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A Multi-Sector Approach: Childcare as an Infrastructure Priority

San Mateo County had a childcare shortage crisis limiting economic opportunities for families and access to education for the county's children. Using data to position early childhood education and care as an infrastructure challenge, Build Up SMC is growing and improving the supply of childcare and early learning programs through advocacy, strategic partnerships, and making childcare and early learning conversations a priority.

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Childcare availability doesn’t just impact families. It’s a critical piece of community infrastructure with massive economic implications.


childcare spaces needed

The Challenge

In 2015, California’s San Mateo County identified a tremendous shortage of 10,800 early childhood education spaces for high-quality childcare and early learning for children ages four and younger. Though multiple initiatives offered funding for program expansion, the county has had to turn down $1 million in state support for subsidized childcare due to lack of facilities to house the programs.

The average cost to build one childcare space is $40,711. In total, it would cost approximately $428 million to meet the projected 2025 demand for San Mateo County, which is 14,000 spaces. And for those early learning programs that are trying to expand their programs, their number one barrier is a lack of usable, affordable space in which to do it.

The Solution

Build Up SMC was established to alleviate the childcare shortage in San Mateo County. This coalition relies on partnerships with city officials, developers, employers, school districts, and others to bring creative solutions for childcare and early learning facilities to the table in broader city planning conversations.

Staff and volunteers work across sectors to reuse existing real estate as early learning space, advocate for policies and incentives to prioritize childcare in future real estate developments, engage large employers to establish childcare facilities for their employees, and increase general revenue for facility development in the region. Through their efforts Build Up SMC has helped get 1,300 new early childhood education spaces developed and has saved more than 600 spaces from closure.

Laying the Foundation

Prior to establishing Build Up, multiple funding initiatives were in motion to try and support the early childhood education community across California, however they were not addressing the issue of a lack of available space for a childcare or early learning facility.

Due to this lack of space and inability to expand early childhood education offerings, in 2016 First 5 San Mateo County funded the Center for Early Learning at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation to convene a Childcare and Preschool Facilities Taskforce to come up with recommendations for tackling this pervasive issue. At the same time, San Mateo County’s Human Services Agency funded Brion Economics to conduct an early learning facilities needs assessment (

Through this study, San Mateo County gathered the data they needed about demand in the region and was able to identify the number one barrier cited by early learning programs: space.

Early Education as Infrastructure

Regional planning advocates have long recognized the connections between affordable housing, traffic congestion, jobs, and education as key drivers of where families choose to live. The shortage of affordable, high-quality early childhood education facilities must be part of that equation.

  • EMPLOYMENT: Available childcare is a quality of life and workforce issue for residents and employers. The childcare shortage causes working parents to choose between finding safe care for their children and the economic stability of their families. These two aren’t mutually exclusive, but we often make them that way.
  • HOUSING: Childcare is valuable community infrastructure that interrelates with housing and transit; childcare near housing, jobs, and transit reduces car trips. Currently, families may drive an extra 45 minutes or more to get to quality care.
  • THE STRUGGLE FOR REAL ESTATE: Childcare businesses operate on tight budgets. Demand for housing and office space often prices childcare out of the market. In 2015, San Mateo County land cost $84 to $122 per square foot. To meet licensing requirements, there must be at least 35 square feet per child indoors and 75 square feet per child outdoors – a total of 110 square feet per child. To create only one classroom of 20 children at a total of 2,200 square feet, the cost for the land alone ranges from $184,000 to $268,400 – not to mention any building or programming costs.

Setting Goals to Map a Plan for the Future

The Childcare and Preschool Facilities Taskforce established a planning committee in 2017 to design what would become Build Up SMC. The Taskforce outlined an organizational structure, sought startup funding, and developed a communications plan, meeting monthly to draft recommendations that map directly to the organizational goals Build Up SMC has today.

  1. Work across sectors to reuse/re-designate existing space to increase the number of early learning spaces. Start with a coalition of the willing. Build Up SMC started with faith-based organizations because many have vacant space and are seeking to earn revenue in line with their mission.
  2. Work with cities and county on policies and incentives to prioritize child care in future developments. Solicit feedback from key stakeholders early to develop talking points and recommended actions. Speak the language of the audience not just the language of early education.
  3. Engage large employers to create childcare facilities for their employees and/or become an advocate. It is important to build allies and champions from outside the field of early education and there is a strong business case for employers to lead that charge.
  4. Increase general revenue for facility development and assist providers in drawing down existing funds. Make the case with data. Use data to pinpoint areas of highest needs to the cities and school districts.

Read the deep dive case study to learn more.


of San Mateo County's childcare sites have extensive waiting lists

$428 million

is the estimate cost to meet childcare projected demand in San Mateo County for 2025


new childcare spaces have been developed with around 1,000 in the pipeline

Key Partners

Build Up SMC’s startup operations were funded by public entities, such as the County of San Mateo and First 5 San Mateo County, paired with financial support from private foundations, such as Heising-Simons and Jacques M Littlefield. An anonymous private donor through Silicon Valley Community Foundation and a corporate grant from Gilead seeded Build Up SMC’s new capital fund.

Funding is one critical part of the equation, but making real change happen in a sustainable way requires a village. In addition to funding partners, here are some of Build Up SMC’s other critical strategic partners.

  • Child Care Coordinating Council of San Mateo County
  • San Mateo County Office of Education
  • Child Care Partnership Council
  • San Bruno Community Foundation
  • Redwood City-San Mateo County Chamber of Commerce
  • SAMCEDA, San Mateo County Economic Development Association
  • San Mateo Area Chamber of Commerce
  • Faith-based leader, Rev. Penny Nixon, Congregational Church of San Mateo
  •  Office of Assemblymember Kevin Mullin
  • Office of Supervisor Dave Pine
  • Small Business Majority
  • Bridge Housing
  • The Big Lift Initiative
  • San Mateo County Developers

Is this a repeatable model?

Yes. Businesses in any state, region, or individual city across the country can join together in a coalition with public and private partners in the same community to tackle this infrastructure challenge. The childcare facility shortage is not unique to San Mateo County, but their approach of integrating with the community and making early education a priority infrastructure conversation across the city’s housing advocacy organizations, community development financial institutions, state and local early education advocates, and others is a story worth sharing.

Any resources to share?

In a series of one-pagers, they have mapped out the key data points to collect, created templates and talking points, and outlined the relevance of this challenge to the key groups they relied upon as they began to tackle this challenge. Read the deep dive case study to learn more.

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