Happy Hollow Rec Center in Germantown Credit: Danya Henninger

Clarification appended

As soon as City Council returned from summer break last week, Councilwoman Cindy Bass pitched an idea some see as controversial:

She wants to make it harder to open a daycare in her Northwest Philadelphia district.

Specifically, her bill seeks to change the zoning requirements for certain types of businesses in the 8th District, including daycare centers (and also vehicle maintenance shops and places that sell tires). It’s not that you couldn’t open these establishments — but doing so would require extra legwork. You’d first need to earn support from a local Registered Community Organization and the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. The bill wouldn’t impact any current businesses, only new ones.

“Councilwoman Bass introduced this zoning overlay after hearing from constituents and other daycare owners that there is a saturation of daycare facilities in the 8th District,” said spokesperson Layla Jones. “This bill was designed to address their concerns.”

Regardless of the intent, Bass’s idea landed her in hot water Tuesday morning. Twitter filled up with complaints about the bill and concerns about a general lack of childcare options in the city.

Councilwoman Bass (or her staff) quickly jumped on Twitter to defend the idea. She clarified that the overlay wouldn’t prohibit all future daycares, and noted she was simply doing what her constituents wanted.

Those constituents, it seemed, were not the ones attacking Bass’ bill on social media. Most of the people who got very angry about new legislation in the 8th District don’t appear to actually live in the 8th District.

Meanwhile, several people who do live in the 8th District weighed in with support of the new legislation.

Daycares are proliferating, with little quality control

This isn’t the first time a local politician has sought to crack down on daycare centers. Back in 2014, it was Councilman Brian O’Neill who successfully required daycare developers to seek a zoning variance rather than a special exemption, which was the previous rule and is a much easier lift.

Just last month in Rittenhouse Square, residents fought hard against one of those variances. It was ultimately approved, allowing a daycare to begin construction at 22nd and Pine.

What’s with all the attention to daycares? They’re proliferating — and profitable. From 1985 to 2011, the sheer number of these establishments nationwide jumped substantially — from 262,000 to 766,000. In 2013, the profit margin for daycare operators climbed more than 4 percent.

A stretch of Germantown Avenue in East Mt. Airy Credit: Mark Dent / Billy Penn

In Northwest Philly, there are dozens if not hundreds of them — and many have pervasive quality issues. In 2014, according to a WHYY report, only three of 90 daycares in Germantown were given a four-star rating under Pennsylvania’s Keystone STAR system.

“I’ve heard anecdotally from some daycare operators that the in the 19144 ZIP code, there’s more licensed daycares than any other ZIP code in the state,” said Andrew Trackman, executive director of the Germantown United CDC. “I am concerned about having too many.”

Reverend Michelle Simmons, block captain of the 700 block of East Chelten Avenue, agreed wholeheartedly. “I do see a daycare on every corner,” she said.

Philadelphia 3.0 political director Jon Geeting, one of the Twitter users who attacked the bill, doesn’t think it will actually prevent problem daycares in the neighborhood.

“There are real problems with illegal daycares or people taking in too many kids, doing irresponsible stuff,” Geeting said. “Why aren’t we talking about hiring more L&I inspectors if there are specific problem properties?”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to have the neighborhood vote yes or no on every new thing,” Geeting added. “It’s overkill.”

Trackman doesn’t want to bar any businesses from the area. But ultimately, he wasn’t upset by the proposed legislation.

“We get complaints from the community about taking up good commercial space on the corridor,” Trackman explained, “with something that doesn’t generate retail or commercial activity.”

What’s next?

This legislation is far from set in stone. Councilwoman Bass has to request her bill be heard before the Rules Committee, chaired by Councilman Bill Greenlee. His office confirmed on Tuesday morning that Bass hadn’t yet done so.

If the committee agrees on wording, the bill will then face a vote in Council.

In the meantime, the councilwoman’s office stands by her proposal — and insists it won’t halt daycare development in her district.

“There’s definitely always a need for quality early childhood education around the city,” said Jones, Bass’s spokesperson. “This bill isn’t going to stop new daycares from coming to the 8th District.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...