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Where Did All the Children Go?
In San Francisco and Other Big Cities, Costs Drive Out Middle-Class Families

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO -- Monica Burton did not want to leave San Francisco. Born and raised in the city and a train driver for the Muni transit system for the past 16 years, she loves her home town, volunteers in its women's jail and prays weekly at her church in the Hunter's Point section along the San Francisco Bay.

But as the main breadwinner for her family, which includes a 22-year-old daughter and two granddaughters, she faced some hard choices. Stay in San Francisco and abandon the dream of owning her own home because of skyrocketing housing prices, or leave. In 2004, Burton left with her grandchildren, buying a three-bedroom house in what she calls a "Leave It to Beaver" neighborhood in Sacramento, a 158-mile round-trip commute from her job in the city of her birth.

People like Burton have been leaving U.S. cities because of high-priced housing for some time. But according to researchers and urban leaders, the trend has accelerated in recent years and is threatening to reshape many of the nation's major cities. Between 2000 and 2004, all eight metropolitan regions from Seattle to San Diego lost middle-class families.

On the East Coast, a similar trend is underway, with middle-class families fleeing the New York region and Boston for the South. The District has been in the buffer zone, losing middle-class families with children to the Sun Belt but gaining some from the Northeast, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

"There's a middle-class flight on both sides of the country," said Frey, who has analyzed county-level census data on both coasts. He has found that real estate costs more than schools are driving the migration.

The trend has city officials worried about what the loss of these middle-class families will do to the vitality of their communities, and they are trying to find ways to stem the flow.

The departure of families is being felt especially hard in San Francisco, which is losing children at a rate that outpaces the rest of the region. Researchers, including Frey, say the skyrocketing cost of housing, more than the fact that the city is a center of gay life, is the crucial factor. San Francisco risks turning into Venice, Italy -- a beautiful tourist town with few long-term residents and no families, said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, which has advocated changes in zoning and the construction of not just more subsidized housing but also more market-rate housing.

A recent survey by the Public Research Institute at San Francisco State University found that respondents with family incomes higher than $50,000 were almost twice as likely to say they planned on leaving San Francisco as people from lower income brackets.

Commuting From Montana

More than half of San Francisco's firefighters, police officers, emergency medical workers, nurses and teachers live outside the city, city figures show. Firefighters, who work 24-hour shifts, commute to San Francisco from as far away as Montana. With median house prices in San Francisco hitting $780,000 and a similar profile in cities up and down the West Coast, the California Dream is no longer possible for most Americans, the report said.

"My two neighbors with kids are leaving, one to Portland and the other to Virginia," said Holly Shafer, one of the researchers on the project. "They just want to be able to buy a place." Shafer predicts that San Francisco, like other West Coast cities, will soon become home to only the very rich and the poor.

Blacks Lead Exodus

In San Francisco as on other parts of the West Coast, African Americans such as Burton are leading the charge, although white families are not far behind. From 1990 to 2000, San Francisco lost 45 percent of its black children, according to U.S. census data. From 2000 to 2004, an additional 15 percent left the city, bringing the total number of African American children under 10,000 for the first time in decades.

From 2000 to 2004, the number of black children fell in the eight major metropolitan areas from Seattle to San Diego. The number of white children declined in seven. Immigrant families -- from Asia and Latin America and generally in the lower income brackets -- accounted for whatever growth there was in the number of children along the coast, Frey said.

The middle-class exodus from California's coast is a complex story. While researchers and politicians say it could have negative implications for the communities along the Pacific, it is also a story about people selling their houses, cashing out of the remarkable housing boom and heading to greener, or at least cheaper, pastures. Housing prices in heavily black and Hispanic sections of southern Los Angeles, for example, grew 50 percent last year, the fastest in Southern California, prompting thousands of families to cash out and move. From 2000 to 2004, the Los Angeles metropolitan area lost 8 percent of its black children and 4 percent of its whites.

In San Francisco, so many middle-class families with children younger than 15 have left that the city has the lowest percentage of children of any major American metropolis.

Mayor Plans Action

Gavin Newsom, San Francisco's popular mayor, has vowed to do something. "There's a quality of imagination that's very important for the spirit and the soul of the city to maintain," he said in a recent interview. "Children bring that to a city. A city without children has no future."

Newsom said a city needs boisterous schoolyards, young fans for local sports teams, and zoos and museums filled with children alive with wonder. It is as important as creating jobs for a city and, in fact, bolsters the economy, he said.

Still, families with children have been fleeing San Francisco and other major urban centers for decades. With the growth of nearby suburbs, San Francisco's big drop came from 1960 to 1980 when the number of children fell from 24.5 percent to 17.2 percent of the city's population. Newsom's mother moved him and his sister out of the city during that time. Since then, it has been a slow spiral down to below 14.5 percent.

Newsom said he is eager to study such cities as Chicago and Vancouver, which have taken measures to stanch the flow.

Late last year, Newsom appointed a well-known children's advocate, Margaret Brodkin, to head the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families. He established a council of leading San Franciscans to study the issue and is pushing city developers to include more family-friendly and affordable housing in their projects. Still, Newsom is not promising anything.

"We're going to have a housing boom in the next five years the likes of which San Francisco has not seen since the 1906 fire," he said, "and it still won't even be a drop in the bucket to what we need."

Newsom reeled off a list of programs adopted by San Francisco to make the city better for families -- an extra, city-funded working-family tax credit; universal preschool; a school bond for arts, physical education and libraries; and health insurance for everyone younger than 24.

"And still they leave," he said. From 2000 to 2004, the city's child population was virtually unchanged, according to Frey's data, despite a wave of Asian immigrants and a baby boom that followed the dot-com bust. Kindergarten enrollment dropped by 6 percent between 2001 and 2004, and in January the city's school board decided to close or merge 14 schools because the public schools are hemorrhaging on average 1,000 children a year.

A 3:30 a.m. Start

To make it to her job driving a train, Burton has to be on the road by 3:30 a.m. She finds herself driving to San Francisco almost seven days a week, still spending Sundays at the True Hope Church of God in Christ, near the old Candlestick Park. "My cleaners are there," she said. "My bank is there. I even do my shopping in San Francisco."

At her church, the Rev. Arelious Walker's congregation has dwindled from more than 400 to fewer than 250 in a few years. "I'm a natural optimist," Walker said, "but this exodus really is of biblical proportions."

Special correspondent Joseph Dignan contributed to this report.

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