Multigenerational Living: The Future of Housing or a Last Resort?

Alyssa Oursler is a San Francisco-based journalist sharing today's guest article about multigenerational housing. Read more perspectives on housing from Strong Towns here.

You grow up. You move out. You get your own place. Right? Not so fast. Recently, adults are more and more likely to live under their parents’ roofs for longer. Seniors, especially as Baby Boomers age, are more likely to move back in with their kids as well. In 2016, a record 64 million people lived in multigenerational arrangements, defined as houses with two or more adult generations. That’s 20 percent of the US population — a proportion not seen for almost 70 years.

Housing design is beginning to cater to this trend: dual master suites, accessory dwelling units, and halfplexes are a few examples. But no matter what you call it, the main thing needed for a multigenerational arrangement is more space. As Curbed aptly summarized earlier this year, “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.”

Most apartments are not set up to accommodate larger multigenerational families, which can result in cramped living conditions for those with no other choice. (Source: Wonderlane)

Most apartments are not set up to accommodate larger multigenerational families, which can result in cramped living conditions for those with no other choice. (Source: Wonderlane)

Multigenerational arrangements, mathematically, mean more people per housing unit — a figure that’s notably high in Santa Ana, California. According to the most recently available Census data, the average unit in Santa Ana houses more than four people. For comparison, state and national averages are both below three. According to the Pew Research Center, multigenerational housing is also more common among Hispanics, who make up almost 80 percent of Santa Ana’s population.

This trend is taken into consideration as Santa Ana undertakes new projects, according to Judson Brown, housing division manager of the city’s Community Development Agency. “The City Council has really prioritized family units because they’re aware more people are doubling and tripling up,” he said. Brown noted a recent affordable project that included four- and five-bedroom units. Todd Cottle of C & C Development Co., said throughout the project, people saw those units on the floor plan and thought they were a mistake. Indeed, they are more anomaly than trend, he said. Three-bedroom units are more common and still meant to appeal to larger households, some of which extend beyond traditional immediate family.

But larger units are far from a cut-and-dry solution. Those who do get into affordable housing could face barriers to doubling up, as affordable housing has strict income and household size restrictions. “As kids are growing up and somebody gets into their early twenties, they start making an income out there, you combine that with what their parents’ income is, that will end up taking their household over the income limit,” Cottle said. In a market price apartment in Santa Ana, on the other hand, that additional income is often a necessity — and still may not be enough to create stability.

Cottle doesn’t see multigenerational arrangements as the cause of high density of Santa Ana; quite the reverse. The high density means that supply is outweighed by demand and prices have skyrocketed as a result, he said. His company recently completed an affordable housing project with 70 units. There were about 1,500 people on the wait list for those accommodations. A few years ago, the wait lists were, on average, about a quarter of that length. “It’s a testament to how difficult it is for folks to make their housing payment,” he explained.

Ana Siria Urzua of Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities also expressed how challenging it is for residents to get into affordable housing because requirements are so stringent. Many of the people that end up in “untraditional” arrangements are the ones that don’t get in. To that end, it’s not just multiple generations living under one roof; it’s often multiple families, she said. She cited a family of five she knows that is living in a studio apartment and the fact that three families live in a single apartment in her own complex. She sees such arrangements as a symptom of the city’s housing problem — not a solution to it. People aren’t choosing multi-generational housing. There simply isn’t any other way to get by.

Thus, structural changes to improve such arrangements could arguably raise prices to the point that the arrangements no longer serve their purpose — at least in a city with rents as extreme as Santa Ana.

The scope of the problem, in Cottle’s view, widens the scope of solutions. It doesn’t necessarily take special design to improve the housing situation in the city, he said. Regardless of whether a developer is building affordable projects or not, building multigeneration projects or not, they’re helping. The best solution is to put a lid on skyrocketing rents. Housing costs are only going to fall with an increase in supply.

Urzua, on the other hand, is skeptical of developers regardless of whether they are tailoring projects to doubled-up families or not. She thinks the issue is far more complex than merely increasingly supply.

“When I hear that we need more multigenerational housing, I also hear this same approach of: let the development in. Let’s incentivize it, deregulate it, just make sure there’s more building. And I think the concern with that is that is giving away essentially our power over to developers to come and build housing and projects that have no involvement from the immediate population. In the long run, [that]’s more of a harm than a good,” she said.

“Some say that the culprit is a lack of housing stock and I think it’s more complex. Often the culprit is putting the profits and the benefits of some over the wellbeing of many,” she added.

For areas of the country that aren’t facing housing prices as extreme as they are in Santa Ana, multigenerational options may hold more promise. “Multigenerational” is really just a fancy word for rethinking our concept of a family or household. Cultural assumptions about housing are likely to continue to shift as people see such arrangements working for others. Cottle pointed out some of its advantages, too: seniors living with their kids could help with childrearing, for example.

But as multigenerational housing is offered as a potential solution for housing affordability, places in which it’s a symptom of a more significant crisis must be considered with nuance.

(Top photo source: The Libre Initiative)

About the Author

Alyssa Oursler is a journalist and essayist. She has written for USA Today, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Popular Science, SF Weekly, and more. You can find her on Twitter: @alyssaoursler.