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October 20, 2020updated 04 Aug 2023 8:27am

The case for prioritising multigenerational housing

Even prior to Covid-19, multigenerational living was on the rise in countries like the US. Finding and purchasing houses that are suited to this style of habitation is often needlessly difficult.

By diana lind

A two-flat home and a four-flat home appear side-by-side in a Chicago neighbourhood.

Two-flat-style homes on a residential street in Chicago. (Photo by Sorbis/Shutterstock.com)

The Chicago two-flat is the city’s answer to the Brooklyn brownstone and the Philadelphia row house. Built at the turn of the 20th century by and for European immigrants, the two-​flat was a type of two-​story housing intended as a compromise between a single-​family home and living with boarders. With a two-​flat, owners got the best of both worlds: a family could live in one unit and rent out the other for income while still maintaining privacy. The style of home proliferated throughout the city, such that two- to four-​flat buildings now make up more than a quarter of Cook County’s total housing stock and one-​third of its rentals.

For people like Mike Healy, a two-flat offered a way to afford a home and house a loved one nearby. Long before Covid-19 forced many young families to move in with parents or in-laws to cope with virtual school while working from home, Healy saw the mutual benefits of helping his mother-in-law move into his two-flat. His own parents suffered their last days in isolation, which he felt sped their decline. His mother-in-law was living by herself and entering her 60s, the phase of life when social isolation can begin to set in. He wondered what they would do if his mother‑in‑law got sick. At this point, Healy and his wife were raising two young children. The prospect of his wife flying to take care of her mother every few weeks was unappealing on so many levels. But the more important question was, why wait until his mother‑in‑law got sick to be involved in her care or spend time with her? Why not, this time around, try to prevent the kind of care crisis his own parents experienced?

Healy offered his mother‑in‑law the chance to live with her daughter and her grandchildren, but with a good deal of privacy. His mother‑in‑law could have the upstairs apartment to herself and come downstairs to a welcoming family when she wanted. It did not take much convincing to get Healy’s mother‑in‑law to move to Chicago. She could spend more time with her grandchildren, help out by babysitting and share meals with her daughter and Healy. Whereas before she was living alone and checking in occasionally by phone, “now she feels vitally necessary and useful”, he says.

Having a third adult paying for the house’s upkeep and mortgage has created a little bit of an economic surplus. Healy also sees a “social-familial surplus” in having a third adult in the house. While his mother‑in‑law is not directly responsible for her grandkids, she has the authority that a grandparent conveys. She keeps an open-door policy with the kids, so they can run upstairs whenever they want to see their grandmother. As for the adults, while they share four walls, they’re cognisant that they have private space and it’s important to be aware of the cues indicating when company is welcome or not.

“Yesterday’s favour can be tomorrow’s expectation,” Healy says, noting that just because he makes dinner for everyone one night or his mother‑in‑law offers to get the groceries one day, it doesn’t mean that these one-off gestures should become obligations.

That said, there is an abundance of favours from Healy’s mother‑in‑law. He sounds downright gleeful discussing how she will always take the baby monitor after the kids are in bed, allowing Healy and his wife a chance to go out almost any night without having to pay for a babysitter or worry they need to book childcare in advance. “She’ll keep the monitor and save the kids if the house burns down,” he says with a laugh.

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The main advantage for Healy is knowing how his mother‑in‑law is doing. Without proximity to his own parents, he may have missed warning signs that their health was at risk. In seeing his mother‑in‑law every day, Healy knows that she is being taken care of and is ensuring her own best health and independence.

Healy’s example hits on many of the advantages of multigenerational households: less social isolation for grandparents, more care for young children, childcare flexibility and economic savings, to name a few. These are some of the biggest issues facing young families, ageing baby boomers and anyone struggling to make rent. What if multigenerational housing were, in fact, a key to solving so many of the problems confronting countries like the US? What if it offered a way to live in a better house at a lower cost, a way to enable a better life for families and a way to stay healthy and connected in a time when most housing discourages it?

A growing market for multigenerational living

Even prior to Covid-19, multigenerational living was on the rise in the US. An ageing population, high housing costs, an increasing number of Hispanic and Asian American households (many of which have a tradition and propensity to live multigenerationally), and delayed independence among 20-somethings all accounted for the rise. As of 2018, 64 million Americans, or more than 20% of the population, lived multigenerationally. In 2018, the average US household size ticked up for the first time since 1850, in part due to extended families living together. With all the demographic trends behind multigenerational living projected to continue into the near future, there’s no reason to think this style of living will reverse. Indeed, Covid-19 has only made living with kin more popular. Still, housing that purposefully accommodates multigenerational living is rare in many countries, and particularly in the US.

Multigenerational housing has never been explicitly outlawed or targeted by exclusive zoning in the US. It simply fell out of style, first gradually in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then rapidly in the second half of the 20th century. As economic conditions changed, the advantages and disadvantages of families living together – and as the invention of “the American Dream” of owning one’s own home discouraged multigenerational living ­– fewer and fewer US families had the financial or social incentives to live this way.

Steven Ruggles, a professor of history and population studies at the University of Minnesota, describes how omnipresent multigenerational living was during the mid-19th century. “About 70% of persons aged 65 or older lived with their children or children‑in‑law. In addition, about a tenth of the elderly lived with other relatives, mainly grandchildren, siblings, nephews and nieces. Another tenth lived with non-​relatives; most of these were boarders, but some were household heads who kept boarders or servants.” Only 11% of US seniors in 1850 lived alone or with only their spouses, and only 0.7% lived in institutions such as almshouses or homes for the aged.

While many today think of multigenerational households as less economically secure, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the poor were less likely to be in such an arrangement. Additional household members added to the financial resources and stability of the family, and wealthier families were more incentivised to keep their descendants close by. Families who lived multigenerationally not only accumulated wealth together, they were better positioned to pass on their wealth and property.

Multigenerational living fell out of favour as family businesses, particularly family farms, became less popular. As more young Americans found success leaving their families behind, moving out of the family home became equated with success. At the same time, family size continued to decrease, and with fewer children, there was not always a child who could support his or her parents as they aged. By 1980, just 12% of American households lived multigenerationally.

But rather than continue to decline from there, multigenerational housing rose in popularity again. Today, more Americans are in a such a living situation than ever before. The percentage is the same as it was in 1950, which means the actual number of people has doubled (64 million today versus 32 million back then). For many Americans, it’s a simple economic proposition: living with family provides an opportunity to share expenses and possibly live in better housing than each generation could afford separately. Student loans and other kinds of debt have made independent living impossible for many young adults, and the 2008 recession made independent retirement more difficult for seniors. It’s not a coincidence that the steepest rise in multigenerational living occurred from 2009 to 2014, when an extra 9.1 million Americans moved in with family at a time when the US was slowly emerging from recession. Depending on how long it takes for the economy to recover from the Covid‑19 pandemic, the US may see yet more increases in multigenerational living.

For others, living with extended family is a way of coping with the time and money required to raise children. Formal day care has become incredibly expensive: the average cost of day care programmes in the US was just under $1,000 per month in a 2015 study and can be much more expensive in high-​cost cities. This means that the cost of childcare has increased 2,000% in the past 40 years. Mothers who want to work but can’t afford day care are often housebound unless they find a family member willing to pitch in and look after their children for free. In 2020, with many day cares and schools closed, more working parents are relying on grandparents to help with virtual school or homeschooling.

While these scenarios frame multigenerational housing as a form of coping with hardship, there are many US families for whom it is traditional to live together. As of 2018, 29% of Asian American households, 27% of Hispanic households and 26% of Black families live multigenerationally in the US, compared with just 15% of white families. The National Institutes of Health notes that foreign-​born populations accustomed to multigenerational living may find the interpersonal dynamics of family-​centred living situations less stressful than native-​born populations in the US do and that three-​generation households have more social capital or helpful networks than single-​generation households.

A public housing complex in Singapore, which encourages living close by to elderly residents.

For residents in public housing like this complex in Singapore, the government offers incentives to live close to elderly family members. (Photo by Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)

Where multigenerational living is prioritised

In many non-​Western cultures, families believe in a kind of filial piety, or respecting and taking care of one’s elders. As a result, living with grandparents is seen less as a burden than as an important responsibility. The research fails to show a statistical health benefit for all multigenerational households, perhaps because of confounding factors – for one, those living together out of necessity rather than by choice may also be under stress. But the data does suggest that multigenerational living could be a social and economic boost for those who are willingly living this way.

Some countries feel so strongly about supporting multigenerational housing, or intergenerational communities, that they put incentives behind it. In Singapore, for example, the government will pay you to live with or near your elderly relatives. Singapore’s Proximity Housing Grant programme pays families SG$30,000 ($22,094) to move within 2km (1.24 miles) of grandparents or children in one of the government’s Housing and Development Board homes. In Hong Kong, the government prioritises applications from multigenerational families that live together or near one another for access to senior-​oriented public housing.

Countries where the government pays for healthcare are eager to find ways to reduce hospital visits and healthcare costs for seniors. Having live-in or nearby support is clearly one way to achieve that goal. Germany has looked at the psychological side effects and isolation of ageing and has supported the construction of 540 Mehrgenerationenhäuser, or intergenerational communities. These centres, which often serve as a kind of day care for both the young and old, enable interaction between seniors and children in the hopes of giving seniors opportunities to contribute to and engage with the next generation.

Rather than encouraging multigenerational households, the US essentially discourages them. Multifamily properties, like Healy’s two-​flat, are more difficult to finance than single-​family homes. When he initially sought to purchase his home, the combination of the fact that it was a multifamily home and that it was within 300 feet of a gas station made it a non-starter for an FHA government loan. He and his wife instead had to cobble together money from personal loans to pay for the house. Multifamily homes are essentially considered commercial properties and, as such, are ineligible for standard FHA mortgages. As a result, a swath of buyers who would benefit from the FHA’s low down-​payment requirements and low interest rates are discouraged from purchasing these properties.

US government benefit programmes can also effectively discourage co‑residence among low-​income families. Americans applying for supplemental security income from Social Security can be discouraged from living with family, since having access to “free food and shelter” can count as income, which reduces the benefit. Similarly, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are dependent on the total income of a household. So while you do get more SNAP benefits if a member of the household is over 60, you are penalised if the combined household income is over the SNAP threshold.

Unlike countries that see the upside of extended families living together, the US government provides no incentives for multigenerational living and instead has programmes with a bias against larger households pooling resources. And it’s not just the government that has been slow to acknowledge its bias. The media routinely denigrates multigenerational living. When a family lives with another adult, it’s called “doubling up”. Children who leave home for college and return are called “boomerang” kids or said to be “failing to launch”.

In general, situations outside the norms of living as a nuclear family, a couple or alone are met with hand-​wringing in the US: how will young people who live with their parents forge their own independence, partner up and build wealth? Is the economy failing if 20-somethings or young families can’t live on their own? Multigenerational housing makes the media uncomfortable, as it runs counter to the model of self-​sufficiency that has long underpinned the so-called American Dream.

Yet, despite these deterrents, multigenerational living continues to gain in popularity. Can a niche part of the US housing industry become a bigger part of the mainstream? Could new policies or programmes help more people benefit from a style of living that is too often inaccessible? What will it take for companies and entrepreneurs to create products geared towards this market of 64 million Americans?

This article was adapted from Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing by Diana Lind. Copyright ©2020. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.

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