It’s no secret that San Francisco has one of the lowest percentages of children in the country. This is not new, but what is concerning is that the trend continues to spiral downward, especially after the pandemic. During the height of Covid, many families grew increasingly frustrated with online learning and how long it took to get back to in-person school. In addition, parents were working from home and kids were schooling from home with limited extra-curricular activities, and many wanted more space indoors and outdoors, so they left. But it wasn’t just schools and space that had people fleeing, it was also the growing concern over public safety in our city —home break-ins, rising property crime, and a general feeling by many of us that we were living in a state of lawlessness.
Some of these concerns have gotten better, but there is still a real lack of an investment to draw or keep families in San Francisco. So, what does that look like?
This is an issue that affects everyone no matter what neighborhood you live in. Whether you are walking with young children or teaching your teens how to navigate Muni, we all want to feel safe. Sounds simple, but the answer is complicated and not easy.
For me, it means addressing our city’s biggest problems — open air drug dealing, more services for mental health and recovery, and increased budget for more police officers. I recently was doing some volunteer work in the Tenderloin and on multiple occasions saw parents or caregivers having to navigate around encampments, drug dealers, or people using drugs. It didn’t seem to faze the adults or the children, but this isn’t acceptable and shouldn’t be the norm for anyone. For parents with older children looking to find some independence, utilizing a city’s public transportation system is ideal — navigating a route, understanding schedules, and bus etiquette are all great life skills. However, for many parents this doesn’t feel like a safe or viable option anymore. We also want to know that if we must call 911 that there is a quick response. This can’t happen if our police department is understaffed.
From my experience, another big reason families leave the city is our public school system. Many families that are financially able look to independent or parochial schools, but with already expensive tuitions continuing to rise, this isn’t an option for everyone. In a vibrant, educated city such as San Francisco, one would hope that the same would be true about our public school system, but unfortunately this isn’t the case. One of the big issues is the lottery system that could land your child in a school across town, which is not ideal for working parents or those limited to public transportation. Even with the recent recall of three school board members, for many SFUSD families it still doesn’t always feel like the school board and district have the students’ best interest at heart. There have been a lot of distractions that don’t give parents much confidence in where the priorities lie for those in charge.
There is no disputing San Francisco is an expensive place to live. Whether you rent or own your own home, it is not cheap, and housing costs are a major budget line item. For many families, the dream of owning their own place isn’t viable or there is more value in buying outside of the city, so they leave. However, there is hope due to a state mandate to build more housing or lose valuable funding. Recently, San Francisco leaders approved a plan that requires the city to create more than 82,000 new housing units between now and 2031. It also mandates more than half of those units be for low- and moderate-income households. This is great news for families especially; now let’s hope the city can move quickly to make this happen.
Families are a necessary part of a vibrant and thriving city. To keep them here, we need to prioritize basic needs — public safety, good schools, and affordable housing. People are always surprised to meet someone who grew up in San Francisco. I married one and now we are raising our three children here. My wish would be if they choose to come back to San Francisco to live and raise a family, that this is a norm. Our hope is that by raising them here they are exposed to many different cultures and ways of life. They also develop empathy for the issues around them and a “can do” attitude to try to make it better and ultimately go out into the world with a little more street smarts.
Liz Farrell is the mother of three children and the founder of TechTalks, a consulting group to help schools and families have productive conversations around social media and technology. Email: