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Sharing Shelter Becomes More Frequent Choice During Hard Times Multigenerational Housing Surges During Pandemic, Economic Shock

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Above image credit: One in five Americans are now living in multigenerational households. (File)
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6 minute read

It’s a routine they perform like clockwork every time they come back from the grocery store: leave the shoes outside the house, spray yourself down with disinfectant and jump straight in the shower. With her one-year-old grandson in the house, 39-year-old Judith Boris doesn’t want her family to take any chances. 

“We do all the precautions that we can, since we have six people living under this roof,” Boris said.

About two miles away in Squier Park, 22-year-old Joseph Hernandez and his family practice a similar routine. His 25-year-old brother, Steven, is a full-time essential worker at Sun Fresh Market. He takes extra precautions when coming home from work, including staying six feet apart from his 50-year-old uncle, who was diagnosed with non-clear renal cell carcinoma two years ago.

“My brother and I discussed it and we agreed that he is the last guy we want hit with the coronavirus,” Joseph Hernandez said.

For Boris and Hernandez, living with multiple generations in the house isn’t anything new. Boris has been sharing a roof with her four teenage kids and grandson since December, while Hernandez’s family welcomed his uncle’s girlfriend and then two-year-old daughter into their home six years ago.

Joseph Hernandez and his family.
Joseph Hernandez (left) and his extended family pose for a photo. (Contributed)

What is new, however, is the coronavirus pandemic.

Sharing Households Surges

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend staying away from at-risk populations, such as older adults and infants, many families can’t really do that.

More than 64 million people live in multigenerational households, according to a 2018 Pew study. That’s nearly one in five Americans living in a household with with two or more adult generations, or including grandparents and grandchildren younger than 25. 

Multigenerational housing has been on the rise since 1980, especially during times of economic distress. Back in 2008, Pew recorded a then-record 49 million Americans living with multiple adult generations under the same roof, citing “job losses and home foreclosures” as driving factors. 

Graphic showing growth of multigenerational households.

This pandemic may be no different. Forty-seven-year-old Andrea Thomas and her family moved in with her mother about nine years ago. And while her 19-year-old son and his girlfriend have been ready to find a place of their own, they had recently had to change their plans.

“They were actually staying here for three months, because they were saving up to get an apartment,” Thomas said. “Not even three weeks after they went looking at apartments and stuff, they lost their jobs.”

The U.S. unemployment rate has been bouncing between 13 and 14% the past couple of months, the worst it has been since the Great Depression, raising expectations that multigenerational housing will only increase.

While many Americans are moving in with family members out of financial necessity, Donna Butts says families can benefit from having more people to help around the house. Butts is the executive director of Generations United, a national nonprofit that advocates for children, families and older adults through intergenerational living programs. 

“Some older adults are outliving their retirement savings and some young parents need help caring for their children,” Butts said. “It allows family members to share the burden of the household and the finances.”

Boris has been unemployed from her jobs as a school bus and party bus driver for three months now. Because she’s home full time, she can watch her grandson and drive her kids to work. 

“I’m the only one who drives, so they don’t have to worry about catching the city bus, or trying to find an Uber,” Boris said.

And her kids have returned the favor. Even though everyone who was working was laid off on the same weekend in March, all of her kids were recently able to find part-time jobs at Go Chicken Go.

“I hate doing this to my children,” Boris said. “I was like, ‘In normal, everyday life, you guys would never have to help out with paying the electricity bill or making sure rent is covered’.”

Same Roof, Same Risk

With family members going back to work, the threat of bringing the coronavirus back into the house is constantly looming. Hernandez was asked to return to his summer camp job at Johnson County Parks and Recreation, but decided to decline the offer.

Last summer, his aunt was his only mode of transportation there. But, now that they have been socially distancing from each other, Hernandez is looking for other summer jobs that are within walking distance.

“I’d prefer to be somewhere close so I can be easily accessible to my uncle,” Hernandez said. “When I eventually find somewhere to work, I don’t want to bring (the virus) back into the house and possibly put him at risk.”

In March, Generations United published an online tip sheet for multigenerational families, which includes frequently washing toys and getting prescription medication delivered to the house. Butts says the goal is to have every family member keep the home as germ-free as possible.

“Whether it’s singing songs while washing your hands, or wiping down floorboards and counters together, it’s important to protect all members of the family, particularly the more vulnerable young and old,” Butts said. 

While COVID-19 presents new health challenges to these families, recent housing developments across the country suggest that communal living may continue to gain popularity even after the pandemic. 

Future Housing Landscape

Known as granny flats or in-law apartments, accessory dwelling units have become a possible solution for local housing shortages.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a series of laws last year that would make it easier to build and rent separate residential units located on the same property. On May 20, the Chicago City Council introduced a new ordinance that would overturn a 1957 zoning restriction on accessory dwelling units.

Here in Kansas City, housing developer Summit Homes launched a new multigenerational housing product line in April. Dubbed Home Squared, these homes include a second master suite with several options for extra space, including kitchenettes and separate entryways. 

Marketing Specialist Brooke Cox said these floor plans are in response to a growing number of home buyers wanting to live with extended family and friends. She says they already have one client interested in building one on their property.

Summit Homes in Lee's Summit is offering homes designed with multigenerational households in mind.
Summit Homes in Lee’s Summit is offering homes designed with multigenerational households in mind. (Contributed | Summit Homes)

“We’re barely a month and a half into it and we already had one set up,” Cox said. ”Sometimes it takes longer than that for people to hear about it and be interested in it. So I do think we may have hit a sweet spot with offering this.”

Cox says she’s seen buyers benefit from communal living in more ways than just financially.

“With shared living, there’s also this social aspect to it, like having somebody there to support you, especially if it is an older relative where they might need extra care or help” Cox said. 

Shifting Attitudes 

Thirty-four-year-old Keithley Lake found that out soon after marrying his Vietnamese wife, despite his initial apprehension of sharing the house with his in-laws. 

“When I first met my wife and she told me ‘Oh, my parents live with me’ I was just like ‘What? You haven’t moved out of the house yet?’ ” Lake said. “In actuality, It was my wife’s house, and this is the way the culture is. Everybody lives together.”

Vietnam is just one example of many Asian and African countries where sharing a place with extended family is commonplace. An estimated 45% of Asians live with extended family members, with more than half of India’s population alone living in these arrangements.

Sub-Saharan African countries followed in a close second, with about 35% of individuals living in extended family households. Asian and sub-Saharan African countries are also more likely to see older adults living with their children, according to a March 2020 Pew report

“It’s much more common in many other cultures for families to live under one roof to live together,” Butts said. “We do have a number of immigrant migrant families who live in the United States and bring their very strong family traditions with them.”

In the United States, Asian and Hispanic populations have the most people living in multigenerational households, partly because foreign-born Americans are more likely to be Asian or Hispanic than any other racial or ethnic group, according to Pew.  

Pie chart of multigenerational households by race.
Source: Pew Research Center

“I thought that I would hate it because in America, everybody’s gonna get out of your house, have your own place,” Lake said. “But it’s the best thing ever.”

New Family Dynamics

Butts echoed his sentiment. She says there is value in having intergenerational connections, especially between the youngest and oldest family members. 

“Over the years, we’ve created this myth in this country that we need to be independent,” Butts said. “But in fact, we are interdependent. There is opportunity for families to draw on the strengths that each generation has.”

In addition to his wife, two kids and parents-in-law, Lake shares the home with his sister-in-law and her two kids. With 10 family members living together, Lake says it’s like having their “own little village in the house.”

“My father-in-law, he cooks, does all the laundry, and my mother-in-law helps my wife out with the childcare,” Lake said. “It’s like a great big team, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Neither would Boris, Hernandez or Thomas, who have all grown closer to their family members during this pandemic. Or, in Thomas’ case, seen her family grow.

She remembers when her son, who is in the Missouri National Guard, received a text from his sergeant that he was to be deployed to Washington D.C. Although it was meant for a different person, they were all an “emotional wreck,” especially his girlfriend.

“And we told her, ‘We have you don’t worry about it, even if he’s not here’,” Thomas said. “You’re part of our family, and we’ll help you through whatever comes up.”

Mawa Iqbal is a Kansas City PBS summer intern.


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