Kindergarten students sitting on the floor stock photo from Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.

Anyone who has children or who is contemplating becoming a parent has faced the sticker shock of child care costs. Arlington County has the highest child care costs in the Washington region, largely because we have high land values, tighter regulations, and affluent households.

To start to bring down the price and make licensed child care more accessible for more residents, Arlington has embarked on a Child Care Initiative to address local zoning ordinances and child care codes that impact cost. The staff recommendations released on January 17 show that the lessons of urbanism are valuable for making child care more accessible and affordable.

Child care affordability is a nationwide problem

Paying for daycare in the region can cost as much as rent; care for an infant at a center averages $24,390 per year. Arlington County estimates that a family with an infant and a four-year-old in full-time daycare can spend $42,000 a year, or 39% of the county’s median income. For families earning minimum wage, the cost can quickly become untenable, forcing many families to forgo employment or use unlicensed daycares.

Image by Arlington County.

At the same time, child care providers face low pay. The average yearly income for the region’s child care workers is $26,900, and 40% receive public benefits. The goal of Arlington’s initiative is to reduce costs and increase the supply of child care, while also maintaining quality learning environments for children.

Arlington’s Child Care Initiative has big potential to make a dent in costs

The Child Care Initiative began in 2017. During the first phase, it worked to identify areas where county action could impact child care accessibility, affordability, and quality. Championed by County Board member Katie Cristol (who is coincidentally expecting her first child this year), the Child Care Initiative has organized a range of community input sessions to turn the broad objectives into actionable items for the County Board’s agenda.

Under formal consideration this spring are changes to two different sets of regulations that impact the creation or expansion of child care options. The first is the local child care codes that determine the teacher-child ratio, etc. The second is the zoning regulations covering parking requirements, hours of operation, etc. Building codes, such as standards for fire exists or restrooms, are set by the state and are not under consideration in this process.

Of all of the changes under consideration, the child care ratio has the most direct bearing on the cost. Arlington County is one of only two jurisdictions in Virginia that has its own ratio lower than the threshold that the state allows.

Increasing the ratio will almost certainly result in lower costs, or at the very least slow the increasing cost faced by many families. County staff have recommended that Arlington raise its ratio to meet the standards set by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a national body that accredits child care facilities.

For illustrative purposes, I made a chart of how this change in ratio could result in lower day care costs. This is based on what I’ve paid for full-time care at a center as my son moved to different age groups, extrapolated to estimate the cost at the higher ratio.

How the change in ratio could impact child care costs

Age group

Current ratio
Approx. cost
Proposed ratio

Estimated cost

Monthly saving
Under 2 1:3 $2,050 1:4 $2,000 $50
2 1:5 $1,950 1:6 $1,850 $100
3 1:8 $1,650 1:10 $1,500 $150
4 1:10 $1,500 1:10 $1,500 $0
5 1:10 $1,500 1:12 $1,300 $200

These might not seem like huge savings, but they certainly add up. Not only does this help a family’s individual budget, it also helps the county’s child care vouchers go further. Of course, not all these savings need to end up in my pocket. Ideally, some of the savings from a higher ratio will be passed on to the caregivers in the form of higher wages.

As with most of urbanism, it all comes down to zoning

The other set of regulations concern the county’s zoning ordinance, which applies to child care centers. Nationwide, communities are reevaluating zoning and reflecting on how it has been used to entrench privilege through the built environment.

Although regulations around child care seem distinct because they address the safety of children, zoning is not about the kids or the quality of their care. It is about protecting neighbors from the annoyance of having a pack of toddlers next door, or a stream of parents picking up and dropping off.

The staff recommendations represent important strides that follow central principles of urbanism.

Lesson #1: Engage the people who are most affected

Civic engagement is an important component of urbanism, but is often dominated by a population that does not reflect the community. As the Child Care Initiative gains more publicity as it makes its way to the County Board for a vote, concerned property owners will likely voice their displeasure at the changes. But in the early stages of the process, the staff has worked with day care providers directly to understand the obstacles they face and find reasonable solutions.

While most public meetings are dominated by older, wealthier, white residents, the meetings I attended had mostly women and people of color, including broad representation from Arlington’s immigrant communities. These are the people that run most child care facilities, both in-home daycares and centers. Families with young children were a smaller portion of attendees.

As a parent, attending open houses and workshops alongside child care providers was an eye-opening experience. I learned how the parking requirement nearly derailed the day care my own son attends. I heard first-hand accounts how recognition of the Child Development Association (CDA) credential would improve career advancement for child care workers.

I hope all civic meetings find ways to bring diverse perspectives together and bring out the voices of individuals and communities most affected by a potential change.

Lesson #2: Reducing the division between residential and commercial creates better neighborhoods

Urbanists know that the strict land use divide between residential and commercial uses creates more traffic and contributes to inequality. A family should be able to responsibly use its biggest asset—the home—to generate income if desired. Some of the biggest changes proposed by staff would create more opportunities for family day care entrepreneurs to start or grow their business.

Arlington currently limits family day cares (or in-home daycares, run out of a resident dwelling) to nine children. A family day care can operate by-right (no special permission needed) with up to five children, and must receive a permit to reach the full capacity. Virginia, however, allows family day cares to have up to 12 children.

To increase the capacity of family day cares and to ease the process of opening new in-home facilities, the staff is proposing to allow Arlington family day cares to have up to 12 children, with up to nine by-right. This will reduce the permitting process, allowing more family day cares to open with less push-back from neighbors.

These zoning changes will increase opportunities for entrepreneurship, especially for women of color and immigrants. The resulting increase in day care spots will be a benefit for the entire community.

Lesson #3: Don’t force people to overbuild parking

Although the staff have recommended a constellation of changes that address the cost of child care from different angles, the parking requirements are most likely to cause the opposition from community members. This is the area that the staff recommendations proceed most cautiously.

The current zoning ordinance requires that day care centers provide one parking space for every employee. The primary reason is to prevent employees from parking in spots typically used by neighborhood residents. The relies on the unfortunate assumption that residents have a greater claim to the curb space in front of their homes.

The result has been an overabundance of day care parking spaces. A report on land use and child care facilities found that “close to 40% of parking spaces go unused by child care staff as they commute by using alternative forms of transportation.” Arlington’s current parking minimum is also greater than nearly all of the surrounding jurisdictions. And day care center operators indicated that parking was their biggest obstacle in finding a site for their business.


Jurisdiction

# of Parking Spaces (based on a 10,000 sq. ft. center)
City of Falls Church 82
Loudoun County 60
Arlington County (current) 40
Fairfax County 32
Montgomery County 30
Arlington County (staff recommendation) 25 (lower minimum allowed based on proximity to transit and mitigation measures)
Prince William County 24
City of Alexandria 3-8 (depending on transit accessibility)
Washington, DC 5

As part of the Child Care Initiative, staff are recommending a parking minimum that is 40% less than the current requirement. Staff are concerned that lowering the parking requirement (or even eliminated it all together, as the Transportation Commission recommended) would be out of step with the larger parking ordinance.

Child Care Programs and High-Frequency Transit Stations by Arlington County.

The staff member I spoke to said that although the ordinance is outdated and requires more parking than necessary, it would be better to address this directly and wholistically, rather than dealing with daycare center parking separately.

The staff recommendations allow child care centers to reduce their parking minimum further by demonstrating that:

  • The major portion of the use is located within a one third-mile radius of a Metro station entrance or a bus stop along a high-frequency bus route;
  • That sufficient parking and circulation for pick-up and drop-off of children are maintained; and
  • That the potential adverse impacts of parking demand and any potential disruption of parking patterns within affected neighborhoods that could result from the modification will be mitigated and implemented by measures such as, but not limited to:
    • Utilizing a managed or shared parking program at times when parking demand is highest; and/or
    • Implementing Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategies, and/or demonstrating that transit or other transportation options exist that may offset parking demand.

It’s time for urbanists to give their support

Now that Arlington County staff have made their recommendations, they are opening the proposed changes to public comment. This could give an opportunity for less urbanist-minded residents to push back against the parking flexibility or the increased capacity of in-home daycares.

It also gives us in the urbanist community a chance to praise Arlington for taking bold steps to make child care more affordable and accessible (and maybe push them to reduce the parking requirements more). If you are interested in giving your input, here are the upcoming meetings:

  • January 30: The Zoning Committee of the Planning Commission will hold a meeting on the proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinance.
  • February 23: Request for the County Board to advertise prospective changes at its February 23 meeting.
  • March 4: The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinance.
  • March 16: The County Board is expected to hold a public hearing and take action on the proposed changes at its March 16 meeting.

Check out the Child Care Initiative webpage for more information and other ways to give your feedback.

Jane Fiegen Green is the Development Director at Greater Greater Washington. With a PhD in history and a background in association management for a scholarly society of historians, she works to bring sustainable revenue streams to support GGWash’s news and advocacy. She lives in the Pentagon City neighborhood of Arlington with her husband and son.