When D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and District officials broke ground in June on Plaza West, a Ward 6 development that holds 50 units of affordable housing for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren – or grandfamilies – District resident Mozette Clark breathed a sigh of relief. Charged with caring for three of her 12 school-aged grandchildren, Clark found it nearly impossible to find an affordable apartment that met the needs of her family.
While the $84 million development project, located at 4th and K Streets NW, addresses the housing needs of an often overlooked segment of the city’s population, Clark said the need for grandfamily support – mental, social, and academic – has reached a crisis stage. “I applaud Mayor Bowser for her efforts to secure housing, there are so many things that young kids today face that I’ve never experienced in all my 70 years,” Clark told the AFRO. “Many of the resources my husband and I utilized for our own children 40 years ago, no longer exist. Those that do, require technology and an understanding of digital processes.”
Clark points to applications, forms, and even physician appointments made through websites and apps, which she said makes her feel uninformed, despite having earned a master’s degree and owning her own accounting business. In a technology-driven society, Clark relies as much on her grandchildren for clarity as they do on her for care. “You don’t want to appear ignorant, and so you sit in silence and suffer through things until you can figure them out. I guess that’s being prideful,” said Clark, who now shares a house and childcare responsibilities with her daughter, Anne.
Clark is not alone. Made up predominantly of Blacks, the national trend of grandfamilies, about 2.7 million in 2015, developed as a consequence of mass Black incarceration – Clark cares for her incarcerated son’s children – and a growing drug addiction crisis.
Social service agencies readily embrace a model of care for children of incarcerated or absentee parents that keeps them with family members. However, senior citizens tend to be the least financially and technologically capable.
Historically, according to public historian Maya Myles, Blacks have often maintained nontraditional housing that allowed extended family members to care for children in communal households. The collective rearing reinforced family structures by ensuring the care of its most vulnerable members, Myles told the AFRO.
“Often the strongest and brightest members of the family spent time away from the household in the military, earning college degrees, or working jobs, such as the railroad,” she said, whose work at Florida State University focuses on the Black migration. “Their children were taken care of by grandparents, adult siblings, and other relatives, with an understanding that as those caregivers aged, the responsibility for their care, would be repaid by those same children. In the face of drug addiction, incarceration, or abandonment, many of the caregivers are at a disadvantage of continuing to take care of the adult child, as well as the grandchildren.”
In the District, the financial security of grandfamilies is further complicated by rising real estate costs, senior housing that prohibits overnight stays by non-seniors, and caring for kids on fixed incomes. The resulting need for affordable and subsidized housing for grandfamilies grows alongside its prevalence.
Ephraim Jolly took custody of his granddaughter’s 3-month old son when she left the child for him to babysit one weekend and never returned for him. Though she returns occasionally to the city, Jolly said he was fortunate to be in his own Ward 8 home rather than in a senior citizen community. “Many of my friends have their grandbabies and have to hide them in the senior citizen dwellings because this is ‘specialized’ housing. Black men of a certain age were raised to never let a child go hungry,” Jolly told the AFRO. “We share what little we have so that all can have enough, and we pray that we live long enough for the parents to straighten up and fly right and come get them back.”