Staffing has been a problem for local businesses, partly due to an obstacle that may be difficult to overcome – housing supply.
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 nonprofit organizations.
“As the housing gap continues to grow between what people can afford and the rising cost of housing, it becomes more and more difficult to fill open positions,” she said.
Local business owners corroborated Mosley’s general picture. Richard Draeger, owner of Draeger’s Market, and Duanni Hurd of StarLight CareGivers shared their experiences at a Los Altos Community Coalition meeting July 29, noting how they have tried to keep their businesses staffed amid skyrocketing housing prices.
Both Hurd and Draeger said some of their employees commute to Los Altos from as far as Manteca, in the Central Valley, where they can afford to buy a house for their families.
“Housing is an essential factor in retaining employees,” said Hurd, who reported that StarLight, which provides in-home care for seniors in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, has lost 25% of its employees since the onset of the pandemic.
Draeger agreed there has been “a flight of labor from the Bay Area” to more affordable areas during the pandemic, but he said the region’s lack of affordable housing predates the pandemic.
“We believe that the housing issue … has been a supply issue for 25, 30 years at least,” he said.
He added that when he started at his business, employees could find homes in nearby cities like Mountain View or Cupertino, but now, the typical Draeger’s 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 short-staffed.
Chef Chu’s recently announced it will be closed Tuesdays due to a shortage of approximately 15 staff, mostly kitchen assistance staff such as dishwashers and busboys.
But Chu has taken a proactive approach to the problem of housing. He purchased three houses behind his restaurant when the business started turning a consistent profit in the mid-1970s. He rents out rooms in the properties to staff and said he can house 24 people at maximum.
“At the very early stage, we understood the need,” Chu said, adding that some of his early employees commuted from as far as San Francisco.
Renting to them not only improved the close-knit community feel of the restaurant, but also prevented the inconveniences of commuting, as late trains and car trouble no longer affected his employees’ ability to get to work.
“I treat the team like they are part of the family, just like I treat my customers,” 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 worry cities aren’t prioritizing their employees for affordable housing.
Draeger said grocery workers should be included in priority lists for below-market-rate housing just like firefighters and police officers.
“Our attitudes have to be more broad in who is essential and how do we solve this problem,” he said.
Both Draeger and Hurd expressed frustration with their employees’ chances of securing a housing unit from an affordable housing waitlist. Hurd has one employee who has applied in multiple cities and never received a placement. The employee currently commutes to Los Altos from Oakland.
“The small amount of less-costly housing units that have been promised seem to be out of reach,” Hurd said.
The burden of development also has affected Draeger’s business firsthand. He said a developer approached him with a proposal to turn his First Street market into a mixed-use building with retail on the ground floor; however, the expense of building and the requirement that Draeger’s remain closed during construction turned him off from the project.
“Not only was it unaffordable, it meant that a lot of our existing patronage would establish new shopping 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 staying at Draeger’s Market for a shorter time.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said, “but the young folks, they understand that they’re not going to buy a home in our industry, and it’s a stepping stone to becoming an engineer at Google.”
Although Chu hopes he can get back to full service and open the currently closed upstairs dining room, for now he’s focusing on keeping costs low for customers.
“We are very fortunate,” he said, despite expressing how difficult it is to keep a restaurant running.
Mosley said residents have to come together to support housing that is “truly affordable.”
“If you have been a longtime resident and own your own home, you may not think that 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 that they are accustomed to if we do not come together to address this problem,” she added.