October 20, 2016: Child care: addressing children’s well-being in local planning

October 20, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

A public input meeting on the renovation of the PQ playground, over behind the VFW Hall and the tennis courts, brought together an eclectic group of folks recently in the Butler School cafeteria.  Groups that were represented in the gathering involved not only parents and abutters, but also child care providers who regularly use that playground.

Belmont has a particular need for playground facilities.  According to data published each year by the Kids Count Data Center, Belmont has the highest penetration of young children in our region. While 14.3% of Belmont’s population is age 9 or younger, the next highest penetrations are Arlington (12.4%) and Lexington (11.5%). Watertown (9.5%) and Waltham (8.9%) fall further behind.  The need for playground facilities is not the only need presented by this segment of our community.  Adequate child care is an important resource needed by these families as well.

Adequate child care requires a sufficient supply of child care facilities.  While Massachusetts overall has one of the highest rates of child care facilities in the nation, Middlesex County does not reflect that performance.  Only three counties in Massachusetts have fewer child care facilities per 1,000 children than does Middlesex. In addition, while Massachusetts nearly doubled the number of child care facilities per 1,000 children in recent years, Middlesex County’s rate remained constant. Data for individual communities is not reported.

Adequate child care also requires a sufficient diversity in the types of facilities offered.  Massachusetts, for example, has a shortage of slots available in family child care homes.  Fewer than one-in-five (17%) of all child care spaces in Massachusetts can be found in licensed family child care homes.

This shortage has substantial cost implications to families with children.  In Massachusetts, while the annual cost for an infant in a family care home is $10,679, the cost for an infant in a child care center is $17,082 (2015 dollars).  Similarly, while the cost of a family care home for a four year old is $10,012, the cost for a four year old in a center is $12,796.

Belmont places restrictive zoning regulations on family day care providers.  In Belmont, family day care providers must receive a special permit before they can operate.  No consideration is given to the number of children being cared for in the home. The zoning by-law frequently pits the interests of families, particularly young families, who are faced with the need for two-incomes (and thus regular child care) against the concerns of neighbors about noise and traffic (at times of drop-off and pick-up).  Those who object to family day care providers often argue that such homes are like any other “commercial” enterprise in a residential neighborhood.

Belmont should follow the guidance of the American Planning Association on child care facilities.  APA states that “there is increasing recognition given to the importance of including children’s well-being in our planning practice.”  In addition, APA continues, “child care is seen as a critical support for working parents and their employers.”  The APA says that “just as roads, sewer and water are needed for housing and business development, so, too is child care.”

Progress has been made.  In some places, small family day care providers have been exempted from zoning regulations entirely.  In other places, child care has been made mandatory in new large housing developments.  Whether from the perspective of dual income families, the perspective of promoting economic development, or the perspective of providing for long-term child development benefits, Belmont would be well-served to examine how its planning and zoning supports local child care.  A multi-stakeholder study group reporting to the Board of Selectmen would be a good start.

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