Supervisors May Enact Child Lock for Childcare

Several childcare facilities are at risk of displacement at a time when the city’s parents are already struggling to find places to send their children.

People walk past the entrance to the Wah Mei School at 19th Avenue and Judah Street on Friday, March 15, 2019. (Photo by Kevin Hume)

Hoping to prevent displacement of vital childcare facilities, supervisors are pushing through temporary zoning changes until the city comes up with a more robust plan.

At its regular Tuesday meeting on April 16, the Board of Supervisors will consider an 18-month zoning control that requires any proposed changes to a site’s use from a childcare facility to something else to receive conditional use authorization from the Planning Commission. The resolution was approved at the Land Use and Transportation Committee on Monday and is cosponsored by Supervisors Norman Yee, Gordon Mar and Sandra Lee Fewer.

“We are already falling behind on existing needs,” said Yee, who brought the legislation forward, at Monday’s hearing. “What is becoming apparent to us is that it is also exceedingly difficult to childcare facilities to operate.”

At least eight such facilities have been threatened with displacement in recent years, thanks to rent increases during lease negotiations or building sales — though that’s just how many came to the Office of Early Care and Education for help. The legislation’s partial impetus was the case of Wah Mei School, a bilingual preschool on 19th Avenue and Judah Street that struggled to hold onto its location when its landlord, the United Methodist Church, put the building up for sale. The 45-year-old school searched high and low for a new location in its longtime neighborhood before entering contract negotiations with the church last month.

“I hope that even just introducing the interim zoning controls might have helped nuge things along,” said Mar, who represents the Sunset, about the Wah Mei negotiations. “We would want to take this opportunity to do more of a planning study and assess the scope.”

Wah Mei’s loss would have impacted families not only relying on its affordable prices and Chinese immersion, but for childcare in general. There is an unmet need of licensed care for almost half of children under five years old and 85 percent of children under two years old, according to a 2017 early care and education assessment. Dogs outnumbering children in San Francisco may be a humorously oft-repeated comment, but there are still more than 23,000 infants and toddlers and almost 20,000 preschoolers to account for.

San Franciscans recognized this need with the June 2018 passage or Proposition C, which raised gross receipts tax on commercial rents to bring an estimated $150 million in annual revenue to subsidize early education. Those funds are being collected but are in limbo due to a lawsuit filed by the Howard Jarvis Association — one that has the city skittish to spend November’s Prop. C funds to combat homelessness.

If Yee’s legislation passes, the Planning Department would put together a six-month report on the childcare facilities that may be struggling to hold onto their spaces. At Monday’s meeting, Supervisor Ahsha Safaí questioned whether a conditional use hearing would be triggered even for developments that include a childcare facility.  Amendments may be made to clarify that language, if needed, at the April 16 Board of Supervisors meeting.

“We still have a long way to go for providing services for this growing demand,” Yee said Monday. “When childcare facilities close, it impacts the entire neighborhood.”

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