No sooner did Streetsblog LA roll out its new series (and hashtag) #streetsr4families than the Washington Post asked whether it really benefits cities to attract families with kids at all. After all, wrote Lydia DePillis yesterday, while single twenty-somethings freely spend their money on $12 cocktails and $50 concert tickets, parents avail themselves of taxpayer-funded services like public schools and parks. Parasites on the system.
DePillis referenced a 2001 Brookings Institution study, “Envisioning a Future Washington,” [PDF] which put a price tag on attracting different types of new residents. The researchers found that a two-parent family with two kids would cost the city $6,200 annually, mostly because they use public schools, while a childless couple generates a net gain for the city of $13,000.
As someone who takes it on faith that children truly are an indicator species of a healthy city, reading that shook me. Could it be that we parents are, after all, a drain on the cities we love?
The topic is especially salient right now, as I’ve been engrossed in the Sightline Institute’s ongoing series, “Family-Friendly Cities.” In it, author Jennifer Langston writes at length about what cities can do to attract families with children. (More on that later.) But DePillis’s words made me suddenly uncomfortable with the whole proposition. Why should cities bend over backwards for families with kids — letting valuable real estate become children’s play areas, sullying its eateries with crayons and kids’ menus, preserving three-bedroom row houses amid the rush to build studio apartments — when those families actually end up bringing the city down?
DePillis answered her own question, of course. Parents are often in their prime earning years, and they buy expensive houses. Those houses become more expensive when the schools improve — “Trulia crunched the numbers, and found that homes in districts with highly-rated schools are a third more expensive than the metro average, while those in districts with poor schools are much cheaper,” DePillis wrote. That relegates lower-income kids to the city’s worst schools — but if we’re just looking through a lens of GDP, those pricey homes add to the city’s bottom line.