After spending most of their lives in a neighborhood and homes that have brought them much comfort and joy, Melieni Felmaka Talakai and Germany Fomby are facing the unsettling reality: they might be losing their homes. In the Spring of 2020, Melieni, Germany and their neighbors at Palo Mobile Estates, a mobile park home in East Palo Alto, were notified that the park was undergoing a conversion into a resident-owned park. Though they have a right to remain, their rent is likely to double or more over the next few years. And while residents were given the right of first refusal with a 10% to 20% discount to purchase the lots underneath the homes, they were only given 90 days to raise the money. Most residents could not raise the money on time and have lost the benefit all together.
It will take close to $20 million to keep all the residents in their homes. Most residents, like Melieni and Germany, own their homes but not the lot under it. Others, who rent their homes, are hoping to purchase both the home and the lot. In 2021, the East Palo Alto City Council appropriated $2 million to help residents of Palo Mobile Estates purchase the lot beneath their homes, but that leaves an $18 million gap that still needs to be raised.
Germany, a minister of 30 years at Trinity Church in San Mateo, shares his proudest moment, “21 years ago, I purchased my home in Palo Mobile Estates Park, making me one of the first homeowners in my family. I found East Palo Alto’s best kept secret: a thriving, diverse and loving community full of dreamers and passionate individuals, all born of humility and great character. But some of these folks have been forced to move away.” He laments: “They weren’t able to stay. They pulled their roots from right under them. I can’t imagine that happening to my daughter and grandkids, whose survival depends on us being able to stay in our home.”
East Palo Alto has historically dealt with housing inequalities stemming from policies such as disinvestment in impoverished communities and racist redlining practices. The city is still feeling the impact of that history: in 2019, just 35% of Latinos in East Palo Alto accounted for homeownership, while White homeownership was at 72% and continues to grow, furthering the wealth gap across the city. Additionally, 67% of the city’s Latino tenants are rent burdened (spending more than 30% of their income on rent) compared to 41% of White tenants.
“We moved into Palo Mobile Estates in 1988 with my late husband and unborn twin girls.” Melieni, a nurse at Ravenswood Health Center, recalls. “I became a mother here. Because of the affordability of my home, I was allowed to invest in my career. I became a nurse and brought free healthcare to East Palo Alto – a community that is historically under resourced.” Melieni co-founded Taulama for Tongans, a volunteer nonprofit that provides health education to the Pacific Islander community. “My family was able to survive my late husband’s passing because I was able to pay the mortgage by myself. Now I fear for the future of my sons. Where will we go? We can lose everything.”
With a looming rent increase happening in August 2022, Melieni and Germany are hopeful they will soon be approved of a City of East Palo Alto loan. “My sons and I are hopeful,” Melieni said. “But the reality is that the Covid-19 pandemic really hit us hard. We depleted our resources, and our credit scores took a huge hit. We don’t qualify for financial assistance and banks won’t work with us. We have exhausted our options and while we applied for the loan through the city council…It’s so unsettling to know your fate in someone else’s hand.”
Karen Camacho, who previously served as a Housing Fellow in East Palo Alto as part of the Partnership for the Bay’s Future’s (PBF) Policy Grants program and is now serving as East Palo Alto’s Housing Project Manager, is working to keep these residents in their homes. “We must prioritize raising $20M by August 2022. We have to keep these amazing folks from being displaced. I also grew up in a mobile park Palo Alto and I would not be here today if it weren’t for the community at Buena Vista Mobile Park.” Karen is quick to point out she has not done this work alone and that other community organizations have jumped in to help the residents raise money.
Vanessa Smith, Community Land Trust Program Manager at East Palo Alto Community Alliance and Neighborhood Development Organization (EPACANDO), also a PBF grant recipient, currently leads the fundraising, resident outreach, and advocacy efforts for Friends of Palo Mobile, a coalition composed of Youth United for Community Action (YUCA), EPACANDO, Preserving Affordable Housing Assets Longer, Inc (PAHALI) community land trust, and PBF grantees. “Amongst advocacy, resident outreach, and technical support,” Vanessa said, “Friends of Palo Mobile are also fundraising for the purchase of lots to stabilize long-term affordability at Palo Mobile Estates. At the root of these efforts is anti-displacement work.”
“I have built wealth here beyond money,” Melieni said. “I dream of nothing more than to leave this place for my four kids. I have given my children the gift of true financial freedom. But who will save my children if they are not able to stay here”
Everyone deserves a home. A place where a family like Melieni’s can thrive and be catalysts to the health and growth of our neighborhoods. A place where generations of families, like Germany’s children and grandchildren can continue a legacy. Everyone deserves true financial freedom. A home for many represents generational wealth but most importantly a safe place and future for their children. In order to keep residents of Palo Mobile Estates housed, $20m must be raised in the next two months. To lend your support, please email Duane Bay at email@example.com or Vanessa Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.