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City aims to expand access to child care facilities by loosening zoning restrictions

Sally Evans straps Wally and Fin Harlow in their booster seats after picking them up from daycare. Sally said she and her spouse, Paige Harlow, tried to have children for two years before Wally and Fin came along. Sally carried the pregnancy but the girls take on Paige's last name.

Louisville parents could soon have more options for where to send their children while they’re working.

In an effort to improve access to child care across the city, Mayor Greg Fischer signed an ordinance Tuesday that expands where child care facilities can operate. Metro Council unanimously passed the ordinance, which is intended to provide parents and families with more affordable options, last month.

Fischer said that the pandemic strained families’ ability to obtain child care, leading to workforce disruptions.

He said about 100,000 women in Kentucky had stopped working during the pandemic, referencing a September 2021 report, because their children had no child care or school options, and that many Jefferson County child care centers that closed during the pandemic did not reopen. State data showed 9% of Louisville’s licensed child care centers closed between March 2020 and November 2021, according to a WHAS TV report

“Accessible and affordable child care is at the heart of our city’s core values,” Fischer said. “So we’re talking about the health of our people, and our families and their futures, as well as the overall economic health of the city.”

The ordinance allows child care facilities to operate in more zoning districts than previously permitted, under certain guidelines. Family child care homes, which are operated in the provider’s residence and can host up to six children they aren’t related to, can now be established in all residential areas, by applying for conditional use permits.

Previously, certain residential zones did not allow for any family child care homes. The homes must also be able to accommodate standards set by the ordinance including regulations for parking, drop-offs and pick-ups.

City law previously restricted large child care centers to commercial districts, but under the new law, they can be established in certain residential zones. They are also now allowed in industrial districts under various regulations, such as away from smoking retail stores.

Council Member Cassie Chambers Armstrong, a Democrat who represents District 8, is one of the ordinance’s co-sponsors. She said she struggled to find child care as a new mother, even before the pandemic.

“Most places I called were already full for the upcoming year,” said Chambers Armstrong. “Some places told me they had a two-year waiting list. Other places told me they could provide care for a day or two each week, but they didn’t have any full-time slots available.”

Chambers Armstrong was also one of several authors of a November letter calling on the mayor to allocate $20 million in American Rescue Plan funds to combat child care access issues.

In addition to petitioning for zoning updates and other plans, that group pressed the city to boost underpaid child care workers’ wages and create programs allowing for evening and 24/7 care to help working parents. 

“This isn’t going to fix every problem, but it’s a first step,” Chambers Armstrong said of the new law. “And we are just getting started.”

Child care throughout the commonwealth has contracted over the past decade. A report by Metro United Way and other local organizations found that the number of regulated providers in Kentucky fell from 4,400 in 2013 to 2,400 in 2019.

The report also surveyed Kentucky parents and families in late 2020 about their experiences providing for children during the pandemic. About 46% of respondents said that their job status had been altered due to child care issues.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.