With Austin City Council's new term underway, several members are starting off the year with an aim to lower barriers to child care access across the city.

Improving child care accessibility and affordability are goals shared by both returning city officials and new members who campaigned on the issue last fall. To begin this council year, District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes is bringing a measure she said she hopes will expand Austinites' child care options—especially in the many parts of the city with lacking child care opportunities.

Data compiled by Children At Risk, a child-focused policy and research group, shows much of the Austin area is designated as a child care desert, or an area where demand for child care outstrips supply by at least three times.

Fuentes's proposal on council's Jan. 26 agenda would start the process of streamlining city code requirements for the construction of new child care centers and could lead to the creation of a new grant program to help new or expanding facilities. Fuentes said the work follows previous council efforts along the same lines.

"When we look at our working families here in the city, child care is one of the top expenses that households have. It’s either unaffordable or inaccessible, in some cases both," Fuentes said Jan. 19. "We have a lack of high-quality child care centers in our city. So if we increase the supply, if we make it easier to build a child care center or expand a child care center where there is one, we will help reduce costs and have more options for families in Austin.”

In many parts of the city, anyone seeking to open a new child care facility must apply for a conditional use permit to do so. Moving through city development review is a notoriously lengthy and expensive process; Fuentes said one of her constituents looking to open a child care center recently told her that related permitting and site plan costs totaled in the tens of thousands of dollars over months of work.

"That’s why this resolution will unlock so much opportunity for operators to come in, to open up a day care center, a child care center, and to make it easier for folks," Fuentes said.

Council will consider stripping the conditional use requirement for child care centers in many areas, as well as opening up locations where such services are currently not allowed at all. Increased enrollment limits and allowing child care as an accessory use in residential areas are also proposed.

In addition to taking on zoning issues, council could move to launch a new economic development program geared toward the remaining city fees for child care projects. That program would cover both permitting costs and standard charges from various city departments.

The scope and funding source of the grant initiative would be determined as planning continues.

Council centers on child care

The resolution is co-sponsored by several members, including Mayor Kirk Watson and District 3 Council Member José Velásquez, with both throwing their support behind the item for their first official voting session since their elections. Watson and Velásquez have said they plan to bring their own child care proposals to the council dais this term.

“The high cost of child care is an enormous burden for families across Austin, and we have a responsibility to look for every opportunity to reduce barriers and costs for child care providers. I appreciate the leadership of Council Member Fuentes for offering this resolution and look forward to working with all my colleagues to ensure parents can access high-quality, affordable child care," Watson said in an email.

For Velásquez, one of his stated top goals in office is providing free, full-day pre-K for Austinites. He said the resolution represents a first step toward reducing the child care burden that he noted, as did Fuentes, often falls to mothers.

"In disenfranchised communities, we have come to see child care as a luxury. The lack of child care locations, and high prices for child care, often lead us to search for alternatives. ... Usually, that responsibility falls on the mother, who must pause her career with the added pressure of raising a family on one income. The challenge and setbacks are even more significant for single parents out there," he said. “This resolution is a first step in ensuring that we support all our Austin residents with access to a vital resource and decrease barriers to personal and financial growth."

District 10 Council Member Alison Alter said the code change would end up making a difference for families across town seeking out child care opportunities.

“By investing in Austin’s young children and their families, this resolution will help address one of the biggest barriers to equity in our community," she said in a statement.

If passed by council this month, the resolution would direct city management to bring development code updates back for final consideration by late July. Fuentes said she hopes the details of the grant program can be ironed out in time for this summer's fiscal year 2023-24 budget deliberations.

Later this year, council could consider items such as Watson's goal of establishing a new task force on child care affordability and Velásquez's push for pre-K support. Alongside those conversations, Fuentes also said officials should look into policy regarding pay for providers.

"Many of our child care centers are run and are staffed by women, and women of color. And quite frankly, they are doing some of the most important jobs in this country, and they’re not paid what they’re worth," she said. "I would also want to be looking at how else can we ensure that our operators are paying livable wages."