The oldest grandmother is 80, the youngest is 52. Two moved out of homeless shelters.
They are residents of Plaza West, a unique affordable housing development in Washington, D.C., that has reserved 50 of its 223 units for “grandfamilies,” families composed of grandparents raising their grandchildren. The grandparents didn’t plan on being the full-time caregivers for the young ones, but in many cases traumatic events, such as a parent struggling with mental illness or being incarcerated, caused them to step in.
Developed by Mission First Housing Group, Plaza West, which opened its doors in 2018, is the latest and one of only about nine affordable housing developments in the country to target grandfamilies.
Jamarl Clark, community life program manager at Plaza West, often sees the grandmothers walking their grandchildren to school. ”It’s phenomenal,” he says. “They are full of such strength.”
Naysayers may question why grandparents deserve housing for raising their grandchildren, but these older residents are good, everyday people who’ve stepped up to the plate to take on a huge responsibility and provide for their grandchildren, Clark says.
However, few resources are available to these families. Grandparents are not eligible for many of the subsidies and programs open to parents even though grandparents raising grandchildren is neither new nor uncommon. Nearly 6 million children 17 years and younger live with a grandparent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Grandfamilies have been drawing increased attention in recent years as a result of the growing opioid epidemic that’s leaving many parents unable to care for their children.
A New Development
Plaza West was developed in partnership with nearby Bible Way Church. The idea for the housing dates back to the 1980s when the late Bishop Smallwood Williams had a vision to build an intergenerational center near his church. At the time, many communities were struggling with a different epidemic—crack cocaine.
The project languished for years before Mission First leaders learned about the PSS/WSF GrandParent Family Apartments, an affordable housing community for grandfamilies in New York City. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be a perfect fit to serve the intergenerational mission of the site?’ ” says Elizabeth Askew Everhart, senior development manager at Mission First. “Housing is something we know well.”
The team visited the Bronx development to learn more and then met with District of Columbia officials, who got behind the project. There are approximately 4,300 grandparents raising grandchildren in the District. It’s also home to D.C.’s unique Grandparent Caregivers Program, one of the nation’s only subsidy programs to assist grandfamilies with their living expenses.
The Plaza West site provided an opportunity to build a large housing development, so Mission First was able to create a building with more than 200 units. In addition to the 50 grandfamily units, there are 173 affordable apartments for individuals and families earning no more than 60% of the area median income (AMI).
The decision to cap the number of grandfamily units was deliberate. “We wanted a community where everyone knew everyone else,” says Everhart.
The grandfamilies have their own areas, including a grandparent library just for the elders, a fitness room with exercise equipment for seniors, and a youth activity room. The team has forged partnerships with local organizations, including the YMCA, to provide services for residents. Members of the Howard University School of Social Work also lead support groups for the grandparents and the teens.
The grandparents recognized that they needed help with housing, but they didn’t know they also needed the services that are provided until moving into their new community.
“It’s a challenge trying to raise grandchildren, but it’s also beautiful,” says Vera M. Long, who lives with her two teen-age granddaughters at Plaza West. Long looked into the development at the suggestion of her godsister, who had heard about the community.
“What I can say about Plaza West is that it’s been a relief to have somewhere to live, to raise my grandchildren,” she says, noting that she has support around her. “It’s a joy being here. It’s home.”
The grandparents at Plaza West must be at least 50 years old. This allows the team to focus on older caregivers, who may have greater needs and fewer options. For example, older adults living in senior housing cannot bring their grandchildren to live with them.
The grandfamily apartments are set aside for households earning 30%, 40%, and 50% of the AMI and took about 10 months to fully lease up, which was expected, according to officials. Because it’s a population that may not see notices on the internet or social media, officials did individual outreach at senior centers and talking with individuals one on one.About 95% are participating in the District’s Grandparent Caregivers Program. Most of the children living at the property are between 6 and 12, and the families can stay in their homes until the youths reach 24.
Mission First has other properties in the area so it can transition the grandparents when they no longer qualify for their grandfamily unit, Clark says.
The $90 million development is financed with approximately $32 million in low-income housing tax credit equity from Capital One through syndicator Enterprise Housing Credit Investments. Capital One also participated in the construction loan and provided a $200,000 social purpose grant to help fund support services for residents.
Other financing includes $18.42 million in city subsidy through the Housing Production Trust Fund and tax-exempt bonds issued by the D.C. Housing Finance Agency, which were purchased by Citibank. Bible Way’s nonprofit affiliate took a note back on the acquisition price of $16.125 million. The balance of sources include deferred developer fee and other fundraising.
Since moving into Plaza West, the families have found not only housing but a community. They help each other take the children to school. When one grandmother recently had surgery, one of the other families helped prepare dinner for her family. “They all pull on each other to help one another,” Clark says.