[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Where Did All the Children Go? (Youth and the City
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Sun Mar 19 20:56:46 EST 2006
Where Did All the Children Go?
In San Francisco and Other Big Cities, Costs Drive Out
By John Pomfret
March 19, 2006; The Washington Post
SAN FRANCISCO -- Monica Burton did not want to leave San
Francisco. Born and raised in the city and a train driver for
the Muni transit system for the past 16 years, she loves her
home town, volunteers in its women's jail and prays weekly at
her church in the Hunter's Point section along the San
But as the main breadwinner for her family, which includes a
22-year-old daughter and two granddaughters, she faced some
hard choices. Stay in San Francisco and abandon the dream of
owning her own home because of skyrocketing housing prices,
or leave. In 2004, Burton left with her grandchildren, buying
a three-bedroom house in what she calls a "Leave It to
Beaver" neighborhood in Sacramento, a 158-mile round-trip
commute from her job in the city of her birth.
People like Burton have been leaving U.S. cities because of
high-priced housing for some time. But according to
researchers and urban leaders, the trend has accelerated in
recent years and is threatening to reshape many of the
nation's major cities. Between 2000 and 2004, all eight
metropolitan regions from Seattle to San Diego lost middle-
On the East Coast, a similar trend is underway, with middle-
class families fleeing the New York region and Boston for the
South. The District has been in the buffer zone, losing
middle-class families with children to the Sun Belt but
gaining some from the Northeast, said William Frey, a
demographer at the Brookings Institution.
"There's a middle-class flight on both sides of the country,"
said Frey, who has analyzed county-level census data on both
coasts. He has found that real estate costs more than schools
are driving the migration.
The trend has city officials worried about what the loss of
these middle-class families will do to the vitality of their
communities, and they are trying to find ways to stem the
The departure of families is being felt especially hard in
San Francisco, which is losing children at a rate that
outpaces the rest of the region. Researchers, including Frey,
say the skyrocketing cost of housing, more than the fact that
the city is a center of gay life, is the crucial factor. San
Francisco risks turning into Venice, Italy -- a beautiful
tourist town with few long-term residents and no families,
said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco
Planning and Urban Research Association, which has advocated
changes in zoning and the construction of not just more
subsidized housing but also more market-rate housing.
A recent survey by the Public Research Institute at San
Francisco State University found that respondents with family
incomes higher than $50,000 were almost twice as likely to
say they planned on leaving San Francisco as people from
lower income brackets.
Commuting From Montana
More than half of San Francisco's firefighters, police
officers, emergency medical workers, nurses and teachers live
outside the city, city figures show. Firefighters, who work
24-hour shifts, commute to San Francisco from as far away as
Montana. With median house prices in San Francisco hitting
$780,000 and a similar profile in cities up and down the West
Coast, the California Dream is no longer possible for most
Americans, the report said.
"My two neighbors with kids are leaving, one to Portland and
the other to Virginia," said Holly Shafer, one of the
researchers on the project. "They just want to be able to buy
a place." Shafer predicts that San Francisco, like other West
Coast cities, will soon become home to only the very rich and
Blacks Lead Exodus
In San Francisco as on other parts of the West Coast, African
Americans such as Burton are leading the charge, although
white families are not far behind. From 1990 to 2000, San
Francisco lost 45 percent of its black children, according to
U.S. census data. From 2000 to 2004, an additional 15 percent
left the city, bringing the total number of African American
children under 10,000 for the first time in decades.
>From 2000 to 2004, the number of black children fell in the
eight major metropolitan areas from Seattle to San Diego. The
number of white children declined in seven. Immigrant
families -- from Asia and Latin America and generally in the
lower income brackets -- accounted for whatever growth there
was in the number of children along the coast, Frey said.
The middle-class exodus from California's coast is a complex
story. While researchers and politicians say it could have
negative implications for the communities along the Pacific,
it is also a story about people selling their houses, cashing
out of the remarkable housing boom and heading to greener, or
at least cheaper, pastures. Housing prices in heavily black
and Hispanic sections of southern Los Angeles, for example,
grew 50 percent last year, the fastest in Southern
California, prompting thousands of families to cash out and
move. From 2000 to 2004, the Los Angeles metropolitan area
lost 8 percent of its black children and 4 percent of its
In San Francisco, so many middle-class families with children
younger than 15 have left that the city has the lowest
percentage of children of any major American metropolis.
Mayor Plans Action
Gavin Newsom, San Francisco's popular mayor, has vowed to do
something. "There's a quality of imagination that's very
important for the spirit and the soul of the city to
maintain," he said in a recent interview. "Children bring
that to a city. A city without children has no future."
Newsom said a city needs boisterous schoolyards, young fans
for local sports teams, and zoos and museums filled with
children alive with wonder. It is as important as creating
jobs for a city and, in fact, bolsters the economy, he said.
Still, families with children have been fleeing San Francisco
and other major urban centers for decades. With the growth of
nearby suburbs, San Francisco's big drop came from 1960 to
1980 when the number of children fell from 24.5 percent to
17.2 percent of the city's population. Newsom's mother moved
him and his sister out of the city during that time. Since
then, it has been a slow spiral down to below 14.5 percent.
Newsom said he is eager to study such cities as Chicago and
Vancouver, which have taken measures to stanch the flow.
Late last year, Newsom appointed a well-known children's
advocate, Margaret Brodkin, to head the Department of
Children, Youth and Their Families. He established a council
of leading San Franciscans to study the issue and is pushing
city developers to include more family-friendly and
affordable housing in their projects. Still, Newsom is not
"We're going to have a housing boom in the next five years
the likes of which San Francisco has not seen since the 1906
fire," he said, "and it still won't even be a drop in the
bucket to what we need."
Newsom reeled off a list of programs adopted by San Francisco
to make the city better for families -- an extra, city-funded
working-family tax credit; universal preschool; a school bond
for arts, physical education and libraries; and health
insurance for everyone younger than 24.
"And still they leave," he said. From 2000 to 2004, the
city's child population was virtually unchanged, according to
Frey's data, despite a wave of Asian immigrants and a baby
boom that followed the dot-com bust. Kindergarten enrollment
dropped by 6 percent between 2001 and 2004, and in January
the city's school board decided to close or merge 14 schools
because the public schools are hemorrhaging on average 1,000
children a year.
A 3:30 a.m. Start
To make it to her job driving a train, Burton has to be on
the road by 3:30 a.m. She finds herself driving to San
Francisco almost seven days a week, still spending Sundays at
the True Hope Church of God in Christ, near the old
Candlestick Park. "My cleaners are there," she said. "My bank
is there. I even do my shopping in San Francisco."
At her church, the Rev. Arelious Walker's congregation has
dwindled from more than 400 to fewer than 250 in a few years.
"I'm a natural optimist," Walker said, "but this exodus
really is of biblical proportions."
[Special correspondent Joseph Dignan contributed to this
© 2006 The Washington Post Company
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