Attention SLC parents: A new city plan may help you lock down that coveted child care spot

New rules aim to make it easier to open more day cares — and thus more spots — across Utah’s capital.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fun Time Kidz Kare in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. The city is proposing to loosen zoning rules so day cares can open practically anywhere in the city.

Day care centers could operate in essentially all of Salt Lake City under a proposal aimed at reducing the shortage of these vital facilities by breaking down barriers to opening them.

The city is “pursuing every opportunity to improve access to child care to ensure children and families have the services they need to succeed,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a statement. “Our families need more access to child care, and zoning is one of the most powerful levers we can pull to increase availability and eliminate existing barriers for these businesses.”

The multipronged ordinance, introduced to City Council members last week, comes as Mendenhall pivots to a new emphasis on the importance of making Utah’s capital more family-friendly, a point she stressed in her recent State of the City address.

“Investing in our children and families,” the mayor said, “is an investment in our quality of life, economy and future.”

If approved, the new ordinance would allow day care centers to operate in residential areas throughout the city and eliminate the need for a conditional use permit, vastly expanding where the facilities could be located.

Existing code requires the centers to obtain that conditional use permit, but rules on lot size, proximity to major streets and landscaping around play areas prevent many properties from having day cares.

Home-based day cares, meanwhile, would be able double, from eight to 16, the maximum number of children they can host. (The maximum number of children allowed in a home day care could be lower based on kids’ ages, how many staffers work for a program and the home size.)

A city-imposed, full-time residency requirement for providers who want to operate a second day care business out of a second home would also be removed. The city’s goal, planners said, is to align city standards with state code and chip away at the area’s shortage of day cares.

As of 2020, according to a report from the Utah Department of Workforce Services, more than 23,000 children in Salt Lake County lacked day care spots — by far the most of any county in the state. That shakes out to a need of about 450 additional home-based day cares and nearly 100 commercial centers.

In September, COVID-19 relief funds, which buoyed day care facilities, expired, leaving the future of the industry uncertain. More than 600 child care programs are expected to close in Utah, city planners warned, due to the end of the funding.

“We’ve seen these warnings come to fruition already,” city planner Cassie Younger told the council.

With those closings already occurring, Younger said, the need for home-based and commercial day care centers is almost guaranteed to be higher than what was outlined in the state’s 2020 report.

A public hearing on the proposed city changes is expected to be set for March 5. The council anticipates casting a final vote two weeks later.

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