It’s a few days after Christmas, and Akirah Carter is sitting in her living room, still wearing her Santa-and-reindeer-patterned pajamas and pointed elf slippers as she tinkers with her gifts: a PlayStation 4, a magic set, Harry Potter books. On the kitchen counter sits a plate of snickerdoodles the 10-year-old baked with her grandmother. She spent Christmas Eve at her great-uncle’s house in Bowie, Md., playing games with her family and singing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” on a karaoke machine. That night, after returning home, she left out a few cookies and a glass of milk for Santa.
“She knows there’s no Santa,” says Akirah’s grandmother Tonya Carter, 58. “But she still puts out cookies for me.”
For the past eight years, Carter has served as Akirah’s Santa. Akirah can’t remember a Christmas with her parents. Her mother has drifted in and out of homeless shelters and is now in South Carolina, and her father — who sees her every other weekend — lives miles away and can’t care for her on his own. So Akirah lives full time with her grandmother in Plaza West, a brand-new apartment building in Washington’s Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood built especially with families like hers in mind.
Plaza West reserved 50 of its 223 units for “grandfamilies”: families made up of grandparents raising their grandchildren full time. It’s one of a handful of buildings across the country created for low-income grandfamilies to live in affordable apartments with neighbors in similar circumstances.
Grandparents taking in their grandchildren isn’t a new phenomenon, but their numbers have been growing in recent years. As of 2017, 2.8 million young people — about 4 percent of American children — were being raised by 2.6 million grandparents (including 7,250 kids in Washington, D.C.), according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nationally, the number of children raised by their grandparents increased by nearly 15 percent between 2007 and 2017.
“The opioid epidemic and the effects of the Great Recession are big contributing factors,” says Ela Rausch, an expert on grandfamily housing and a project director with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “For low- and moderate-income households, incarceration … as well as divorce and parents’ deaths also lead grandparents to step in.” Without family members to raise them, these children would likely slide into the foster-care system. And although foster parents receive more government support than grandfamilies, kids raised by family members are more likely than foster children to stay in touch with siblings, preserve their cultural heritage and maintain community ties. “Compared to those in foster care with non-relatives, children with relatives have more stable and safe childhoods and a greater likelihood of having a permanent home,” Rausch told me.
Unfortunately, almost all subsidized and most market-rate senior residences do not permit children to live in their buildings. That’s just one of the many problems — logistical, economic, psychological — facing grandfamilies. Yet these families have, until recently, largely been off the radars of most Americans and most policymakers. Last summer, legislation sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) passed to create a federal task force on grandfamilies, signaling a dawning awareness that these families need our support. But with the numbers of grandfamilies growing, we’ll need more than a task force to help them. Projects like Plaza West just might be the starting point.
For her first two years, Akirah seemed destined for foster care. Her mother was abusive, Tonya Carter told me, and her father, Carter’s son, Hugh, was 20 years old and living with his mother at the time.
Seeing that Akirah was “being left with any- and everybody, who weren’t fit to raise a child,” as Tonya Carter described the situation, Hugh asked his mother for help. “Hugh don’t know how to raise a child himself, so I thought, ‘Why should Akirah be in foster care, when I had a house and I wanted to raise her?’ ” Carter says. (Another grandmother in South Carolina took in Akirah’s older sister.)
Carter successfully fought for custody, which is often a difficult, drawn-out process for grandparents seeking to raise their grandchildren. She and her son appealed for an emergency court hearing, which resulted in an order of temporary custody. “The judge gave me 30 days to put [Akirah] in day care, get all her shots, get insurance and paint her room,” Carter recalls. “I did them in 15 days.” She was granted primary custody, and Akirah moved into her house on Georgia Avenue NW, before they moved to a small, cockroach-infested apartment in Southeast Washington. “I had to carry a knife,” Carter says, and “crawl over drug addicts. We heard gunshots every night. Once we went inside, we never went out.” (Hugh, now 28 and a Metrobus driver, shares custody with his mother, but she is Akirah’s primary caretaker.)
Shortly after taking in Akirah, Carter joined a grandparent caregivers group organized by the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. Sometimes as many as 40 grandparents showed up. “We talked about why and how we were raising our grandchildren; we tried to help each other,” she says. “So many men have babies and don’t work and don’t help out with their kids. Many of the moms, as well as the men, are strung out on drugs. Their minds are gone, and [they] are incapable of being mothers. It’s up to the grandparents to raise the kids.”
Trauma is often laced throughout these children’s early lives. “Babies, toddlers and youth wind up in grandfamilies as a result of one or more traumatic events,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on improving intergenerational relationships that has published an annual grandfamilies report since 2014. “Their parents have been murdered, incarcerated, abusive or have abandoned them. Adverse childhood experiences leave them 12 times more likely than the general population to have negative health outcomes: substance-use disorders, mental health problems, and engaging in aggressive or risky behaviors.”
Grandparents who take in grandchildren must navigate this trauma, often without much support. Years ago, Akirah asked Carter why her mom wasn’t caring for her, “and I tried to break it down,” Carter told me. “She knows that her mom did a lot of bad things when she was a baby, and that her mother couldn’t take care of her because she has an illness. I didn’t hide anything; I knew that if she learned about it later, she might resent it.”
But these grandparents often struggle with a host of problems themselves, including poverty and poor health. Grandfamily-hood is usually quickly thrust upon them, not giving them much time to plan for their new life. As a full-time emergency room security guard at Providence Hospital, Carter is among more than half of grandparents raising children while working often-demanding, low-paid jobs, according to the U.S. Census. She is caring for Akirah despite battling diabetes and a work-related rotator-cuff injury.
Carter acknowledges the sacrifices she’s making: “I’ve cut out a lot of stuff I’d like to do, like travel, and friends I used to see,” she told me. “I don’t hang out anymore. Going to movies, shopping, you know. I never expected to be doing this again. One friend said to me, ‘Girl, you have to start all over again? It’s like raising another baby.’ ”
Two years ago, at a meeting of her grandparents’ support group, Carter heard about the plans for Plaza West. “Wow,” she remembers thinking. “Put me on the list.” She knew right away that she wanted to live there, and in late 2017, she eagerly filled out a thick application packet. Like other Plaza West applicants, Carter had to be at least 55 years old, have proof of custody and show she was truly Akirah’s grandmother. She also had to pass a criminal-background check and demonstrate that she made between 30 and 40 percent of the area’s median income.
About half of the nation’s grandparents raising children are white, and more than one-third are men. But in Washington, about nine out of 10 are African American, and at Plaza West, virtually all the grandfamilies are headed by African American women. The median household income for a grandparent raising children on his or her own in D.C. is less than $36,000 a year.
In August, Carter and Akirah became the first tenants to move in. Carter was thrilled by Plaza West’s amenities: the community room for social events, with east-facing windows and views of Gallaudet University; the library; laundry rooms and lounges on each floor; a computer-filled activities room; a small gym; and a fenced-in outdoor playground, basketball court and garden. There’s an underground garage with 51 free parking spaces. The building is staffed around the clock, and the tall gate facing the street is always locked.
On a warm and sunny day in mid-September, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser arrived at Plaza West’s spacious 12th-floor community room to dedicate the building. “Nothing happens without vision,” she said to the crowd of Plaza West grandfamilies. “This helps meet the needs of so many Washington children growing up with grandparents. Plaza West is an example of how we are ensuring residents and families of all backgrounds and income levels have access to safe and affordable places to live across all eight wards.” After her speech, many of the children and adults clustered around the mayor to say hello and sign a large dedication poster behind the lectern.
Plaza West began with “one bloody fight,” says 81-year-old Yvonne Williams, until recently the chair of the board of trustees at Bible Way Church, a Pentecostal church nearby that helped fund the building. The idea to develop an intergenerational center in the neighborhood began with her father, Bishop Smallwood Williams, who preached in Washington at what became Bible Way from 1927 until his death in 1991. At the time, no grandfamily-specific housing yet existed in the United States. (America’s first grandfamily project, in Boston, was completed in 1998.) In the late 1980s, the church asked the city for a plot of surplus land near where Interstate 395 hits New York Avenue NW. It took years, but the church made allies in both the U.S. Department of Transportation and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, which helped them persuade the government to give them the land for a building. In 2000, Bible Way started discussions about a potential grandfamily building with the Mission First Housing Group — a joint venture between the city of Philadelphia, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Five years later, the minority-owned Henson Development Co. in Baltimore joined the effort. “It was a long slog,” said Elizabeth Everhart, Mission First’s project manager, during one of the monthly meetings at the church where the partners discuss Plaza West and its progress. “It took 12 years to bring together funders, learn best practices from other grandfamily projects, and get several city agencies on board. But we were passionate about getting Plaza West built.” (The church and its Golden Rule Plaza Inc. nonprofit affiliate have developed five other low-income buildings in the neighborhood, but none took so long to come to fruition.)
Finally, the $90 million project was greenlit and financed with $19 million in tax-exempt bonds sold by the D.C. Housing Finance Authority, $18.4 million from the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, $32.5 million in low-income housing tax-credit equity, a $17.4 million note from Golden Rule Plaza Inc. for the land, and a smaller amount from the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health. Developers hired architecture firm Hickok Cole, which designed NPR’s headquarters on North Capitol Street, and the church sought the advice of scholars, activists and managers at the country’s few other grandfamily buildings. Taking a cue from the 13-year-old GrandParent Family Apartments in the Bronx, Plaza West will have a caseworker to provide referrals to legal assistance, transportation and mental-health care, while Bible Way provides a connection to a faith community.
The building is owned and managed by a limited liability company called Plaza West LLC, comprising Golden Rule Plaza Inc. and Mission First. The well-below-market-rate rents range from $688 to $1,079 per month, depending on the apartment’s size and tenant’s income. Children must be under 18 when grandfamilies move in. Within a year after the youngest grandchild turns 24, grandfamilies can “age out” and move into subsidized apartments next door, in an adjacent but separate part of the building. Plaza West is also beginning to work with the Howard University School of Social Work’s gerontology center to create metrics of success for intergenerational housing, including tracking children’s school attendance and grades, health outcomes, and what services families use, Everhart says.
Tonya Carter and Akirah showed me around their new apartment one afternoon. Even though she had undergone shoulder surgery just two weeks before, Carter had furnished and decorated the living room herself, installing a flat-screen TV and hanging a 2-by-3-foot photo of Akirah posing in front of the U.S. Capitol. Two new gray sofas sat across from each other. Toward the front door, beyond a white counter, was the kitchen, complete with all-new appliances, dark wood cabinets and dishes out for Akirah’s after-school snack.
“I still can’t believe I’m here,” Carter said. “The Safeway is just a hop, skip and a jump, and I can sit outside on the playground.” A library, a farmers market and four Metro stops are a short walk away. Given her injury, Carter especially appreciated the pull cords hanging in Plaza West’s bedrooms and bathrooms in case of an emergency.
“I really like it here,” Akirah told me. “I can ride my hoverboard with my [aunt] to the Safeway, and I like the Chipotle’s close by.” She walked me down the hall and proudly showed me her school progress report and her bedroom. Trophies for her high marks in science stood by the window, and a two-octave melodica keyboard sat on her dresser. For the first time in her life, she has her own bathroom. It’s so big that she sometimes does her homework there.
Two months after the mayor spoke at Plaza West, Carter and Akirah gathered in the community room for the first in a series of monthly events for the residents. City lights sparkled beyond a row of six-foot windows, and a video about the building played on repeat on a large screen. The crowd of about 20 grandfamilies — everyone younger than 15 or older than 50 — lined up at a table to serve themselves dinner: chicken sliders, barbecue, and mac and cheese.
Jamarl Clark, Plaza West’s on-site community life manager, quieted the group to tell them about amenities and rules, and — most important — the array of social-service referrals that he and a soon-to-be-hired caseworker could provide residents. When Clark asked everyone to introduce themselves, Akirah was the first to stand up. Poised and straightforward, she said: “I’m Akirah Carter. I go to St. Anthony’s Catholic School. And this is my grandmother, Tonya Carter.” Her grandmother smiled as the other children followed Akirah’s lead.
At the other end of the room, 6-year-old Lala Black and her brother, Christian, also 6, sat across from me at one of the tables, eating pasta and beans. Lala spontaneously drew pictures of her grandma, herself, her new room, her bathtub and me on an open white napkin, while peppering me with questions about my family: “Do you have a brother? Do you have children? Do you have a mother?” I told her that my mother was no longer living. “Did someone kill her?” she asked.
Lala and Christian’s grandmother, 64-year-old Edna Graham, told me that their parents were heavy drinkers and drug users, and that their father — her son — asked if she could care for them shortly after they were born. Graham smiled as her grandchildren continued to compete with each other over their napkin drawings. “I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world,” she said.
Over and over, families whose lives had been seared by adversity and hardship told me how much they rely on their new bonds. “He’s the air I breathe,” Olivia Chase, 63, told me about her 10-year-old grandson, Richard. They’d moved to Plaza West from an apartment next to a strip club and a liquor store on Georgia Avenue NW. Chase took in Richard when he was 3 months old, she said, after her son, an Iraq War veteran, and his wife were imprisoned for an attempted robbery “gone bad.” “I was in shock when it first happened,” Chase said. “But then I thought, ‘I better put this baby in bed with me.’ I never again thought anything but ‘I got to take care of this boy.’ ” Each morning she takes Richard on the bus to Hyde-Addison Elementary School, then picks him up at 6 after his coding, creative writing and other after-school enrichment programs.
Despite painful sciatica and an on-the-job injury that forced her to retire 15 years ago and made it necessary for her to use a walker, Chase spent years lobbying Bowser, Deputy Mayor Brenda Donald (also the director of the Child and Family Services Agency), and the D.C. Council to garner support for grandfamily services and Plaza West. Most Americans know little or nothing about the millions of children being raised by grandparents and other relatives, says Chase, who is also Washington’s representative for Generations United’s grandfamily advocacy network.
And until recently, government had been nearly as oblivious. The bipartisan Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, signed by President Trump in July, establishes a federal advisory council to disseminate information about resources and best practices for grandparents and other relatives caring for children. At the time, Sen. Collins said it would “help ensure that grandparents who have taken on this caretaker role have access to the resources they need.” There’s still no federal funding to support housing, however.
Two years ago, Chase met another future Plaza West resident, Cassandra Gentry, now 66, in a grandparents’ support group organized by Howard’s School of Social Work. They quickly bonded over their grandchildren and the need for grandfamily-specific housing, and started taking their boys together to movies, a skating rink and a trampoline gym. Like Chase, Gentry also lobbied the D.C. Council for their new home. “I had to do some digging to find out who to go to,” she says, and finally approached at-large council member Anita Bonds. “I told her we need an affordable place to raise our grandchildren. She referred me to Plaza West and the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, and I just stayed on it.”
Gentry understood the need for housing all too well. After raising her own children as a single mother, she started caring for her grandchildren 25 years ago, when she was 41. First she took in her daughter’s 2-year-old and 6-month-old, after her daughter was murdered in a domestic-violence incident and the children’s father went to prison. Then, 11 years ago, her son asked if she would bring up his then-18-month-old son, Tay Sean Moore, after the boy’s mother disappeared. Now Gentry lives in Plaza West with 12-year-old Tay Sean and her 7-year-old great-granddaughter, Jada Harris, after Jada’s father, Gentry’s grandson, was murdered in December 2016. Tay Sean, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 9, likes sports and drama but often misses school, Gentry says. Jada has struggled, too. “Losing her father was horrible,” Gentry told me. “She hollered a lot because of her mom. She was physically aggressive. She cried a lot. And she didn’t know how to play with other children.”
Gentry volunteers at Jada’s school and tutors students at Nalle Elementary School in Southeast. Like many of Plaza West’s grandmothers, she is religious. She often goes to Bible Way, even though she is a member of another congregation. “Any day I need some prayer, I can walk over there,” she told me.
Most of the Plaza West families are led by grandmothers, so it took some time to find a grandfather: Antoine Pinkney, the only one in Plaza West. (Another died shortly after moving in.) “A lot of parents and grandparents don’t want to step up to the plate,” he told me. “We have to take responsibility and help these babies.”
He and his wife, Annie Smith-Pinkney, both 60, have 21 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren between them. Pinkney has been on disability — like more than one-third of the city’s grandparents caring for children — since he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in his mid-50s, but is now cancer-free. Smith-Pinkney provides home care for the elderly at an upscale independent- and assisted-living community in Montgomery County. At Plaza West they’re raising her 13-year-old granddaughter, Nya Offutt, whom they took in at 2 months old, and her 7-year-old grandson, Dequan Cooper, whose parents struggled with alcoholism.
After Smith-Pinkney learned about Plaza West, “she told me, ‘I need your signature,’ ” Pinkney recalls. “I told her, ‘I didn’t know I was looking for an apartment.’ ” Their rent is about $130 per month less than in their old building, and their Plaza West three-bedroom is much bigger, brand new and in a safer location.
Nya and Dequan aren’t his biological grandchildren, but “they’re my babies,” Pinkney says. “I think God gave them to me to make amends. I’m trying to be a good dad, which I wasn’t with my three children.” Pinkney left his first wife and children in his early 30s after developing an addiction to crack cocaine. “I was homeless and in the streets, going from shelter to shelter, for 12 years,” he says. “I never thought I’d make 60. It took until I was 40 to grow up.” He praised Smith-Pinkney for helping him get clean, and his ex-wife, whom he described as now a “best friend,” for being a good mother.
“I’m blessed,” he told me, to have his two surviving children and his wife’s two grandchildren in his life. “We go to the zoo, Great Falls, wherever they want to go. It’s cool. They keep us young.”
At the residents’ dinner, I could already see the beginnings of what the developers hoped would be a “village,” as Clark described Plaza West. Buildings like this enable grandparents to bond with and support one another — and they’re far too rare for this growing population.
But better housing options should, ideally, be just the first of many steps our society takes to help grandfamilies. Consider the fact that foster families receive between $300 and $1,200 per month per child, depending on the state, and receive tax breaks, transportation and clothing allotments, as well as health care through Medicaid. By contrast, Washington’s Grandparent Caregiver Program provides a subsidy of about $595 per month per child for only about 12 percent of the city’s children cared for by grandparents.
“They need to build more of these apartments, rather than putting up a wall,” Carter told me. “The federal government are the ones who have the money, but other cities should do the same thing that Washington’s doing.”
One afternoon this past fall, Carter and I looked out her window as cars below sped silently south on I-395 toward the Third Street Tunnel. “I told them to put me on the highest floor possible, because I love views,” she explained. “This building is our home, and we’re going to take care of it.” Moving to Plaza West meant that her life with Akirah had improved “100 percent,” she said. “I like living with other grandparents who know what it’s like to take care of a child again. There’s so many grandmothers raising their grandkids. We need these buildings. Whoever thought up grandfamily housing is a genius. This is the start of a new life for us.”
Andrew L. Yarrow, a former New York Times reporter and American University history professor, is the author of “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.”