The $40,000-per-space question: Addressing San Mateo County’s shortage of child care facilities

Michelle Sioson Hyman

Michelle Sioson Hyman
Senior Early Learning Officer
Center for Early Learning, SVCF

A preschool director, regional planner, affordable housing advocate, county supervisor and a business leader all walked into the community foundation office... It almost sounds like the start of a joke, but the reason these people met at SVCF was no laughing matter.

They came together because, as of 2015, there was a shortage of nearly 11,000 child care and preschool spaces for children in San Mateo County -- a shortage that can negatively affect thousands of families and the educational prospects of thousands of children. The gap is expected to reach 14,000 by the year 2025.

Finding solutions to the shortage is not easy. A 2016 survey identified “difficulty finding an available site” and “lack of funding” as the top two barriers child care and preschool providers face when exploring program development or expansion. The same survey also highlighted that owners of at least four San Mateo County child care sites are facing closure or displacement due to the increasing costs of their rent.

To address these and other issues surrounding the shortage of child care facilities, the Center for Early Learning at SVCF, in partnership with the San Mateo County Office of Education and First 5 San Mateo county, in 2016 convened the San Mateo County Child Care and Preschool Facilities Task Force. The task force consisted of a cross section of San Mateo County and Bay Area leaders from government, housing, education, business, faith-based and nonprofit sectors. As the task force met, it considered facts like these:

  • The average cost to build one child care space locally is $40,711. It would cost an estimated $428 million to meet the county’s projected demand for child care space in 2025.
  • The high cost of real estate and construction, combined with the scarcity of available land, hold down the supply of child care and preschool facilities in high-cost counties such as San Mateo.
  • To meet the state’s licensing requirements, a child care or preschool center must provide at least 25 square feet per child indoors and 75 square feet per child outdoors – a total of 100 square feet per child. To create just one classroom for 20 children at a total of 2,000 square feet, the cost for the land alone could cost up to $244,000 at 2015 prices – not to mention any additional building or programming costs.
  • The director of a San Mateo preschool had plans to expand from her home into a child care center in a commercial site to serve more children. After more than two years of trying to find an affordable facility that met all of the zoning and safety requirements, she had to give up her search. She is highly qualified, a former kindergarten teacher with a master’s degree in education focused on early childhood development. She works with families across all income levels and is bilingual in Spanish. She provides just one example among many in which a qualified person is willing to help address the lack of child care spaces in San Mateo County but cannot do so because of the high cost and unavailability of facilities in the area.


San Mateo County Child Care and Preschool Facilities Task Force Report

Earlier this summer, the task force released its final recommendation: the design and implementation of Build Up for San Mateo County’s Children, a unified and coordinated countywide effort focused solely on the development and sustainability of child care and preschool facilities in San Mateo County. Build Up provides the community a strategic way to elevate and address the urgent need for more child care and preschool facilities in San Mateo County, so that all sectors – from business to education, government to housing – recognize that they all play a role in the county’s child care shortage crisis and take it seriously.

Build Up has the following goals:

  • Work across sectors to reuse/re-designate existing space to increase the number of child care and preschool spaces
  • Work with cities and the county on policies and incentives to prioritize child care in future developments
  • Engage large employers to create new child care facilities for their employees
  • Generate revenue for facility development and assist providers in drawing down existing funds from the state and federal government

Read the full report from the San Mateo County Child Care and Preschool Facilities Task Force.

For more information on the task force, contact