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The Real Reason Cities Don’t Work For Families With Children

2011 June 29
by dan bertolet

“Won’t somebody please think of the children?”

— The Simpsons


Nothing causes more fits of hand-wringing among urbanists than the issue of children in the city. We all want to believe that cities ought to be desirable places to live for families with children, but somehow it rarely seems to work out that way. And Seattle is quite the poster child (as it were)—although in recent years Seattle has fared better than most cities in terms of gaining households with children, of all major U.S. cities only San Francisco has a lower percentage of children.

So we fret and fuss that there aren’t enough playgrounds, or the public schools are bad, or there’s too much crime, or there are too many yuppie condos, and so on. And some or all that may be true to some degree. But there’s a much simpler reason why families with children will always be at a disadvantage in most large U.S. cities: money.

Kids cost money. There are lots of variables, but to pick a number, let’s say it costs $500 per month per kid. Two kids and that’s $1000 dollars less that’s available to spend on rent or a mortgage. If they happen to be in daycare or private school, double that. And then there’s the cost of health care insurance for children—another couple hundred per kid, or significantly more if you aren’t on a company plan. Oh, and don’t forget the college fund.

Meanwhile, families with children are competing with growing numbers of childless singles and couples for the same housing supply in the city. And on average, the childless households will win, because they have more disposable income to put towards housing.

Then add to that the fact that households with children need bigger—that is, inherently more expensive—housing to begin with.

And then add to that the fact that it’s often more of a challenge for parents to focus on their jobs, so maybe they only work part time, or their career advance is hindered, or they have to take unpaid time off when their children are sick. Which all translates to even less money to spend on housing compared to households without kids.

Based on the raw economics, we shouldn’t expect to see anything but families with children fleeing expensive cities in search of cheaper housing options at the fringe. Yes, transportation costs are likely to be higher, but historically that has not been a deciding factor for most. And besides, in Seattle and many other U.S. cities, even those who recognize the monetary value of not having to rely on a car for every trip are faced with a shortage of homes large enough for families.

In a post over at Seattle’s Land Use Code, Chad Newton notes that current for sale listings in Seattle show more than ten times as many studio, one, and two bedroom homes as three bedroom homes. For new multifamily housing, that imbalance is driven by one key factor: the smaller the unit, the higher the rent (or sale price) per square foot. It’s an easy choice for developers.

If we all agree that families with children are an important ingredient of sustainable cities, then we have to face the fact that the solution must involve, in a word, socialism. We need to compensate for the market realities of cities. And the most direct way to do that is to subsidize family-sized housing units in multifamily buildings. Like they at least tried to do in Vancouver, B.C.

The problem could also be addressed more indirectly, by reducing the cost of living through subsidies such as free day care, extended paid maternity/paternity leave, or free health care for kids. You know, like they do in the majority of developed nations worldwide.

And yes, we also need to provide amenities for children and improve the public schools. But those are moot points if parents can’t afford the housing.


A personal aside: My wife and I have two young children who attend public schools in Seattle’s Central District. We bought a neglected single-family house back in the late 1990s when the CD was still somewhat affordable, but we probably couldn’t afford our house if we had to buy it now. A couple years ago we seriously considered moving to a modest Capitol Hill condo about half the size of our house, but vetoed the idea when we considered that it would cost more than we could get for our house.