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Day Care Gets Orphaned

High rents, reluctant landlords plague attempts to expand child care to meet the needs of mommies without nannies.

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When her daughter’s Upper West Side day care shuttered last year, felled largely by high rents, Elizabeth Matthews, an early-childhood education professor at Hunter College, decided to open her own. Getting funding wasn’t hard—grants are available—but finding space was. After nine months, she’s nowhere near ready to start taking applications. “It’s disheartening,” she says. “[We’re] priced out.”

Few urban babies have nannies, and increasingly, parents can’t find day care. “It has become a challenge for providers to find space that’s affordable,” laments Nancy Kolben, executive director of Child Care Inc., an advocacy organization. Fees are climbing— often to five figures—to cover the rents. Centers have lengthy wait lists but can’t afford to expand. Prudential Douglas Elliman’s Faith Hope Consolo, who’s helping two child-care clients in the outer boroughs and three in Manhattan find space, says, “Child-care centers are the displaced child.”

Early-childhood-services facilities can usually spend between $15 to $20 per square foot, says Consolo. But commercial spaces on the Upper West Side, for example, run $50 to $60 per square foot. Meanwhile, stringent regulations—centers can’t be above the second floor, must have two means of egress, and need 30 square feet per child, plus sinks and bathrooms—reduce the options. And on top of that, landlords become “concerned about traffic and noise, the cars and carriages,” she says.

Yet “the ability to expand services that care for children is critical for New York to be a great place to raise them,” says Kolben. And the problem is getting more acute. The baby count has soared by as much as 26 percent in Manhattan since the 2000 Census. That year—before the post-9/11 baby boom—there were just under 3,800 children below the age of 5 living in the 11215 Zip Code, which includes most of Park Slope. But today there are only 310 licensed slots in the area. And while advocates have been floating ideas like providing developers with incentives to allot space for centers in new buildings, so far the idea isn’t being taken seriously, says Kolben. In the meantime, Consolo says, centers are relocating to cheaper neighborhoods, potentially alienating their existing clientele. “Say they’re in Brooklyn Heights,” says Consolo. “I’m having to move them to Sunset Park. Park Slope’s not even feasible.”

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