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When Janet Torres set out to open her small child care business last year, she needed to move out of her studio apartment first. She knew she wouldn’t be able to afford buying a home where she lives in San Diego, which has one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, but she didn’t realize how difficult it would be to find another rental.

“I just went in to the open houses and said, ‘I want this place because I’m looking to open a daycare,’ and immediately I saw their faces kind of turn completely on me,” said Torres, who worked at child care centers for more than a decade before deciding to start her own business.

Providers often face this kind of challenge when they try to rent a space, according to several advocates for in-home child care. Yet purchasing a home can be difficult when 59 percent of in-home providers make less than the national median household income. The disparity is even wider for people of color: 75 percent of Black in-home providers earn below the national median.

Torres was rejected by a few landlords before finding a one-bedroom apartment, but after a few months, she realized she needed more space. She had been caring for six children but wanted to expand to eight – the most children she could look after and still be licensed as a small in-home child care provider in California.

Janet Torres runs a child care center in her rented home in San Diego. Despite California’s favorable laws for in-home providers, landlords have made it difficult for her to find an appropriate space, she said. Credit: Courtesy of Janet Torres

Her search for another rental proved to be even harder the second time around. When she found a four-bedroom house that worked for her child care plans, she decided to wait before telling the landlord she would be operating a daycare. The property manager found out anyway, and eventually talked her out of the lease she had already signed.

He threatened to increase the deposit Torres had already paid on the rental and told her there was a limit to how many people she could allow to circulate through the home each day, which her attorney told her is not a rule in California.

“I told him that I would have the insurance that’s necessary, all the permits and licenses that are required by the state of California to run my business — that apparently wasn’t enough for him, even though we had already signed a contract and I had already paid a deposit,” said Torres, who ended up renting a different house.

In California, landlords cannot terminate leases because of a tenant’s child care business. In fact, California offers more protections for in-home child care providers than most states, which were strengthened in 2019 with a law that said local governments cannot enforce business zoning rules for in-home child care providers and landlords cannot refuse to rent to them.

Still, child care providers like Torres frequently contact Public Counsel, a California-based organization that connects low-income clients with pro bono attorneys, to ask what they can do about landlords who don’t want to rent to child care providers.

Public Counsel, an organization that connects clients with pro bono attorneys, said it frequently hears complaints from in-home child care providers who are also renters, like Janet Torres. Torres said she was often given incorrect information about whether it was legal to run a center from her rented home. Credit: Courtesy of Janet Torres

“It’s discrimination. Providers shouldn’t have to feel like what they do is a black mark,” said Ritu Mahajan, an attorney with Public Counsel.

It’s a problem that exists across the United States, said Chris Bennett, CEO of Wonderschool, a company that advocates for home-based child care policies and connects families with providers. Outside of California, Bennett said most states do not have rules against evicting tenants because of their child care businesses.

“It’s still hard even in a place where we have the best laws or the most laws to protect them,” Bennett said.

For Jennifer Robles, the rental challenge has delayed her plans to get licensed as a child care provider. She got the idea to start her own business after helping her mother open an in-home child care program last year.

“My mom always has parents coming up to her, but she’s basically at her max of children for the week, so she can’t take any more,” Robles said. “So I know there’s parents that are looking for daycares and need that care.”

Robles rents a duplex in Los Angeles where she had planned to care for eight children. But in order to enroll more than six kids, she needed her landlord’s consent. The duplex owners refused to grant it.

Challenges with landlords are common even when laws are in place to protect home-based child care, said Chris Bennett, the CEO of Wonderschool, which helps licensed educators launch home programs. Credit: Rachel M. Cohen for The Hechinger Report

Instead, the landlord told her she couldn’t operate a child care home out of the apartment because it wasn’t zoned as a business. Mahajan wrote a letter to the landlord on Robles’ behalf explaining the law and saying they could not prevent her from opening a daycare. Robles hasn’t heard from them again.

“It’s a weird feeling because you know your landlord doesn’t want it, and at any time, they could try to make it hard for you,” Mahajan said.

Robles is preparing to file her application for a license, but she’s applying to care for six children instead of eight now. She knows legally she can operate an in-home child care center in her apartment, but she still hopes her landlord will get on board.

“We’re really just hoping they educated themselves and looked into it,” Robles said.

“Protecting entrepreneurs who are willing to go out and start these programs is critical.” —Chris Bennett, CEO of Wonderschool, a company that advocates for home-based child care policies.

Protecting and aiding home-based providers like Robles and Torres will aid in the overall child care shortage, Bennett said. Even though providers still sometimes struggle in California, it’s better than many states, and he’d like to see the rest of the country adopt the same protections.

“Home-based programs are the incubators of entrepreneurship in childcare. It’s how programs end up becoming larger programs. It’s how we ended up serving more and more families,” Bennett said. “Protecting entrepreneurs who are willing to go out and start these programs is critical.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about in-home child care providers was produced by The Hechinger Report , a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletters.

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Ariel Gilreath covers early education and K-12 schools in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia. She most recently...

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