Staffing has been a problem for local businesses, in part because of a hurdle that can be difficult to overcome: the supply of housing.
According to Kim Mosley, president of the Los Altos Chamber of Commerce, the lack of affordable housing in Los Altos has impacted everyone from brick-and-mortar retailers to nonprofits.
“As the housing gap continues to grow between what people can afford and the rising cost of housing, it becomes increasingly difficult to fill vacancies,” she said.
Local business owners corroborated Mosley’s general image. Richard Draeger, owner of Draeger’s Market, and Duanni Hurd of StarLight CareGivers shared their experiences at a July 29 Los Altos Community Coalition meeting, noting how they tried to keep their businesses staffed amid soaring housing prices.
Hurd and Draeger said some of their employees commuted to Los Altos from Manteca in the Central Valley, where they could afford to buy homes for their families.
“Housing is a critical factor in retaining employees,” said Hurd, who reported that StarLight, which provides in-home care for seniors in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, lost 25% of its employees. since the start of the pandemic.
Draeger acknowledged that there has been “a labor drain from the Bay Area” to more affordable areas during the pandemic, but he said the lack of affordable housing in the region predates the pandemic.
“We think the housing problem … has been a supply problem for 25, 30 years at least,” he said.
He added that when he started his company, employees could find homes in nearby towns like Mountain View or Cupertino, but now the typical Draeger employee who lives nearby shares a home with two or three other families. .
Lawrence Chu Sr., the owner of Los Altos institution Chef Chu’s, told the town crier that his restaurant is also understaffed.
Chef Chu’s recently announced it would be closed on Tuesdays due to a shortage of around 15 staff, mostly kitchen support staff such as dishwashers and busboys.
But Chu has taken a proactive approach to the housing issue. He bought three houses behind his restaurant when the business started making steady profits in the mid-1970s. He rents out rooms in the properties to staff and says he can house a maximum of 24 people.
“Early on, we understood the need,” Chu said, adding that some of his early employees were commuting from San Francisco.
Renting to them not only enhanced the community vibe of the restaurant, but also prevented the inconveniences of commuting, as late trains and car problems no longer affected its employees’ ability to get to work.
“I treat the team like family, just like I treat my clients,” Chu said.
Mosley pointed out that Supervisor Joe Simitian is working with the Board of Supervisors to develop a site for teacher housing in Palo Alto, but business owners are concerned that cities are prioritizing their employees for affordable housing.
Draeger said grocers should be included in priority lists for below-market housing, as should firefighters and police officers.
“Our attitudes need to be broader about who is essential and how to solve this problem,” he said.
The woes of the waiting list
Draeger and Hurd both expressed frustration with their employees’ chances of getting a housing unit from an affordable housing waiting list. Hurd has an employee who applied to multiple cities and never received a placement. The employee is currently traveling to Los Altos from Oakland.
“The small number of less expensive housing units that have been promised appear to be out of reach,” Hurd said.
The burden of development also directly affected Draeger’s business. He said a developer had approached him with a proposal to turn his First Street market into a mixed-use building with retail on the ground floor; however, construction costs and the requirement that Draeger remain closed during construction deterred him from the project.
“Not only was it unaffordable, but it meant a lot of our existing customer base would establish new buying habits,” Draeger said.
Working in the grocery industry was a career when he was younger, Draeger said, but now with the cost of housing, he’s found employees who stay at Draeger’s market for a shorter period.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said, “but young people, they understand that they’re not going to buy a house in our industry, and that’s a stepping stone to becoming an engineer at Google.”
Although Chu hopes to return to full service and open the currently closed upstairs dining room, for now he is focused on keeping costs low for customers.
“We are very lucky,” he said, although he expressed how difficult it is to run a restaurant.
Mosley said residents must come together to support “truly affordable” housing.
“If you are a long-time resident and own your own home, you may not think the housing crisis affects you directly, but our residents will not be able to enjoy the quality of life here in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills they are. accustomed to if we don’t come together to resolve this issue,” she added.