For decades, the Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos has served as the safety net for residents in need. The nonprofit provides free groceries, senior services and aid to the homeless, as well as financial support to families struggling to pay rent.
But as the the cost of rental housing in Mountain View continues to skyrocket, more families are turning to CSA for help finding affordable housing in a market where inexpensive options are few and far between. It's gotten to the point, CSA officials say, that the entire organization needs to reassess its role.
Last week, the agency released the details of its new strategic plan, which calls for a major overhaul in the way CSA provides services in order to meet the needs of lower-income residents in Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. While the agency will continue to provide short-term rental relief, pantry services and case management, the plan notes that CSA needs to play a central role in providing stabilization for the high number of residents facing displacement from their homes.
From 2011 to 2015, average rents in Mountain View increased 52.7 percent, according to a RealFacts market report. Mountain View's rental prices have increased by about 17 percent since late 2013, according to the city. The most recent data from the city shows the average asking rent was $2,808 in the fourth quarter of 2015. The costs range from $1,896 for studio apartments to just shy of $4,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment.
Despite the economic recovery following the 2008 recession, CSA has a stubbornly high case load of about 6,500 clients each year. A majority of those clients -- averaging 4,688 each year -- come to CSA in need of emergency financial assistance. Data from the strategic plan revealed that the demand for emergency rental assistance has typically stayed high, even though about 20 percent of those clients have moved out of the area over the same time period.
But that changed in 2015, when there was a sudden 18 percent drop in clients seeking emergency assistance, from 4,948 to 4,104 in a single year. According to CSA, that's likely because of a massive jump in the number of people forced to leave their homes.
"The drop in the last year suggests we have reached the tipping point of more low-income individuals and families leaving the area or becoming homeless due to the high housing costs and low wages," according to the plan.
Santa Clara County reported last year that Mountain View's homeless population doubled from 139 in 2013 to 276 in 2015, tracking closely with the increase in clients seeking homeless services at CSA. Of those people who came to CSA, 68 were still employed, and 58 were living in their vehicle.
Tom Myers, who has led CSA as executive director for 16 years, said the housing crisis is unprecedented, and that the Mountain View and Los Altos community has never before been in a situation like this. He said the new strategic plan is really a way to come to terms with the fact that CSA needs to redouble its efforts to help clients handle explosive rental costs, prevent evictions and homelessness, and, if necessary, help them relocate.
"We've got to try and address the extreme rents and rent increases that are happening to residents two, sometimes three times a year," Myers said.
So what needs to change? Expanding eligibility for services could be the first important step. As the cost of living increases in the Bay Area, CSA's financial criteria for who qualifies for services has remained roughly the same. Federal guidelines dictates that a family of four is considered low-income if they make less than $75,500 a year, but with rental costs eating up as much as $40,000 a year, the strategic plan notes that residents in Mountain View and Los Altos earning just above that threshold are barely scraping by. Over the next few years, CSA could increase the eligibility threshold, but the specific details are still unknown.
Also on the table is extending services to low-income families who work in CSA's service area but live elsewhere. Myers said there needs to be a way to support people who commute into cities like Mountain View, work lower-wage service jobs -- like waiters and cashiers -- and then commute back home to an area that may not have the kind of social safety net that CSA provides.
"We know that there are people who are vital to this community, and when they go home at night they don't have access to these services," he said.
Because needy families are working longer hours and sometimes multiple jobs, CSA is going to experiment with more flexible hours of operation, giving clients a chance to pick up food and get access to social workers during evening hours and over the weekend. In order to meet the demand, Myers said CSA will need to hire more staff, and bolster the ranks of the roughly 650 volunteers who help the nonprofit throughout the year.
New staffing could mean more senior case managers to handle the growing number of elderly North County residents who can't afford the rising cost of living. The number of clients who receive senior services from CSA has remained level over the last five years, but only because it lacks the staff and funding to handle bigger caseloads, according to the strategic plan. CSA's senior lunch program, which is not bound by the same cost constraints, has seen a big increase in the number of seniors coming in -- from 879 in 2010 to 1,384 in 2015.
Finding a new home
Because so many residents are coming to CSA seeking refuge from big rent increases, the agency recently added a new position specifically to help families find an affordable place to live -- even if that home ends up being pretty far away.
Housing Case Manager Nicole Nosich has spent the last month as CSA's go-to person for helping clients find a new home, which includes an exhaustive search for available affordable housing units and apartments in Mountain View and in the surrounding region. While the position is still new, Nosich said the goal is to build relationships with local landlords to encourage them to take on new tenants through CSA at a "fair" rental rate.
While most residents who come to Nosich want to continue living in the area and do not want to relocate, many of the 11 clients she has worked with so far simply can't afford the high cost of housing, prompting some tough conversations.
While CSA will spend the next few years finding new ways to keep residents housed and prevent them from falling into homelessness, the organization already has a few tools at its disposal. In December last year, the Mountain View City Council awarded CSA $150,000 to support residents who get hit with rent increases of 10 percent or higher. The money can be used to subsidize the rent hike for up to six months, Nosich said, giving clients time to figure out a way to pay the increased cost or find a new place to live. Nosich said she was not sure how long the $150,000 would last.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors recently approved $225,000 in additional funding to CSA over three years to pay for emergency rental assistance, specifically to help low-income residents pay for rent over a two-month period rather than long-term rental relief. The goal of the program is to prevent families from becoming homeless during an emergency situation, like a job loss or medical emergency.
Myers said the evolving role of CSA is going to require an ambitious fundraising plan, leveraging resources from individual donations and support from corporations and businesses. At the same time, he said, the organization needs to kick off a marketing campaign to let people know that CSA is out to help the community.
"We need more people to know that CSA exists," Myers said.