SAN FRANCISCO — Some of the nation’s most kid-friendly cities are struggling to keep their children. Recent census figures show they aren’t faring too well.
While San Francisco boomed during the 1990s, it ended the decade with 4,100 fewer kids than it began. This youthful city has passed Seattle to become the major American city least likely to have a household with kids.
The lure of bigger back yards and better schools in the suburbs continued to draw families away from desirable cities such as Austin, Texas and Portland, Ore. Mighty housing costs muscled out others.
“It’s just crazy that I can’t live where I’m from,” said Laurie Alessandra, 35, a native San Franciscan who left to find an affordable two-bedroom apartment for her partner and twin girls she is adopting. “It breaks my heart. It’s a cool city for kids.”
Indeed, many of the kid-bare cities rank as the nation’s most kid-compatible places. Portland, Seattle and San Francisco rated among the top five major cities for kids in one 2001 survey.
“You would think that people with kids would gravitate toward these cities,” said Tim Cline of Zero Population Growth, the Washington, D.C.-based group that ranked the cities.
Instead, San Francisco has polished its reputation as a destination for those old enough to vote but too young for a mid-life crisis.
“Cities actually serve as marriage markets,” said Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor of urban economy. “They’re attractive places for young singles to be.”
In San Francisco, puppies have become as prevalent as toddlers — there are an estimated 100,000 dogs in a city with 112,800 residents under age 18.
Other cities, notably industrial metropolises such as Detroit, Baltimore and Milwaukee, also lost under 18 population. But they shrank overall.
San Francisco was unique among major American cities in that it grew by 53,000 people to 777,000 residents during the 1990s — and still lost kids. Over that span, it also became the nation’s first city to budget for kids’ programs and even impaneled a “children’s council” to coordinate city agencies, said Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez, director of San Francisco’s department of children, youth and their families.
“Kids and families are certainly coming in for our services,” said Alvarez-Rodriguez. “What we need now is for them to stay and live here.”
City leaders are meeting to discuss reversing the alarming trend.
San Francisco’s school district is the only of California’s 10 largest with a shrinking enrollment. Kids live in fewer than one in five San Francisco households, compared with more than one in three households nationally, according to Census 2000 data.
Some day-care centers that once had year-long waiting lists now scramble to fill their ranks.
“We’ve never ever had to go out recruiting children before,” said Judith Baker, who for nearly 30 years has been executive director of the publicly subsidized South of Market Childcare, Inc.
By the end of August, the center had filled only about 50 of 68 slots for children from low-income families
Those with the means to leave must choose between their nesting instincts and the rush of city life that attracted them in the first place.
“We wanted to be able to afford a place with a yard,” said Holly Schick, 32, who moved with her husband, Robin, from San Francisco in 1999 — when their son Isaac was two.
Not all families are leaving cities in droves.
In Seattle, where mayors have mounted campaigns to keep kids in town, the under-18 population grew 3 percent even though it didn’t match the city’s overall growth rate of 9 percent, according to census data.
”(Children) are the canaries in the mine shaft of livability, whether that’s the safety of our streets, or any other criteria,” said deputy mayor Tom Byers. “I don’t think any city can be really healthy without its fair share of kids.”