- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Anne Bakstad and Ed Cohen are starting to feel as if their family of four is an endangered species in San Francisco.

Since the couple bought a house five years ago, more than a dozen families in their social circle have left the city for cheaper housing, better schools or both.

The goodbyes are so frequent that Carina, 4, wants to know when she is going to move, too. Eric, 2, misses Gus, his playmate from across the street.

“When we get to know people through our kids, we think to ourselves, ‘Are they renters or owners? Where do they work?’ You have to figure out how much time to invest in people,” Mrs. Bakstad said. “It makes you feel like, ‘Where is everyone going? Stay with us.’”

A similar lament is being heard in San Francisco’s half-empty classrooms, in parks where parents are losing ground to dog owners and in the corridors of City Hall.

San Francisco has the smallest share of children of any major U.S. city. Just 14.5 percent of the city’s population is 18 and younger.

It is no mystery why U.S. cities are losing children. The promise of safer streets, better schools and more space has drawn young families away from cities for as long as America has had suburbs.

But children are even more scarce in San Francisco than in expensive New York (24 percent) or in retirement havens such as Palm Beach, Fla. (19 percent), according to Census Bureau estimates.

San Francisco’s large homosexual population — estimated at 20 percent by the city Public Health Department — is thought to be one factor.

Another reason: Family housing in the city is especially scarce and expensive. A two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot starter home is considered a bargain at $760,000.

A survey by the city controller found that 40 percent of parents said they were considering pulling up stakes within the next year.

Determined to change that trend, Mayor Gavin Newsom has put the child crisis near the top of his agenda, appointing a 27-member policy council to develop plans for keeping families in the city.

“It goes to the heart and soul of what I think a city is about — it’s about generations, it’s about renewal and it’s about aspirations,” Mr. Newsom said.

He has expanded health insurance for the poor to cover more people younger than 25 and created a tax credit for working families. Voters have approved measures to patch up San Francisco’s public schools, which have seen enrollment drop from about 62,000 to 59,000 since 2000.

One voter initiative approved up to $60 million annually to restore public-school arts, physical education and other extras that state spending no longer covers. Another expanded the city’s Children’s Fund, guaranteeing about $30 million a year for after-school activities, child care subsidies and other programs.

“We are at a crossroads here,” said N’Tanya Lee, executive director of the nonprofit Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. “We are moving toward a place where we could have an infrastructure of children’s services and no children.”

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