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Is Multigenerational Housing Needed in Oshkosh for the “Sandwich” Generation?

BY Lori Palmeri

OK_redhouseAs of 2014, over 57 million Americans lived in multigenerational households and the population living in multigenerational housing has doubled since 1980. That’s 18.1% of the population, according to PEW Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data. This arrangement spiked during the 2007 – 2009 Great recession. That number continues to grow even since the recession.

Before the invention of the “retirement home” and two-income households, families took care of aging parents “in-house.” And, today many grandparents are raising grandchildren, or not-quite-empty-nesters get boomerang kids coming home. In our household, we have four generations that receive various levels of care and support from one main house and two very busy people on one income. We have had a revolving door of young and old for short and long term periods. The struggle is, we live in a pre WWII home with steep stairs, an upstairs bathroom, and no room in the central city cramped lot to build an addition. But even if we did have the space, is that the answer? While we love the character home and its beautiful woodwork, creaky 100 year old hardwood floors, and charming gracious staircase, we have started looking for something we never thought would cross our lips – a snout-house ranch. Yes, the attached garage, all one level sprawling space, with a hopefully finished mid-century Wisconsin family room in the basement. There, I said it. We are out.

Why look for something else, why not remodel? Because grandma is in a wheelchair and can’t get into our house now or up the steps to the bathroom. And grandpa, 86 just lost his wife of 60 years out east. We made the decision to take him in if he wishes. With bedrooms upstairs, how do we accomplish this ambitious traditional task unless we move.

The conflict is that our neighborhood is quite walkable and convenient to everything we love about living in colorful quirky artsy downtown. We love that the farmer’s market is steps just around the corner, the riverwalk is an 8 minute walk from our front door, my husband walks to work at UW Oshkosh, (as do several of our neighbors) and is in great health because of it. A post office, pharmacy, hardware and groceries are in the immediate vicinity. My workshop is nearby and we love gallery walk and all the downtown riverfront and lake have to offer. What isn’t walkable is certainly bike-able in fair weather. While we thought we were going to be downsizing, what we really need is reconfiguration and accessible housing for less mobile persons.

What we realized, is that our options are limited in the city we have established roots in. Over 30% of homes in the Oshkosh housing stock of 27,000-plus, are these pre-WWII homes, many of which are two story with stairs and difficult to navigate for limited mobility folks. While Oshkosh recently enacted new residential design guidelines, Universal Design (targeted to accessibility) was not even on the radar. If we draw a walkable circle around UW Oshkosh, which happens to be the older part of the city, we are pushed into higher cost lake homes or across the river – not so walkable for our work. There are a few of these types of homes still affordable, but they are more bike-able than walkable and slightly out of the price range we wish to spend with modest resources.

Enter the concept of multigenerational household.

What exactly is multi-generational household? It is a family household that contains at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation.

A variety of factors contribute to the increase in multigenerational living, according to the Pew Research Center. Primary motivators for individuals of senior age are health issues and economic concerns. The Milwaukee Journal ran a feature on this issue and posed the question, “Why are families making this change? The cost of assisted living often prompts families to give multigenerational living a try. Assisted living is approximately $4,500 per month… according to a senior living community in Greendale. Many of their residents come from multigenerational households. “That is a good solution for some families,” she said. In Oshkosh, Colony Oaks ran as high as $3,900 per month and that was two years ago when I last checked. How does that work for someone on Social Security of $700 a month? There are only so many subsidies available for housing with long waiting lists and (paid) in-home care can bankrupt the most frugal savers.

Pros and Cons
In the MJS article, some downsides and upsides were discussed, “Generations living under one roof can be a multifaceted challenge. Defining one’s physical and emotional space tops the list. When the Sells first moved in with their grandmother, there was an adjustment period. “There was some fighting, but now my grandma and I get along like two peas in pod,” Tammy Sell said. “We do not feel like she is an add-on. She is part of the family.” Though multigenerational living challenges are to be expected, the joys are many. “As a model, it’s brilliant,” Spinelli said. “It teaches the whole family you have familial responsibility to be there for one another. You see the ripple effect … over generations the lesson is, ‘What’s the right thing to do for your family?’”

If you call Winnebago County ADRC (Aging and Disability Resource Center) to ask what our area has in the way of supporting multigenerational housing, you will get a question in answer to your question, “Have you referred to our website, list of housing options and seniors”, with an emphasis on lists of in- home care. But right now they (ADRC) are advocating for State budgetary items that threaten their existence.

Nationwide Designing for the Generations
According to the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) website, builders and remodelers are ready to support the growing trend [for multigenerational housing]. “Want or need to stay put? The number of certified aging-in-place specialists who help older folks remain safely at home has more than doubled to nearly 5,000 since 2008. And the construction of new houses has started to get off the ground again. Some builders have begun offering two master suites, a den or family room that can be converted into a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, and other “bonus areas” with flexible space that can change with family needs. A two-car garage might shrink to one car and the extra area morph into living space for a grandparent or boomerang kid. Builders and remodelers are offering universal design features (wider hallways and doors, good lighting, few or no steps) that work for a baby stroller or a wheelchair. Some builders are installing infrastructure for future bathroom grab bars and stacking closets for down-the-road elevators.

In 2011, national builder Lennar introduced its first Next Gen house in Phoenix, geared to more than one generation. Now Lennar offers more than 50 Next Gen floor plans in 120 communities in California, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Minnesota, Texas, New Jersey, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Next Gen’s concept is two houses in one: The main home has three or four bedrooms, and there’s an attached unit with its own front entrance, kitchen, bedroom, living space and garage.

Perfect for an aging parent (or lucky nanny or guest, or as a man cave), it’s typically one-fifth the size of the main house. An adjoining inner door can be left open so the house can be one big home or, when closed, two residences.” Unfortunately, this type of home would not be possible in single family dwelling zones of Oshkosh.

Culturally, multigenerational households are nothing new. As immigration has increased, so too have multigenerational households. According to the PEW report, “The long-term increase in multi-generational living since 1980 also reflects the country’s changing racial and ethnic composition. Racial and ethnic minorities generally have been more likely to live in multi-generational family arrangements, and their numbers have grown with increased immigration since the 1970s. In 2012 about one-in-four Hispanics and blacks lived in a multi-generational household. Asian Americans were the most likely of the major racial and ethnic groups to live in multi-generational arrangements (27%). By comparison, 14% of non-Hispanic whites lived with multiple generations of family. The racial and ethnic patterns of multigenerational living were fairly similar in 1980. That year, racial and ethnic minorities made up 20% of the population; today they account for 37%”.

In closing, I find the research on this leaves more questions than answers on the topic. As our demographics change, should our planning for housing stock in Oshkosh keep up with the changes? Does the City’s Strategic Plan of “supporting strong neighborhoods” or creating healthy neighborhoods, put the shifting population facts in perspective and prioritize being a great place to “live, work, and play”. How many multigenerational households do we have in the area? While local developers have taken advantage of Low Income Housing Tax Credits to build senior housing, how feasible is it for grandma to continue living alone before we ship her off to a nursing home at $7,000 a month or assisted living at $4500 a month? So, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, are we to send granny out on the ice flows of Lake Winnebago in the winter, or can we say we are ready to face the fact that our aging population are lacking housing options. We might just have some mutual benefits from bunking up among other senior housing options.

Can we learn from Asian, Hispanic/Latino, or African or Native American cultures about this living arrangement? I look forward to my grandchildren hearing first generation immigrant stories of coming to America and not having to schedule a visit to the “retirement home.” They deserve dignity in their fragile golden years and multigenerational families that can manage to live on the same premises, should be able to construct such a scenario. Do our City ordinances allow for, support, or discourage multigenerational living. As the zoning code rewrite project gets reviewed, do you support a vision which provides ease of this arrangement. Contact your City Council representatives, take a few minutes and write a letter or attend citizen statements on the 2nd or 4th Tuesday Council meeting. Contact the City Planning Department about your needs as they coordinate a Zoning Ordinance re-write.

Before Sharing a Multigenerational Home, You’ll Want to:

-Discuss expectations and responsibilities before the move: Who’s going to pay what bills for current and future expenses? Which areas are communal space and which are private? Are there family rules for laundry, TV, cleaning, cooking, opposite-sex sleepovers?

-Discuss parental responsibilities with other siblings: What will they do — take Dad to doctors, pay his bills online, offer respite care?

-Include age-friendly and privacy features if renovating or building:Consider wider doorways, brighter lighting, grab bars, low-pile carpeting and a separate space for additional family members. Find out if there are zoning restrictions for attached dwellings.

-Divvy up chores: If possible, let family members choose the ones they want.

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