‘God Forbid I Have to Move Again’: One Home-Based Child Care Provider’s Experience With Housing

‘God Forbid I Have to Move Again’: One Home-Based Child Care Provider’s Experience With Housing

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Hayley Wise has had to move houses four times in the last 12 years that she’s been a home-based child care provider.

Every time she’s moved, Wise’s rent has gone up. Every time she’s moved, she’s had to restart the daunting search for a sympathetic landlord who will rent to her even though she is licensed to have up to 14 young children in her care each day. Every time she’s moved, she’s wondered how she will keep this up — the relocating, the rebuilding that inevitably follows — as she ages.

Wise is one of more than 1.1 million paid providers — a population that is overwhelmingly women and disproportionately women of color — who care for children out of their own homes in the United States. She loves her work and adores the children and families she serves. She can’t imagine doing anything else. But the challenges she has faced with housing over the years — finding it, keeping it, shouldering steep and ever-rising rental prices — have taken a toll.

Read about how housing is a nightmare for many home-based child care providers in part one of this series.

For the last decade, Wise says she has met regularly with other early care and education providers. Whenever someone asks if anyone has a concern they’d like to share, she says she raises her hand and tells them, “Yes. Housing.”

Wise is hardly the only one. Since early 2021, RAPID, a project based out of Stanford University that gathers information about young children and their caregivers, has been asking early care and education providers about their experiences with housing. A quarter of all providers surveyed between March 2021 and December 2022 reported difficulty affording housing expenses, regardless of whether they rented or owned their homes. For home-based child care providers, whose homes are both the source of their livelihoods and the early learning environments for children, such responses are particularly alarming.

Building a Second Family

Wise, 56, immigrated to the U.S. from England in the 1980s. She bounced around the East Coast for a few years until moving in 1991 to San Mateo County, California, where she’s lived ever since.

By 2003, Wise had three young children of her own. A couple of years later, she was going through a divorce and recovering from a serious illness.

She’d worked with children her entire career — from newborns to teens, in foster care programs and preschools and child care centers. But amid the changes in her personal life, she was ready for something new. So when a friend asked if she’d be willing to look after her child, Wise said yes.

It was, in Wise’s estimation, the best decision she ever made.

Hayley Wise, a home-based child care provider in San Mateo, California, reading to one of the children in her program. Photo courtesy of Wise.

Soon after she began caring for her friend’s child, she found two more families who were interested. By 2009, recognizing the need for child care in her community, she got licensed to serve up to 14 children with an assistant so she could expand her home-based child care program.

Over the years, as she gained confidence and forged stronger bonds with the families she served, Wise came to view her child care program in San Mateo as a “second family.”

“It is more personal,” Wise shares. “We do things together. You do cross that line. There’s a professional piece — a contract — but I might have their child for 10 hours a day.”

Wise has hosted barbecue potlucks and baby showers for her families. She’s attended sports games, school plays and communions. Two years ago, the children’s parents threw her a surprise birthday party.

Multiple families have asked her to watch their older child overnight while the parents are in the hospital as the mother delivers a second baby — a request that she says underscores the level of comfort between her and the families she serves.

“They’re part of my family,” she says. “It’s a very special relationship.”

Moving In and Out

The closeness and trust Wise has built with her families are evident each time she moves. Over the years, she says, she’s never lost a single family in the transition to a new home. Often, it’s quite the opposite. They will help her find her next place, pack up and move her belongings, and make minor repairs.

The first time Wise had to move, the owners of her rental couldn’t afford to keep their home and needed her to leave. The second time, Wise says, she thought she was in a lease-to-own arrangement, which was a big step toward her goal of owning a home, but the owner ended up selling the house from underneath her, forcing her out.

Wise lived in the third house for five years, until 2020. She had invested a lot of time and money into making it her own. She made landscaping and flooring updates, creating two separate yards to accommodate children of different ages. All told, she guesses she spent $30,000 on changes and upgrades. The idea was that she — and her program — would be there for a long time. “I was hoping to own someday,” she says, adding that the property owner was open to selling.

But then, in October 2020, her plans fell apart. Wise recalls waking up to the sound of gunfire. There was a shooting outside her house. For several nights after that, gunshots rang out on the block. Wise remembers her street being littered with dozens and dozens of gun shells.

“It was a very unsafe situation,” she reflects.

Wise shut down her child care program for the week and resolved to move as soon as possible.

She called every property management company and landlord she could find. The families in her program mobilized too. All of the parents she served wrote letters of recommendation on her behalf. One parent, a real estate agent, stepped in to help.

Wise quickly found a house. Parents helped her pack up her belongings, and she moved the following Saturday.

For a renter hoping to run a home-based child care program from their home, that speed of success is virtually unheard of: The last time Wise had been looking for a new place to rent, she says she had to visit 39 houses before someone finally told her yes. Historically, she says, “When [the owners] learned what I did, they said, ‘Nope, nope, nope, nope.’ I’d tell them I have rental insurance, liability insurance, etc. They don’t want to do it.”

She adds: “People do not want to rent to people who have day cares. It feels very judgmental. People don’t understand. They think of 14 screaming kids, all over the place, with a noise level that is terrible. It’s really not like that at all.”

So it felt like a minor miracle to her when, in fall of 2020, she found a house in a matter of days.

“We threw things in boxes and we moved,” she recalls. “It wasn’t a safe place to be. I didn’t know what else to do. I put in a lot of work on that house, but when it comes to safety and my families … there was no way I could consider staying.”

Hayley Wise with two children
Wise with two children in her home-based child care program. She describes the program she has built over the years as a “second family.” Photo courtesy of Wise.

To Wise, the team effort behind her move illustrates the intimacy that is characteristic of home-based child care. If a parent has a late meeting at work, she tells them she’s happy to keep their child a little later tonight. If the weather is bad, she tells them to take their time in the traffic. And if she needs to close her program abruptly and find a new place to live, they are more than happy to step in to help.

Searching for Stability

When Wise moved in 2020, into the house she lives in today, her rent went up again.

She pays $4,500 a month for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, up from $3,800 at her last place. “God forbid I have to move again, what’s it going to be?” she asks, exasperated. That’s the price of living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

She wants more stability. “I’m not a spring chicken. I’m getting older,” she recalls telling her landlord. But Wise reports that he isn’t interested in selling to her, and he doesn’t want to promise that he’ll continue renting to her indefinitely.

Friends and family are always encouraging Wise to move to a cheaper neighborhood, a more affordable city. “But my clientele is here,” she explains. “I have 17 years of relationships here. I don’t [have to] advertise.”

It would be nearly a two-hour drive to move somewhere far enough away to make a significant difference in her rent, she says. She’d lose all the families that she has come to know and love. She’d lose the chance to care for clusters of siblings the way she has for so many others.

Her friends point out that she could start over, that she could find new families and rebuild in a new place.

Wise isn’t interested.

“This is my community. This is my home,” she says of San Mateo. “I’ve lived here for 30-something years. To go somewhere new and start over? That is not something I want to do right now.”

But she recognizes that at any point, her landlord could raise her rent to a level beyond her means. (“A house down the road went up to $5,300 a month, and I gasped,” she notes.) Or she could be told that she has to move out suddenly, as has happened so many times before.

“Gosh, if I could take over this house, I would,” Wise says. “I don’t want to move again.”

Read more about the housing challenges home-based child care providers face in part one of this series, and stay tuned for a look at some emerging solutions in part three.

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