Council approves measures to help child care providers

children at day care

Thursday, February 2, 2023 by Jo Clifton

At its first meeting of the year, City Council voted unanimously to direct the city manager to work on ways to lower the barriers to setting up new child care facilities and reduce parking requirements for such businesses. Council Member Vanessa Fuentes led the charge, with co-sponsors Alison Alter, José Velásquez, Natasha Harper-Madison and Mayor Kirk Watson, to reduce costs for child care operators, especially those that want to open centers in underserved neighborhoods.

Council took action after hearing from members of the public who described their frustrations in finding affordable child care and trying to set up their own child care services.

Council Member Chito Vela added language to eliminate a Land Development Code provision that requires child care facilities to have parking. Council Member Mackenzie Kelly was particularly interested in adding a provision to help out public safety workers, such as firefighters and 911 and 311 call takers, who may work overnight hours. Velásquez added a provision about making sure the employees of such child care centers receive a living wage. The ordinance won unanimous approval.

One of the speakers, Jason Gindele, told Council, “The child care industry was struggling prior to the pandemic, and then one in eight child care sites permanently closed during the pandemic. At the same time, the Austin metro area population has grown considerably, and today the child care industry is unable to support the community.”

He offered this example from District 5: One nonprofit that serves about 100 at-risk children up to the age of five has a waiting list of 600. And across Austin, he said, “There are tens of thousands of families who are unable to find care for their children and are therefore unable to return to the workforce. This is especially difficult for low-income families. So this resolution won’t make the problem go away, but it’s a step in the right direction to build a child care sector that properly supports our communities.”

Fuentes’ resolution directs city staff to look into setting up a fund “so that if an operator wants to open up a child care center in a child care desert that they have their fees waived or have financial assistance.” She noted that the policy idea came from recommendations made by city staff as well as a working group led by Cathy McHorse of United Way.

Anthony Carrillo told Council that he and his wife tried to set up a child care center in Austin. They got the property, did some renovations, and thought they were on the way to becoming a provider when they found out about the city’s requirement for a conditional use permit in residential areas. He said getting an engineer to do a full site plan and then getting through the city’s permitting process would have cost “tens of thousands of dollars.” In talking to area child care providers, Carrillo said he was told they would open in Kyle, Buda or Round Rock, but not in Austin because of the difficulty of going through the process.

Another child care advocate, Ryan Nill, told Council they should adopt an idea from the CodeNEXT notebook, which he called a minor use permit, allowing such a facility to be approved administratively. He also said Council should remove all parking requirements for child care centers, an idea Vela had already said he would sponsor.

After some discussion, Vela agreed his amendment would not impact any requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which might include the need for a handicapped parking space.

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