Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, parents in Seattle struggled with a scarcity of child-care centers and wait lists for open spots that stretched beyond a year.
But the global pandemic put an exclamation point on an already tough problem.
Some parents are struggling to work from home amid the outbreak, while others will have to rely on child care centers to help their children with remote school classes. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 child care centers across the state shut down — some permanently — amid the virus.
With those troubles in mind, the Seattle City Council Monday unanimously approved legislation intended to make it quicker and less expensive to create child care centers within the city.
“Since I began working on this, the COVID-19 pandemic has made addressing child care even more urgent,” said Councilmember Dan Strauss, the main sponsor of the legislation, during Monday’s meeting.
The proposal — expected to be signed by Mayor Jenny Durkan — would allow child care centers as a permitted use in neighborhoods zoned for single-family development.
That eliminates the need for a conditional permit, a process that Strauss said can add an average of five additional months to get a child care center approved.
With the pandemic, “Now that people are working from home, we need to have child care near their house,” said Strauss in an interview after the meeting. Even before the pandemic, some people were saying they would have to go outside the city to secure child care, he added.
The legislation also exempts such centers from limits on floor area in places zoned for multifamily housing and commercial buildings, as an incentive for developers to add more child care space, Strauss said.
And among other things, it would get rid of limits on child care centers in home occupations and add code flexibility for the businesses in Seattle Mixed zones, according to a summary of the legislation.
The state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) would remain the primary agency to license child care facilities.
Strauss said the legislation is just one step in making child care more affordable and accessible. Both state and federal government would have to get involved to address other issues, he said.
In an email Monday, a spokesperson for the Washington Childcare Centers Association wrote that the organization “supports this effort to reduce the cost for family and center providers that are interested in expanding or opening a facility.”
“Seattle does not have nearly enough licensed child care, and the problem is getting worse as the pandemic stretches on,” wrote Julie Schroath, communications coordinator for the organization.
In a statement Monday afternoon, Durkan spokesperson Kelsey Nyland said the mayor supports the bill and will sign it.
“At the City, we’re committed to providing accessible, affordable child care to help working families weather this storm,” Nyland said in the statement. “This bill is one important element of the City’s ongoing work, and the Mayor will sign it into law. “
Monday’s vote comes as the industry has taken a hard hit among the new coronavirus. Some fear far fewer businesses will be in operation once the pandemic passes.
By the end of July, more than 1,000 child care centers statewide had closed, most of them temporarily for now, DCYF has said. That loss equated to 19% of licensed child care providers and one-fourth of the spots open for children.
That has added to an already troubling dynamic. A 2018 report by the King County Women’s Advisory Board concluded that costs made child care “unaffordable and inaccessible for many low to moderate-income families in King County.”
That report recommended a host of potential solutions, from financial assistance to help families pay for child care, to adopting programs where parents could bring infants to work.