Upon graduation from Harvard Law School, I will return to live in my childhood home in Astoria, Queens with my mother, grandmother, and younger brother. I could pay $3,000 a month for a small one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, but that’s impractical when I could live with my family and save money. What’s more, living where I grew up means that I can participate in the community that has shaped me. Perhaps I’m a stereotypical millennial, failing to launch, but I feel it’s the right decision.
In fact, Americans increasingly embrace this way of life. According to Pew, a record 64 million Americans, or 20 percent of the U.S. population, now live in multigenerational homes—a rate not seen since the fifties. Apart from giving people greater access to housing in expensive markets, this arrangement offers a variety of economic and social benefits. As urban planners and policymakers debate future residential development, multigenerational living should be part of the mix.
Extended-family living is as old as the human species, and it proved a cornerstone of American life as the nation grew. In 1900, 57 percent of adults aged 65 and older lived in a multigenerational household, which often included two or more adult generations living together. Following World War II, mass homeownership became widely achievable with the advent of low-density, cheaply built single-family dwellings on large lots in suburbs. Young baby boomers moved out earlier in life, typically after high school or college; their parents or grandparents, thanks to new federal entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, enjoyed financial flexibility that let them live separately from their children. As fewer families opted to share a home, the multigenerational family gave way to the nuclear family.
Today, however, nuclear families make up only 20 percent of American households. An economy based on intellectual capital has stoked demand for younger, college-educated employees, resulting in corporate flight from suburbs to talent-rich, dense cities. Over the past 20 years, real estate prices in major metropolitan areas, particularly on the coasts, have risen dramatically. At the same time, older adults, confronting a loss of self-sufficiency and a dearth of housing options, are struggling to stay in their homes. As policymakers struggle to increase housing affordability and choice in cities, many family members are combining their resources under one roof.
Multigenerational living offers financial benefits through improved economies of scale. Larger families share the costs of housing, food, and transportation, and may allocate tasks to members who can accomplish them most efficiently. For young adults, living with older relatives means cheaper or no rent, faster student-loan repayment, and sounder finances heading into marriage. Young parents can benefit from having family members live in the same house or within walking distance.
As of 2016, both parents were employed in more than 60 percent of families with children—often requiring child-care arrangements that strain family budgets. In multigenerational households, grandparents can look after children. In fact, the Berlin Aging Study reveals that grandparents who babysit live longer, and the Women’s Health Aging Project in Australia shows that grandmothers who take care of children perform better on cognitive tests than those who do not.
And by sharing a household with younger people, elders have access to caregivers when necessary. Caring for the elderly can be distributed among family members—already the backbone of America’s long-term eldercare system—and personal-care aides, who remain in critical shortage. Greater social interaction also reduces the possibility of social isolation, which often poses severe health risks to senior citizens. My grandmother, for instance, doesn’t need to worry about transportation, grocery shopping, or being left alone. More than 80 percent of family caregivers in the U.S. find helping their aging parents rewarding, as my family can attest.
The current residential environment is poorly suited to multigenerational families. To accommodate larger families, single-family homes can be modified, with accessory-dwelling units added to create denser neighborhoods of duplexes and triplexes more suitable for multigenerational living. These possibilities will require changes to zoning regulations that permit only single-family homes and prohibit dense development. Last year, Minneapolis approved duplexes and triplexes in every neighborhood, including many formerly restricted to single-family homes. Since more compact development generates about ten times more municipal tax receipts per acre and reduces infrastructure costs relative to single-family properties, prudent tax credits to spur such development can yield higher tax revenue over time. Ideally, this denser development will occur in areas closer to convenient transit corridors, reducing sprawl.
Astoria’s housing arrangement provides a good model. Denser five- and six-story apartment buildings, along with six-unit walkups, are occasionally interspersed among rowhouses of duplexes and triplexes, while small-lot single-family homes are located farthest from the subway. Mixed-use retail and residential buildings along avenues provide round-the-clock activity and watchfulness. There’s something for everyone. All are connected to transit, never more than two miles away.
Examples from abroad also offer guidance. Since 2015, Singapore has offered housing grants to individuals living with or near their parents. More than 20,000 households received the grant from 2015 to 2018, accounting for 28 percent of all home-resale applications. This type of housing grant could work in the U.S., too. A 2015 New York Times analysis revealed that typical American adults live only 18 miles away from their mothers, with even shorter distances in the Northeast’s dense cities.
While multigenerational living undoubtedly presents challenges, many Americans are making it work. It presents an opportunity to address multiple systemic issues, such as caring for an aging population and coping with high real-estate prices. Sometimes, modern problems require older solutions.