Olivia Chase thought she had successfully launched her son after he went off to serve in the Iraq War. But she did not have an empty nest for very long. She took in her 3-month old grandson while he was serving overseas. And when her son came back and got into legal trouble, her grandson stayed with her, as her son went to prison.
“There was never any question in my mind,” she said, as to who would raise him. Her heart was willing, she realized, even if her home was small. Her one-bedroom apartment on Georgia Ave began to shrink, as her growing grandson took up more and more space.
More than 2.65 million children in the United States are being raised by a grandparent or another adult family member or friend, according to Generations United, an advocacy group based in Washington DC.
Many so-called ‘grandfamilies’ form after traumatic events related to a parent’s substance abuse or a sudden death or incarceration. These families face distinct challenges, particularly when it comes to housing.
Grandparents often have inadequate space to accommodate an expanding household, or private leases that prohibit children. Less than one-third of income-eligible grandfamilies receive housing assistance, according to a report released this month from Generations United.
That’s because many local housing authorities, as well as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, do not consider all grandfamilies as “families” for purposes of assistance.
Many children live with relatives who are not licensed foster parents, and therefore cannot receive monthly maintenance payments or assistance with housing available to legal foster parents. And it can be very difficult for grandparents to meet state foster care licensing standards, such as requiring a separate bedroom for every child.
The government is beginning to respond. In the last two decades, the first federal housing law for grandfamilies was passed, and about twenty housing developments have opened specifically to serve grandfamilies.
One new housing development is Plaza West, an apartment complex with 223 units of affordable housing and 50 units set aside for grandfamilies, that opened in 2018 in Washington DC. The apartments have amenities geared toward older adults, with emergency pull cords in case they need assistance and laundry facilities located on each floor.
Plaza West also has a caseworker on site and classes for grandparents and teens.
Chase was among the first residents with her now 11-year old grandson Richard. A year later, she said Plaza West has become a home where she and her son can grow, and where she has friends and neighbors her age who are also well versed in Pokemon and local public schools.
At a recent event in a top floor recreation room, Chase said that Plaza West has become more than a home. “We have a community that cares about one another,” she said.
Hannah Kanfer is currently a student at George Mason University. She has a passion for journalism and using her writing skills to help others.