“Grandfamily” housing caters to older Americans raising children
When Jackie Lynn’s niece gave birth to a heroin addicted baby, Lynn took action.
She believed she had turned the page on parenting after raising two children and living alone for 14 years. But while her niece continued treatment, Lynn moved to Oregon from Washington state in 2009 to care for the baby and her four siblings. Her job as a manager became untenable, so she suffered a pay cut even as her expenses increased.
“The children were there. They needed me, ”said Lynn, now 67. “It’s not like you can choose to walk away from something like that.”
For almost a year, Lynn rented an apartment and commuted almost four hours a day between babysitting and work. She adopted three of the children; the other two have moved in with other parents.
Lynn was at her breaking point when a social worker told her about Bridge Meadows, a new multi-generational housing community for low-income seniors, adoptive families or “grandfathers” – with a grandparent, an adult family member or friend raising a child – like hers. Bridge Meadows in North Portland had nine townhouses available for eligible families and 27 apartments for single seniors. In addition to affordable rent, Bridge Meadows would offer social services, such as mental health specialists.
Less than three months later, Lynn was unpacking her things there. “There was a world of weight lifted off my shoulders,” she said.
More and more older Americans are finding refuge in the “big family housing” communities that are growing across the country. About 2.7 million children are being raised in grandfamilies, and programs like Bridge Meadows aim to provide stable housing. In addition, these communities can help the elderly get back on their feet as they face unplanned health care expenses, skyrocketing housing costs, and a lack of accessible housing for the elderly or disabled.
Comprehensive national data on the growth of these projects over the past decade is scarce, experts say. According to Generations United, a nonprofit focused on intergenerational collaboration, there are at least 19 family housing programs with on-site services across the United States, funded by a mix of public and private funding. Plans are underway in Washington, DC and Redmond, Oregon, and House lawmakers have reintroduced the Grandfamily Housing Act, which would create a national pilot program to expand housing for large families.
The pandemic has illuminated the country’s limited housing options, and households headed by a person 65 and over are growing faster than those in other age groups. “There have been grandparents who have been raising grandchildren for a long time,” said Rodney Harrell, vice president for family, home and community at AARP. “It’s relatively recently that real estate developers have started paying attention.
It is estimated that 2.3 million grandparents are the primary caregivers. Since the Great Recession and during the opioid epidemic in the United States, emergency caregivers have responded while parents were incarcerated and struggling with drug addiction, said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United.
“It’s not something you have months to prepare for,” Butts said. “You’re lucky if you have hours.”
In Oregon, the foster care system was inundated during the methamphetamine crisis, said Derenda Schubert, executive director of Bridge Meadows. More children in foster care are being raised by parents, and grandparents have struggled to find larger and more accessible homes. And if a grandparent is not the legal guardian of a child, finding accommodation becomes more difficult; less than 1 in 3 eligible grandfamilies receive housing assistance, according to Generations United.
Emergencies strike as seniors face a national housing crisis that disproportionately weighs on people of color, low-income people, people with disabilities and LGBTQ communities.
The number of “cost overloaded” elderly households, defined as those who pay more than 30% of their income for housing, reached nearly 10.2 million in 2019, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In addition, less than 4% of American homes had basic accessibility features in 2011, the latest measure available, according to the Harvard center. This puts pressure on grandparents raising children with disabilities, which makes up about a quarter of all grandparents raising children.
Meanwhile, low-income and older caregivers may face housing eligibility barriers. Many communities with age restrictions do not allow children, so grandparents who suddenly have to raise them may have to relocate or even be kicked out. “Literally you’re just stuck,” Harrell said.
Others end up depleting their retirement savings, skipping medical care or refinancing their homes. Rose Stigger, 69, started raising her granddaughter the year she lost her job. Stigger then lost the home she had owned for nearly three decades in Kansas City, Missouri, to foreclosure.
This sent Stigger and his granddaughter through a cycle of housing insecurity. They moved four times in four years, bouncing between rental homes until one of Stigger’s support group mentors told him about Pemberton Park for Grandfamilies.
She remembers her relief when she moved into a comfortable two bedroom apartment in 2011. She could walk to the grocery store and the bank and finally settle in one place.
Stigger went on to focus on connecting grandparents with resources, becoming an advocate for homes like his. “I just stepped out into the audience and started talking and getting the word out,” said Stigger, who leads support groups and has made presentations to religious congregations, elected officials and national conferences. “When I was going through stuff, I wish someone had been there to help me.
“We need a village. This is our village, ”she said.
Family housing projects may differ – who is eligible, what is the goal, how they are funded. They are found in rural areas, such as the Fiddlers Annex in Smithville, Tennessee, and in urban areas, such as Plaza West in Washington, DC.
In Bridge Meadows, the community is made up of foster families and elderly people without children.
Lynn’s son Brodie Lynn, 13, enjoyed spending his evenings in art class and movie nights with older neighbors. “It’s kind of like the last part of their life,” he said. “It’s really special to be there with them as they get older.”
Residents find their way to these communities by different paths. Peter Cordero and his granddaughter had been in the New York homeless shelter system for over a year when he read the article about the Grandparent Family Apartments in the Bronx. Cordero, who is disabled, had made unanswered housing requests.
Since 2017, the grandparents’ family apartments have given Cordero, 66, and his granddaughter what they needed: a home and time to figure out what’s next. Cordero can stay until his granddaughter, who is 13, is 22. “They should have more buildings like this,” he said.
A few lawmakers are pushing to help. The Grandfamily Housing Act would fund renovations to make safe living spaces for large families more affordable and employ residential service coordinators, said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Who co-sponsored the House bill. (a similar proposal was presented to the Senate). “Our federal bill would be the first of its kind to address some of the problems faced by this community, which has been neglected for too long,” she said via email.
While momentum is building, advocates are wary of obstacles, especially when it comes to funding. Even though several government agencies – for seniors, social housing, child welfare – touch the needs of large families, funding often remains separate, Schubert said.
Experts are also concerned about the stability of caregivers as the children grow older. The programs should allow them to stay in such homes, said Samara Scheckler, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard center.
But some embrace the transition out of grand-family housing. After nearly a decade in Bridge Meadows, Lynn and her sons moved to the Oregon coast in July. A son’s fiancée had passed away and she wanted to live closer to those close to her.
Lynn is back where she grew up, which has been curly and bittersweet. She feared leaving friends who had punished her during a tumultuous time, but living in Bridge Meadows created opportunities she hadn’t imagined: she and her mother, 87, saved enough to buy a house together . Their place is nestled on 2 acres, with orchards where boys can cycle.
Brodie plans to visit his former neighbors and is grateful for what his family has built alongside them, he said. “It was like a second chance, honestly.”
Lynn hopes for peace in his next chapter. She dreams of picking blueberries and enjoying cereal on the back deck on calm mornings. She is proud of the road traveled by her family; their growth proves that Bridge Meadows works, she said.
“I feel so much more capable than 10 years ago,” she said. “I am ready to take on something new and different. “