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Taking control of Palo Alto’s future: Buena Vista

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Gentrification in Silicon Valley has been an on-going process. As wealthy tech workers migrate to the hub of innovation, housing prices have skyrocketed for individuals competing over limited land space. This has increased incentive for developers to convert low-income, affordable-housing neighborhoods into luxury apartments that cater to wealthier crowds. The consequence is the economically coerced migration of thousands of low-income tenants. The most recent and close-to-home example of this gentrification process is occurring right now at Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto. Stanford has an important role to play in advocating for such affordable housing.

Located on El Camino Real, Buena Vista is a 4.6-acre plot containing a trailer park that houses 400 low-income, primarily Hispanic residents. The owners of the plot of land wish to sell it to developers who will replace the mobile homes with a luxury apartment complex. The owners are offering a compensation and relocation assistance package that consists of three months of rent, an appraised value of each home, moving expenses and a one-year rent subsidy that covers any increase in the residents’ current rents and the rent of the new home they choose to live in. Last autumn, an official hearing officer declared that this compensation would be fair; however, residents are currently appealing the decision in the Palo Alto council.

While the package seems generous, it does not provide a permanent housing solution to the many working-class families that will be displaced by this decision. Indeed, Buena Vista is one of the last remnants of affordable housing in the area, and residents may be forced to migrate far distances to find something similar. This not only means that residents may have to change their occupation due to travel and transportation, but also that the community, relationships, and culture that has been developed at Buena Vista will be disintegrated with a stroke of a pen.

Some argue that the removal and redevelopment of Buena Vista is a natural outcome of market forces and, thus, is inevitable and allowable. To this, I would respond that market forces are driven by human actions and, ultimately, humans have the power to correct market forces where they fail. In the case of Buena Vista, there is a market failure for two reasons.

First, the market separates based on income, leading to a vicious cycle of poverty. Rich families are concentrated in neighborhoods with a higher tax base and, thus have more resources to create better schools, libraries and public facilities; meanwhile, poor communities face the opposite results. In fact, studies demonstrate that the migration of affluent individuals to low-income communities does improve conditions by reducing crime and increasing the quality of public facilities. This shows that the market implicitly values the lives and bodies of affluent individuals more than those of the poor. We should ask ourselves whether income status should really affect people’s access to quality security, education and health. Additionally, even though conditions do improve when wealthy individuals migrate to a poor neighborhood, these improvements will not be felt by poor residents if they cannot afford to live in their neighborhood anymore.

Second, the market fails because it creates a separation based on ethnic and income lines that prevents cross-cultural and cross-class dialogue that is crucial to promote a more open-minded, well-informed society. Public schools are more segregated today than they were 40 years ago and, since race and class are intertwined, much of this segregation along racial lines is also along income as well. We are doing society a disservice if we allow gentrification to separate and isolate us. Encountering individuals from diverse backgrounds is necessary to correct false stereotypes, prevent bigotry and open up productive dialogues.

It is time for the residents of Palo Alto to take ownership of the future development of their community. We should no longer cower behind the idea that gentrification is a “natural” and “inevitable” market force. Doing so denies our collective agency in changing the situation. Buena Vista provides a concrete time and place to begin advocacy. This advocacy can take many forms from talking to local officials and signing petitions to contributing money for campaigns to develop additional affordable housing options in Palo Alto. This is Palo Alto’s chance to embrace a diverse and mutually beneficial community. Fight for Buena Vista. Fight for Palo Alto.

Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.