‘Grandfamily’ Housing Caters to Older Americans Raising Children

When Jackie Lynn’s niece gave birth to a heroin addicted baby, Ms. Lynn took action.

She thought she turned the side of parenting after raising two children and living alone for 14 years. But while her niece was undergoing treatment, Ms. Lynn moved from Washington State to Oregon in 2009 to care for the baby and its four siblings. Her managerial job became unsustainable, so she cut her salary – even though her expenses went up.

“The children were there. They needed me, “said Ms. Lynn, now 67.” It’s not that you can choose to walk away from something like that. “

Ms. Lynn rented an apartment for almost a year, commuting almost four hours a day between childcare and work. She adopted three of the children; the other two moved in with other relatives.

Ms. Lynn was at her acid test when a child helper told her about Bridge Meadows, a new, multigenerational community for lower-income older adults, adoptive families, or “extended families” – with grandparents, adult family members, or friends raising a child – like her. Bridge Meadows in North Portland had nine townhouses for eligible families and 27 homes for single older adults. In addition to affordable rent, Bridge Meadows would offer social services such as mental health specialists.

Less than three months later, Ms. Lynn unpacked there. “My shoulders got a lot heavier,” she said.

More and more elderly Americans are finding refuge in the burgeoning grandfamily housing communities across the country. Approximately 2.7 million children are raised in extended families, and programs like Bridge Meadows are aimed at providing stable housing. In addition, such communities can help older people regain their foothold as they struggle with unforeseen care costs, skyrocketing housing costs and a lack of accessible housing for the elderly or disabled.

Comprehensive national data on the growth of such projects over the past decade is sparse, experts say. There are at least 19 large family housing programs with on-site services throughout United States funded by a mix of public and private funds, according to Generations United, a nonprofit that focuses on intergenerational collaboration. Projects are underway in Washington, DC and Redmond, Oregon, and House legislators have reintroduced the Grandfamily Housing Act, which would create a national pilot program of large family home expansion.

The pandemic has shed light on the country’s limited housing options, and households run by someone aged 65 and over are growing faster than those in other age groups. “Grandparents have long raised grandchildren,” said Rodney Harrell, vice president of family, home and community for AARP. “It has only been a relatively short time that housing associations have been paying attention to this.”

An estimated 2.3 million grandparents are primary caregivers. Since the Great Recession and during the American opioid epidemic, emergency carers have stepped in while parents were incarcerated and dealt with addiction, said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United.

“This is not something that you have to spend months preparing for,” said Ms. Butts. “You’re lucky when you have hours.”

In Oregon, the care system was flooded during the methamphetamine crisis, said Derenda Schubert, managing director of Bridge Meadows. More and more foster children are being raised by relatives, and grandparents have struggled to find larger, more accessible homes. And when a grandparent is not a child’s legal guardian, finding accommodation becomes more difficult; According to Generations United, fewer than one in three large eligible families will receive housing allowance.

Emergencies collide as older adults face a national housing crisis that disproportionately affects people of color, low-income people, people with disabilities and LGBTQ communities. The number of “cost-burdened” older households, defined as those who pay more than 30 percent of income for housing, reached nearly 10.2 million in 2019, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Additionally, fewer than 4 percent of US households had basic accessibility features in 2011, the latest measure available, according to the Harvard Center. This puts pressure on grandparents who raise disabled children, around a quarter of all grandparents who raise children.

In the meantime, older, low-income caregivers may have difficulty obtaining housing. Many age-restricted communities don’t allow children, so grandparents who suddenly need to raise them may move or even be evicted. “In the truest sense of the word, you’re just stuck,” said Dr. Harrell.

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Others end up running out of retirement savings, skipping medical care, or refinancing homes. Rose Stigger, 69, started raising her granddaughter the year she lost her job. Ms. Stigger then foreclosed the home she owned in Kansas City, Missouri, for nearly three decades.

This put Ms. Stigger and her granddaughter into a cycle of housing insecurity: they moved four times in four years, hopping between rental apartments until one of the mentors on Ms. Stigger’s support group told her about Pemberton Park for extended families.

She remembers her relief when she moved into a comfortable two-room apartment there in 2011. She could walk to the grocery store and bank and finally settle in one place.

Ms. Stigger then campaigned to connect grandparents to resources and became an advocate for homes like hers. “I just went out in public and started talking and spreading the word,” said Ms. Stigger, who leads support groups and has given presentations to church communities, elected officials and national conferences. “When I was going through things, I wish someone were there to help me.

“It takes a village. This is our village,” she said.

Large families’ housing projects can vary – who is eligible, what is the focus, how are they financed. They are located in rural areas like the Fiddlers Annex in Smithville, Tennessee, and in urban areas like Plaza West in Washington, DC

At Bridge Meadows, the community consists of foster families and older adults with no children.

Brodie Lynn, 13, Ms. Lynn’s son, enjoyed spending his evenings attending art classes and movie nights with older neighbors. “It’s the last part of your life, so to speak,” he said. “It is definitely something special to be with them when they get older.”

The residents find their way to these communities in different ways. Peter Cordero and his granddaughter had been in the New York City homeless shelter system for over a year when he read about the grandparents family homes in the Bronx. Mr Cordero, who is disabled, had fired apartment applications with no response.

Since 2017, the Grandparent Family Apartments have been offering Mr Cordero, 66, and his granddaughter what they have been missing so far: a place to call home and time to find out what’s next. Mr. Cordero can stay until his granddaughter, who is 13 years old, turns 22. “You should have more buildings like this,” he said.

Some lawmakers are pushing for help. The Grandfamily Housing Act would fund renovations to make safe housing more affordable for large families and hire housing service coordinators, said Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat who helped fund the House of Representatives bill (a similar proposal was tabled in the Senate). “Our federal law would be the first of its kind to address some of the problems this community faces that have been overlooked for far too long,” she said via email.

Even as the momentum picks up, proponents are wary of the barriers, especially with funding. Although several government agencies – for aging people, low-income housing, child welfare – are touching upon the needs of extended families, funding often remains separate, Ms. Schubert said.

Experts also worry about the stability of caregivers as children grow up. Programs should allow them to stay in such homes, said Samara Scheckler, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Center.

But some welcome the transition from the large family home. After nearly a decade at Bridge Meadows, Ms. Lynn and her sons moved to the Oregon coast in July. A son’s fiancée had died and she wanted to live closer to relatives.

Ms. Lynn is back to where she grew up, which felt full and bittersweet. She was afraid of leaving friends who had grounded her during a tumultuous time, but life in Bridge Meadows opened up opportunities she had never imagined: She and her mother, 87, saved enough to buy a house together to buy. Their place is on two hectares, with orchards where the boys can ride their bikes.

Brodie plans to visit his ex-neighbors and is grateful for what his family has built by their side, he said. “It was like a second chance, honestly.”

Ms. Lynn hopes for peace in her next chapter. She dreams of picking blueberries on quiet mornings and enjoying cereal on the back deck. She takes pride in how far her family has come: Their growth proves Bridge Meadows works, she said.

“I feel so much more productive than I did 10 years ago,” she said. “I am ready to accept something new and different.”

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