SF’s shrinking population of children raises concern for city planners

An educational presentation on San Francisco’s low population of children took place during a Planning Commission meeting Thursday, launching a discussion into what, if anything, The City can do to remedy this issue.

Nationwide, the percentage of homes with children is 29 percent. In San Francisco, it’s 18 percent — the lowest rate of any city in the U.S. And that number has been shrinking; in 1960 25 percent of our population was under 18. 

Supervisor Norman Yee called for the report, which was conducted by several members of the Planning Department. “Three years ago I said ‘I have gut feelings about these things, but I have no data,'” Yee stated. “What does it mean when cities and locations start losing children? When we can’t attract families with children, it poses a great challenge to our city’s stability. Families stabilize neighborhoods, and the city is built on neighborhoods.”

“This document is meant to spark a discussion, and move us forward to look at new policies,” Yee said. 

In the report, an analysis of families based on income level, ethnicity and types of housing they occupy showed a new picture of San Francisco’s residents. There are currently around 700 families living in Single Occupancy Rooms (SROs) — a situation that is often one step away from homelessness.

Those who are in rental or purchased homes may be experiencing a shortage of bedrooms. Based on a study done in 2015, nine percent of housing in San Francisco had two bedrooms and met the affordability standards for a median income family. “Sadly, I think this has only gotten worse since this 2015 data was released,” stated Sue Exline, a senior planner with the department who contributed work to the report.

The reports on race were also eye-opening: according to Planning Department, the population of white kids is increasing, but the white population in The City overall is decreasing. And the presence of Asian kids decreasing, but the overall Asian population is increasing.

A final discovery from the report disclosed that the majority of people living in San Francisco are between the ages 20 and 34, a telling range seeing as the average age to have a child in The City is 33.

But solutions to San Francisco’s problems with diversity and housing are never a one-size-fits-all fix. The Planning Department made several recommendations on possible ways to remedy this lack of families in The City, with a particular focus on moves the Planning Commission could act on.

For existing housing, this could mean a controversial push to encourage seniors — whose families have moved out, leaving them alone in big houses—into smaller units.

Based on the report, only 30 percent of houses in San Francisco with three or more bedrooms are occupied by families with children. The remaining seventy percent are occupied by seniors, couples, single people, and roommates.

The moving of seniors into smaller units directly conflicts with the concept of “aging in place,” but would also be a unique angle for freeing up larger homes for big families.

“When you are in public housing, your unit needs may change, and they change them for you. Obviously we won’t go that far with private property, but it’s something to think about,” said Commissioner Christine Johnson. “How can we accommodate aging in place while also catering to families?”

New developments are also a key way to create more family-friendly housing, if developers agree to it. The housing crisis has created an emphasis on constructing as many units as possible in a building to maximize profit, with many studios and one-bedroom units hitting the market. Prior to 2005 only 10 percent of new housing built was studio apartments; now, that number is almost 30 percent.

Demanding a higher minimum of larger units — and even incentivizing developers to do so — would make more family sized units available, argues the Planning Department.

Finally, the proximity of houses to open space and resources could also be an important factor.

Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City pointed out during the public comments that a walkable city will keep families local. “How can you make neighborhoods walkable for people with children?” he asked. “You need easy access to the park, playground, transit, schools, and shopping. How do we put everybody within walking distance of the things we need?”

While no decisions were made about the new report at Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting, commissioners were responsive to the findings, and agreed that Planning can play a role in how friendly The City is to families.

“We’ve been so hyper focused about affordable housing and small units, but it’s a pendulum swing,” said Commissioner Fong. “We’ve seen a lot of single folks move into The City, and by golly some are going to get pregnant and have kids. Let’s hope they want to stay here.”

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