Families Continue to Struggle to Stay in the City

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Growing up in San Francisco can provide wider opportunities and exposure to culture, but it’s not without challenges to parents, particularly when it comes to navigating housing, child care and schools.

The trend over the past 40 years has been for families to leave San Francisco when children reach school age. A mere 18 percent of households consist of families, almost half the proportion than average for America’s dozen largest cities, a figure that hasn’t changed much in generations.

According to a 2017 San Francisco Planning Department brief, Housing for Families with Children, East Bay counties have double the percentage of households with children relative to the City. Among Bay Area counties, Marin has the next fewest after San Francisco, with 11 percent more than the City.

Whether Millennials keep with past trends is yet to be determined. According to Lisa Nowell, director of the play space, Recess, on Carolina Street, about one-quarter of her 200 members have moved out of San Francisco in the past six months, a typical turnover rate during the business’ 10-year history.

Whether parents should stay or leave the City is a top subject on the San Francisco Mom’s Blog, according to Managing Editor Rebecca Lang. “It’s an expensive city for housing. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve seen personally. A lot of my friends get pushed out because they couldn’t afford a big enough place to raise a family,” she said. “The second challenge is probably schooling. The school lottery system just scares everyone and throws everyone for a loop and if you are not doing public school, private school gets expensive.”

Allison Poon grew up in San Francisco schools; her husband is a public school teacher in Oakland.  They want public schools as an option for their three children. Before entering San Francisco’s school lottery she looked at private schools, but noted, “It’s challenging to get into private schools as well,” adding she wasn’t sure how someone could determine the qualifications of a five-year old.

Ultimately, Poon was fortunate to get her oldest boy, now six, into Alamo Elementary School, their first choice and near their Outer Richmond residence. Per lottery rules, her four-year old and eventually her five-month old will be accepted to the same school. However, she knows several parents who didn’t get their kids into schools they thought were suitable and had to be persistent, calling the schools they desired weekly to see if there were any openings.

PREFund, an all-volunteer nonprofit with a mission to keep families in the City, helps parent negotiate the lottery process. “There is a perception that there is not a strong school system here, so we’re helping people to see that there really are some great education options locally,” said PREFund board member Sarah King. “For new parents a lot of it is somewhat mystifying. There is a lot of concern around navigating the preschool system, navigating the public school system, so we try to demystify that for people as best we can.”

PREFund, which operates preschools at Daniel Webster Elementary School and on Illinois Street, claims that 44 percent of families with children under the age of six are likely to move out of San Francisco over the next three years. One way it tries to deter such outcomes is by bringing families on Potrero Hill together with a community building program, such as movie nights, Second Saturday gatherings at the Daniel Webster playground and parent education talks. “We’ve had speakers on how to talk to kids about race, how to talk to kids about sex, and teens and technology,” said King.

Jake and Amy Hazen, who have a two-year old and another on the way, are among parents who take advantage of the playground events, though Jake said he’d rather they had a bigger backyard at their Utah Street apartment. “I wish they could go outside the house and it not be a busy street,” he added.

Dealing with small apartments with limited outdoor space comes with City living. Recess, which dubs itself an indoor playground for newborns to four-year-olds, has tapped into the resulted need for free range areas. Recess offers a variety of activities for toddlers that Nowell said “can be tricky in a small apartment to meet all their physical needs.” However, high operating costs are hitting the business hard. Recess’ rent doubled when its building was sold four years ago; after another sale last year, it’s facing an additional $10,000 rise. It recently launched a fundraising effort to begin a nonprofit offshoot, Recess Collective, which it hopes to open in the fall in the Outer Sunset while fighting to keep Recess alive.

Alejo Loeb, whose rent on his Noe Valley one-bedroom has only been raised twice in 29 years, has affordable housing costs but tight space. Loeb, married and sharing that apartment with a nine- and seven-year-old, considers himself lucky, but knows his housing situation can’t last forever. He hopes the family will move into a larger residence owned by his wife’s parents but in the meantime can’t fathom the alternative of paying four times as much for an extra bedroom. The low rent has helped offset the cost of sending his children to private school, something they opted for because he said “maybe only ten percent of the public schools are good and everyone is trying to get in.”

While many parents cite the abundance of playgrounds within walking distance as a positive aspect of San Francisco, Loeb noted, “playgrounds are good for the little kids but for those in middle school there is less to do in the park.” He’s opted to get his kids involved in sports as a remedy but said that brings additional costs.

Worrying about money begins at birth. Laura Wong-Thompson, a Mom’s Blog contributor, admitted to sticker shock when it came to daycare, something she said parents need to get on the wait list for during pregnancy. With prices hovering around $2,400 a month, she decided it wasn’t worth working all day just to have someone watch her now-three-year-old son; she quit her marketing job to become a stay-at-home mom.

Wong-Thompson said she has a love-hate relationship with the City these days. “San Francisco at times can feel like an adult playground. It’s less accommodating as a whole and we have to find our pockets to fit in,” she explained.  She cited such challenges as Muni drivers not always lowering the ramp for strollers and the vulnerability mothers walking with their kids can feel when dealing with those with mental health issues on the streets.

Frixos Michael, who lives on Kansas Street, said he’s seen needles on sidewalks, something he doesn’t want his three-year old and 10-month old exposed to. Nonetheless, he and his wife embrace the culture the City offers. “We would like to give them the opportunity to understand diversity. Some of the suburbs are homogenous,” he said.

Parents cite a variety of reasons for staying in San Francisco, including the multitude of museums, parks and libraries; access to fresh produce and healthy food options; and the convenience of having an abundance of delivery options for a wide range of items.

“There are so many things you can do with kids that are free. It’s just a matter of discovering them,” said Nowell.

Poon, who lives near Golden Gate Park, has a family membership to the California Academy of Sciences. “It wasn’t like we have to make a big trip. It’s right there in the neighborhood,” she said. She briefly considered moving to the East Bay – the couple have family there and in San Francisco – but decided distances would be more challenging outside the City. Poon’s mother, who lives in San Francisco, can take Muni to visit.

There are also the opportunities the City offers. Christina Briggs’ 11-year old son has sung with the San Francisco Boys Chorus since they moved to San Francisco three years ago from Milwaukee; he’ll be singing in the San Francisco Opera’s performance of Tosca this fall. “It’s an opportunity available for kids that you don’t get in the suburbs,” she said. “And in Milwaukee the exposure is not the same.” Briggs originally hails from New York City; she finds San Francisco, being smaller, easier to navigate.

Wong-Thompson gave a similar reason for staying in San Francisco. “Even though people bemoan it being a tech city,” she said, “we are surrounded by so much innovation. I feel any pursuit my son would take the opportunity is here for him.”