Our first-graders are missing! Throughout the Bay Area, and especially on the Peninsula, enrollment of first-graders has dropped by 10-25% since 2010. From working-class school districts to affluent suburbs, we see a rapid and steady drop in young families and their children.
Palo Alto is no exception. Many think of Palo Alto as a magnet for young families with school-age children. But after decades of steady growth, Palo Alto Unified School District’s first-grade enrollment has dropped by 19% since its peak in 2011; the drop in kindergartners is even greater. Overall, PAUSD elementary enrollment dropped 2% this year, its sixth consecutive year of decline. This trend nearly always means similar drops in later grades in a few years.
In fact, family formation all over the Bay Area is going the way of the Sony Walkman or the Palm Pilot. This has big implications for the future of our communities, including as we consider new housing.
Why is this happening?
The drop in young families isn’t mysterious. Rising housing costs price out many in the family formation stage of life, when they have modest incomes but growing housing needs. Gentrification in working-class towns drives up prices and replaces low-cost units with newer, higher priced ones.
Demographic trends also play an important role. California has seen a dramatic drop in its birth rate since the Great Recession of 2008. Birth rates often drop during recessions, but this time they have not recovered and continue to fall. California’s birth rate today is almost half that of 1990, and below even the level of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Finally, more and more housing in family-friendly neighborhoods is occupied by seniors, the fastest growing demographic group on the Peninsula. State demographers expect this “gray tsunami” to grow to 29% of the Peninsula population over the next 20 years, which means their homes won’t be available for younger families.
Source: California Dept. of Finance, Population Projections
What does it mean?
As Eve said to Adam as they left the Garden of Eden, “My dear, we live in a time of transition.” These trends suggest Palo Alto, along with suburban towns all over the Peninsula, may be shifting to a paradigm different from that of the last 50 years.
We may be moving from communities built around families and schools to ones where they play a secondary role to companies and their employees.
What, if anything, should we do?
We could do nothing or even help it along: Many see these changes as inevitable, and not necessarily problematic. Some advocate building more “workforce housing,” continuing expansion of large employers, and creation of larger senior facilities.
Others oppose most new housing; they worry that towns are “built out” and the roads can’t handle more traffic. Ironically, both positions will lead to a significant change in our communities as the number of young families continues to decline.
There are alternatives. If we do build housing, we can influence our new neighbors by the kind of housing we try to create. By watching school-enrollment trends, we’ve learned a lot about what kind of housing and neighborhood situations attract families — and which do not.
The main features that make housing family-friendly aren’t just bedrooms and square-footage; they’re pricing and, most importantly, neighborhoods. Expensive apartments on busy streets, far from schools and parks, will not attract many young families looking to put down roots in a community.
Ideas to support family-friendly housing
Much of the housing debate focuses on “how many” (units) and “how much” (affordability). We should shift the focus to “who.” If we want to remain a family-oriented community, we will need family-friendly housing.
Since the key to family-friendly housing is neighborhoods, one option is to stimulate housing in or near existing neighborhoods. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and multi-family duplex to quadplex units already co-exist in many neighborhoods alongside single-family homes. These smaller-scale units preserve both the scale and character of a neighborhood, while opening up more room for families.
Another option is to create new family neighborhoods. In Palo Alto, areas like the Fry’s site, downtown Palo Alto and the Stanford Research Park are being eyed for the creation of new or expanded neighborhoods. But there’s a critical oversight: Schools aren’t part of the planning process. The ultimate family neighborhood amenity is a neighborhood school. The community should insist that school districts, cities and developers work together to ensure new housing is near either new or existing schools.
What kind of neighbors do we want?
The debate over housing growth has centered on “more housing” versus “quality of life” (less housing). But there’s another dimension: not just how many, but what kind of neighbors do we want. People — our neighbors — determine the character of a community. Today 17% of Santa Clara County residents are school-age children; in Palo Alto, that figure is 19%; San Francisco (like Manhattan) has just 9%.
The dramatic loss of young families — our missing first-graders — should grab our attention; it’s a signal that our community is changing in a fundamental way. I like first-graders and all they represent, and I hope we will work to create communities that bring us more of them.
Todd Collins serves on the Palo Alto Board of Education. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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