Demand for child care has reached new heights amid the region's booming population and rising cost of living.

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The first call Adam and Beth Hobbins made when they saw the positive pregnancy test wasn’t to the future grandparents. Instead, they called a day-care center.

“We wanted on the list,” Adam Hobbins said.

The due date got closer with no openings in sight, so the Ballard couple started adding their names to other waiting lists, each time putting down a deposit from $25 to $100.

They ramped up their search yet again after their daughter was born, and eventually lingered on nine waitlists in all. No one called. As a last resort, when plans with a nanny fell through, Hobbins flew out his dad from Texas to care for their baby girl.

Their daughter was 5 months old before they heard back from a center with an open spot that cost $2,750 a month. After a few months, they heard from the day care they first called after the pregnancy test and now pay $1,700 monthly.

The child-care crunch endured by the Hobbinses is familiar to an increasing number of parents — current, expecting and hopeful — throughout the Seattle area, as the cost of living here balloons.

The growing population has outpaced the increase in number of spots available in child-care centers, according to data from Child Care Aware of Washington, a nonprofit child-care resource and referral agency. Last year, child-care providers had capacity for about half of all King County children under 5.

Providers operating in large centers or from their own homes now have waiting lists crowded with hundreds of families, who are going to extraordinary lengths to seize a spot in line, filling out lengthy applications even before their babies are born — or even conceived.

“If you have an infant needing child care in Seattle, I don’t know what you do these days,” said Ryan Pricco, director of policy and advocacy for Child Care Aware of Washington. “If you are even contemplating getting pregnant, you should get on a waiting list.”

A few facilities even include that option. On forms, applicants can put “trying” for the answer to the child’s age and birth date.

The region has historically had higher child-care costs and fewer options than in other parts of the country. But experts say it’s getting worse.

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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Cost of living in a booming region

Both families and child-care facilities are feeling the strain, and the reasons why are interconnected.

The number of spots in King County child-care centers has increased but hasn’t kept pace with the region’s population boom. In the past five years, 2,300 spots for kids were added, according to Child Care Aware. But the number of children 4 and under grew by about 7,280, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

Not every kid needs a spot because some parents stay home or find another type of care. Yet those situations are becoming less common. The number of children 5 and under with all parents working (either a single working parent or two parents in the labor force) increased by 16 percent from 2012 to 2017 in King County, according to the U.S. Census.

Not only is demand high, but families have fewer providers to turn to as the number of King County licensed facilities has decreased by 285 over the past five years, to 1,939 providers in December 2017.

Parents who do get the call from a facility often face a new financial reality, too. A family who earns $89,142 a year — the median household income in King County in 2017 — will likely spend about 20 percent of their budget on child care for an infant.

With more families looking for affordable care, child-care facilities are reeling to make up lost ground.

Teachers and their directors earn near-poverty wages for work that requires extensive training and education. The average income for a child-care teacher is about $30,000, and a director is $43,000, according to Child Care Aware. The gross earnings are similar for a provider who operates out of his or her home, with a maximum of 12 children.

That means heavy turnover among employees, and little incentive for the businesses to expand. Many providers interviewed recently cited the need to attract more workers with higher wages, and the $15 minimum wage requirement in Seattle, as reasons for increasing tuition. The median rate for a King County preschooler in 2017 was $1,222 — nearly $200 more per month than in 2012.

Hilltop Children’s Center in Queen Anne, for example, charges between $795 and $1,960 monthly for care, depending on the age of the child, the number of days per week he or she is there and whether it’s part-day or full-day. About 80 percent of revenue goes toward paying employees, executive director Liddy Wendell said.

Providers are caught in the middle, she said, trying to pay employees high-enough wages while also making sure their tuition is affordable to families. Some Hilltop teachers left to move to other areas, like Tacoma and Portland, seeking a lower cost of living.

“It is almost impossible to pay our faculty a living wage in current-day Seattle, as much as we try,” she said. “Yet, the only way to raise wages is to raise tuition. It almost feels like an impossible choice between parents and educators: lower tuition on the back of educators, and higher wages on the backs of parents.”

Almost half of Washington’s child-care workers are on some form of government assistance, and the turnover rate for preschool teachers is about 45 percent a year, according to the state Department of Early Learning. Providers might lose employees to the K-12 system, which pays more, or to another job that might pay the same but provides benefits and doesn’t require additional education.

“You’re asking for someone to spend thousands of dollars to make a minimum wage,” said Pricco, of Child Care Aware. “If you can make coffee and earn the same amount, why would you continue?”

The real-estate market has driven up rents and taxes, which is also reflected in higher tuition. Coupled with the standards required for a child-care center, finding a new space or expanding a current one is nearly impossible, providers say.

Kids Co. operates day-care, preschool and before- and after-school programs in 14 school buildings throughout Seattle and Mercer Island. Over the past few years, the nonprofit has lost space it leased in schools that needed more classrooms for K-12 students. Kids Co. President and CEO Susan Brown has looked for other locations, with little success. Finding a spot that meets state requirements, combined with the costs of repairs and a monthly lease, would mean exorbitant tuition, she said.

“You would have to charge people way more than any normal person could afford,” she said. “There’s a lot of wealthy people in Seattle, but there’s a lot of people who are working families who are just trying to have a good life.”

Each year, Kids Co. gives out about $500,000 in scholarships to families, Brown said, and demand is high.

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

• • •

New parents scramble

Finding out that costs and demand are so high can be unsettling, especially for new parents who have little experience navigating the child-care landscape. And infant spots are at a premium.

“Through the pregnancy and birth there’s so much support, and everyone is talking about what is going to happen,” Hobbins said. “All of a sudden, you’re home with the baby and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The state requires a 4:1 ratio for infants to teachers, according to the state Department of Early Learning, so four customers shoulder the cost of at least one teacher. The median monthly cost for an infant at a child-care center is $1,499, according to Child Care Aware data; it’s $1,083 for an in-home facility.

Some centers have opted to eliminate their infant programs entirely because the tuition won’t cover the employee wages.

Parents can find themselves on waiting lists numbering over 100. Families with a child already in a program often get first priority, so they could even move down the list as existing families have more children.

Several parents who reached the Times about the difficulties of finding child care said they didn’t want their names published — they worried it might affect their chances of getting into a child-care facility.

Others have come up with creative ways to better their chances of finding care. Alyca Amerson toured a West Seattle day-care center before she was pregnant with her first daughter and, like Hobbins and his wife, added her name to a list the day she found out she was pregnant. During the pregnancy, she called the center once a month to ask about availability. The day her daughter was born, she sent the center a photo of her. Two days after the birth, the center told her they would have a spot opening in a few months.

Amerson and her husband love the center, which charges $1,550 a month. Before they even started the in vitro-fertilization process for their second baby, they told the center they would want her in day care there, too. Their daughter was born in November and they’ll have a spot open in February.

Her advice: “Be the polite but squeaky wheel. Say, ‘You’re our No. 1 choice, please keep us in mind.’ ”

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

• • •

Taking a toll

The effects of the child-care crunch are far-reaching. In a Seattle Times survey conducted earlier this year, more than 100 people told stories about that difficulty, from a single mother of four in Carnation earning minimum wage who can’t get off work on time to pick up her kids, to a Seattle home-owning couple who earn more than $1 million a year but can’t get to the top of any facility’s waitlist.

Upper-income families often have other options, like nannies or au pairs, if they don’t get the long-awaited call from a facility. But low-income families face an extra layer of desperation when navigating the child care world without a financial or family safety net.

State and city subsidies help, but they don’t cover all of a day-care provider’s rate.

Angelina Garza, 22, commutes from Seattle to Tukwila and drops off her 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter at a child-care facility in an apartment complex across the street from where she works. The facility isn’t the best, but “it’s what I can afford,” she said. Every facility closer to Seattle had a waiting list.

Her daughter’s day-care closes before her shift ends, so her boyfriend drives to Tukwila and back to Seattle, then drives south again with her daughter to pick up Garza.

It’s better than before, when she had to quit a previous job because she couldn’t find affordable child care. Without a job, she couldn’t afford care for her child, but without child care, she couldn’t find a job.

“You can’t exactly bring your kid to an interview,” she said.

She found another job and child care, but she and her daughter live in transitional housing following a stay at a homeless shelter. She can’t yet afford her own apartment.

The financial strain takes its toll on providers like Patricia Henderson, too.

Henderson wakes up at 5 a.m. to get ready for kids to arrive at First Step Child Care in Skyway. Four children stay with her all day, including a baby, and three others arrive when school ends. The last kid leaves her house about 8 p.m.

One parent called recently and told Henderson that she no longer qualifies for a child care subsidy. The mother of four got a raise, which pushed her income slightly above the maximum level to make her eligible for help. The state provides subsidies on a sliding scale, depending on income and number of family members. For a family of five, the maximum monthly income rate is $4,184. The mother told Henderson she has no idea how she’ll pay for day care for her 3-year-old and continue working without help from the state.

“When the parents are not able to go to work, then the children don’t have proper care,” said Henderson, who has run her licensed facility for 13 years. “It’s a domino effect for the whole family.”

Henderson says she once thought about closing her center and moving away, but couldn’t leave the kids behind. “They need quality care here,” she said.

She holds onto stories about children she’s taken care of, like a girl with autism. When she first arrived, she could barely speak. Henderson did lessons with her and found additional programs and resources for her parents.

“Now, she’s singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’” Henderson said. “That’s what I’m about.”

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

• • •

Stay home?

The costs and competition for child care have led some parents to change their lifestyle in ways they hadn’t anticipated.

Kristi Ellefson and her husband delayed having a second child for a year while they saved enough money to put him in day care and while their first child went to a Montessori school. The kids are about four years apart; their parents also wanted to wait so they wouldn’t be as close in age.

“That’s why we waited so long,” said Ellefson, who lives in Seattle’s Pinehurst neighborhood. “We couldn’t afford to have two children at day care at the same time.”

At Kids Co., a large share of the families are single parents, but it is more often seeing families with two working parents. That’s a trend elsewhere. Mothers, who traditionally stayed home and were expected to provide the care themselves, are entering the workforce at unprecedented rates, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s especially true in the Seattle area as the cost of living necessitates two incomes.

Many dual-income couples said that they had considered having one parent stay home with their child or children to save some money, but living on one income would mean they would have to move out of the area.

Lavina Sadhwani and her husband, who live in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood, have done the math to see if it would be cost-effective for one of them to stay home with their son. They found that it makes more sense for both to go to work, even though their child-care future is uncertain. For five months, a nanny watched their baby for four hours every morning, and Sadhwani’s mother — who lives in Guam but stayed in Seattle to help out after the birth — watched him in the afternoon.

“Professionally, it didn’t make sense for us to … lose the trajectory in our careers,” Sadhwani said.

For them, the wait continued for more than a year. They were on two waiting lists for infant programs and on another for a day care for babies at least 1 year old.

In July, they finally got a call — a spot opened up at a day care in Columbia City.

Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.