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Where have Boston’s children gone?

Though the city is booming, it is losing families. This is a trend we have to halt.

Illustration by Globe Staff/Adobe

San Francisco has more dogs than children.

Before you scoff, with your disdain possibly motivated by the NBA Finals, consider this: If current trends hold, that could also be true of Boston in the near future.

Boston is the fifth-most-childless major city in the country. San Francisco tops that list, with only 13 percent of the population under 18, but Boston is not far off, at roughly 15 percent.

This betrays the experience of people who, like me, are lifetime residents of Boston and raising children (three, to be precise) in the city. This spring our family will attend 34 soccer games, 24 baseball games, 12 tee ball games, 10 dance classes, and somehow more practices than all those games combined, with school events, park playdates, and barbecues squeezed in between. Our roots and this buzz of activity have blessed us with a dense, diverse network, ranging from a parent I first met on a sideline in April to lifelong friendships that began 25 years ago.

Every resident of a city, young and old, rich or poor, contributes to the city’s identity and culture. But families serve as a bridge. Schooling, community events, and other activities that involve families create connections and relationships across ages, neighborhoods, and demographics. Families help keep neighborhoods stable. As children move from early education into early adulthood, families are some of the most predictable long-term renters, taxpayers, and consumers. Whether you have children or not, kids make a neighborhood.

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At my and my wife’s stage of life, a lot of our social interaction revolves around our kids and other families. But this is much rarer now than in the Boston where I grew up. On my street in Dorchester there were 18 school-age children within three years of age. Forget about pickup basketball; we had enough kids for nine innings, big games of hide-and-go-seek, communal walks to schools, and other forms of shared child care.

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To be fair, the Boston of the late 1980s and early 1990s was far from idyllic — as anyone my age who grew up in the city remembers. Violence was prevalent, and it found its way to my street in Dorchester on too many occasions.

But suddenly, rapidly, Boston began to change and expand, with crime falling and the economy and population surging, except when it came to one critical demographic group: families. While Boston’s total population trended upward during the Menino and Walsh administrations, the school-age-child population did not. Boston’s boom was not a family boom.

The number of Bostonians younger than 5 was remarkably consistent in the 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2020 US Censuses, but the number of school-age kids in this city is dropping. There were more than 80,000 kids between the ages of 5 and 17 here in 2000; now the number is around 70,000. Some of this is a result of the pandemic: More than 5 percent of the children in Boston left the city within 20 months, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Can Boston afford to be a city that’s being drained of families? And is there anything we can do to reverse this trend?

Housing and schools

As with most slow, significant changes in society, the explanations for Boston’s loss of children are interconnected and compounding.

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Housing looms large. Seeking space and affordability, many young families like ours bought a home in 2008 in the thick of the Great Recession. We were lucky: Soon thereafter, housing costs soared, as Boston had a rapid economic recovery. A million-dollar home — my definition of a “mansion” as a kid — could be the median home in Boston within the next decade. It isn’t any easier for families looking to rent. The median rent increased 25 percent in the last decade, too.

While families were increasingly priced out by rising housing and child care costs, the average adult in the city got younger. Nearly 40 percent of all people in the city are between the ages of 18 and 34. Younger adults tend to have few or no children. Meanwhile, a surfeit of higher education institutions and expansion in the fields of real estate, finance, law, and biotechnology have made Massachusetts the most educated state in the union, with more than half of adults holding bachelor’s degrees. This is great for expanding Boston’s economy, but households with higher educational attainment tend to have children at a later age.

So Boston was becoming more expensive and filled with smaller and smaller households. Then the pandemic hit.

The professional class, including many people with families, moved out of the city for more space, to work remotely, or to send their kids to school in person, while Boston Public Schools remained remote for more than a year. Later, with the end of eviction moratoriums, evictions displaced many low-income residents and communities of color.

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The costs of this trend will ripple widely. A vast array of state and federal programs and grants are allotted on a per-child or per-student basis. Fewer kids means less money. Even with declining enrollment, Boston has allocated more funding to schools and now spends more money per pupil than every other major city in the country except New York. Boston’s still-roaring economy has made it possible for the city to cover the check, but doing so will become impossible when an economic downturn inevitably comes. The city might find itself having to balance special education services against recycling and the fire department.

Another uncomfortable fact is that despite Boston’s attempts at racial equity and progress, the decline in the number of children appears to be driven primarily by the departure of Black families. The most recent census reported a 5 percent decline in Boston’s Black population since 2000. It has been suggested that this drop was an illusion caused by a shortcoming in how the census accounts for race, but having worked in and with Boston schools for the past 20 years, I was not surprised by the census figures.

There are 16,000 fewer Black children enrolled in Boston Public Schools today than there were in 1994.

To put that in context, 16,000 children is larger than Lowell’s school district. Larger than Lawrence’s. The equivalent of two Cambridges.

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Build, build, build

The good news is that these trends are reversible. After a period of decline, Boston did achieve a virtuous cycle of expanding population, services, economic opportunity, and diversity. Now we need to make sure this cycle helps families too.

The problems themselves suggest ways to do that.

Boston doesn’t just need more housing; it needs more family housing. The Walsh administration set an ambitious goal of 50,000 new housing units by 2033 and then upped the projection to 69,000 in 2019 as construction was happening faster than expected. But we have not seen an increase in the production of traditional family housing across the city’s neighborhoods. Permits for new single-family or multifamily units represent only 10.9 percent of Boston housing built in the past decade.

A view of the Seaport, a part of Boston where new developments have not prioritized housing for families.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A look at the real estate listings reveals the problem caused by this dearth of production. My father grew up in a three-bedroom with eight siblings in Dorchester. My mother grew up in a row house in South Boston with her five siblings. Such homes are no longer affordable. Similar single-family homes in Dorchester and South Boston now go for nearly $1 million.

Affordable housing for families can and should be prioritized. Mayor Wu hopes to spend $106 million expanding home ownership over the next three years, which would be a good start. But more than half of that would come from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, so money should be set aside in the city’s annual capital budget to sustain this as a continuous investment after the federal dollars run out. Specific requirements for creating family residences (to own or rent) in development projects and through neighborhood planning are ripe for such additional funding.

Many cities, including Lawrence, have created financing programs to support homeownership and residency for teachers and other municipal employees. Absent a change in state law to allow rent control, Boston could more aggressively pursue multiple options — rent subsidies, Community Preservation Act investment, and the expansion of federally backed Section 8 vouchers — to stave off the further displacement of families.

Boston is unlike most American cities in that where you live does not determine your child’s elementary school assignment. From the creation of Metco in 1966, to desegregation in the 1970s and 1980s, to the “home base” assignment system of today’s Boston Public Schools, families have come to expect they will have a role in deciding where their children go to school. But this choice comes at a significant cost.

I will never forget staring at the 26 pages of paper and the calendar of six competing timelines when we tried to enroll our oldest child in preschool. Even as a privileged, well-educated educator, an English-speaking lifetime resident of the city, I was at a loss. Many members of historically marginalized groups do not complete the process on time or at all and therefore are assigned to low-demand, lower-performing schools. By contrast, families with means who become frustrated or don’t receive their top public school choices can always make use of one of the fiercely held tools of segregation in Massachusetts: moving to a city or town with geographically zoned, or “neighborhood,” schools.

There is no excuse for this disparity. We have the technological tools to solve the problem. Chicago, Indianapolis, and other major cities have uniform and streamlined systems that consist of one application on which families choose and enroll in public schools. In Boston this could begin with pre-K, with the help of the city’s new Office of Early Childhood. In 2017, my organization developed Boston School Finder, the only multilingual tool for Boston families to navigate all of their school options. This year alone, it will have 50,000 users. When you lower the burden and increase certainty, you increase access, and more families will engage and stay.

Families also seek quality. Some lucky families gain access to a small number of “Tier 1″ Boston Public School seats, or a seat via lottery in a high-performing charter public school; others with means or who make financial sacrifices will enroll in a private school. But for the overwhelming majority of Boston’s children — largely Black and Latino students, students with special needs, and English learners — there is virtually no access to these schools.

More than 16,000 Boston children attend a public school ranked in the lowest 10 percent in Massachusetts.

This is the great task facing Mayor Wu and her administration: expanding access to high-quality schools while honoring Boston’s history of school choice by families. Throughout Boston there are outstanding public schools that are closing achievement and opportunity gaps. But rather than settling for the achievements of some schools or changing the rules for admission to those schools, the city should be intentionally expanding great schools or creating more of them. Mayor Wu’s proposed $2 billion facilities plan could remake the education landscape in Boston. Expanding enrollment in the city’s most in-demand schools and hiring outstanding educators with proven track records to launch new schools in new buildings will give more children and families the schools they want and deserve. Grow what works and what families want.

Boston is often called a city of neighborhoods. That is not the same as a city of neighbors. A 2011 Globe piece reported that 19 children on a single street attended 15 different schools. On our city block, I count six households with kids, and they attend eight different schools. Where is time and space for those kids to become friends?

The city can foster familial relationships in the community in and out of schools. Instead of just focusing on big events or constituent concerns, what if the Office of Neighborhood Services fostered more relationships among neighbors with smaller events and gatherings? Institutions like the Boston Centers for Youth and Families, Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA, and neighborhood organizations like East Boston Social Services could do even more with additional funding and staffing. The partnership of the city and Boston Beyond to create a “fifth quarter” of summer programming should continue to scale, providing more enrichment offerings and community among neighbors — a very attractive benefit for working families who every year dread the summer months without child care.

Everything else aside, the relationships we form bond us to place. Forging those relationships will take effort from all of us.

Children in a fountain on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The future we choose

Boston has a history of controlling its destiny, for good and for bad. We are the city that created a new neighborhood by pouring dirt on a swamp for 30 years in the 1800s; we are also the city that redlined residents of color out of real estate wealth in the 1960s and 1970s. We are the city that draws young people from around the world for higher education; we are also the city that, despite all attempts, has not closed achievement and opportunity gaps for its children.

Boston can be a city that thrives for people of all ages, but it will require significant investment in housing, economic opportunity, education, and civic life for this to become a reality. Otherwise, we risk becoming like San Francisco — a city known for its inequality, a city that works for a privileged few and not the many.

My parents, and their parents before them, were lifetime residents of Boston. I am proud to raise my children in the city. If my kids reach adulthood and decide that another place better fits their future, I can accept that, as long as they promise to visit. But I cannot accept it if they choose to move because Boston did not choose to be a city for families and children. Boston is an increasingly young and wealthy city. But a city without families of all kinds is a poorer place to live.

This article was updated on June 10 to correct the reference to the “fifth quarter.”

Will Austin is founder and CEO of Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit organization founded in 2015 to expand access to high-quality education in the city.