San Francisco: A Childless Future?

A new study shows that nearly half the young families who live in San Francisco are planning to move within the next three years. The city already has the lowest population of children per capita of any big U.S. city.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Imagine a city that is, for the most part, without children. Well, that's what the future looks like in San Francisco. It already has the lowest population of kids per capita of any big city in America. And now a new study shows that nearly half the young families still living in San Francisco are planning to move within the next three years. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

Spencer and Audrey Feely came to San Francisco in their mid-20s; that was eight years ago. Audrey, a graphic designer, says she had never before lived in a big city. And Spencer, a business analyst for a financial technology company, says with a smile he was following Audrey. They arrived during the dot-com boom.

Mr. SPENCER FEELY (Business Analyst): People were looking good and feeling good and had lots of money and were throwing it around and having a good old time. And it was just an exciting time to be here. You know, I mean, we managed to buy a place and really kind of settle in and actually take the next step.

GONZALES: Two children later, Audrey says they've outgrown their flat in the city's Haight-Ashbury district.

Ms. AUDREY FEELY (Graphic Designer): We don't have a yard. We don't have parking. There's a great park with a playground nearby, but those sort of things are just trickier, you know, in terms--when you have young kids, it's nice to have a yard and a little more ease in terms of, you know, unloading the groceries from your car. It's the little things.

GONZALES: Then there are the big things, like education. The Feelys say the local public schools are inadequate, and Spencer estimates that tuition for his son's preschool is more than his own tuition as a college freshman.

Mr. FEELY: At this point it's not a matter of if but, I mean, when. I mean, we have to leave. There's no way that we can educate our children in this city.

GONZALES: And they aren't alone. A city commission survey found that 44 percent of parents with preschool kids say they plan to leave San Francisco because of the cost of housing, crime and poor schools. The survey came as no surprise to Margaret Brodkin.

Ms. MARGARET BRODKIN (Head, San Francisco's Department of Children, Youth and Their Families): It's an economic problem. It's a social problem. It's a cultural problem.

GONZALES: Brodkin heads San Francisco's Department of Children, Youth and Their Families. She says children now make up less than 15 percent of the city's population of 700,000. That's the fewest children per capita among major American cities. And in a city where the median home price is above $700,000, it's harder to keep young families, says Brodkin.

Ms. BRODKIN: If San Francisco is going to survive as a diverse city, we have to do something to stem the cost of housing.

GONZALES: Mayor Gavin Newsom says he wants to help more low-income and middle-class families afford homes. The city already subsidizes child care, provides health insurance for all needy children and will plow $40 million over the next four years into school enrichment programs. But some urban experts say the city may be swimming against the tide.

Mr. JOEL KOTKIN (Author, "The City: A Global History"): Middle-class family in San Francisco and many other cities is becoming a rare specimen.

GONZALES: Joel Kotkin is the author of "The City: A Global History." He says there are several other American cities besides San Francisco that are becoming enclaves for affluent singles and empty-nesters; for example, Portland, Seattle, Denver, Boston.

Mr. KOTKIN: Which are cities that are attractive places for these nomadic populations and for wealthy people but are not really a good place for middle-class families. And so it would take a lot to make these cities much more family-friendly. The economics and the demographics and the cultural factors are all working against it.

GONZALES: Back in the Haight-Ashbury district, Vince Perator(ph) and Valerie O'Riordan(ph) are bucking that trend, raising two children in the heart of the city.

(Soundbite of kettle whistling)

GONZALES: Vince Perator says he and his family save time and money by living within walking distance of most of their daily destinations.

Mr. VINCE PERATOR (San Francisco Resident): Two blocks away we have the Boys & Girls Club. A block away, just down the road, we have Golden Gate Park. That is our back yard. We have a post office around the corner. We have a produce store around the corner. We have a shoe repair around the corner. Their schools are within, you know--What?--a four- or five-block radius. My son goes to high school just down the street, and my daughter goes to elementary school across the park.

GONZALES: And his wife Valerie O'Riordan, a high school drama teacher, says the city is home, even if her family has to share it with tourists.

Ms. VALERIE O'RIORDAN (High School Drama Teacher): This is our neighborhood, and there's people there on Haight-Ashbury where Ben & Jerry's is with their cameras getting their pictures taken with the two cross streets. And there we are going, `Excuse me, we have to go up the street to the video store and return our video.' (Laughs) And it's our back yard; it's where we live.

GONZALES: City officials see another glimmer of hope. More San Francisco women are having babies than five years ago. The trick, they say, is in keeping them here. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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