Inside his home on the Tree Streets, Sam Pettyjohn laments the arduous process he’s gone through to try and secure a license for the child care center he operates inside his house.
Between sips of his coffee, Pettyjohn recounts a long journey that began two years ago after his children’s day care center at East Tennessee State University closed indefinitely in the early weeks of the pandemic. Nearby in another room, Pettyjohn’s only full-time employee is busy taking care of the children who are just starting their day.
The day care, ABC Child Care Center, was born more from necessity than a desire to run a child care business. Like many families with two working parents, child care was a necessity for Pettyjohn and his wife, who are both professors at ETSU. Some of their neighbors, also ETSU employees, found themselves in the same boat.
“What we chose to do, what I felt like one of our only options was, we essentially built a child care center in the first floor of our house in the Tree Streets,” Pettyjohn said.
The center is legal, but unlicensed. Tennessee allows such facilities to operate so long as they don’t have more than four kids from outside of the home (i.e. unrelated to the homeowner). One of the homeowners is also required to be inside the home while the children are there at all times in an unlicensed center, creating a need for Pettyjohn and his wife to carefully plan around each other’s schedules.
That arrangement, while inconvenient, worked while they were paying for two of their own kids to attend the center, helping them break even financially while paying a four-person staff (three part-time) and the necessary taxes on their business.
But with one of their kids set to age out of the day care, that arrangement may no longer be tenable if they’re unable to secure a license.
“We are a legal, insured child care agency,” Pettyjohn said. “We pay payroll tax, we follow all the rules for being a real business, but we’re not profitable, right? So, my wife and I still pay the same amount of tuition in that everybody else does just to keep our books at zero, keep our staff paid, pay our taxes, all that kind of stuff like that.
“So to lose that slot is pretty painful for our potential to have any sort of child care for our folks in our neighborhood here in the Tree Streets,” he continued.
Pettyjohn has been working to secure his license, which would allow the center to care for up to seven children, according to the Tennessee Department of Human Services. In order for that to happen though, the center must be approved and inspected by DHS, the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance and Johnson City.
So far they’ve cleared some hurdles, but not all.
Citing building codes and the need for a new occupancy certificate, Johnson City has not signed off on allowing the center to care for more than five children, despite the state being prepared to do so.
At issue appears to be an incongruence between the city’s interpretation of the code and the state’s interpretation. Johnson City contends that any day care facility caring for more than five children must obtain an educational or institutional certificate of occupancy because building codes don’t have any carve-outs for day cares operating in a single-family home.
That means Pettyjohn’s day care, where he wants to care for six or seven children, has to be held to the same standard as a commercial day care that may care for between six and 100 children — something that would require significant changes to Pettyjohn’s home.
“The definition of ‘Family Home Daycare’ does not exist in our city or building codes,” Johnson City’s Interim Planning and Development Services Director Dave McClelland said in an email. “This term is only relative to the licensing process. It has nothing to do with local zoning or building regulation.”
McClelland said state law requires the involvement of an architect for any building that needs to have its occupancy type changed from single-family residential to either educational or institutional, and stressed that licensure, zoning and building are each independent processes. He noted compliance with one doesn’t necessarily mean compliance with all.
“This is the issue at hand,” McClelland said. “It is not an issue specific to Johnson City.”
Tennessee officials don’t seem to agree.
Across the state, more than 550 family child care homes exist, including several in Northeast Tennessee. Kingsport, for example, does not give guidance on the number of children being cared for at day cares “because it is not a local zoning matter.” A spokesperson for Kingsport added that the number of children allowed in a day care is something that falls under the purview of the state fire marshal’s office.
“Typically in a residential zone an in-home day care requires a special exception granted by the Board of Zoning Appeals to begin operating,” Ken Weems, Kingsport’s planning manager, said.
Johnson City’s position is that codes only allow day care centers to care for up to five children before needing an occupancy permit, citing a 2017 document from the Department of Commerce and Insurance.
A spokesperson for the Department of Commerce and Insurance said that document, however, is not applicable to family home day cares and that once Pettyjohn installs smoke alarms, the Fire Marshal’s Office is prepared to sign off on the project. Regardless of what approval the state gives though, Johnson City must still sign off if Pettyjohn’s day care is to be able to have more than five kids.
If ABC Child Care Center is unable to secure a license, Pettyjohn and his wife will either have to pay out of their own pocket to keep the center afloat or close down.
McClelland said the city is doing what it can to work with Pettyjohn as much as the city’s building code allows, and said the Pettyjohns would be allowed to have five kids from outside of their home, plus their own. While not a perfect solution, it would allow them to, at least for now, care for the six kids they need to stay in business.
“I don’t have any understanding as to why it is like it is,” Pettyjohn said of the process. “It’s frustrating to me as a parent that’s not doing this full-time, that’s doing this while they’re trying to hold down a career and three kids and all the other things I have to.”
Pettyjohn said doing what’s necessary to secure a different occupancy permit isn’t feasible and said it “seems unrealistic that that is the solution forward.”
Benjamin Whitfield, a parent of one of the children in Pettyjohn’s day care and a member of the city’s planning and historic zoning commission, said this is a “great example of an opportunity” to make child care more accessible in the city, something city officials listed as a goal in their five-year plan from 2020.
Johnson City’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan says the city should “consider removing local standards and instead defer to tightly regulated state oversight” if zoning restrictions contributed to a lack of available child care. In December 2020, Johnson City amended its zoning code to allow for family child care homes to exist in areas zoned residential.
“My kid is going to age out of this program, but it’s an essential service being offered to families,” Whitfield said. “And if we can’t remove some bureaucracy and red tape that’s not keeping anyone safer — it’s just impeding child care — then what are we doing at the end of the day?”
Margie Kendall, another parent with a child at ABC Child Care Center, said having her child in a small home day care during the early months of the pandemic was a great, safe way to have her daughter socialize with other children. Kendall has since had a second child, but hasn’t had luck finding child care for her — keeping her husband, a small business owner, from working full-time.
“I never thought the biggest challenge to getting a job would be trying to find child care, and that’s certainly been so,” Kendall said. “There’s no spot right now at the day care with Sam. If they were able to get this license that we’re hoping to, then we would have full-time child care for both girls, which would then allow my husband to get back to work.”
Savannah Honeycutt, the center’s only full-time employee, is one of four employees who could lose their jobs if the center is forced to close. Honeycutt said she’s been helping Pettyjohn with the licensing process wherever she can, including creating a parent handbook, so they’re ready to go if and when they get their license.
“It’s definitely not my favorite phase that we’ve been in, but it’s a challenge that has taught me a lot of things,” Honeycutt said. “I’m just trying to embrace the new skills that I am learning and just kind of hope for the best.”
ABC Child Care Center, Pettyjohn, his employees, the parents and kids they care for are caught between a city and state government that aren’t on the same page with no clear way forward to realistically achieve what they hope to. And though he doesn’t regret the decision to open the day care, and said he loves what they’ve built, Pettyjohn wonders if they made a mistake by not just focusing on securing child care for his own children.
“In the middle of this process, I was like, ‘Well, how hard can it be? All we need is our occupancy permit.’” Pettyjohn said. “And that makes me feel like I made a mistake, maybe, in not pursuing just taking care of my own two kids that are in the program, you know?”