Dequan Cooper, 7, dances in the living room of his family's new apartment at Plaza West. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Antoine Pinkney hoped but didn’t know if his family’s application for an apartment would be approved when he stood near his 13-year-old granddaughter in the community playroom of the building where they hoped to move. In the room was a new TV, a row of untouched computers and walls the color of the sky and the sun.

He leaned in close to her.

“We’re going to pray about this tonight,” he whispered. “We’re going to pray that we’re going to get this.”

There are many ways to describe Plaza West, a newly constructed building in Northwest Washington designed specifically for grandparents raising grandchildren: a long-held vision, needed niche housing, the product of a partnership.

But maybe the way that touches best on how it came to be and what it means now to those hoping to live there is simply this: an answer to prayers.

The building began as a vision by the founder of Bible Way Church, Smallwood Williams, who wanted to see the small strip of land near K Street and Interstate 395 used as an intergenerational center.


Nya Offutt, 13, Antoine Pinkney, 59, and Dequan Cooper, 7, identify landmarks from a community room at the top of their new apartment building. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

What grew from that idea after his death in 1991 is a testament to what can come when different entities push toward a unified goal. The building, which resulted from the church, a developer and the city working together, is the first of its kind in Washington for low-income grandfamilies.

The complex has amenities designed specifically for that population, such as a playground, large screens on the gym equipment and emergency pull cords in each apartment. Part of the goal is to also bring in services that will help both the grandparents and the grandchildren.

Fittingly, the building’s completion comes at a time when lawmakers who can’t find common ground on many issues agree that these families deserve more support. In July, President Trump signed into law the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, which recognized that more than 2.5 million grandparents in the United States are taking care of grandchildren and the number is growing.

But to truly understand what that means — and why these families need our attention and more — it’s important to recognize how they came together and what challenges that now brings for them. The applicants hoping to get into a 12-story building that still smells of new paint offer a powerful glimpse of that.


Annie Smith, 59, Nya Offutt, 13, and Antoine Pinkney, 59, check out their new apartment at Plaza West. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

None of the families applying to live in the building planned on being there. These families were born from circumstance and built on loss.

Whether because of drugs, incarceration, abandonment or death, the grandparents lost a child and the grandchildren lost their parents. What remains are two bookends to life — the young and the old — that are forced to lean on each other because there is nothing in between to support them.

“The stories are heartbreaking when you listen to the resident talk about how they ended up in these situations,” said Elizabeth Everhart from Mission First Housing Group, the developers of the new building.

They have applicants who aren’t only raising grandchildren but also great-grandchildren.

One of the families that has moved in is a 58-year-old grandmother who works full time while raising her 10-year-old granddaughter, who was abused by her mother. The girl is now an honor roll student and wants to be a chef or an artist.

There is also a 79-year-old woman who was homeless and living in a motel with her teenage granddaughter before she found out about the building.

A 62-year-old grandmother is raising a 12-year-old grandson who has diabetes and a 7-year-old granddaughter whose father was murdered and whose mother was neglectful.

The building has 50 units, and many remain available. The challenge has been finding applicants who meet the criteria and may not be checking online or in other traditional places that list apartments. There have also been many grandparents who have applied but don’t meet the 55-and-older age requirement. Some applicants also have life circumstances that should have disqualified them but have pushed the developers to reevaluate the guidelines they set. One example is a grandmother who is taking care of a son with disabilities in addition to a grandchild. Initially, a rule was set that no other adults could live in the building. An exception may be made for her.

Jamarl Clark, who works as the grandfamily community life program manager at the building, has sat down with many of the applicants — some have gotten in and others haven’t.

“You’re sitting there, and they’re crying, and you’re trying not to cry yourself,” he said.

Clark was there when Pinkney whispered to his granddaughter in the playroom and it struck him then what was at stake for many of these families.

“People are praying to get in here,” he said. “This is what they want. This is what they need.”

On Friday, Clark greeted the family once again at the building, this time to walk them to their new three-bedroom apartment. Their application was approved, and they will move in at the end of the month.

“My room!” 7-year-old Dequan Cooper declared seconds after walking into the apartment, which had a “Welcome Home” sign on the front door.

“This has the biggest closet; this is my room,” his sister 13-year-old Nya Offutt corrected him.

“This is lovely,” said Pinkney, 59. “This is beautiful. We’re blessed to be here.”

In the living room, the children’s grandmother, Annie Smith, 59, was discussing where to put the couch and the TV when Nya called out to her excitedly from the adjoining kitchen.

“You don’t have to clean it anymore!” the teenager said, looking at the stove. “It’s self-cleaning.”

Later, when the teenager made it to her room, she stood there and thought about how she wanted to fill it. She didn’t care about posters or decorations. She said she wanted a desk and large lamp and eventually a desktop computer.

“I love working with computers and technology,” she said. She said she gets A’s in school and is on the robotics and track teams. She also dances and cheers. “My goal is to go to Harvard, Yale, Spellman or Bowie State.”

She said part of her is sad to move because she won’t live near her friends, but she is also excited for her own space. Right now, she shares a bedroom and a bunk bed with her little brother. She is also happy for her grandparents.

“We’ve always wanted three bedrooms,” she said.

She and her brother call their grandparents “mommy” and “daddy” because they have raised them since they were infants. The children’s grandmother said they started taking care of Nya when she was just weeks old and Dequan when he was 8 months old because their mother said she couldn’t.

Smith said she has already started packing up a few things in the two-bedroom apartment in Southwest Washington where they now live and pay $1,126 a month. In their new place, they will pay $996.

As the family left the apartment, Pinkney was one of the last to walk out. Before the door shut, he offered a final shout of gratitude.

“Thank you, Jesus!” he said.