Why is Creating More Child Care Centers So Hard?

4 min
Children from the Mission Kids Co-op play at a park near their child care center. (Katie Orr/KQED)

In California, it’s estimated there are about 4 million kids who need child care, but there are fewer than a million total licensed child care slots. That leaves many parents depending on family or friends to watch their kids. The need for more capacity is clear. But the challenges of building more facilities can be overwhelming.

A nonprofit child care center in San Francisco's Mission District has been facing the challenges head-on. The Mission Kids Co-op currently rents space from a local church. Co-director Christina Maluenda Marchiel said the space is pretty limited.

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“And because it's a shared space we can't install permanent fixtures for children to play on," she said. "You know, things that they need to climb and swing and slide.”

The students and teachers make daily trips to a nearby park to give the kids some space to run around and be active.

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A couple of years ago Mission Kids learned the church didn’t want to renew its lease. What followed was an exhaustive process of trying to negotiate with their landlords, then looking into other rental spaces and, finally, looking for something to buy, which is not easy in San Francisco, said Maluenda Marchiel.

“We looked at many properties that we were like, oh, this would be a good fit for us," she said. "And they would just be like snatched up like immediately. You know, maybe a 30-day escrow, for cash, or things that we could just not compete with.”

Mission Kids Co-Director Christina Maluenda Marchiel stands on the site of the school's future location.
Mission Kids co-director Christina Maluenda Marchiel stands on the site of the school's future location. (Katie Orr/KQED)

Mission Kids was lucky in that it has a lot of financial support from the city and other organizations that support nonprofits. They need all the help they can get. Between finally buying a plot of land and building a new center from scratch, the project is costing more than $9 million. Of that, Mission Kids will have to come up with about $1 million.

“It's a lot of money and, for us, we again primarily serve low- and moderate-income families. So it's a huge lift,"  Maluenda Marchiel said.

They expect to break ground this summer and open in the fall of 2020. When it’s all said and done, they’ll serve 100 families, double their current capacity.

Property is expensive in lots of places. It's more so in San Francisco. But it’s not just cost that holds people back from building more child care centers. The California Department of Education's Ristyn Woolley said providers must meet specific requirements.

“Not only are providers wrestling with all of the permits, and is the building in good shape and is the land-use proper," she said. "You're also adding on the quality-of-care component, which is the mini-toilets, the specialized flooring, the quality of the carpet, the paint, is the lighting proper for high-quality care.”

All that adds to the budget and timeline. Woolley said there is also a lack of contractors and architects that specialize in these facilities.

And while it may be expensive to build new centers in urban areas, in some rural areas they're just not built at all.

Sarah Neville-Morgan is the state Department of Education’s early learning and care director.

"In a community there might be nothing available to them, and they're putting their children on buses for multiple hours to get access to care.," she said.

Child care centers aren’t the only option for families. In fact, of the 38,394 licensed facilities in the state, nearly three-quarters are home-based providers. But licensed care in general has decreased over the last decade. Home-based programs have been hit particularly hard, and Neville-Morgan said that’s hard on parents.

“Family child care tends to be in somebody’s community or neighborhood," she said. "They might offer more evening care, weekend care as the sort of that flexibility that a lot of our working families need.”

Bottom line, Neville-Morgan said, is that it’s difficult to make money providing child care. In addition to building challenges, wages are low and employee turnover is high.

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In the upcoming budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing $500 million to expand care facilities and train the child care workforce.

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