Dec. 13, 2023
On an average day in America, about seven million children under the age of five are cared for in a home-based child care setting. The majority of these young children are being supervised by family, friends, and neighbors, but many are being cared for by formal family child care (FCC) providers. FCC providers typically operate as a business out of a private residence and care for fewer children than center-based programs, with licensed FCC providers serving an average of eight children a week.
Many parents prefer FCC for their children rather than centers for a variety of reasons. FCC providers are likely to be more affordable than centers and offer flexible schedules that can provide a better fit for working parents. Some families find that FCC providers are more likely to have cultural and linguistic backgrounds similar to their own, and many parents like the home environment provided by FCC. Additionally, many parents prefer a smaller, mixed-age environment that allows siblings to stay together throughout the day.
FCC providers make up a critical component of the child care landscape and face a host of unique challenges. Operating a child care business out of a home requires the financial resources to own or rent a home, and that’s no small feat for providers who average 56 hours per week while typically earning low incomes. In fact, a recent survey found that about a quarter of home-based providers report difficulty affording housing expenses regardless of whether they are renters or owners.
According to Natalie Renew, executive director of Home Grown, it’s almost impossible to become licensed as a renter because of landlord opposition to the type of facility improvements often needed to earn a license. “There's a lot of negative stigma and bias about home-based child care in the landlord world,” says Renew. And even if a FCC provider owns the house out of which they operate there are often frequent regulatory changes that require ongoing investment. “FCC providers are navigating an incoherent, duplicative, and sometimes conflicting set of regulations,” according to Renew. Frequent opposition from homeowners associations and condo associations due to concerns about issues related to traffic and parking only add to the difficulties facing these providers.
The good news is that states are beginning to take action to address these difficulties. California was one of the first states to act, passing a law in 2019 that prohibits localities from requiring FCC providers to obtain a zoning permit or business license. The law also clarifies that landlords cannot evict providers or refuse to rent to them simply because they plan to operate a child care business out of the home. The bipartisan appeal of these policies is evidenced by the political diversity of the states in which they’ve been enacted. Recently, Connecticut and Oklahoma lawmakers have enacted similar legislation designed to assist FCC providers.
“One of the barriers that we were finding in Oklahoma was that certain municipalities at the local level were enacting regulations that were more stringent than what the state had already put into place,” says Carrie Williams, executive director of the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness. HB 2452, which was passed on a bipartisan basis and went into effect in November, aims to cut red tape for providers by prohibiting localities from passing regulations that limit the capacity of providers beyond what the state already allows. For example, the state allows large, licensed FCC homes to care for up to 12 children at a time, but some cities were setting a lower capacity due to local zoning regulations, thus limiting the overall supply of child care.
Williams attributes the bipartisan support for the law to recognition among lawmakers that the state needs to take concrete action to expand child care availability. “Anything that the state can do to reduce that burden on those who are willing to serve our children and families, I think there is a willingness to listen on the part of lawmakers,” she says. Since conservative lawmakers are typically interested in reducing regulations across all parts of the economy, these sorts of actions on behalf of FCC providers can be especially appealing for Republicans. These changes have the benefit of reducing administrative burdens without reducing important health and safety regulations, such as low staff-child ratios.
Despite being on the opposite side of the red-blue political divide, Connecticut lawmakers recently joined their Oklahoma colleagues in passing legislation to make it easier to operate an FCC program. HB 6590, which went into effect in October, prohibits municipalities from enacting zoning regulations that treat FCC providers differently than other residents or require providers to obtain special permits to operate. These changes might sound small, but they could have a large, positive impact on providers. Prior to the law’s enactment, “one or two neighbors could completely shut down your ability to expand your business from six to twelve children. And we saw that happening over and over again, in areas of enormous need for educators who had very long waiting lists,” says Jessica Sager, co-founder and chief executive officer of All Our Kin, a national nonprofit that supports FCC providers.
Over the course of five legislative sessions, advocates worked to make the case that legislative change was needed to expand access to affordable child care. “In Connecticut, zoning is very contentious. But I think legislators on both sides of the aisle began to understand how critical it was that we do things to try and address the child care issues that we have in the state,” says Jade Thomas, policy specialist at All Our Kin. The original bill also included language preventing landlords from banning the operation of home-based child care businesses, but that provision was ultimately dropped due to lawmaker opposition.
Advocates are already in the process of thinking through next steps, including spreading local awareness of recent legislative changes and encouraging other states to take similar actions to assist FCC providers. “These issues around zoning, these issues around landlord protections are something that we're thinking about, not just in the Connecticut context, but in the national context,” says Sager.