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Mayor Wu issues order to clarify child care zoning rules, provide more funding

"These investments will fund a wide range of programs across the city so every family in every neighborhood has access to safe, reliable, high quality care."

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu speaks with the media regarding early education during a press conference in early July. Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu issued an executive order on Tuesday designed to make zoning requirements around child care facilities more clear and predictable. This is being done in an effort to provide a stable funding source for an expansion of high-quality child care citywide. 

The executive order centers on Inclusion of Daycare Facilities (IDF) zoning regulations. For decades, according to Wu’s office, these rules have required certain large developments to either build child care programs on-site or to support the creation of off-site child care programs. However, this language has been interpreted to allow developers to contribute to a fund that supports child care programs in other parts of the city, thus fulfilling their obligation to create off-site programs. 

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Exactly how much each developer contributes has been subject to negotiation, creating an “opaque process” for developers to follow, Wu’s office said. This also opens the door for inconsistencies in enforcement.

On top of that, the basis of IDF regulations may be outdated. Initially, these rules were intended to create more on-site child care for downtown workers. But with the pandemic-fueled rise of remote work and new demand in underserved neighborhoods, city officials are rethinking how child care expansion should be done. 

“These investments will fund a wide range of programs across the City so every family in every neighborhood has access to safe, reliable, high quality care. Together with our Office of Early Childhood and the Boston Planning and Development Agency, we are ensuring more programs meet the needs of Boston’s working parents and families,” Wu said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with the development community, residents, advocates, and community members to ensure the benefits of growth in Boston are shared equitably across our city so we can all thrive.”

Currently, IDF regulations apply to 14 downtown zoning districts. In general, they apply to developments over either 100,000 or 150,000 square feet, according to the Mayor’s office. 

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This order lays out a clear formula for those developers choosing to contribute to the city’s child care fund instead of directly creating child care programs themselves. The formula, Wu’s office said, is based on an assessment by the city’s Planning and Development Agency. Additionally, an external real estate finance consultant “validated” the formula. Boston officials are currently reviewing about 3 million square feet of development. They said this could generate more than $3.5 million in funds that would support and expand child care in the city. 

“Our city is growing and changing, and the need for child care in neighborhoods does not necessarily align with the areas where builders are required to create child care,” said Director of the Office of Early Childhood Kristin McSwain in a statement. “This Executive Order gives us the flexibility to create high quality child care where families and children need it most.”

Child care has been a focus for Wu since her time on City Council. During her campaign for the Mayor’s office, she sold voters on a plan to provide universal preschool through a centralized office. In February, a few months after being elected, Wu announced the creation of the Office of Early Childhood. It was built to centralize and expand access to child care, connecting families with open seats at programs throughout the city. The office also works to expand funding for these child care programs. 

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Earlier this month, Wu said that the city would invest $20 million in early education through its Universal Pre-K program. Those dollars will help support community-based programs, integrate family child care providers into the Universal Pre-K system, and add more seats for three and four-year-olds, city officials said. 

The money opened up by this latest order will be used to fund grants for child care providers, increase training, and retrofit existing facilities to better meet energy efficiency and environmental justice goals. 

The order requires that the Office of Early Childhood produce an annual report of pre-existing and new child care facilities created by IDF regulations. Officials will use this information to create a publicly accessible list of child care facilities created under IDF, Wu’s office said. 

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