Trying to solve San Diego’s child care shortage one rec center at a time


Each day after school, 13-year-old Rachel Padilla is left to care for her 7- and 5-year-old brothers.

Rachel’s mother Ysabelle, a single, working mother unable to afford child care and without family nearby to help, has no choice but to turn to her young daughter.

“I lost my job as a hairdresser during the pandemic, so to put food on the table and pay the bills, I had to take a job at a fast-food restaurant,” she said. “It was worse then because I was working odd hours and I had no choice but to leave Rachel caring for the boys.”

Since then, Padilla has been able to return to hairdressing and secure a more stable shift. But she’s still unable to afford child care for the few hours the kids are out of school until she’s off work in the early evenings. So the Padilla children often go to the Encanto Recreation Center, where 13-year-old Rachel juggles completing her own homework, helping her brothers with their homework and watching over them as they play.

“At least at the rec center there are adults around, and Rachel knows she can go to them if she needs assistance,” Padilla said.

For years now, San Diego County has been experiencing a shortage of affordable child-care options — a problem only exacerbated by the pandemic, according to officials with YMCA of San Diego County’s Childcare Resource Services.

A YMCA survey last year found that 535 of the county’s child care providers, or 12 percent, closed during the pandemic, and that nearly 190,000 children under 12 don’t have a stay-at-home parent and are unable to secure child care.

While the YMCA had been working with the city for the past four years to address the matter, Courtney Baltiyskyy, vice president of policy and advocacy for the YMCA, says it was the pandemic that finally gave their efforts real momentum.

Since then, city officials have been working to find a solution. The recreaton center in Encanto is one of 42 centers across the city that could become sites for a child-care facility — if San Diego voters agree.

Children play flag football at the MLK Rec Center in San Diego.

Children play flag football at the MLK Rec Center in San Diego.

(Denis Poroy/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Measure H

On the November ballot, Measure H will give voters the option to change city rules to allow child-care facilities in public parks. The measure was placed on the ballot after an 8-0 City Council vote in July and would require approval by a simple majority of voters to be successful.

The rec centers are part of the city’s overall plan to adapt dozens of city properties for use as child care by city workers and many residents, some of whom can’t work without it.

Last year, the city’s Department of Real Estate and Airport Management began assessing the 1,100 city-owned properties, looking for facilities with at least 5,000 square feet on the ground floor to create small four-classroom child-care centers and adjacent outdoor space that could be converted into a playground.

A total of 72 properties were identified spread across all nine council districts, consisting of 18 libraries, 12 office buildings and 42 rec centers. Currently, the city charter says any land dedicated for “park, recreation or cemetery purposes shall not be used for any but park, recreation or cemetery purposes,” unless city voters approve such an exception.

Measure H would amend the city charter to make it legal for city recreation centers to offer child care.

Supporters say the fit could be ideal, because rec centers are mostly empty during the morning and early afternoon hours, when child-care centers typically operate.

Over at the Skyline Hills Recreation Center — one of the 42 child-care site options — 16-year-old Jayla White practices basketball with her coach twice a week while her mom works nearby.

Latoya White, a rec leader at the center, says the center has been working to provide various programs to youth of all ages to ensure they have the resources they need in their community.

“It’s been a big push for us to try to provide something positive for them to do here,” she added.

So, the addition of a child-care facility to the rec center is something White says would be a great thing for the community.

“Any time that parents can count on good people to watch their kids it can help them out,” she said.

Thomas Van talks about child care at the MLK Rec Center.

Thomas Van talks about child care at the MLK Rec Center.

(Denis Poroy/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Moreover, many of the rec centers identified are in neighborhoods officials say are child-care deserts, where there isn’t enough care available to serve the families that need it.

“Given the demographics, the income of the area … it’s a pretty big melting pot with a diverse population … (but) there are limited resources, even at the schools” for youth, Thomas Van said as he watched his child play flag football on a grassy field behind the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, another of the site options.

Van says his family is lucky, as he’s a real estate agent with a flexible schedule and is able to care for his two young kids. However, he hears from other parents about the challenges they face.

Van noted the pool that sits just yards away from the rec center — one of the pools that were closed over the summer as a result of a nationwide shortage of carbon dioxide — was just another example of the lack of available activities in the area.

It’s for this reason Van says he hopes the city would also implement additional programs, such as financial and computer literacy, at the child-care facilities. That could help bring more resources to the underserved areas of the city.

A growing problem

Demand for child-care spots is rebounding after the height of the pandemic, and a report released in April by University of San Diego researchers says the crunch is worsening.

According to the report, the county only has enough licensed child-care facilities to cover half the young children in working families, while the spots that are available are unaffordable for many families. They typically cost $12,900 to $19,500 a year, the report said.

A report by the San Diego Workforce Partnership found that 40 percent of San Diego families with two children and living on a median income spend up to 40 percent of their monthly income on child care.

Many San Diego families fall into what Baltiyskyy calls the “chasm.”

“They make too much money to qualify for the state (or federal) subsidy system … but even in a dual-income household, they don’t always make enough to be able to afford full-time child care,” she said.

The USD report also found that more than three-quarters of child-care providers are struggling financially, as the fees providers are charging families aren’t enough to cover their operating costs, which typically run as high as $38,000 annually per child in California.

Measure H won’t solve the problem overnight, Baltiyskyy said. “Does it mean that we’re going to have child-care slots available next year? Probably not. This is a tremendous first step in a longer planning phase.”

In July, the city asked child-care providers for their input on how it can establish facilities on city-owned properties. City staff are now working to compile the information into a proposal to identify potential operators that will be issued early next year.

Meanwhile, staff are continuing to work with the city attorney and Development Services Department to investigate the necessary requirements and legalities for zoning and permitting.

If Measure H passes, Baltiyskyy says the city will begin to develop a partnership with child-care providers to operate the centers.

City officials say that Measure H does not require rec centers to become child-care facilities. Each of the rec centers will be reviewed to determine if they are suitable. In some cases, the cost of conversion may be too high.

The Independent Budget Analyst’s Aug. 18 report says it is unknown whether those costs would be borne by the city or the private child-care operators.

Already, the San Diego Public Library Foundation and San Diego Parks Foundation are at work to supplement the city’s budget to provide some funds that could help provide child-care services at city libraries and parks.

They’re joined by other non-partisan groups in launching Libraries and Parks For All, a 2024 ballot initiative that would create a 2-cents-per-square-foot parcel tax on certain residential and commercial parcels — not to exceed one acre, and not to include certain senior and low-income housing — that would provide a permanently restricted revenue source for the library and park improvements.

Meanwhile, the YMCA is working with the city and other child-care resources to create the San Diego County Centralized Eligibility List, a subsidized child-care assistance program where residents can apply to be connected to free or low-cost services at

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