When Jackie Lynn’s niece gave birth to a baby who was addicted to heroin, Lynn sprang into action.
She thought she had turned the page on parenting after raising two children and living alone for 14 years. But while her niece pursued treatment, Lynn moved to Oregon, from Washington state, in 2009 to care for the baby and his four siblings. Her job as a manager became untenable, so she took a pay cut — even as her expenses mounted.
“The kids were there. They needed me,” Lynn, now 67, said. “It’s not like you can choose to walk away from something like that.”
For nearly a year, Lynn rented an apartment and commuted almost four hours each day between child care and work. She adopted three of the children; the two others moved in with other relatives.
Lynn was at her breaking point when a child welfare worker told her about Bridge Meadows, a new multigenerational housing community for older adults with low incomes, adoptive families or “grandfamilies” — with a grandparent, adult family member or friend raising a child — like hers. Bridge Meadows, in North Portland, had nine town houses available for eligible families and 27 apartments for single, older adults. Besides affordable rent, Bridge Meadows would offer social services, like mental health specialists.
Less than three months later, Lynn was unpacking there. “There was a world of weight taken off my shoulders,” she said.
More older Americans are finding a haven in the “grandfamily housing” communities sprouting nationwide. Roughly 2.7 million children are being raised in grandfamilies, and programs like Bridge Meadows aim to provide stable housing. Additionally, such communities can help older adults regain their footing as they contend with unforeseen caregiving expenses, skyrocketing housing costs and a lack of homes that are accessible for older or disabled people.
Comprehensive national data on the growth of such projects over the past decade is scant, experts say. There are at least 19 grandfamily housing programs with on-site services across the United States, financed by a mix of public and private funding, according to Generations United, a nonprofit focused on intergenerational collaboration. Projects are underway in Washington, D.C., and Redmond, Oregon, and lawmakers in the House reintroduced the Grandfamily Housing Act, which would create a national pilot program to expand grandfamily housing.
The pandemic has illuminated the nation’s limited housing options, and households headed by a person 65 and older are rising faster than those in other age groups. “There have been grandparents raising grandchildren for a long period of time,” said Rodney Harrell, vice president for family, home and community at AARP. “It’s relatively recently that housing developers have started to pay attention.”
An estimated 2.3 million grandparents are primary caregivers. Since the Great Recession and during the U.S.’ opioid epidemic, emergency caregivers stepped in while parents were incarcerated and dealing with addiction, said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United.
“This is not something that you have months to prepare for,” Butts said. “You’re lucky if you have hours.”
In Oregon, the foster care system grew inundated during the methamphetamine crisis, said Derenda Schubert, executive director of Bridge Meadows. More children in foster care are being raised by relatives, and grandparents have scrambled to find larger, accessible homes. And if a grandparent is not a child’s legal guardian, finding housing becomes trickier; fewer than 1 in 3 eligible grandfamilies receives housing assistance, according to Generations United.
Emergencies are colliding as older adults face a national housing crisis that disproportionately burdens people of color, those with low incomes, people with disabilities and LGBTQ communities.
The number of “cost-burdened” older households, defined as those who pay more than 30% of income for housing, reached nearly 10.2 million in 2019, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Furthermore, less than 4% of U.S. homes had basic accessibility features in 2011, the latest available measure, according to the Harvard center. This puts pressure on grandparents raising children who have a disability, which is roughly one-quarter of all grandparents raising children.
Meanwhile, low-income, older caregivers can face eligibility hurdles for housing. Many age-restricted communities do not allow children, so grandparents who suddenly need to raise them may need to move or even face eviction. “Literally, you’re just stuck,” Harrell said.
Others end up draining retirement savings, skipping medical care or refinancing homes. Rose Stigger, 69, started raising her granddaughter the year she lost her job. Stigger then lost the house she had owned for nearly three decades in Kansas City, Missouri, through foreclosure.
This sent Stigger and her granddaughter tumbling into a cycle of housing insecurity. They moved four times in four years, bouncing among rental houses until one of Stigger’s support group mentors told her about Pemberton Park for Grandfamilies.
She recalls her relief upon moving into a comfortable, two-bedroom apartment there in 2011. She could walk to the grocery store and the bank and could finally settle into one place.
Stigger then poured herself into connecting grandparents with resources, becoming an advocate for homes like hers. “I just went out into the public and started talking and spreading the word,” said Stigger, who leads support groups and has delivered presentations to church congregations, elected officials and national conferences. “When I was going through stuff, I wish somebody was there to help me.
“It takes a village. This is our village,” she said.
Grandfamily housing projects can differ — who is eligible, what the focus is, how they are financed. They are in rural regions, like the Fiddlers Annex in Smithville, Tennessee, and in urban areas, like Plaza West in Washington, D.C.
At Bridge Meadows, the community is made up of foster care families and older adults without children.
Brodie Lynn, 13, Lynn’s son, appreciated spending his evenings in art classes and movie nights with older neighbors. “It’s kind of like the last bit of their lives,” he said. “It’s definitely kind of special to be there with them as they get older.”
Residents find their way to these communities through different paths. Peter Cordero and his granddaughter had been in New York City’s homeless shelter system for more than a year when he read about the Grandparent Family Apartments in the Bronx. Cordero, who is disabled, had been firing off housing applications with no reply.
Since 2017, the Grandparent Family Apartments have given Cordero, 66, and his granddaughter what they had been missing: a place to call home and time to figure out what is next. Cordero can stay until his granddaughter, who is 13, turns 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 grandfamilies more affordable and employ residential service coordinators, said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., who co-sponsored the House bill (a similar proposal was introduced in the Senate). “Our federal bill would be the first of its kind to address some of the issues faced by this community, which has been overlooked for far too long,” she said via email.
Even as momentum grows, advocates are wary of the barriers, particularly in financing. Even though multiple government agencies — for aging people, low-income housing, child welfare — touch on grandfamilies’ needs, the funding often stays separate, Schubert said.
Experts also worry about caregivers’ stability when children grow up. Programs should allow for them to stay in such homes, said Samara Scheckler, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard center.
But some embrace the transition out of grandfamily housing. After nearly a decade at Bridge Meadows, Lynn and her sons moved to the Oregon coast in July. A son’s fiancee had died, and she wanted to live closer to relatives.
Lynn is back where she grew up, which has felt full circle and bittersweet. She was apprehensive about leaving friends who had grounded her during a tumultuous period, but living at Bridge Meadows created opportunities she had not imagined: She and her mother, 87, have saved enough to buy a house together. Their place is nestled on 2 acres, with orchards where the boys can ride their bikes.
Brodie plans to visit his former neighbors and is grateful for what his family built alongside them, he said. “It was like a second chance, honestly.”
Lynn hopes for peace in her next chapter. She dreams of picking blueberries and enjoying cereal on the back deck on quiet mornings. She is proud of how far her family has come; their growth proves that Bridge Meadows works, she said.
“I feel so much more capable than I did 10 years ago,” she said. “I’m ready to take on something new and different.”