did.
Three years ago, Joe Jisser, whose family has co-owned Buena Vista since the 80s, sent letters to all residents saying he was considering selling the park to developers. Tension between the residents and Jisser, 44, has remained high ever since, and powerful Palo Altans lawyers, publicists and academics have thrown their weight behind the residents cause.
Developmental psychologist Professor Amado Padilla, of Stanford University, two miles up El Camino Real, has been working to highlight the risks to the families if their children are forced to leave their Palo Alto schools. I dont know where these families will go it has become so expensive to live in Silicon Valley, he says. My son is a college graduate who works full time, and he cant afford to live in Palo Alto. What hope is there for service workers? Our police force, most of our teachers, most of the professional service workers, dont live [in or near Palo Alto], says Padilla, who has been a resident since 1998. If the park closes and theyre not able to stay here, these people are going to lose their jobs, their homes, and their children are going to lose one of the best school districts in the state.
A study by Padilla and his students found that none of the 129 school-age children in the park, 90% of whom are Hispanic, had dropped out of school, compared with a 26.7% dropout rate of Hispanic students nationwide. Several Buena Vista students have made it to college in recent years, including Karen Camacho, who is currently at Stanford, the Ivy League university that has given birth to so many of the tech startups that litter Silicon Valley.
It is those companies that have made it so expensive to live in the area, and Padilla says they probably should take some responsibility and try to accommodate the workers who need to live close to their employment. It would be nice if Facebook did, if Google did, if Apple did if they took some responsibility to maintain affordability in Palo Alto and the surrounding communities.
Its not just the Palo Alto community that is suffering from the march of tech companies across California. In 2013, protesters smashed windows on the Google- and Apple-branded buses that transport workers to their Silicon Valley jobs, waving banners reading Fuck off Google. A University of California, Berkeley study found that rents within a short walk of a Google bus stop are rising at a rate of 20%, compared with a 5% national average. The shuttle effect has helped send rents in the most popular San Francisco neighbourhoods above some of the most expensive areas of Manhattan.
Ken Dauber is a Palo Alto resident and a Google software engineer. Over a lunch of kale salad, three-bean soup and shrimp fettuccine in the dappled sunshine outside his Google office, Dauber explains why this trailer park is representative of a wider problem. For these families, getting their kids into Palo Alto schools and seeing them graduate is part of an upward-mobility project, he says. It is about making sure the next generation lives middle-class lives in America, so that they dont have to make the same kind of sacrifices as their parents.
Dauber knows that his employer is in part to blame for the overwhelming pressure on land values in the Valley, and has told his bosses they should be doing more to help not just their own workers, but the army of lowly paid people who help keep the community ticking. Losing this park would mean losing a huge amount of ethnic and income diversity.
In May 2015, after a two-and-a-half-year review, Palo Alto City Council approved Jissers plan to sell the park, saying that landowners have a legal right to sell their property when they want. As part of the application, Jisser has pledged to compensate residents for the loss of their trailers, which in most cases cannot be moved, and pay for temporary accommodation and relocation costs. The residents say the money offered does not come close to covering their costs. Padilla, Dauber and numerous other residents of Palo Alto have helped residents file lawsuits against the city council for approving Jissers redevelopment plan with, they claim, insufficient consideration of the impact and relocation costs.
As the residents panicked, a potential saviour marched on to Buena Vistas forecourt. Joe Simitian, the county supervisor of Santa Clara, the local authority that oversees Palo Alto and much of Silicon Valley, has made it his mission to end the orderly march towards eviction and save the park and its residents.
He is not challenging Jisser in the courts, but appealing directly to his wallet. Simitian, a 62-year-old balding anglophile, has pulled together $39m of city and county money to offer Jisser a third way: sell the park to his authority and allow the residents to stay, while making a tidy profit on his familys original investment.
Under Simitians plan, the park would be transferred to Caritas Corporation, a non-profit organisation that has rescued 20 mobile home parks across California. Run by Robert Redwitz, Caritas, whose name is derived from caring about others, was set up in 1996 to provide and maintain quality, affordable housing for persons of low income and means, focusing on manufactured home parks.
Simitian, the son of a teacher, concedes he is emotionally affected by the Buena Vista residents plight, but says he is motivated by a more practical issue. Put aside all the values-laden issues and social issues, and just ask yourself as a practical matter: can an area like Silicon Valley survive if it doesnt have people that can do the work the community needs?
The right of low-income families to a good education has long been close to Simitians heart. His first political role was as president of the Palo Alto School Board between 1983 and 1991, before rising to become mayor of the city and then county supervisor. In 2000, he struck a deal with Stanford University that, if it wanted to expand, it would have to give a significant amount to an affordable housing fund. That fund forms a big chunk of the cash Simitian is offering to the Jisser family.
The Jissers officially rejected Simitian and Caritass offer in September. Their lawyer said they did so because they cant negotiate with Simitian and other potential buyers while the residents continue legal action against the city. Because of the ongoing threat of legal action from the very same residents association, the Jisser family has not been able to honestly negotiate with other interested parties, Jissers lawyer says. The Jisser family will not be coerced into accepting a sale agreement by the use of litigation as a strong-arm tactic.
But Simitian says he believes Jissers rejection is the start of the bargaining process, rather than a straight-out refusal to negotiate. Even so, Jisser, who arrives for work at Buena Vista at 5am every morning, refused to speak to me when I visited his prefab office inside the park. The family have given up trying to make their case via the media. In a snatched conversation with a reporter from USA Today earlier this year, he said, I dont know what to tell you. I live down in San Jose. I mean, I cant even afford Palo Alto.
Simitian is now on a mission to find extra funds, going through his contacts in the tech companies around the Valley for money to sweeten the deal. If that doesnt work, he says, hes prepared to join the residents in front of the bulldozers. He will be standing there with a bunch of new friends. Amanda, Arturo, Erika, Melodie, Roberto and the rest of the Buena Vista 400 will be there, and theyve pledged to dig in for a fight. I dont plan on going anywhere, Melodie says. Im going to be here until they pick me up and carry me out.