Rose Stigger, 61, stands outside Pemberton Park in Kansas City, Mo. Stigger has been raising her granddaughter, I'nesha, since she was four years-old. In 2011 they became the first residents of the housing complex designed for "grandfamilies".

Nick Schnelle for NationSwell

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A Housing Model That Works --- With No Parents

The number of grandparents raising grandchildren in the U.S. has never been higher. Pemberton Park in Kansas City, Mo., is one of many innovative new communities around the country that addresses the specific needs of these “grandfamilies.”

In the summer of 2006, 4-year-old I’nesha Williams went to visit her grandmother, Rose Stigger, at her home in Kansas City, Mo. The little girl was supposed to stay for two days. After settling in, she asked if she could stay forever.

“So I said, ‘Well, we gotta see,’” recalls Stigger, who was 53 at the time, owned a  house and worked at Sam’s Club.

Stigger had raised two sons, one of whom was I’nesha’s  father. He and I’nesha’s mother had both gone “down the wrong path” and couldn’t take care of her, according to Stigger, so Inesha had been staying with her maternal great-grandmother elsewhere in Kansas City. But Stigger and I’nesha had a special bond, and when the child said she wanted to live with her grandmother instead, Stigger got permission from Inesha’s great-grandmother to take over her care.

For years, Stigger and I’nesha’s life together was unrelentingly stressful.

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In 2007, Stigger was laid off from Sam’s Club, fell behind on her mortgage payments and lost her house to foreclosure. Grandmother and granddaughter took refuge with a relative in town for a month and then found a house to lease, but soon the rent went up, forcing them to move again. Stigger got another retail job, at the payday loan store Quick Cash, only to end up with a pink slip again in 2009, during the depths of the recession. The nightmares continued: Soon, Stigger’s car broke down and the house she was renting became infested with snakes.

“I said, ‘I’ve gotta get away from here,’” she says.

Finally, nearly five years after she took in her granddaughter, Stigger got a chance to start again.

Under the guidance of a local social worker, JoAnn Stovall, Stigger and Inesha, who was then 8, moved to Pemberton Park for Grandfamilies, an innovative new apartment community in Kansas City for grandparents raising their grandchildren under trying emotional and financial circumstances. The “grandfamilies” receive rent support from the federal government under its Section 8 program, and the 36-unit complex, a partnership between a private developer and the Housing Authority of Kansas City, was built with federal stimulus dollars.

Most of the grandparents who live at Pemberton Park are single women, though there’s a single man and a married couple, too. To qualify for the housing, grandparents must be 55 or over, demonstrate serious financial need and agree to seek legal guardianship of their grandchildren, who must be under 21. Neither the grandchildren’s parents nor adult grandchildren are allowed to live there.

Pemberton Park residents benefit from a broad range of amenities and services. There are financial literacy courses for the grandparents and cooking classes for the grandkids. An on-site counselor provides individual therapy and facilitates support groups. The complex is equipped with a computer lab, a children’s activity room, a grandparents’ lounge, a playground and a food pantry. From time to time, there are carnivals and community dinners.

“I’m so glad they did this,” says Stigger, now 61. “Because I don’t know where I would be right now.”

Since moving to Pemberton Park, she has found stability, peace of mind and a sense of kinship with the other grandparents, who look after one another’s grandchildren at home, at the school bus stop and beyond. She’s also found a job: Pemberton Park’s management company was so impressed with Stigger that it offered her a position at one of its other properties. Meanwhile, her granddaughter, Inesha, now 12, talks about applying to the University of California at Berkeley and eventually becoming a lawyer.

More Grandparents Are Raising Grandchildren

In Kansas City and around the country, the number of grandparents raising grandchildren has been increasing for several decades, researchers say. As of 2011, roughly 2.7 million grandparents were responsible for one or more of their grandchildren, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, up from 2.4 million in 2000, the first year the census counted the figure. A parent may drift in and out of these households, but a grandparent is in charge. Some of the parents have died, while others are too troubled to raise their kids. Some are ill; others are addicts; still others are behind bars or homeless.

And the grandparent who takes over — usually a grandmother — tends to be under an enormous amount of stress, as Stigger’s story demonstrates. She may still be grieving the loss of an adult child to drugs, violence or some other misfortune. She may be unfamiliar with the habits and needs of today’s children, and she probably can’t turn to her friends for support because they haven’t raised kids in a generation either. She may have health and financial problems that are exacerbated by her new responsibilities. She may not have a suitable home in which to raise children, and if she lives in federally subsidized senior housing, she’s probably not even allowed to take kids in.

In 1998, the first housing community in the country specifically tailored to the complicated needs of grandparents raising grandchildren opened in Boston. Since then, similar complexes have been built in the Bronx, N.Y., Cleveland, Detroit, Phoenix, Hartford, Conn., Baton Rouge, La., and several other places in addition to Kansas City. More are under construction.

From Concept to Bricks and Mortar

Kansas City housing developer Brian Collins got the idea for Pemberton Park after reading about Grandparent Family Apartments, a complex in the Bronx that opened in 2005. But it took a whole team to make Collins’ idea a reality — a diverse coalition of public and private players, including some grandmothers, who united, collaborated and persisted in spite of unforeseen roadblocks.

First, Collins tried to ascertain whether special grandparent housing might be needed in his city. A former city planner, he was “frankly amazed” when he learned that there were about 9,000 grandparents raising grandchildren in the metropolitan area, which includes both Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan. Most were single women with low enough incomes to qualify for subsidized apartments.

Soon, Collins began putting together a team of allies, including Jim Scott, a local architect with a specialty in urban redevelopment; John Monroe, director of planning and development at the Housing Authority of Kansas City, who was game for trying something new; and Stovall, the social worker who ran a program at Children’s Mercy Hospital for grandparents raising grandchildren and was raising two of her own grandchildren across the state line in Kansas.

At Collins’ request, Stovall recruited Stigger and about 40 other grandmother caregivers she knew to attend a preliminary brainstorming session. The grandmothers told the building team that the apartment complex would best meet their needs if it was built near schools, day-care sites, grocery stores and parks. As it turned out, the Housing Authority already owned a piece of land on Swope Parkway that was “ideally suited” — near a shopping center, a park and a community center, Monroe says.

Once the site was chosen, the grandmothers assembled for another brainstorming session, this time to talk specifics.

“We simply got a sensitivity to what their lives were like, how complex their lives could be,” says Scott, the architect.

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He realized that the grandparents would need somewhere to relax, so he designed a lounge for adults only. Since many of the grandparents were raising several grandchildren, Scott created a few four-bedroom units, but he grouped them together to isolate noise. He made all the units handicapped accessible. For the grandchildren, he designed indoor and outdoor play areas and put in window guards and childproof locks. Scott, Collins, Monroe and Stovall also traveled to New York to learn what they could about the Bronx development, a shiny and inviting five-story building on Prospect Avenue, south of Crotona Park.

By 2008, the Kansas City team had secured funding for their project through a federal program that gives tax credits to private investors willing to finance affordable housing. But when the recession hit, the investors pulled out, and it looked like the project might fall apart. The team pushed forward, until finally, in 2009, they received a $5.6 million grant from the federal stimulus bill.

Pemberton Park was completed in 2011, and its very first residents were Stigger and I’nesha.

“I said to them, ‘This is my last stop,’” Stigger recalls.

The Community Evolves

“Rose came in and became absolutely our best marketing person,” Collins says of Stigger, who also took in I’nesha’s half-sister, Alexus Stigger, 16, about a year ago. Although Stigger and Stovall both spread the word about how well the apartments had turned out, it took many months for the units to fill up. Initially, the complex required grandparents to become legal guardians of their grandchildren before moving in, a regulation intended to create a stable tenant community. But when the management team realized that few of the grandparents who wanted to live at Pemberton Park had taken this step — some were holding out hope that their adult children would get their lives together and reclaim their children — the rule was changed. Now, grandparents are allowed to move in if they agree to secure guardianship of their grandchildren within a year.

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With occupancy up, Pemberton Park has faced other challenges. Not long after the building was finished, Stovall’s hospital eliminated her position, which left Pemberton Park without its “spiritual leader,” says Scott, the architect. The Housing Authority has assigned one of its own social workers to the site, LaToya Walker, but she says she’s not able to organize nearly as many activities for residents as she’d like because she has such a small budget. Meanwhile, the property’s manager, Michelle Stevens, says security at the site needs to be beefed up to deal with “outside traffic.”

Scott has two regrets. Because of funding constraints, he didn’t get to build the walking trail around the property that the grandmothers wanted. And the resident-run coffee shop that he lobbied for was nixed.

But the community is still evolving, and some tenants, including Stigger, are taking on leadership roles. She liked the idea of a shop, too, especially when she realized that some of the grandchildren were hanging out at a notoriously unsafe store a few blocks away. So she took matters into her own hands and started an informal one in her apartment. Now, when kids want a can of soda or some ice cream, they knock on her door and come in for a snack and some conversation.

“We’re one big happy family,” Stigger says. “We help each other.”

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Olivia Gentile is a journalist writing a book about American grandparents. She’s also the author of a biography, Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, published by Bloomsbury in 2009.