[Hpn] San Francisco - A City Losing Its Children
Fri, 08 Jun 2001 12:07:28 -0700
Thursday, June 7, 2001
Section: Part A
A City Losing Its Children
* San Francisco's population is growing, but the portion under 18 is
shrinking as housing costs push families out.
By: MARIA L. La GANGA
TIMES STAFF WRITER
SAN FRANCISCO -- The first Gold Rush to shape this region of rolling hills
and sparkling water was peopled by a rugged breed of fortune hunters--mostly
young, mostly single, mostly male. San Francisco in 1849 was a playground
for the hale and hearty, no place for families.
The second Gold Rush--150 years later and fueled by technology--has also had
a profound impact. San Francisco in the 1990s became "the Club Med of
American cities," says state librarian Kevin Starr, "a nice city to be young
in, if you've got the money. Conversely, if you're a soccer mom . . . it's a
terrible place to be."
In the last decade, though the city of St. Francis grew by 52,774, it lost
children--4,081 of them to be exact--the only metropolis of any size in the
state and one of few nationwide to see such a net change in its youngest
ranks, according to recently released census data.
Always adult and always expensive, San Francisco became even more so in the
last decade, as the city effectively ignored its most troubling policy
issue--the dearth of affordable housing. Young adults increasingly doubled
and tripled up to afford escalating rents. The median age jumped to 36.5
from 35.7 10 years ago. Bucking state and national trends, the number of
single mothers with children--often a city's poorest residents--dropped
San Francisco now has a higher percentage of adults than at any time in
nearly a century. In fact, the total population is greater and the number of
children smaller than at any time since 1920. Even Manhattan added children
between 1990 and 2000, and 17% of its population now is younger than
18,compared with 14.5% in San Francisco. The median age around Rockefeller
Center? Nearly a year younger than around the Transamerica Pyramid.
So what does it mean when a city loses children, even as its population as a
whole grows? When a place that treasures diversity in race, culture and
sexual orientation finds itself morphing into an enclave of increasingly
similar men and women in their peak earning years? When everyone wants to
live here, but so darn few people can afford it? When grown-ups trump kids?
So far, San Francisco offers a mixed picture of what life is like when
adults are so dramatically front and center. The theaters are great, but the
schools are troubled. The foie gras comes seared with wild mulberries,
salt-cured on brioche or cloaked in a deep crawfish reduction, but the parks
went 50 years without a bond measure to pay for repairs.
The symphony is world-class, but complaints about landlords discriminating
against families jumped about 40% in the 1990s. One recent letter from
landlord to tenant said: "Your little girl is causing a lot of noise. . . .
At this time perhaps you should look for a place where you won't be
bothering the people around you."
There are more dogs here than there are children, and more shelter space for
troubled animals than homeless families. Dog owners and parents square off
regularly over who has the biggest claim on scarce open space: little
Barbara or the bichon frise. Advocates Call for Civic Introspection
"When it becomes a transient city, when people leave when they want to have
families, it has a profound impact on a city," says Margaret Brodkin,
executive director of Coleman Advocates in San Francisco, which works on
behalf of children's issues. "What is required is some civic introspection
so that we together decide this is a terrible trend and collectively do
something about it."
A group of child advocates and city leaders plans to meet behind closed
doors today for its first discussion of the dropping child population, what
it means for San Francisco and what could be done about it.
"We shouldn't let it happen without our noticing," says school board
president Jill Wynns, who plans to attend. "It behooves public policymakers
to take it seriously. I'm taking it seriously."
What makes a city good for anyone to live in is, in many ways, wildly
subjective. In 1999, Money magazine named San Francisco "the best big city,"
with a few big caveats--earthquakes, schools and high housing costs among
them. By 2000, Portland, Ore., had pulled ahead.
Also in 1999, the advocacy group Zero Population Growth named San Francisco
the second most "kid-friendly" big city in America after Seattle; the city
got high marks for its slow growth, its air quality and its low infant
mortality rate, among other things. Voters here did endorse the so-called
Children's Amendment, which earmarked a chunk of property tax revenue for
Yet just last year, a poll of the city's voters showed that although 92% of
them believed San Francisco was a "great" or "good" place to live in
themselves, only 56% thought it was equally positive for children, and 78%
thought that in the last generation it became increasingly difficult to
raise a family in the city by the bay.
Although some demographers project that the San Francisco Bay Area will be
the oldest region in the state by 2040, the 2000 census painted a nuanced
picture. San Francisco lost children but also residents between ages 60 and
At the same time, every age group between 25 and 59 grew, with the greatest
spikes in 25- to 34-year-olds--the hard-working and hard-playing--and 45- to
54-year-olds--baby boomers likely to have grown children.
To such people in their active and affluent years, San Francisco's
attractions are legion. With its morning fog and storied bridges, rolling
hills and grand vistas, the city that calls itself "The City" is visually
stunning. Sailing, hiking, camping and skiing are in easy striking distance.
Even with the softening economy, the unemployment rate was only 3.8% in
April--lower than the state and national averages.
San Francisco has more restaurants per capita than any city in California.
For the last four years--the life of its annual survey--Bon Appetit magazine
readers have picked San Francisco as the best place in America to dine out.
Its international counterpart? Paris, of course.
"The weather, the beauty of it, the international sense of it, the European
city feel, all of that attracts people who think like Europeans, who enjoy
cities you can walk around in," says Elisabeth Ramsey, co-owner with her
chef husband of the Financial District restaurant Elisabeth Daniel.
Chris George, single and 37, moved here from Chicago in 1998 because, he
says, "it was time to have an adventure." George, the creative director for
a public relations firm, notes all the different neighborhoods of young
singles: "You have the whole Marina--the straight 20-something part of
town," says George, who describes children as "just so low on my radar
"You have the Castro, which does the same thing for a younger--20s, 30s,
40s--gay audience," he says. "And the opportunity of being an urban pioneer
South of Market or in the Mission District."
What else could anyone need?
A place to live would be nice. Competing With Affluent Newcomers
Surrounded on three sides by water and the fourth by the San Mateo County
line, San Francisco has little room to grow. Housing comes dear, and in the
1990s, lower- and middle-income residents were forced to vie with an influx
of affluent newcomers drawn by the technology boom and the growth spurred by
a hot economy.
Who won the housing war should come as no surprise.
"San Francisco has become completely unaffordable for the average family,
particularly families with kids and particularly lower- and moderate-income
families with kids," says Richard DeLeon, professor of political science at
San Francisco State University.
DeLeon describes the city as "hostile" to families. "I just don't see any
kind of integrated policy connected with planning and land use that hinges
on provision of affordable housing," he says.
The median home price here is $550,000, and homeownership is a measly 35%,
compared with 57% statewide. Even with the slump in the New Economy,
two-bedroom apartments rent for $2,557 a month on average, compared with
$1,187 in Los Angeles County. Nearly half of all housing has either no
bedrooms or one.
Between 1990 and 2000, nearly 20% of all new housing built here fit into the
category of live-work loft. Critics said many of those units were actually
used as offices and did nothing to help the housing crunch. And those in
which people actually lived were a far cry from family-friendly, in part
because they were largely built in the semi-industrial South of Market
district--home to restaurants and clubs, warehouses and freeway on-ramps and
a good chunk of the city's drug-dealing.
More San Francisco households are composed of roommates living together than
there are husbands and wives living together. "People are doubling up two
and three incomes to rent apartments, and they're driving out families,"
says Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography at USC.
"It's not so much you have more gay couples as you have desperate
roommates," Myers says. "I talked to a waitress in Noe Valley a few years
ago who was leaving the city. I still remember what she said: 'Around here,
even lawyers have roommates.' " Dramatic Change in Blue-Collar Town
Historian Starr, a San Francisco native, notes that his formerly blue-collar
hometown changed dramatically after 1962, when tourism became the No. 1
San Francisco, Starr says, "began to concentrate on its looks."
Sandra Stewart, 33, grew up in the earlier version of the city's Sunset
District with four siblings, an electrician father and a mother who
occasionally worked as a medical receptionist. They could afford to own a
The last time Stewart lived here, she could barely make the rent on the
one-bedroom apartment in the Tenderloin for herself, her partner and her
three children. When her 10-year-old son came home talking about how cool
the neighborhood drug dealers were, she knew she had to leave.
Now she commutes to her job at San Francisco's Department of Family and
Children's Services from Richmond, a working-class East Bay city. She is a
single mother and makes more than $54,000 a year.
"What really bothers me is that, to give my children what I had when I was
growing up, I had to leave San Francisco," Stewart says. "I've just traded
one 'hood for another. [But] it's better than the Tenderloin . . . We have a
yard. My kids have their own rooms."
For those families who stay, renting here became increasingly troublesome,
according to the city's Human Rights Commission, which documented an
increase of 35% to 40% in housing discrimination complaints filed by
families during the last decade.
For the last several years, complaints by families to the commission's fair
housing unit have evened off at 20 to 25 a month, said Ed Ilumin, a
compliance officer. Such families are threatened with eviction when they
marry, when children are born or when their children make noise.
Susi Levi-Sanchez and her husband, Daniel, left their North Beach apartment
and bought a home in San Francisco's Sunnyside neighborhood after their
daughter Rebecca was born. Their landlord had sent them a letter, she
recalled, that said, "Now that you've had a child, you're going to be using
more water, so we need to raise your rent."
Levi-Sanchez called the district attorney, who said that such an action was
illegal and notified the landlord on the family's behalf. The landlord
backed off. And when the Levi-Sanchezes moved to more family-oriented
Sunnyside, they figured their problems were over.
They were wrong. Yes, they got away from what the former stage electrician
called their "kid-hating landlord," but they strolled right into the middle
of another San Francisco family controversy: Kids, dogs and who owns the
The Sunnyside Recreation Center in the family's current neighborhood is one
of several parks citywide where dog owners and families are in conflict.
Hundreds of people have attended public hearings on the issue; some of these
meetings degenerated into shouting matches.
The dog owners look at this built-out city's 227 parks and say that their
animal companions should be able to run free in more than just 19 of them.
The city is considering doubling the number of officially off-leash parks
and will announce a new policy in the near future. Sunnyside is one park
that could be in for a change.
The parents look at the city's busy streets and rare backyards and insist
that their children deserve a place to play where they are safe from cars,
dogs and strangers.
Battling factions in the Sunnyside District have become so estranged over
their park's future that Levi-Sanchez worries the small open space with its
outdated equipment will never get a much-needed new play structure.
Meanwhile, there's a shiny new drinking fountain with a special,
ground-level bowl for dogs.
Becky Ballinger, spokeswoman for the parks department, firmly believes San
Francisco has a lot to offer children and says "some community people are
trying to make this an issue between dogs and kids. It's not. . . . There's
no reason they can't coexist. But they need to be separated." Shortage of
For the city, the changing demographics pose difficult questions on many
On the business side, San Francisco is still awash in "Now Hiring" signs,
particularly for service and support jobs. The biggest culprit is the tight
labor market, but the loss of young people adds to the problem.
According to the state Employment Development Department, 31% of all
low-wage work statewide is done by 16- to 19-year-olds; those aged 15 to 19
dropped by 5.7% in San Francisco in the last decade. An additional 17% of
such work is done by 20- to 24-year-olds, a group that dropped by 5.2%.
And then there's the issue of services for the elderly, as this already
older city ages. P.J. Johnston, spokesman for Mayor Willie Brown, says San
Francisco is a wonderful place for children and adults, but he acknowledges
that senior housing is "something the city's got to deal with."
"There are 10,000 seniors on the waiting list to get [affordable] housing or
vouchers in San Francisco," says Jane M. Graf, president of Mercy Housing
California, a not-for-profit developer that just opened an affordable
housing complex for seniors here. "They do die before they get housing."
The census snapshot of a child-losing San Francisco was taken at the height
of the dot-com boom, in April 2000. And already the city is changing again,
as start-ups fail, techies in their 20s and 30s bail out and "For Rent"
signs blossom where once there were none.
Still, economists and demographers see such change as relatively short-term.
And they do not believe that the housing market that shoved working-class
families out will ease enough to let them back in.
Although San Francisco used to have enough good-paying manufacturing jobs to
support blue-collar workers, most such plants disappeared in earlier
decades, and land is too scarce for them to be replaced.
"In order to get diversification, you'd have to get a blue-collar community,
and it's not going to happen," Starr says. San Francisco will "take on a
certain characteristic, a Monte Carlo kind of characteristic. . . . When
[people] get married and have families, they won't be there."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC) The Trouble With Children
In the 2000 census, San Francisco grew by 52,774 people, but lost 4,081
children compared to 1990. The percentage of the total population under 18
has been gradually declining since the 1960 census, figures show: San
* * *
Kids not welcome: How one mother copes with relocating her family to San
PHOTO: Rebecca Levi-Sanchez plays on swing set at Sunnyside
Recreation Center. Her family moved from San Francisco to the more
family-oriented area, where children and pets compete for park space.
PHOTOGRAPHER: ROBERT DURELL / Los Angeles Times
GRAPHIC: The Trouble With Children, LORENA INIGUEZ / Los Angeles
Descriptors: Children, San Francisco, Housing Prices, Census (2000),
Demographics, San Francisco - Population
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
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