Eminent domain threatened in Palo Alto mobile home case

The Jisser family has been trying to close the mobilehome park they’ve run in Palo Alto for the past 30 years. In 2015, the city granted the Jissers a permit to close the park, but only on the condition that they make more than $8 million dollars in payments to subsidize alternative housing for their tenants. PLF represents the Jissers in a federal constitutional lawsuit fighting that extortionate demand (read more about the case here). A hearing on the City of Palo Alto’s motion to dismiss the case was heard on May 26 and we await a decision by the court.

In an outrageous new development, the City today announced an effort by a coalition of government agencies to take the Jissers’ property by eminent domain for “affordable housing.” The City is apparently assessing the value of the property and has expressed its intent to compel the sale if an offer is not accepted by the Jissers.

This is a shockingly immoral and unconstitutional threat.

The Jissers’ property is not for sale. The whole point of their multi-year effort to close the park, and of their ongoing federal lawsuit, is to keep their land in their family for the future. No one should have their land taken from them simply because a government bureaucrat—even a coalition of them—thinks they can put it to better use.

Moreover, taking the Jissers’ private mobile home park and using that land to benefit private mobile home park tenants is not the kind of “public use” that can authorize eminent domain under the California or U.S. Constitutions. When most people think of eminent domain, they think of government taking property for a road, or a school, or a firehouse. Eminent domain is supposed to be used to acquire property truly necessary for a “public use” that is shared by the public as a whole. But here, the government proposes taking the Jissers’ private property to use it as private housing for other individuals. The government’s threat just doesn’t pass constitutional muster.

If the government can take the Jissers’ property merely because it has in mind some “better use” for it than its owners, then no one’s property is really safe. The government says that there is such a need for “affordable housing” in Silicon Valley that they must take the Jissers’ land, but that rationale would justify taking nearly any home anywhere in the region.

Adding insult to injury, the government says that it will only use eminent domain “if necessary.” Government agencies always say they will use eminent domain as a last resort, yet the threat is plain: give up your property or we will take it from you by force on our terms. The government is trying to bully the Jissers to give up the property they want (and have a right) to keep.

Silicon Valley governments have all the power they need to build affordable housing on land purchased through voluntary transactions or on land they already own. They can also encourage the development of affordable housing by developers on private parcels through incentives or other legal means. To threaten or use the dramatic power of eminent domain when such other obvious solutions are available is wrong.

Children learn that you can’t just take things you want from people without their consent—that’s the rule even if you want something quite badly. The City of Palo Alto and its allies are apparently struggling with this lesson.