This story is part of a collection of long-form essays by the Build Healthy Places Network designed to illustrate the deep connections between neighborhood and health. Here housing developments for grandparents raising grandchildren demonstrate both opportunities for community change, and important lessons on design and funding.
A New Generation of Affordable Housing
Designing Healthy Communities for Grandparents Raising Grandkids in Arizona
By Natalie Orenstein
elma Calvin rests her elbow on the white stucco wall that surrounds her patio. She gazes out at a walkway and its adjacent play structure, basketball court, and swimming pool. They sit empty now, but in a few hours the children who live in her apartment complex will come crashing home from school in a tornado of bikes and basketballs.
Later, while prepping spaghetti for dinner, Calvin will slip back out to the patio to check on the kids. “I can look all the way down there and see them riding their bikes,” she says.
By 65, Calvin had hoped her child-rearing days would be long behind her. Instead, she finds herself with custody of her two great-grandchildren, Laylah, 10, and Nazir, 6. When they were young, their mother moved to Florida, leaving the kids with a relative and a dwindling supply of diapers. Their grandmother, who is Calvin’s daughter, was battling addiction and was also unable to raise them.
“Those are my babies,” Calvin says of Laylah and Naz. “I did what I had to do because I’d never let them go into the system.”
The three live together at the Grandfamilies Place of Phoenix, a 55-unit affordable housing complex for grandparents and other older relatives raising children. The residence is part of a growing effort by some developers to design housing that improves the mental and physical health of those in grandfamilies, and the well-being of the community at large.
Many circumstances lead grandparents to raise grandkids, among them the incarceration or death of parents, substance abuse, and mental illness. There are 2.4 million children being raised in grandfamilies (also called kinship families) in the United States, according to a report from the Grandfamilies State Law and Policy Resource Center. A full quarter of these kids live in poverty, a rate 25 percent higher than children who live with parents.
When grandparents gain custody of grandchildren, their own health and welfare can take a backseat. The experience is often isolating and physically demanding, especially for older grandparents. For many already living in poverty, it is an extra financial weight. And the grandparents and kids are often struggling to cope with the situation that led to their new family structure.
Developers and organizations are starting to understand the role housing can play to address the challenges that grandfamilies face. But bringing the idea to life has not always proved an easy task.
Policy hurdles in Tucson
About two hours south of the Grandfamilies Place, in the 1.2-square-mile municipality of South Tucson, is Las Abuelitas, a 12-unit development designed by kinship families for their specific needs. Grandfamilies are not yet living in the development because of restrictions attached to the project’s public funding. But the project’s unique community-led design process offers some important lessons for developers and field leaders.
Several years ago, a grandfamilies advocacy group approached the Primavera Foundation, an Arizona nonprofit that provides workforce development and housing for low-income, homeless, and formerly incarcerated residents. Primavera CEO Peggy Hutchison liked the idea of an apartment complex for grandfamilies, but did not have the capacity to pursue it at the time.
Fast-forward to the height of the Great Recession. Pima County was one of many entities to receive funds from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Primavera was already involved in South Tucson neighborhood work, partnering with youth groups and schools and helping host health fairs. It received some of the program’s stimulus money, including $1 million to start Las Abuelitas. The county itself donated a vacant plot of land and leased an adjacent lot to the foundation for $10 a year.
Community members were involved in the project from the get-go. Neighbors and local grandparents helped Primavera hire the architect and construction team, and provided input on the design. A priority was put on building a complex that emphasized the health and well-being of residents.
“They have goals and they know how they want to be living and improving their lives,” Hutchison said.
The final design of the dozen two- and three-bedroom units reflects those initial requests. There are gated private patio spaces, in-unit washers and dryers, separate bathrooms for grandparents and grandkids, and a spacious kitchen connected to the living room, so the adults can watch the children as they play or do homework. (For more on the project’s unique design elements see video.)
“They knew exactly what they wanted around complete accessibility and security,” Hutchison said. “Even the peepholes are low enough for a kid that’s looking outside to see who’s at the door, or [for] somebody who might be in a wheelchair.”
To pay for the $4.2 million endeavor, Primavera pulled together a mix of federal funds, NeighborWorks America money, and individual donations, and took out a bridge loan.
There they ran into trouble.
Although Las Abuelitas’ participatory design process embodied the ideals of the community planning and development arm of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the targeted population was also at odds with HUD’s fair housing branch. The fair housing stipulations prohibit developers from reserving housing for a specific population, such as kinship families. The restrictions are intended to prevent discrimination against any other needy applicants, and in this case those regulations became a hurdle. There are, however, some “protected classes” under the law, including seniors. Primavera could have skirted the HUD restrictions by making Las Abuelitas into a project solely for seniors, who would then have been allowed to house their grandchildren.
“We considered it but we thought it would be too restrictive,” Hutchison said. Many grandparents in South Tucson are only in their thirties or forties, she added. Plus, they would be forced to kick the kids out of the complex the day they turned 18.
So today, Las Abuelitas is occupied by traditional families instead of grandfamilies. But the development has provided some important community assets in South Tucson where affordable family housing of any kind and public services are in high demand.
When they realized they could not restrict the development to grandfamilies, developers focused on providing a safe and welcoming site that would be accessible to the community at large. Community organizations hold regular meetings in the development’s community room. For example, Arizona Grandparent Ambassadors, a local grandfamily advocacy organization, meets regularly in the space, as do a variety of community groups that work on issues of public health and aging.
There is a public garden and afterschool program at the development, both open to anyone in the residential neighborhood. Hutchison said the afterschool programming fills a high need in the South Tucson neighborhood, where opportunities for structured afterschool care and academic enrichment are in short supply. In addition to children who live at Las Abuelitas, the program also draws students from the public housing project a block away, many of whom are being raised in grandfamilies.
Some residents at Las Abuelitas have joined the Primavera Foundation’s Trailblazers hiking group, which provides physical exercise, a reprieve from stress, and helps residents connect to neighbors and cultivate a support network. The development, which received LEED Platinum certification, a top rating for environmentally sound construction, also has the first Net-Zero building in Pima County, meaning it produces more energy than it consumes and reduces residents’ utility bills.
But the lack of grandfamilies living at Las Abuelitas is a disappointment and, despite the impact the development has made on the South Tucson community, developers say they wish that HUD funding was less prohibitive.
Fostering security and stability in Phoenix
Most grandfamily properties, however, do decide to circumvent the HUD restrictions by creating housing for seniors who then shelter their under-18 grandchildren. Tanner Properties took that route in Phoenix, where a majority of the two- and three-bedroom units at the Grandfamilies Place, true to its name, house kinship families. The adult residents have to be at least 55 years old.
The site used to contain a neglected housing project that was a hotspot for crime, said Tanner CEO Del Monte Edwards. With support from State Senator Leah Landrum Taylor, Tanner and California-based co-owner Alliance Property Group used the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and a mix of public and private money to replace each of the existing affordable units and relocate their former residents to safer buildings. The entire development cost $11.5 million. Rents run from $477 to $610 per month, depending on family income.
“We treated it like we were designing a property for seniors and children simultaneously,” Edwards said. For the kids, they built playgrounds, a game room, and a basketball court. For seniors, there is an exercise room, accessible entryways, and laundry in each apartment. Grandparents like Velma Calvin can easily keep an eye on their kids from their patios, but if Edwards were to do it again he would go further, he said, by building the complex in a visibility-intensive horseshoe shape.
Tanner was keenly aware that housing design and amenities could, in combination, foster security and stability, which have an impact on physical well-being. At the Grandfamilies Place, the floors are carpet-free to stave off asthma attacks. And health professionals come to the complex to talk to tenants about nutrition, check their blood pressures and body-mass indexes, and help with insurance enrollment.
“That was a relief,” said Marie Dumpson Armstrong, who lives at the Grandfamilies Place with her husband (one of the few men at the complex) and their 6-year-old great-granddaughter, Samiyah. “The more relief you have, the healthier you’re going to feel. Some of the health conditions I have, it doesn’t matter — where I live isn’t going to help that. But the fact that it’s helping my mental mind is helping me physically.”
“Some of the health conditions I have, it doesn’t matter — where I live isn’t going to help that. But the fact that it’s helping my mental mind is helping me physically.”
Samiyah has bronchiolitis, Armstrong said, and the simple fact that the property manager changes the air filters regularly makes a world of difference.
The on-site manager, Lauren Campbell, tries to create a friendly, communal environment with barbecues and live music. Calvin, a retired college cafeteria worker, knows her neighbors on the first floor and they spend evenings with each other. Meanwhile, Laylah, a precocious kid who takes advantage of the on-site Girl Scouts troop and other offerings, can be found dancing to radio hits in the hallway with her friend from upstairs.
And in the dry desert heat, the pool gets plenty of use.
Built-in support systems
The isolation commonly experienced by grandparents raising grandkids can take a toll on mental health, said Deborah Sampson, a therapist and researcher who has interviewed many grandparents.
They often report losing contact with their peers after they begin living with children, she found. Because of physical demands, time spent on homework and activities, and financial pressure to return to work or take on another job, personal time can evade the grandparents. Many interviewed by Sampson said they craved social connections and camaraderie.
“Stress and exhaustion were the two big things,” she said. “A lot of them had anxiety too. They’d been on their own for a while, then — bam! — here comes the grandkids. There were no sources for them to reach out to get any kind of help with anything.”
Grandfamily housing communities are designed to double as support groups — full of built-in babysitters, for example, if someone needs a night off.
For others, the biggest value is the opportunity for privacy. For many seniors, constant contact with active kids is overwhelming. One of the most common requests during the Las Abuelitas design process was for separate bathrooms, one with a disability-accessible shower for the adults, and one with a bathtub for the kids.
“I remember one of the grandmothers saying, ‘You know, sometimes the only place that I have alone is in my bathroom. That’s my safe space,’” Hutchison said.
In Phoenix, too, Armstrong was attracted to the Grandfamilies Place in large part because the complex offered the potential for solitude. She was drawn to the brightly colored buildings while driving by one day shortly before the property opened. She liked the idea of living with other families who had similar situations, but maybe not in such close quarters. It had been years since the part-time day care teacher lived in an apartment complex, and she worried that it would be loud and cramped.
Armstrong’s fears abated when she saw the spacious units and the safety features. She is grateful for the gates, which keep out unwanted visitors and give her peace of mind.
“I really feel safe,” she said. She likes to joke that “the only way they’re moving me out of here is in a pine box.”
How housing and health intersect
By listening to their residents, developers at both sites were able to approach the intersection of housing and health holistically, providing an array of seemingly small features that work in tandem to deliver wide-reaching mental and physical benefits.
Over at the Grandfamilies Place, the kids spend the summer on bikes that are donated by a local nonprofit. During the sunny days, they tear around the complex, hardly bothered by the heat. One adult tenant directs a church-based program that gives the children healthy breakfasts and lunches. It’s a relief for the grandparents, who rely on free lunches during the school year and may have difficulty making it to the grocery store.
That does not mean they don’t gather now and then in the central spaces for lavish holiday meals or cookouts. On Thanksgiving they collectively prepared a feast in the communal kitchen.
“They got some grandmas in here that can cook,” Calvin said.