WASHINGTON, D.C. — After her daughter died from lupus, Charlene Green was left caring for her two grandchildren. But their housing situation was precarious at best: mold and mildew everywhere, ceiling caving in.
To get her landlord to make much-needed repairs in their Washington, D.C., apartment, the 62-year-old withheld rent — only to be threatened with eviction.
So, when her grandson told her about Plaza West, a new affordable housing complex that reserves 50 of its 223 units for grandfamilies — families made up of grandparents raising grandchildren — Green said it felt godsent. Now, she lives in a modern three-bedroom apartment in a building that combines the companionship of other grandparents with babysitting and tutoring on site, provided by the city and building management.
“I never would have thought I’d be living here,” said Green, who works part-time cleaning offices when she isn’t taking care of her 10-year-old grandchild. Her 21-year-old grandchild also lives with her. “Where I was living before wasn’t worth paying rent.”
More grandparents are raising their grandchildren, in large part because of the opioid epidemic. Some, like Green, find themselves parenting again because of chronic illness, incarceration or homicide. More than 20% of grandparents raising grandchildren are living below the federal poverty line. More than a third of them are over 60. Most are single.
In 2017, 2.7 million children in the U.S. were being raised solely by their grandparents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And as of 2017, 2.4 million grandparents were solely responsible for the care of their grandchildren. The number of children in the foster care system being raised by relatives jumped 9% between 2008 and 2017, according to Generations United.
Many grandparents find their existing housing isn’t suitable for their suddenly expanded family, and children are barred from nearly all subsidized and most market-rate senior residences.
“Housing can be a big challenge for grandfamilies,” said Ana Beltran, special adviser to Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group. “Grandma may be retired and living in a condo and doesn’t have enough space for grandkids.”
“Or maybe she’s on Section 8,” she said, referring to the federal rental voucher program, “and can’t get a bigger unit.”
Counting those that are under development, there are now 16 residences in nine cities that reserve at least some units for grandfamilies, according to Generations United. Plaza West, a $90 million, 12-story complex funded with private and public dollars, opened in September 2018. It is equipped with a library, a gym, a computer lab for kids and a lounge reserved for adults. It also offers on-site counseling for families, to help them navigate the intricacies of the child welfare and social services systems.
“There’s definitely an uptick in interest in housing for grandfamilies,” Beltran said. “But they’re incredibly difficult to get off the ground.”
That’s because most of the public housing stock has deteriorated to the point that it’s “rotting,” said Samuel Little, founding president of the National Alliance of Resident Services in Affordable and Assisted Housing, a nonprofit based in Baltimore that works with public housing employees and residents to shape national housing policy.
There’s no federal funding to renovate these buildings, which reduces the available housing stock, Little said. To get housing developments financed, public and private organizations must collaborate. Then, too, they must find funding for supportive services for families and make sure that the complexes are close to grocery stores and other amenities.
“There’s a need for grandfamilies housing that’s become more apparent,” Little said. “And we’ve been much slower than what’s reasonable to address it.”
Ela Rausch, who does community development research for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and wrote her dissertation on grandfamilies, said some complexes that are designed for them have rules and regulations that end up keeping them out.
She cited a residence in Tucson, Arizona, that had no grandfamilies living there in 2016, when she wrote her dissertation, because it required grandparents to have proof of permanent legal custody of their grandchildren. (The Primavera Foundation, which manages the Las Abuelitas development in Tucson, declined Stateline requests for comment.)
Still, Rausch said, well-designed grandfamilies housing “really helps provide emotional support for these families.”
“I’m happy,” said Cassandra Gentry, 67, who in August 2018 became one of Plaza West’s first tenants, before its official opening in September. “I’m very happy. Somebody bought into what we needed.”
On a recent Saturday at Plaza West, a pigtailed preschooler pulled a red wagon filled with books, handing out bookmarks with a shy grin. Deejays from a local radio station pumped up the jams, and kids took to the floor, wriggling and wriggling as they tried to out-dance each other.
The back-to-school bash was one of many events designed to build a sense of community among residents. There was a photo booth and pizza, and free backpacks and school supplies for the kids.
It took a decade to bring Plaza West from an idea to a reality, Tyrone Garrett, executive director of the District of Columbia Housing Authority, told Stateline in a phone interview.
Church leaders at the Bible Way Church in D.C. decided to build an affordable housing complex for seniors tasked with raising their grandchildren. (The church did not respond to a Stateline request for an interview.)
The project was funded by 15 to 20 sources, using a combination of city dollars, private donations, private financing and low-income tax credits. The housing authority chipped in with city-funded housing vouchers, Garrett said.
The result is a 9,500-square-foot grandfamilies “village,” a public-private hybrid that is affordable housing, but not considered public housing. It is operated by the developer, Mission First Housing Group, an affordable housing nonprofit based in Philadelphia.
Such convoluted arrangements are typical, said Tom Davis, director of the office of recapitalization at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Multifamily Housing Programs.
Plaza West apartments are roomy enough to accommodate a wheelchair; there are grab bars in bathrooms and emergency pull cords in the bedrooms and bathrooms. At the same time, the buildings have room for energetic kids to run and play, and there is easy access to transportation and schools.
A few years back, when Gentry moved from Detroit to D.C. to help raise her grandchildren, the high cost of rent here shocked her. Right away, she saw the need for grandfamilies housing.
“We can’t go to the senior citizens’ homes because we have kids and we need space,” Gentry said, as her 9-year-old granddaughter Jada snuggled into her.
Here, she gets tutoring help for her grandkids and for herself, she has a “parent partner” who babysits for an entire weekend — for free — twice a month so she can get away and recharge.
“At first, I was just looking for adequate housing,” Gentry said. “But I ended up with so much more."
To qualify, residents must have an income that’s only 30% to 40% of the median for the area, although some families make much less, said Sarah Constant, managing director of Mission First. (In D.C., the median household income is about $82,000.)
It’s open to grandparents, great-uncles and great-aunts raising children. Once a grandchild turns 24, the center will help families find somewhere else to live. Grandparents must be at least 52. The youngest tenant is 7 months old; the oldest is in her 80s.
“We stress that this is temporary housing,” said Jamarl Clark, the Plaza West program manager for grandfamily community life. “We have a conversation with them early on about transitioning” to other housing.
“People say, ‘How are you going to kick out an 80-year-old?’ But right across the plaza,” Clark said, gesturing out the window, “there’s a senior complex.”
Some housing experts say that’s one of the limitations of grandfamilies housing: When the kids themselves age out of the housing, where do they go?
“The idea of having to move out causes a lot of anxiety for the grandparents, especially at that age,” Rausch said.
Tenants pay anywhere from $600 to $1,100 a month for two- and three-bedroom apartments, Clark said. Housing vouchers cover the rent for some tenants with very low incomes.
Most tenants are either retirees or disabled, said Cheryl Paige, the center’s on-site case manager. Some tenants were middle-class professionals who say their work lives changed dramatically when they became parents again.
On the other side of the grandfamilies building, separated by a gate, is another affordable housing building for people with incomes 50% to 60% of the area median. Some of the grandfamilies tenants told Stateline they’re less than thrilled with that arrangement — they often have to fight to find parking.
Some tenants complain of staff turnover. They say the building is often dirty and that it took a scheduled reporter’s visit for management to do some much-needed paint touchups. Paige, the much-loved caseworker, is leaving after just a few months on the job. (She said she is sad to go but got a job offer too good to pass up.)
But mostly, tenants say, they don’t feel safe. Strangers wander in and out. They’ve seen security guards asleep on the job.
“Safety is something we’re focused on,” Constant of Mission First said. She said the nonprofit has changed security companies once, and it is trying to decide if it would be best to have security staff that are Plaza West employees, rather than contractors. She said the security issues have been minor and most of the “challenges” have come from residents letting others into the building.
“It’s always hard because we are an affordable housing development and we have limited resources. We try to listen to the residents and evolve.”
Feeling safe means everything to the grandfamilies of Plaza West. Most became parents again through extreme family trauma: grown children who were murdered or got sick or fled domestic violence. Their grandchildren are scarred by all they’ve been through. And a lot of the grandparents are medically fragile themselves, needing walkers or wheelchairs to get around, said Paige, the on-site social worker.
When she talks about how she came to be caring for her grandchildren, ages 15, 16 and 6, Ella Williams, 58, bursts into tears. Her daughter, a single mom, cut her foot last year, and it got infected. She went to the hospital, and never left. The doctors told Williams her daughter died of sepsis.
She moved to Plaza West in November after a long battle with her previous landlord. Her rental house of 13 years had become virtually uninhabitable.
She’s happy to be here, even though she had to install a burglar alarm system.
“I’ve been through hell,” Williams said. “Now I’m in this very nice building.”