En español | They lived more than a year without a permanent home, but Peter Cordero and his 12-year-old granddaughter, Jaida, found a place to lay their heads at Grandparent Family Apartments. This 50-unit complex in the South Bronx, New York, was designed specifically for grandparents raising grandchildren.
Jaida gets tutoring help and no longer has to worry about where to do her homework in the cramped quarters of a homeless shelter. “When she first came to see the apartment and they gave us the keys, she was the happiest girl in the world,” says Cordero, 64, who has raised Jaida since birth because her mother was unable to care for her.
But Cordero has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema, and supports the two of them on disability income. “If it was just me, I'm OK. I can survive,” he says. “But she's growing; she grows out of her clothes.” At Grandparents Family Apartments, he pays $303 in monthly rent, an amount based on his income.
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This “grandfamily” complex opened in 2005, part of a trend in which such specialized housing has been developed in 17 U.S. cities, according to the nonprofit group Generations United.
About 2.6 million children are being raised without a parent in the home by grandparents, other relatives or close family friends, Generations United says. That dynamic is driven, at least in part, by social problems such as the opioid epidemic, incarceration and — most recently — immigration policies that have left American-born children separated from their parents. This has put particular stress on grandparents, many of whom lack the money or coping skills to take on all the challenges of a parental role.
"The complexes that are successful have the social workers, the tutors, the support groups, the special services,” says Donna Butts, Generations United executive director. “Where it has not been successful is where it was just an apartment."
Residents also help each other. “You're putting people together who have similar experiences and needs, and providing them with a sense of community,” says Megan Dolbin-MacNab, an associate professor in Virginia Tech's Department of Human Development and Family Science.
"It can be difficult for grandchildren. They're trying to make sense of, ‘Why can't my mom take care of me?’ Living near other children raised by grandparents has the potential to help grandchildren cope with these types of issues."
Financing for such complexes and services is from a mix of private and public funds. The $12.8 million Grandparent Family Apartments was built with low-income housing tax credits and private financing and fundraising. The complex is a joint effort among Presbyterian Senior Services, the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing, and the New York City Housing Authority. The housing authority contributes to a subsidy to keep the rent affordable.
Gail Fedele, 69, arrived at the complex in 2013, when her grandchildren, Kassandra and Vinzente Fedele, were teenagers. Before that, they spent three years in a New York City homeless shelter. They now live in a three-bedroom apartment. Fedele volunteers in the office. Vinzente is a 22-year-old student at City College of New York in Manhattan. And Kassandra, 24, who has mental health needs, may soon move into supportive housing.
Fedele has diabetes, COPD and congestive heart failure; she recently submitted a request to be transferred to public housing in Manhattan as her grandchildren age out of grandfamily housing. In time, Vinzente may reverse roles and start caring for his grandmother. “He will take care of me until the day he gets married,” Fedele says. “And then he can leave.”
Ronda Kaysen is a freelance journalist who writes about real estate for the New York Times.