SAN FRANCISCO -- We have a problem. For decades, we've been chasing away our moms.
San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children of any major U.S. city. A mere 13.4 percent of San Franciscans are under the age of 18. The number of families here has been on a near-constant decline since the 1960s, when kids made up a full quarter of the population.
We also have a drastically lower number of children than other neighboring metropolitan areas. Oakland is 21.3 percent children, and youngsters comprise nearly a quarter of San Jose.
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While the reasons for this flight are myriad, virtually none of are because San Francisco is an out-and-out bad place to raise children.
A 2004 report by the Washington, D.C.-based Population Connection rated San Francisco as the fourth best city in the country for kids.
"I like the idea of having my kids experience the city's diversity," said Laura Marr, a Bernal Heights resident whose daughter Zoe turns two in a couple months. "I grew up in L.A., which is all kinds of segregated suburbs where everyone within each neighborhood is pretty much same. I wanted my daughter to see lots of different types of people."
Praise for the city's diversity, both in population and the activities available for families, is a common refrain among San Francisco parents. "I love the diversity and cultural opportunities for kids," said Dinah Stroe, a San Francisco native and mother of two college-aged children. "My daughter Sarah gravitated towards musical theater--she went to School of the Arts--and my son, Leo, played on lots of different sports teams with the Rec & Parks Department, JCC and the YMCA."
Despite these positives, an overwhelming force gradually pushes out from the city's center, ensnaring virtually every middle-class family in its gravity.
A GILDED MARKET
In 2010, the median home price in San Francisco was $668,000 and the vast majority of new housing constructed in the city over the past decade has been the type of luxury condos that aren't exactly known for being family-friendly. In fact, only two percent of all the new housing constructed in the city in the previous decade is of the detached, single-family variety.
A recent report found San Francisco to have the most expensive housing market of any major city in the country. It would take the salaries of 4.6 full-time jobs at San Francisco's highest-in-the-nation minimum wage just to afford a two-bedroom.
The sky-high price of housing, especially in places with enough room for the kids to run around, is almost universally cited as one of the primary reasons families give for leaving San Francisco. When Stroe first got pregnant a quarter of a century ago, she was faced with the same question as so many local parents: Should I move to the 'burbs? But because housing costs for her weren't as prohibitive, her choice was relatively easy.
"I never considered moving out to the suburbs when I had kids," said Stroe. "I grew up here, I had already bought a house here. That was in the days when a 25 year-old could afford to do that for $100,000"
Naomi Rudolph's oft-frustrating search for a home for her young family illustrates how the city's housing market has changed in the ensuing decades.
Rudploh grew up in the Sunset District. After college at U.C. Santa Cruz and a few years living in Washington, D.C., she moved into a one-bedroom apartment in the Castro with her husband, which they've been sharing with their son Ezra ("as in Better Than Ezra," she says with a laugh) for 14 months.
While Rudolph loves living in the Castro, with its bevvy of other young families and high walkability, a one-bedroom can be a tight squeeze with a baby in tow. So she began the search for a new place. It took her over a year of looking before locating a condo back in the neighborhood of her youth.
"Staying in the city was a necessity for us, but it was tough to find very many family-friendly places in our price range. Rents in San Francisco are insane," she said, "We're relatively young parents so our budget was limited. We noticed that a lot of families that do stay here are older and richer."
They're also, by and large, a lot whiter.
Marr went to San Francisco State in mid-1990s and remembers the San Francisco of her undergrad days to be a lot more diverse than the San Francisco of today. "The reality is that the demographics of SF are changing," she said. "A lot of the people who stay in the city are ones that can afford to send their kids to private school."
THE SCHOOL STRUGGLE
The relationship between motherhood and San Francisco residency isn't quite so simple as fleeing as soon as you get a bun in the oven. The tendency is for parents to stay in the city until their kids reach about five or six years of age. And then the exodus begins.
Many see this timing, about when kids would be starting school, as no coincidence. Stroe mentioned a perception, one she noted isn't necessarily accurate, of San Francisco schools' inferiority to those in the surrounding suburbs.
"I think we lost a lot with all this busing kids all over the city. We lost that sense of a neighborhood fabric," said Stroe. "It wasn't so true anymore that the people you saw in school every day were the same people who lived around the corner."
Rudolph also mentioned the scramble of trying to get kids into a good public school as one of the reasons she and her husband may move to the East Bay when Ezra hits school age. Even though it means living further away from favorite places like Children's Playground in Golden Gate Park, which Rudolph called "a baby utopia."
"The whole public school system is a little crazy," she said. "Getting into your first choice school can be hard, which is why I think a lot of people think about moving to the suburbs."
Maria Su of the city's Department of Children, Youth & Their Families argues that much of the negative perception of San Francisco schools is unfounded. "I want families to understand that SFUSD is one of the stop school districts in the state," she said, noting the district sends more students into the University of California system than any other in the country.
Su says the city has a whole host of innovative programs in place to support families they couldn't get in the suburbs, like a free pre-school program, free after-school programs and the Kindergarten-to-College Initiative, which provides every SFUSD student with a college savings account moment they enroll in school. "We have a lot of programs directed at helping families that they just wouldn't get if they moved anywhere else," she said.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT?
Over the past few years the number of children enrolled in kindergarten has started to increase, according to the San Francisco Unified School District.
That may be the result of a generation of young people raised on the gospel of New Urbanism (dense, livable cities: good; car-dependent, suburban sprawl: bad) wanting to procreate without submitting to the pitfalls of suburban living.
Even so, such a desire often clashes with the reality of raising a family in a city where the cost of everything--from housing to food to childcare to museum and park admissions--makes the grudging move to a homogenous, gas-guzzling suburb seem appealing in comparison.
"When I first got pregnant, I really wanted to stay in the city. No question," said Marr. "But, as my daughter gets older, I'm more and more seeing some of the benefits of moving out."
Take a look at the slideshow featuring famous San Francisco moms throughout the years, some who decided to remain in the city and others who fled to the suburbs, below:
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