1977: The right to live with extended family
Tofu sizzles in a pan as Yeon Sook Nam cooks dinner at home in Fairfax, Va. The 76-year-old holds a small bowl and mixes red peppers — grown in her backyard garden — with soy sauce and garlic, whisking them with a spoon. The spread on the long dining room table will eventually include sauteed spinach, bean sprouts, white rice, pickled cucumbers, grilled beef and kimchi.
As she cooks, her husband, William Sangho Nam, 84, sits on a recliner on the end of the couch, feet up, watching a Korean television show on his iPad. Soon, William and Yeon Sook will be joined by the other residents of this house: their daughter Max, their son-in-law Jonah, their 14-year-old granddaughter and 12-year-old grandson.
Family dinners like this aren’t nightly events; the grandparents often eat early, the kids have homework and sports. Plus, this is a special occasion: A Washington Post photographer and I have joined them (and yes, the food was delicious). Yet each day, all six family members enjoy simple-yet-precious moments that would never occur without this warm, multigenerational living arrangement.
LEFT: Yeon Sook Nam prepares dinner in her apartment, which is part of the house she shares with daughter Max and her family. RIGHT: Nam and husband William Sangho Nam moved to the United States from Korea in 1973.
In Korea, aging parents often live with the oldest son. Yeon Sook and William have four daughters, but gender aside, the family is following a familiar cultural script. When Max and Jonah decided to move from California to Virginia, Jonah said, “As long as we’re building a house, why don’t we have your parents move in with us?” William and Yeon Sook needed little convincing. “I think they were ready,” Max says. “Their house was way too big for them.” By May 2018, they were all living together.
Their home is a sleek, modern, Architectural Digest-worthy gem. The living room, kitchen and dining room peer through two-story glass windows to a wide deck with a fire pit and a spacious green yard. Yeon Sook and William live in an apartment-like space that includes a small kitchen, living room, bedroom and bath. One day I ask William if there’s anything he desires, anything that would make living here just a little better. Max translates: “He said, ‘What do you mean? It doesn’t get any better than this.’ ”
Families like the Nams are not the norm in the United States: Just 18 percent of Americans live in multigenerational households, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, up from around 12 percent in 2001. Recently, the Nams opened their house and their lives to me so I could observe one family that had embraced multigenerational living. During a few visits over two weeks, it became clear to me that the arrangement is a gift for every member of the household.
And yet, some zoning ordinances have targeted these kinds of living arrangements. In fact, if not for a decades-old Supreme Court decision, the Nams’ multigenerational household might have been illegal.
In 1973, Inez Moore, an African American woman, was living with one of her sons, Dale Sr., and two grandsons in Ohio. One grandson was Dale Sr.’s son, Dale Jr. The other grandson, John Jr., had started living with his grandmother as an infant, after his mother died (John Sr. occasionally lived with Moore and his son; he later remarried and lived in a separate home). When Moore attempted to register John Jr. for school, the school refused, citing a rule that required his grandmother to be his legal guardian. Soon after, a city housing inspector determined that the Moores’ living situation violated a city ordinance. The city told her to remove John Jr. from her household or be fined. Moore declined and challenged the ordinance. Four years later, in the case of Moore v. City of East Cleveland, the Supreme Court ruled that the statute was unconstitutional.
The 63-year-old Moore was “a frail, arthritic widow,” according to a 1977 Post story on the decision. But she was clearly determined — and strong. “She lost in every court in Ohio that played a role in the case,” The Post reported. “Along the way, the city filed a criminal charge that led to a five-day jail sentence, which was stayed.”
East Cleveland’s housing ordinance was an example of racially exclusionary zoning, since non-White residents were more likely to live with extended family. The United States has a long, and ongoing, history of communities using zoning ordinances to discriminate against people of color. In 2021, the Biden administration noted in a Juneteenth blog post that “policies and practices exist today that are seemingly non-discriminatory on their face but still negatively affect many families of color, especially Black families.”
The Moore decision upheld the right of a grandmother, son and two grandsons to live together as family. That said, it’s an “incredibly narrow” decision, says June Carbone, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, because it focuses only on families related by blood. Zoning ordinances can still prevent unrelated or unmarried people from living together, without running afoul of Moore.
But what is a family? Who defines that? Nancy Dowd, professor emeritus at the University of Florida’s law school, who specializes in family law, cites the example of an unmarried couple that live with children from previous marriages. “I think most people these days would say, ‘That’s a family,’ ” Dowd says. “You don’t need a marriage license to have a family, and you don’t need to have biological links for your partner’s children to be just as much your children.”
In 2014, an unmarried couple in Hartford, Conn., bought a nine-bedroom home for $453,000, then moved in with three other couples and three children. Members of the “family” helped one another with chores and child care. A zoning ordinance, however, defined family as people who were related by blood, marriage, adoption, custodianship or guardianship. Zoning officials determined that the homeowners had violated this definition of a family and sent a cease-and-desist order. After suits and a countersuit, the city dropped its case in 2016, citing the high cost of the litigation, according to the Hartford Courant.
Ordinances often arise to preserve what people view as a family neighborhood, Dowd says. That might mean prohibiting college students from renting a house. Or preventing Airbnb or Vrbo rentals. Race, as Inez Moore discovered, can be another factor. Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans and African Americans are all more likely than White Americans to live with extended family, especially if they are immigrants, according to the Pew report. “We have lots of neutral ways in which we regulate on the basis of race,” Dowd says, “and family can be one of them.”
Multigenerational living is part of the Nam family’s history. In 1973, when Max was 4 years old, her family left Seoul and flew to Los Angeles. For six months, they lived with William’s sister before moving to the D.C. area. Her sister Raina — the third youngest daughter, who now lives in Falls Church, Va. — stayed behind with her grandparents because of visa issues and would not rejoin her family for five years, when she was 6 years old.
“I remember leaving my maternal grandmother,” Raina says. “They got me in a pretty dress, put my stuff in a suitcase, took me to the airport and said bye. And there’s this man. They’re like, ‘He’s your uncle.’ So he was my escort. I threw up on the flight.”
It took a while to adjust to her new life, she says. She missed her grandmother, who had essentially been her mom. “It was a little bit of a traumatic experience, but then you’re surrounded by people who are hugging you, kissing you. As a child, all you want is to feel safe, and I had that feeling of safeness.”
The transition was challenging, but the Nams were lured to America by a dream: the same land-of-opportunity ambition that has enticed immigrants for more than 200 years. William already had a job arranged when he came to the States, doing electrical work for a motor repair shop. Yeon Sook worked as well, cleaning houses during the day, taking night shifts at a Krispy Kreme in Alexandria, and later working as a school custodian.
William faced difficult professional conditions. Max asks him about it as he sits at the kitchen counter, and then translates: His manager “would make him guarantee some motor was going to work. He would pull his hair. He would forcefully make him do things,” Max says. William threatened to leave the job if the harassment continued.
Friends in the Korean community who were business owners helped the Nams open a store near RFK Stadium in D.C. The brick-front Nams Economy Market was the size of a 7-Eleven and carried a broad range of products, including vegetables, milk, eggs, deli meat, candy, toilet paper, cigarettes, beer and wine. The store had no air conditioning, and on hot days Max would cool off in the walk-in refrigerator.
For 18 years, William and Yeon Sook would get up at 5 a.m., drive from their home in Virginia to D.C., open the store at 7 a.m., close at 9 p.m., drive home, and do it all again the next day. The sisters were latchkey kids, getting themselves to school and completing their homework, until their paternal grandmother eventually moved in after emigrating from Korea.
In 2002, Yeon Sook and William finally retired. I ask if they ever miss the store. Max translates. “No,” her father says, with what sounds like a soft moan. Her mother puts it another way: “Seven times,” she says. That’s the number of times they were held up at gunpoint.
Three of William’s friends — fellow shop owners — were killed during robberies. “My dad said, ‘Take whatever you want,’ ” Max explains. “And he never had a gun, whereas my dad’s friends would always say, ‘Get a gun, buy a gun.’ His friends that fought to keep the money got shot and died.” One night when Yeon Sook and William had left the store to visit a newborn niece, Max and Raina were robbed at gunpoint as well. (“I was thinking, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die,” Raina recalls.)
Despite the fear of violence, their parents were a positive force in the neighborhood. If someone died, William and Yeon Sook would give their families flowers or take them food. If an older woman came to the store, William would help carry groceries back to her home. He would donate food and drinks for block parties. He would feed cats and dogs.
“My dad was so humble. He didn’t want to be flashy,” Raina says. “He realized a lot of people didn’t want Asians there. So my dad quickly realized, being Christian, you have to give to receive.” There were no trash cans on the streets, so William would hang a black garbage bag from the bars of the store’s windows. That became the neighborhood trash receptacle. “He wanted to be proud of where he worked and wanted the people that lived there to be proud — like, this is our community.”
And yet the Nams struggled financially. “We were so poor,” Raina recalls. As we sift through family photos at Max and Jonah’s house, we find a shot of the sisters near some woods. “We would go on camping trips. That was our family vacation because we couldn’t afford hotels,” Raina says. “But it was so much fun now that I look back.”
On a Saturday evening at the Ballston Local restaurant, Jonah smiles behind the bar in a black T-shirt and cap. He may be a co-owner, but he seemingly does everything, pouring the lager I order and heating my two slices of pizza. Some nights he cooks. The place is noisy and packed, but when I ask if this is a normal night, Jonah says it’s slow. There’s a lull between the earlier and later college football crowds, but already a Penn State fan is ordering a beer 45 minutes before a 7:30 kickoff. If this a lull, business is okay.
“I would say I have a serial propensity to do things large,” Jonah tells me back at the house. “Maybe it’s not necessarily a great character trait, but I take on big projects. It could be starting a company, building a home — I bought a property across the street to develop that. I can’t sit still.” Opening the restaurant in May 2021, when pandemic fears were still strong, was risky and true to form.
Ten-hour days or longer are not unusual, and when the restaurant opened, Jonah and his business partner often worked seven days a week. He now stays home on Mondays, but the hours remain long.
With Jonah often at the restaurant, and with Max working at a software and information technology company, her parents help with the kids. William picks them up from swimming and soccer practices. Sometimes Yeon Sook will make dinner if Max and Jonah are out. Their daughter might go to her grandparents’ space to bake with her grandmother, to get a button sewed, or just to talk. “They want to do it,” Max says of her parents. “They want to feel like they’re contributing. And even though these aren’t ‘special moments,’ they’re special moments. For me, that’s what’s most important. That the kids will always remember, ‘Grandma did this for me, or Grandpa did this for me.’ ”
Overall, William and Yeon Sook are in excellent health — remarkable considering the years of nonstop work and lack of health insurance, which prevented doctor visits. In 2019, William had open-heart surgery, and sometimes he wheezes after talking. The couple were avid golfers — trophies are clumped on shelves in their space — but that has stopped. They’re hardly sedentary, though. They belong to a hiking group and take long walks in the neighborhood.
“My mom cannot stay still,” Max says. “She’s constantly cooking or she’s cleaning my house. And my dad, right before the lawn people are coming, he’ll start sweeping everything, and I’m like, ‘You don’t have to do that because they’re coming tomorrow. You don’t have to rake all the leaves.’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, no, this is my exercise,’ and he’ll do it.”
Maybe William and Yeon Sook help out because they’re in good shape. But maybe they’re in good shape because they help out. They know they’re needed. And in that way, they avoid the loneliness that plagues so many older Americans. Studies have linked loneliness to health issues, more doctor visits, depression, anxiety and even premature death in older adults. And socialization, whether hanging out in the house with family or walking with friends, may even have brain benefits. “The weight of evidence suggests that social engagement helps maintain thinking skills and slows cognitive decline in later life,” according to a 2017 report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health.
Could multigenerational households be the key to successful aging? The Nams have their own evidence: William’s mother lived with his family, just as he and his wife now live with Max’s family. His mother, too, provided child care, cooking and housecleaning. She lived to age 96.
Max and Jonah have certain advantages in managing this living arrangement: The couple has resources; the house is spacious. Yet in the time I spent with them, I kept thinking they’d discovered something here that is old but lost: Family. Support. Togetherness. Not just occasional get-togethers or holiday meals, but living as a unit, beyond the nuclear family. When Max’s grandmother died, it was not in a nursing home or a hospital. She died in her son’s home.
But the biggest benefits may be for Max and Jonah’s kids. Younger children in intergenerational housing “demonstrate more interactive and cooperative play, increased empathy and mood management, and improved academic performance,” the Center for Aging Research and Education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison reports.
“One of the primary reasons for this was to have our kids surrounded by family,” explains Jonah, who did not have a large family growing up. “This concept of big family,” he says, “I’m clueless.”
Max tells a story. “When we were dating, and the first time I brought him to Virginia, we had this whole family gathering — ”
“Forty people,” Jonah emphasizes.
“And he’s like, ‘Why do you all yell all the time?’ And I said, ‘Oh, were we screaming? I think that’s how we normally talk.’ ”
“I was like, What is this?” Jonah says. “And then you realize — ”
“It’s a big family,” Jonah adds. “Everyone wants to be heard.”
This verbose and vibrant family has worked hard to achieve their version of the American Dream. All of the sisters, Max says, felt that their parents “worked so hard and had to endure so much, so we cannot fail.” Translating for her dad, Max explains: “He says their dream was to send all their kids to college, pay for all of their college and get us to a place where we are all successful. So he says: Yes, we achieved the dream.”
But the American Dream is about more than economic achievement. It is also about the right to live in freedom. Inez Moore fought for that right: the ability to live with family members of her choice, without intrusion from government. The Nams are beneficiaries, even if they, like most of us, have never heard of Inez Moore.
“My parents always made it a point that we needed to stay together,” Max says. “And I appreciate my parents for instilling that. Because sometimes I see other families, and there is not that togetherness. I know a lot of families — the kids go their separate ways, they hardly ever talk, and we’re not like that.” She is grateful to have her parents here in the twilight of their lives. “Oh yeah,” she says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Ken Budd is the author of “The Voluntourist,” a memoir. His writing has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the Atlantic online and the New York Times.