If the term “grandfamily” sounds familiar to you, you might’ve heard of it in the New York Times or in reference to a bill making its way through Congress. Or, you might know someone who is part of one — more than 2.6 million children are being brought up in grandfamilies, according to a 2019 report by Generations United. Even if you haven’t heard the phrase, though, you can probably surmise what it means.

Also called kinship families, they differ from families that reside in multigenerational housing (where children, parents, and grandparents all live together) in that the parents aren’t present. Oftentimes, a grandfamily forms out of urgent necessity, leaving little time for planning and creating unique challenges. Obstacles can really run the gamut, says Beltran. For instance, a grandparent may own their house, but lack resources to childproof it. They may live in a senior housing facility that doesn’t allow children, a walk-up unit that makes it difficult to manage a stroller, or a studio that is simply too small to accommodate little ones. And on top of physical limitations, there are legal ones.

“Sometimes housing authorities don’t recognize these families as families because they may lack a legal relationship to the children — they may not have adopted them or have guardians of them,” Beltran explains. 

That’s where a specific type of housing designed exactly for these kinds of families comes in. Across the country, just shy of 20 grandfamily housing developments have been built, according to Beltran, and there are more underway. In addition to the support of living in a community of similar families, these homes can also offer on-site services that cater to their residents, from around-the-clock security, to communal gathering spaces and playgrounds, to simple but important design features like handrails and wide hallways.  

As Covid has done with many facets of life and to marginalized communities, it has also highlighted disparities for grandfamilies. Though concrete data is difficult to pin down while the country is still in the midst of the pandemic, Beltran says anecdotally speaking, Covid has elevated the needs of these families.

“It’s the same needs that have always been there, but of course they’re heightened.” And, she says, “The data we do have shows that more Black people, people of color, and Indigenous people have died or become disabled because of Covid. And we know there’s a disproportionate number of children in grandfamilies that are Black or Indigenous.”

A recent report from the CDC shows that about 1 out of every 500 children in the U.S. has experienced orphanhood as a result of the pandemic. “I’m sure a sizable number of those were orphaned because they lost their grandparent, not their parents,” says Beltran. Part of her work with the National Technical Assistance Center on Grandfamilies and Kinship Families — a five-year project made possible by Covid relief legislation — will be to connect kinship care systems around the country to help them better work together. The goal is to help grandfamily housing be what any home should be: a haven to live well and safely.