Donna Butts remembers one of the moments that sold her on the idea that there was a sustained rise in the number of multigenerational households. As executive director of Generations United, a nonprofit that promotes intergenerational living, she was called to do an interview on the topic for a Louisiana radio station a few years ago. The host seemed wedded to stereotypes: He’d never want his mother-in-law to move in, since she’d be intrusive and annoying, and adult kids living with their parents were strictly a sign of spoiled millennials.
He was convinced, that is, until he opened the phone lines.
“So, he starts taking calls and, suddenly, everyone has a great story about living with a grandparents or a child under the same roof, and how it’s made their lives better,” Butts says, laughing. “At one point, seeming desperate to prove his point, he asks a guy point blank if having his parent live with his family harms his love life. He just replied, ‘Well, now I have a live-in babysitter, so no.’”
Butts says that this way of thinking—what she calls the ‘John Wayne, go-it-alone mentality’—is withering in the United States. Multigenerational living, when more than one generation lives under one roof (not counting young children or teens), has hit record levels in the U.S. In 2014, according to Pew Research Center data, 60.6 million people, or 19 percent of the U.S. population, lived in multigenerational homes, including 26.9 million three-generation households.
As millennials moved back to their parents’ homes in the wake of the Great Recession, this demographic shift found itself in the media spotlight. But the reasons for the shift are deeper than that, says Butts. Whether due to changing economic circumstances, increasing cultural diversity that welcomes such arrangements, or the evolving lifestyles of older Americans, more families in the U.S. are embracing more traditional living arrangements. Families may have come together by need, but they stayed together by choice.
“It’s not a lifestyle that’s for everyone,” says Butts. “But it’s not all about the standard stereotypes. It’s something that we need to support instead of push back.”
The ongoing shift has big implications for architects and developers, who have already created flexible units and newer solutions, such as accessory dwelling units, aimed at a market that wants a home—and home life—different than the cookie-cutter ’50s suburban model.
“This is a lot more than a hangover from the recession,” says D’Vera Cohn, a Pew senior writer and editor who co-authored the multigenerational living report. “There are a lot of reasons to believe the numbers in the study, from 2014, are on the rise, including increasing racial and ethnic diversity.”
Returning to the norm
Multigenerational living may seem odd—or retro—but that response speaks to how our traditional ideas of family have shifted. The 2014 Pew figures, showing 19 percent of the country in multigenerational households, illuminate a steady rise from a 1980 low point, when the rate was 12 percent. It’s nearly a return to the 1950 rate of 21 percent, before a more “modern” lifestyle truly took hold.
Cohn says if you examine the rates of older people living with their adult children, it appeared to be even more common; in the early 1900s, more than half of elderly men and women had moved back in with their kids.
It’s not hard to see the advantages of such an arrangement. Caregiving became easier, children formed bonds with older family members, and everyone saved money. As evidence of the potential benefits for all generations, Butts points to studies that indicate children in single-parent households that also include grandparents exhibited improved school performance, and one showing that older adults who spend more time with grandchildren live longer.
Changing dynamics of 21st-century families
The nation’s growing and increasingly diverse immigrant population plays a big role in the shift. In 2014, 28 percent of Asian and 25 percent of Hispanic households were multigenerational, according to Pew data, both up from five years prior—and a significant jump from the rate found in white households, just 15 percent.
Butts adds that today’s younger adults are also closer to their parents and don’t feel like it’s a burden to live at home. Many are “age agnostic,” she says, feel the stigma of staying at home is gone, and see that moving back home isn’t a bad financial decision.
Americans are also living much longer, retiring later, and leading active lifestyles later in life. According to Projections and Implications for Housing a Growing Population: Older Households 2015-2035, a report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, the number of Americans over 80 will double, from 6 million to 12 million, in the next two decades. And by 2035, one out of three U.S. households will be headed by someone over 65. Butts says this increasing number of retired or elderly Americans may have planned well for retirement, but adding extra years stretches out their nest eggs.
“We’re not adding 20 years just to the end of our lives,” Butts says. “We’re adding more to every phase.”
According to a 2016 survey by John Burns Real Estate Consulting, 44 percent of home shoppers in a group of 20,000 hoped to accommodate their elderly parents, and 42 percent planned to accommodate their adult children.
Building a bigger, and better, homestead
Homebuilders, developers, and designers have rushed to respond to the demand.
“You’ve seen a lot of builders in the last five to six years submit floor plans that allow for separate living spaces,” says Chris Porter, an analyst at John Burns. “Giving different generations their own living space is very important to them.”
Many homebuilders now offer specific products designed for today’s increasingly flexible family scenario. Pardee Homes, which operates in California and Nevada, recently introduced the GenSmart Suite as an option for new model homes. Built with a separate living space, bedroom, kitchenette, and exterior entrance, the build-on, which costs between $19,000 and $25,000, offers freedom for returning kids and older adults. More than 100 homes sold in four new developments included this option.
“As we see affordability issues increase, families are moving in together, or the boomerang kids are moving back in with their families,” says Katherine Fowler, director of marketing at Pardee Homes Inland Empire. “The biggest need is affordability, and our sales associates said these homes get a lot of interest. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think it’ll continue to be in high demand.”
Another large builder, Lennar, has taken this a step further with its NextGen Communities concept, which it advertises as “two homes, one price.” Launched in Phoenix five years ago, the floorplans comprise a traditional home and an adjacent private apartment. A door connects the units, but each has its own entrance and parking. Living with your in-laws is easier, the idea goes, if they can live in your house, yet also next door.
Helping all families find a solution
Still, the communities for which multigenerational living is most popular—among immigrants, especially in big cities—often can only afford to accommodate extended families in less formal ways. That’s where new ideas and public policy can play a bigger role in making multigen living easier.
Helen Leung, co-executive director of LA-Más, a nonprofit architecture and design firm in Los Angeles (and 2017 Groundbreaker award winner), says in immigrant households—including those in the Chinese community she grew up in—families would find additional space in garages or on second floors.
It’s improvisational multigenerational living that reacts to need, rather than housing designed for the arrangement at the outset. Overcrowding is already a reality, and now, with millennials staying put, it’s occurring more than ever (LA-Más research found that the city has nearly 50,000 small, unpermitted units for this purpose).
Permitting and zoning are big barriers. Michael Litchfield, the author of In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide to Turning One House into Two Homes, has written about creating and adding living space to existing homes. He speaks of the “dead hand of single-family zoning” preventing more informal, reactive responses to overcrowded family homes.
A number of other architects, developers, and cities have similar tests and trials underway. Austin’s Alley Flat Initiative aims to increase the city’s affordable housing stock and make it easier for families to add new units to their property. In Rancho Mission Viejo, builders have created a multigenerational neighborhood called Esencia. The New York architecture firm HWKN wrote guidelines for inclusive multigenerational living.
Leung and LA-Más will help trial a new type of structure called an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU. As part of an ADU Pilot Project sponsored by the city, they’re attempting to design and build units for two families in the city’s Highland Park neighborhood, as well as create a simple, legal, and affordable process for additional property owners to add space. Whether it’s providing an older adult with space, outfitting a young adult with his or her own apartment, or even establishing another source of income, Leung says it’s important to both encourage multigenerational living in this context while adding to the city’s supply of affordable units.
“When it comes to the hip housing in downtown areas, millennials want it, but seniors need it,” she says. “They need to be in an affordable place where they can live in walkable areas.”