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Extended family living: Can a fuller house improve child outcomes?

By Megan Carolan, Director of Policy Research

As another season of Fuller House debuted this month, viewers like myself who grew up on the original may find themselves focusing on a background character: the house. Throughout the original show and in its reboot, the house has transformed to fit the characters living there, including a basement “bachelor pad,” an attic apartment for a young family, and a revolving door of room arrangements for the kids. The Tanners and other families who have joined them have constantly shifted the physical space to suit their needs, capitalizing on the collective power of non-traditional living arrangements to raise children.

Multigenerational housing is an attractive option for families in all walks of life. It offers the potential for lots of loving adults to be engaged with kids during the labor-intensive work of childrearing, which can pay dividends for adults and kids alike, and allows kids to develop strong bonds with non-parent adults. Sharing household responsibilities and costs may even help reduce stress and anxiety for parents, which is linked to a range of child outcomes.

The Center for American Progress estimates that about 85 million people – 17 percent of all U.S. households – are living as extended families, up from 58 million in 2001. This doesn’t even include “fictive kin” – a term which covers those friends who are like family (the Kimmy Gibblers and Joey Gladstones of the world) – so the true number is likely to be much greater.

 

The Appeal

There isn’t one particular trend that would suddenly spur the growth of extended family housing, but a lot of trends have come together coupled with increasing visibility. A poll on behalf of Generations United found that more than three-quarters of families in multigenerational households felt their living arrangement made it easier to care for relatives, benefited at least one member financially, and improved family bonds.

It isn’t a secret that housing is expensive (spoiler alert! Danny Tanner wouldn’t have been able afford that house even before the Bay Area real estate boom). It is well-known that the housing market, particularly in cities like the show’s home of San Francisco, have become fiercely competitive. Cost is often one of the key drivers of multigenerational or extended family housing. Whether single parents or a two-parent family juggling the demands of modern family life, many parents also realize the value in having other adults in their lives who can provide a supportive shoulder and a helping hand – both for them and their children.

 

Housing Options

Multigenerational housing isn’t just about having enough bedrooms to fit everyone, but rather ensuring a space meets the needs of all residents. For example, if there are two couples from different branches of a family living together, who gets the “master” bedroom, or do you ensure there are two? Are children from separate branches comfortable sharing a room? Do grandparents need ground-level accommodations?

Some families are able to buy or build a home to fit these specific needs. Thirteen percent of homebuyers in 2017 purchased homes designed for multigenerational living, which can feature separate entrances and additional living space. Most of this new construction tends to be in suburbs, but cities have a larger share of extended family households than they do nuclear families – creating unique needs.  Homeowners may be able to customize their existing property using Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), which create standalone units on existing property. Last year, I spoke with Apartment Therapy about “granny pods,” which can accommodate older families members, usually in a small unit built in the backyard, allowing them to enjoy benefits of independent living while still having close contact with their adult children and grandchildren. The term actually covers a large range of “add on” facilities, including converting a garage to its own apartment, though many cities have blocked ADUs, concerned about the impact they could have on neighborhoods. In reality, cities often have a lot of unofficial ADUs –garage or basement apartments without being officially up to code.

Many families are not able to renovate or custom-build. Rental properties are obviously less flexible to changing family needs, with extended families more likely to be “underhoused” – generally, more than two people to a bedroom – than nuclear families, creating additional stresses on a family. The lack of availability of larger rental units may be hindering the growth of extended family housing in urban areas.

Specialty communities exist in some areas specifically to meet the needs of extended families, such as facilities in New York City and Washington, D.C. which offer not just housing but comprehensive services to low-income grandparents raising their grandchildren. The need for this model well outstrips the available units, and other options allowing for other definitions of family. “Cohousing” communities are intentional neighborhoods which combine independent living with a united vision for a community, including events and shared facilities. While there are only 165 facilities in the United States, the model has a greater reach in Denmark and the Netherlands. While family units live separately, these communities require a clear commitment to their principles of shared living and interdependency though, for example, shared cooking on a designated schedule, responsibilities in maintaining the “common house,” and communal facilities such as laundry and bike share.

Considerations for Families

Of course, real life doesn’t come with a laugh track, and families considering extended family arrangement should have open, honest conversations about their expectations and how they will navigate conflict and family dynamics.

Children of different ages are going to respond differently – a preschooler may not think it odd to suddenly have a fun friend living at home, while tweens struggling with their own identity may resent the arrangement. Age-appropriate, clear communication is key. Adults should make sure they are on the same page related to parenting philosophies, health, and safety – and that you agree on how to handle these rules both with your own kids and with other children if they are present.

Talk with the children’s school about the arrangement and fill out any paperwork to ensure that other adults can pick up your child, and vice versa for other children in the house. If you think you might take another household member’s child to the doctor sometimes– talk to your pediatrician’s office about filling out forms to grant each other consent to receive medical information and consider whether they can make any medical decisions in your absence. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that some states require a signed affidavit or written power of attorney to grant consent to non-parents.

If anyone in the household receives governments benefits in the form of food assistance or cash assistance, read over your paperwork carefully before making the move. For example, the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) defines eligibility by a household in terms of “who lives together and purchases and prepares meals together.” Public housing units and housing vouchers also take family size into account, and senior housing in particular may have barriers that prevent younger relatives from joining a household.  Each state has a lot of flexibility in the exact terms of their programs, but adults should consider the sources of support other than their income and do some research before making a decision to avoid being caught off guard down the line.

Families have always arranged their households based on their individual needs, regardless of our cultural fixation on the nuclear family, but social media makes it easier to share the experience and find similar families. Extended family living can be an asset for families, but families still must navigate a range of interpersonal dynamics and challenges created by our society’s focus on nuclear families. Moving the conversation to policymakers and politicians, and not just TV plotlines, can make extended family living a reality, with children and adults alike reaping the benefits.

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