Boston’s Zoning Code Provides for Child Care, But Is It Working?

The following post is adapted from a Spring 2020 UEP Field Project report, “Cracking the Code: How Boston is Trying to Address Child Care through Zoning.” The report was co-written by (in alphabetical order) Bailey Hu, Molly Kaviar, Ginger Leib, and Peiyao Wang in partnership with Community Labor United. Click here for more Field Projects content.

In light of everything that’s gone wrong over the last half year, it’s hard to focus on just one crisis. But let us make a case for child care.

Across the country, some schools are re-opening while others are not. Either way, parents face a conundrum: how to keep children safe, happy, and intellectually stimulated, both during and after school hours. Child care providers, especially those who run small, home-based businesses, have also struggled to stay afloat in the midst of a pandemic. And youth themselves face tedium, loss of social contact, and in some cases, unsafe home environments.

But even before that, the child care ecosystem in eastern Massachusetts had serious affordability and accessibility issues. In Suffolk County, where Boston is located, the organization Child Care Aware found that the annual cost of center-based infant care–$19,970–is nearly one-fifth of the area’s median income (Child Care Aware of America 2019). State subsidies aren’t reaching everyone either: in the 2015, in Metro Boston area, Urban Institute researchers estimated that Massachusetts’ two major subsidy programs served only 64% of applicants (Adam & Katz 2015). Troublingly, these gaps in affordability disproportionately affect single parents, poor families, and families of color.

Annual cost of center vs. home-based child care in Massachusetts, in dollars. (Source: Child Care Aware of America 2019a)

A 2017 report also estimated that for Boston families with children from ages 0-5, the gap between demand and supply for licensed care might be 35% (Campbell and Patil 2019). Shortages in child care provision were distributed unevenly across the city: while the neighborhood of Charlestown faced a gap of up to 54.5%, Back Bay and Beacon Hill may actually have had a surplus of licensed child care provider capacity (Campbell and Patil 2019).

The good news is, Boston’s zoning code has a provision that specifically calls for child care facilities to be built in the city. The bad news is, the wording of this ordinance has barely changed in the last 20 years, much less adjusted to address current crises.

This past spring, in partnership with local nonprofit Community Labor United (CLU), we wrote a report that examined this specific piece of Boston’s zoning code, called the “Inclusion of Day Care Facilities” (IDF) regulation. First passed in Boston’s Midtown Cultural District in 1989, IDF is currently active in 15 zoning districts (development areas) clustered in the downtown area. The text of the ordinance, with some minor variations, states that buildings which create above a certain threshold of new floor space must a) set aside a portion for a child care facility or b) build such facilities off-site.

We aimed to investigate the impact of the ordinance. While our research was limited by a lack of complete data, we were able to pinpoint 13 developments in Boston that we believe were subject to IDF. We then attempted to check how they fulfilled or did not fulfill the terms of the regulation. Our archival research was supplemented by interviews with current and former City of Boston employees–especially staff of the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), which oversees zoning processes. We also used mapping techniques to aid our research into developments, as well as investigate possible affordability issues in the areas around them.

While we were constrained by different factors, such as stay-at-home measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our initial findings show that IDF fell short of its goals. We discovered apparent inconsistencies in enforcement from the ordinance’s first passage in 1989 to the current day. For instance, while the ordinance mandates that new developments create child care facilities on or off-site, the developments we looked at varied considerably in how they complied. Some made financial contributions, some negotiated with the BPDA for revised terms, and others simply didn’t mention IDF in public documents, for reasons we couldn’t uncover.

The 15 zoning districts covered by IDF tend to be high-cost areas.

In addition, even though we found dozens of child care centers inside or near our 13 developments of interest, they weren’t necessarily affordable for Boston’s lower-income families, especially single-parent households. We weren’t able to conduct a complete survey of child care costs in the IDF development areas, but our inquiries into several centers in downtown Boston showed that they could be cost-prohibitive for many. Our findings led us to suggest various ways to improve IDF, as well as accomplish its goals in alternative ways.

Our IDF ordinance-specific recommendations include:

  1. Increasing transparency and tracking
  2. Building affordability into the measure
  3. Expanding the geographic scope

Outside IDF, we also suggest looking into the following alternatives:

  1. Trust funds for child care
  2. City-level cross-department collaboration
  3. Adding child care to Boston’s long-term planning goals
  4. Expanding pre-K and 3-K care

We followed these recommendations with some potential directions for further research: assessing the spatial distribution of child care costs in the city, re-examining zoning restrictions, and investigating links between child care and transit as well as housing.

Finally, we point out the increased urgency of easing access to child care in the current moment. Crisis response should include not only short-term stopgaps, but also long-term planning for the future. The addition of universal 3-K and pre-K to presidential candidate Joseph Biden’s platform, among other proposals, shows growing national awareness of child care issues. At the municipal level as well, it’s past time to rethink development processes in ways that are more equitable–either by adjusting current policies like IDF or putting in place new ones.

We hope that our research can support this work, creating a stronger, more resilient planning process that can help families of all income levels and backgrounds weather future crises.


  1. “The US and the High Price of Child Care: An Examination of a Broken System.” Child Care Aware of America, 2019. of-child-care-2019/
  2. Adams, Gina and Michael Katz. “Review of Massachusetts Child Care Subsidy Eligibility Policies and Practices: A Report for the Assessment of the Massachusetts Subsidized Child Care System.” Urban Institute, March 27, 2015. policies-and-practices
  3. Campbell, Fernanda Q. and Pratima A. Patil. “State of Early Education and Care in Boston: Supply, Demand, Affordability, and Quality.” Boston Opportunity Agenda, November 2019. reports-and-covers/2019/early-ed-census-201911.pdf?la=en

Cover image by Province of British Columbia/Flickr