By Khalida Sarwari
Underneath the bulging eyeball that overlooks a road into Blue Bonnet Mobile Home Park, a sign advises: “Slow Down.”
But the pace of activity under its watchful gaze has been anything but slow over the past year, as one resident after another has packed their bags and departed, leaving behind memories of neighbors holding barbecue block parties and children playing together, back in the days when area homes sold for $30,000.
All that remains at this mobile home park on East Evelyn Avenue is yellow caution tape, a spare stove here, an orange tree there, a community swimming pool — and a handful of residents who have defiantly stuck around to fight a David and Goliath battle against the forces of the park owner, the developer she’s hired to build 62 three-story townhouses and the city of Sunnyvale.
Ultimately, though, their enemy is a relentless Bay Area real estate market that is driving low-income residents out of the region.
“I know from a financial standpoint the city wants us out; they want the condos here and they want the tax from that,” said one of the holdouts, 60-year-old Pin Liang Li. “For them it’s about improving the look of the city and so on, but for me, it’s what is the social responsibility of the city to the residents?”
What is happening at Blue Bonnet isn’t unique. With land so expensive in the Bay Area, mobile home park owners are increasingly tempted to sell or lease their properties to developers eager to spawn lucrative mixed-use projects. In Sunnyvale alone, seven out of 20 parks have closed over the last 27 years, five of which have been redeveloped, according to city spokeswoman Jennifer Garnett. Blue Bonnet and Nick’s Trailer Court are next in line.
The quandary is that mobile home parks are among the few remaining bastions of affordable housing in the region. A report released by California’s housing department earlier this year indicates that nearly every city and county in California is failing to approve enough market-rate and affordable housing to keep pace with population growth. Sunnyvale was among those cited for not issuing enough permits for affordable housing.
The last of roughly 50 people who occupied Blue Bonnet as recently as last year filed a class-action lawsuit in May 2017 in a desperate bid to void the City Council’s decision to close the park. They argue the action conflicts with state law as well as Sunnyvale’s own policy of preserving affordable housing.
At the least, they’re hoping Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Deborah Ryan will force Blue Bonnet owner Sue Chuang and her Morgan Hill-based developer, East Dunne, to boost relocation assistance payments to $230,000 per mobile home owner, almost twice as much as the average of $126,802 paid out to those who have already left.
Will Constantine, their Santa Cruz-based attorney, said they need that much money to afford to move into another mobile home park in the area. An informal court agreement reached between the parties allowed them to remain in their homes past an October 2017 eviction deadline until Ryan makes a ruling by Aug. 11.
The judge is their only hope now because on July 17 the Sunnyvale City Council unanimously rejected their appeal of the planning commission’s approval of the townhouse development.
While waiting, the residents have tried to maintain some semblance of normality amid the sound of demolition crews erasing the last remnants of their neighbors’ presence.
“The noise keeps telling me it’s coming, it’s coming,” said Li, who works as a delivery driver in the South Bay. “Sooner or later, they’ll finish there and somebody else will start here,” he added, referring to a row of attractive tan and brown condos being built behind his home on Evelyn Avenue and expected to sell in the $1 million range.
Born in Taiwan and raised in Brazil, Li moved to Blue Bonnet in July 2015 to be close to his elderly mother in a nearby senior facility. Sunnyvale was the first city he moved to in the U.S. He prefers to stay, and hasn’t found a comparable place in Sunnyvale with the compensation he was offered.
Pam Tharp says she wouldn’t want to move into the adjacent condos even if she could afford to. Thirty-six years ago, she put down $16,500 for her manufactured home and she’s stayed put ever since, swapping it out for a newer model that cost her $54,000 in 2001.
“I haven’t lived in apartments my whole life and I don’t want to start now,” she said.
Although she has the option of moving to Oregon where she has family, that would mean relinquishing everything she has become accustomed to for an unfamiliar place, a tall order for a 61-year-old single woman who was born in San Jose, raised in Saratoga and has lived most of her adult life in Sunnyvale.
“It’s hard to learn — to adjust later in life,” she says.
Michael Goldman, one of Sunnyvale’s seven City Council members, suggested that mobile home parks are victims of the Bay Area’s dysfunctional housing market and flourishing tech industry.
“The honest fact is there is nothing equivalent in the area,” he said. “The price of land has gone up so high that it is not possible to get a mobile home park. … I feel bad for them.”
In Tharp’s opinion, council members have given longtime Blue Bonnet residents the “second-class” treatment. “I’ve been providing their income and part of their salary and I’ve been part of their community and they just turned around and said, ‘OK you’re worthless, you’re useless, you don’t matter.’”
Goldman indicated that in March 2017, when the council voted 5-2 to certify a conversion impact report allowing Blue Bonnet to be transformed into a condo development, it was following the advice of City Attorney John Nagel. It was either approve the report or risk getting sued by the developer, he said. Nevertheless, he and Councilwoman Nancy Smith voted against it.
Residents of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto faced a similar fate but were saved at the 11th hour thanks to a deal that saw the Housing Authority of Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County and the city of Palo Alto take over the park after paying $40 million for it.
Sunnyvale, too, could have saved Blue Bonnet, but it would have been a costly enterprise, Goldman said. The $10 million per acre price he said he was quoted was “way out of our budget.”
“We had no choice but to OK (the conversion impact report),” he said. “I voted against it as a way of kind of saying I don’t like what is happening and I hope the new owners are being considerate of the tenants.”
The council’s action kicked off a series of steps that included the hiring of a relocation specialist to help residents find alternative housing. Some current and former residents claim the specialist was elusive the rare times when seen; others say she used scare tactics or applied pressure to get them to leave.
The city paints a different picture. Suzanne Ise, Sunnyvale’s former housing officer, says many of the residents who left voluntarily jumped at the opportunity to start a new life elsewhere. One family bought an affordable home in Sunnyvale, another moved into an affordable apartment, and “a fair number” bought mobile homes in the area, she said.
“There was a mixed bag of reactions,” she acknowledges. “There were some people who said, ‘Oh we want to get out of there.’ Everyone is in a different phase of their life.”
Armando Nava, his wife Delia Ayala, and daughters Kimberley, 17, and Lizbeth, 15 were the last ones to move out. They’re currently staying with Ayala’s sister while searching for affordable housing in Sunnyvale.
Nava, a manager at Sprouts in Cupertino, bought his home 20 years ago, around the same time he met his wife, who works as a nanny. They married and raised a family there, celebrated birthdays and accomplishments and adopted puppies. When Nava reluctantly handed over his keys at the end of June, he tried not to let his daughters see him cry. They came over, hugged their dad and cried with him.
The Navas don’t know if they’ll be able to afford Sunnyvale’s rents or be forced to move. Lizbeth worries she won’t be able to return to Fremont High School next year where she’s formed strong friendships, played sports and developed close relationships with her teachers.
“The thought of changing schools is kind of sad for me,” she says. “I never thought I’d have to leave all my friends.”
Ise says that Sunnyvale’s process for closing and converting mobile home parks has been in place since the 1980s and is based on state laws. The only parks exempted from being converted are zoned strictly for such use, like Plaza Del Rey, one of Sunnyvale’s bigger parks that’s owned by a giant private equity firm.
“That is a form of discriminatory zoning, to get rid of their smaller low-income homes and low-income homeowners,” Constantine says, noting that since only larger mobile home parks qualify for the special designations, more than 300 affordable dwellings have been eliminated.
The smaller parks “are the ones that have the poor people living in them and sometimes they are run down and they’re not as nice-looking as the bigger complexes,” he said. “They’re also more profitable for park owners to convert.”
Chuang declined to comment for this story and her daughter, Wendy, did not respond to this news organization’s phone calls and messages.