July 30, 1993 - From the July, 1993 issue

Child Care & Zoning: Kids Short-Changed by Cities

Child care is critical to the wellbeing of cities, yet currently cities are extremely hostile to providing space for child care in their residential areas. Abby Leibman exhorts Californian city officials to understand the importance of child care and respect State law to permit large family day care homes into residential neighborhoods. Leibman is the Executive Director of the California Women's Law Center.

''If women would just stay home with their kids we wouldn't have this child care problem!" Sound like a quote from the 1950s, or perhaps from some backwater town in a small rural state? Unfortunately, it's a statement made by two different local elected officials from two different cities in Southern California at public hearings in the early l990s. 

What was the cause of their anguish? Community residents had requested the right to provide child care in residential communities. The response? Based on their rights under State law the residents successfully obtained permission to provide child care in their homes. Unfortunately, in at least one case success came only after a lengthy legal battle in the courts. 

At a time when child care has been touted as one of the most critical services needed in the United States by supporters as diverse as CEO's of major corporations to the President, why is child care still so unavailable, and why is it often greeted with anguish and hostility by many local government leaders? 

Child Care Obstacles 

In California today, we still face a shortage of over one million licensed child care spaces for the children who need child care in our state. In order to address that need we must expand existing resources and promote new and innovative approaches to caring for our children. 

Yet, time and again we have heard from local government officials who object to child care in many areas of their jurisdiction, particularly in residential communities. Most of those objections are based on fears or perceptions which simply are not supported by the actual experience of cities with child care. 

The most common fear is that there will be a "commercializing" of residential communities. The most typical form of child care in residential areas is family day care. Care provided in the home of the child care provider for less than 24 hours. It offers parents an important child care alternative because of its flexibility and its similarity to a traditional home environment. Family day care can provide child care on weekends or with flexible hours for parents working unusual hours. It is often less expensive than other child care formats, and is the most common form of child care for infants. 

Family day care is designed to provide child care in an environment that closely approximates the child's own home environment, providing an atmosphere that is familiar and comfortable. Because family day care so closely resembles traditional home activities, local governments can and should treat it as much like a traditional home as possible. 

It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate place for children than a residential neighborhood. Neighborhoods are also among the safest and healthiest environments for children. If we do not allow our children in residential communities, what areas are left to them in which to grow up? 

Child care needs today are as diverse as they are complex. They include issues of access hours and days, differing needs for children of different ages, facility choice, (center based care or home environment), philosophies of child care and upbringing, and the quality of care provided. The complexities of child care demand thoughtful and comprehensive solutions.

Developers and Child Care 

There have been several notable joint efforts between local governments and the private sector to try to meet the growing child care demands of communities and workers. According to Laura Escobedo, Executive Director of ABCD (Alliance of Businesses for Childcare Development), we have seen additional child care space developed in Southern California because of the role played by developers, either by choice or by mandate. Examples can be found in Santa Monica at the Water Garden, Woodland Hills at Warner Center, Brea, and the Long Beach World Trade Center. 

However, there are limits to the impact that developers can have on child care. Developers typically do not provide support for the ongoing operating costs of the child care center once construction is complete. In order to provide a child care environment that is safe, healthy and of good quality, child care centers must have appropriate numbers of trained staff, equipment and supplies. Far too often this can mean that without subsidies, those for whom the center was built cannot afford the care provided. 

While such developments offer one option to parents, it is clear that other options are vitally important. As regulatory entities, local governments can address one of the most important aspects of the child care needs in their communities: the availability of family day care homes. 

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Local Responsibilities 

Local governments not only have the opportunity, but under the California Child Day Care Act passed in 1983, the obligation to address the child care needs of their communities. 

In an effort to standardize the treatment of family day care homes throughout the State, the Act, codified in the Health and Safety Code, provides important mandates for local governments. First, small family day care homes, those caring for six or fewer children, exist by right in residential communities. 

Large family day care homes, those caring for seven to twelve children, are treated slightly differently. Under the Health and Safety Code Section 1597.46, “A city. county, or city and county shall not prohibit large family day care homes on lots zoned for single-family dwellings, but shall do one of the following:...” [ emphasis added]. This language is mandatory and affirmative; every city in California must choose one of the three regulatory options under the Health and Safety Code. It is not adequate to provide no regulations at all. 

The only three options for regulation available to cities are: 1) allow family day care homes by right; 2) require a nondiscretionary permit for family day care homes; or 3) require a family day care provider to apply for a permit with a 100 foot notice of the application and a hearing, but only if a hearing is requested. 

Either permit option available under State law does not allow a city the discretion to condition or deny permits to large family day care homes as the city chooses. Under either option, the city must establish standards by ordinance, and then in only the following areas: noise, traffic, parking and spacing and concentration between large family daycare homes. Even under option three, which permits a hearing if requested by the applicant or other affected person, the hearing must only concern whether the applicant met the city's standards. If so, the permit is granted. 

As noted above, the sole purpose of the hearing can be determining whether or not the applicant met the city's ordinance standards. This can be time-consuming, costly and deeply divisive for neighbors in the community. In our experience throughout Southern California, cities which originally chose this option have reversed themselves and made large family day care homes either a permitted use (for example, Los Angeles and Lakewood) or established the nondiscretionary permit process (for example, Santa Monica). 

Surveying Child Care Laws 

In 1989, the California Women’s Law Center and Public Counsel's Child Care Law Project initiated an effort to survey and analyze local zoning ordinances governing child care in all cities located within Los Angeles County. Those ordinances can provide either a gateway to greater local child care resources or a critical obstacle to its availability. 

To date, we have reviewed ordinances in dozens of cities and the results were as consistent as they were discouraging. We found fewer than five cities that were in compliance with State law requirements! With the assistance of the Project and the Center many of those cities have revised existing ordinances so that they now meet State law mandates. 

Cities must initiate efforts to review and revise ordinances that are outdated and inconsistent with State law requirements. Apart from the legal mandate to do so, it is vital for the future of their communities. 

The resources of Public Counsel's Child Care Law Project and the California Women's Law Center are available to work with cities to conduct such a review and implement changes. Together we can build communities that truly meet the needs of our children and their parents.  

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