Vermonters Think Intergenerational Living Could Be the Answer to Multiple Crises | Housing Crisis | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermonters Think Intergenerational Living Could Be the Answer to Multiple Crises


Published March 29, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 29, 2023 at 10:04 a.m.

Dawn Vukas (right) with her mother, Carol Pettersen, and her children, Niko and Vera, at their home in Monkton - JOHN OLENDER
  • John Olender
  • Dawn Vukas (right) with her mother, Carol Pettersen, and her children, Niko and Vera, at their home in Monkton

When Vera Vukas, age 6, was asked in art class to illustrate her immediate family, she didn't stop after drawing Mom, Dad and brother Niko. Grandma and Grandpa also made the cut.

"We are one family group," explained Vera's mother, Dawn Vukas. "It's a different type of relationship." The drawing, which Dawn displays on a wall, serves as a daily reminder of why she has embraced a boisterous, three-generation household, sharing her childhood home in Monkton with her parents, husband, two children and two dogs. 

Dawn's parents, Carol and Fred Pettersen — or "Nana" and "Beaka," as they're known around the house — sold their home to her in 2016 at a steep discount. There was only one condition: The elder couple got to stay put. "I couldn't afford this house without them," Dawn said.

Dawn and her parents said intergenerational living suits them. Fred helps with childcare, often picking up the kids from school. Vera likes to cook with Carol in her basement kitchen. "My parents feel like my children sometimes," Dawn said, laughing, moments before noting that they never seem to stop treating her like a kid. 

For Vermonters who are dealing with intersecting crises — in housing, the cost of living, childcare and senior care — multigenerational living offers some potential relief. These arrangements can enable younger people to buy a house that they otherwise couldn't afford. Elders, meantime, get the chance to age in place with their loved ones. Lawmakers and others are taking a new look at this age-old solution as a way to address the state's yawning shortage of affordable housing and the need to care for its sizable elderly population.

Nationally, the number of multigenerational households has quadrupled over the past 50 years, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, rising sharply since the pandemic. That increase is due in part to the growth of Asian American, Black and Hispanic populations, which are more likely to share homes across generations.

But Vermont, which is one of the least racially diverse states in the nation, has some of the lowest rates of multigenerational living. The number of such arrangements in the state — around 5,000 households — isn't large enough to suggest a measurable trend. A possible factor: Research conducted by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency in 2020 identified the relatively small size of Vermont houses as a potential barrier for some multigenerational immigrant families looking to move to the state.

Still, housing experts in Vermont say they've noticed an increase in residents, young and old, who at least appear interested in spanning the age gap when it comes to housing. They say the pandemic may have played a role. Shaun Gilpin, housing division director of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said Vermonters are beginning to recognize the benefits "not just from an economic standpoint, but also, frankly, from a social connectivity standpoint."

Vera and Niko Vukas - JOHN OLENDER
  • John Olender
  • Vera and Niko Vukas

Stephanie Gingras, who in 2013 purchased a split-level ranch in Colchester with her grandmother, Norma Rigby, said she wouldn't have been able to afford a place in Chittenden County otherwise.

In exchange for the financial help, Gingras helps care for Rigby, who is 82. Gingras' eldest daughter likes to play games with her "great," which has helped keep Rigby's memory sharp and her spirits high. 

"You can't really be downstairs and be depressed if you've got a 6-year-old coming downstairs that wants to play cards," Gingras said.

The arrangements can be challenging, as well. Gingras said she has effectively become Rigby's caretaker and sometimes wishes other family members would pitch in. Plus, her daughter becomes inconsolable when her "great" is out of the house, which happens fairly regularly, thanks to her packed social schedule. On a recent evening, Rigby wasn't home from her Bible study group until 9 p.m.

Others, too, cite lifestyle adjustments. Marion Thompson's son and 23-year-old grandson moved into her Colchester home after her son got a divorce. She said it's important to set boundaries. She's asked her grandson not to store alcohol in the house and to do his own laundry.

"Generations have different approaches to life, generally," she said.

She doesn't see the arrangement ending anytime soon. Although her grandson is working full time and has been touring apartments regularly, he hasn't found anything he can afford. Thompson said young people have it hard right now when it comes to the cost of housing, and she sees intergenerational living as a way to ease their burdens.

HomeShare Vermont, a nonprofit that matches seniors and others who have extra rooms with those looking for a place to live, promotes intergenerational living among people who are not related. The arrangements can provide seniors with housemates who might agree to help with cooking or transportation; their renters, meanwhile, get to share a comfortable home at a good rate.

In 2022, HomeShare matched 197 mostly lower-income participants, who ranged in age from 22 to 98. The average HomeShare rent last year was just $340 a month. HomeShare participants reported a slew of other benefits: 80 percent felt less lonely, 83 percent felt safer, and more than half noticed they were sleeping better.

"Culturally, I think we've lost a lot just in terms of knowing how to share," said Kirby Dunn, executive director of HomeShare. "We can't keep making bigger houses with fewer people living in them. It doesn't make us or the planet happier." 

Dunn said that while HomeShare is seeing more potential lodgers — a possible reflection of Vermont's brutal rental market — it has been more difficult to find people willing to host. 

Nancy Stone is glad she signed up as a host in Williston. When her husband, Ken, was diagnosed with dementia seven years ago, the couple decided to get creative with their living arrangement to ensure that they could age in place. They turned to HomeShare.

Jason Emanuel, who had just gotten divorced, became the couple's first guest. Emanuel and Nancy share a love of poetry, and would encourage each other to write regularly. Although Emanuel no longer lives with the Stones, he stays with them overnight on a spare mattress when he returns to Vermont to visit his kids each month.

When Emanuel moved out, Nancy decided to continue with HomeShare and found a new renter, Lucas Dunn, a 35-year-old middle school teacher. For Nancy, a retired schoolteacher, it's been another great match.

"When you're a caregiver, your whole focus can be on that person," she said. "Having Lucas come home and chat with me about the news or his day, or exercise, it's just lovely." 

Local and state officials, too, are getting on board. The Burlington City Council approved $30,000 last October in incentives for people who rent out rooms in their home through HomeShare. 

And as part of 2021's Vermont Housing Improvement Program, financed by the federal American Rescue Plan Act, residents can apply for grants of up to $50,000 to create or remodel an accessory dwelling unit, or "mother-in-law" suite, at an owner-occupied home. These sorts of living quarters are often best suited for intergenerational living.

Gilpin, of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, estimated that about one-third of the 408 accessory dwelling units that have been created as a result of the program have been used for intergenerational arrangements.

"It's an exciting option to kind of address a little piece of our housing puzzle without making massive changes to our development patterns," he said. 

At the Vukas home in Monkton, three generations have experienced the hiccups, and the rewards, of sharing a home. "We feel like one unit ... Maybe one dysfunctional unit, but we care deeply about each other," Dawn said. Ultimately, Dawn said she feels blessed to be raising her children alongside her parents, chaos and all.

"We are able to live here on this beautiful spot because we share," she concluded. "I think that's what it comes down to."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Full House | Vermonters think intergenerational living could be the answer to multiple crises"

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