The Dire Need for Early Learning Centers in Puget Sound
As populations continue to grow in Washington's Puget Sound, working families are having a hard time finding high quality affordable child care and early learning opportunities. 63 percent of the state’s children live in a “child care access desert,” a census tract that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.
In high-pressure real estate markets such as Seattle and King County, early learning facilities are often squeezed out, not only exacerbating the crisis, but also causing disruption to what should be a stabilizing presence in the lives of families and for our neighborhoods.
The scarcity of buildings in which early learning providers can nurture and prepare children for success is readily apparent in many areas of King County. The problem has many facets — first, funding for early learning programs is rarely available to be used for building or improving classroom buildings.
When early learning providers are faced with high rents, they have to move to another facility, or close all together. If they are able to find space in a community, church, or school facility it often comes with a short lease, and is the first to go if space needs to be reclaimed by the building owner, even when it’s a public school.
Early learning providers and community support organizations are concerned about the continuing trend of early learning and child care centers closing. Mark Crawford, interim Executive Director of the U District Partnership, noted that “until recently, some facilities have been available and affordable because of the historical generosity of local faith organizations making space for these services at below-market rent of for free.
"As economic pressures for maintaining and updating church facilities increases and leads to the redevelopment or total loss of those spaces, we lose a wide range of social services and early learning facilities are among those losses. This is not a question of ‘how do we meet growing demand?’ This is a question of ‘how will we cope with reduced services in the face of growing demand.’”
Angelia Maxie, CEO of Tiny Tots Development Center in Rainier Beach, is similarly alarmed. "We’ve been around for 50 years. Some of our families are sending their third generation of kids to our program. We want to be able to offer them the guarantee that their children’s education won’t be disrupted by having to move from building to building. Children are most able to learn in a predictable, stable environment.”
One solution is to locate early learning facilities adjacent to affordable housing and other amenities that families need. Several of these types of partnerships are already operating successfully in neighborhoods connected with transit.
Jose Marti operates early learning centers at El Centro de la Raza’s Plaza Roberto Maestas multi-family apartment building, right across the street from the Beacon Hill light rail station, and in the International District at InterIm Community Development’s Hirabayashi Place, just down the street from the King Street station.
A new development in south Seattle, a rapidly gentrifying area, is slated to open in September 2021. Called Othello Square, it will include affordable housing by Homesight, health services by Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Clinic and early learning by Tiny Tots. Being involved early in the design process for this facility is a new experience for Maxie.
“Child care facilities and preschools have very specific requirements for physical space — some dictated by licensing requirements, others to make spaces conducive to learning. Usually we are scrambling to fit these specifics into unsuitable space, costing time and money," Maxie said. "With the Othello Square project, I wake up every morning with a smile on my face, because I have an email asking me for input and my opinion as the design is being created. It’s an unusual feeling!”