Yarrow for Washington Post Magazine, “The Rise of the Grandfamily”
A D.C. housing development serves as a refuge for grandparents raising young children. Is it a model for the rest of the country?
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.