Bridging Health, Housing, and Generations: What the United States Might Learn from Germany’s Intentional Multigenerational Housing Demonstrations
Population aging and housing affordability challenges are driving an interest in alternative housing options in countries around the world. Older adults’ desires to age as independently as possible in their choice of housing and community, widespread affordability challenges, and concern about social isolation and loneliness have led to an interest in shared, multigenerational housing settings. One variation of these are intentional multigenerational communities, in which a range of households—including families with children as well as single people and couples of all ages—live in their own units within a shared property with the intent of sharing in community life and offering each other mutual support. Policymakers, including those in many European countries, are seeking ways to support these communities. This report sets out findings from a study of Wohnen für (Mehr)Generationen, a pilot program in Germany that helped support 30 innovative housing projects across the country.
In 2009 the German Federal Ministry of Family, Seniors, Women, and Youth (BMFSFJ) launched Wohnen für (Mehr)Generationen – Gemeinschaft stärken, Quartier beleben (Housing for Multiple Generations – Strengthen Community, Invigorate Neighborhoods) to encourage new and alternative forms of shared and/or multigenerational housing. The objective of the demonstration program was to provide a platform to advance innovative approaches for shared and/or multigenerational living though housing developments and to disseminate these new forms of housing to a wider audience.
The program provided grants to 30 projects between 2009 and 2015. The funding, which supported design and development work, was relatively modest in comparison to overall project costs. Projects were selected through a national competition, with selection criteria focused on how well the proposed community supported the self-determination and independence of residents, including enabling aging residents to maintain their lifestyles even when extended care was needed. Other criteria included: the extent of self-organization, community spirit, and mutual support between generations; a contribution to neighborhood revitalization; and the engagement of citizens and civil society. Projects also had to incorporate universal design principles and demonstrate active involvement with the municipalities in the design and development of the projects.
The Wohnen für (Mehr)Generationen pilot has not been formally evaluated. In 2019, the Office of Policy Development and Research of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded a Research Partnership grant to the German Marshall Fund, with the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies as a subgrantee, to examine the program and draw lessons for the United States. The German Marshall Fund also supported the project with funds that matched the HUD grant award. This report presents findings from case studies of five of the Wohnen für (Mehr)Generationen-funded communities as well as interviews conducted in the United States with housing professionals, advocates, and others engaged in the development and operation of multigenerational communities.
In the United States and Germany, both countries with aging populations, policymakers are exploring multigenerational housing settings that support older adults seeking to remain in their communities as they age. Emerging findings suggest that older individuals living in the community rather than in a nursing home can improve their health status while also reducing costs associated with potentially unnecessary or premature hospital and nursing home care, provided they receive appropriate supportive services in the home. In addition, surveys conducted by AARP show that most older adults prefer to live in their current communities and homes as they age.
Yet there are significant challenges to aging in place. In the United States, most housing lacks basic accessibility features, though the likelihood of mobility challenges and functional limitations increases with age. Services and supports to assist people with self-care and household tasks can be financially out of reach to low- and middle-income older adults—particularly those whose budgets are already strained by housing costs. Isolation is a concern, particularly for the growing number of older adults living alone, and both isolation and loneliness are risk factors for morbidity and mortality. A sense of purpose and opportunities to be “generative”—to make a difference—have also been shown to be important to health and life satisfaction, yet can be made more difficult by a host of factors including lack of opportunities for engagement, social isolation, financial dependence, and roles as primary caregivers.
In both the United States and Germany, the lack of sufficient affordable housing for all ages, limited availability of accessible housing and supportive services needed by older adults and people with disabilities, lack of sufficient support for younger adults including parents of small children, and concern about isolation and loneliness are challenging communities to develop innovative solutions that accommodate and support populations across the life cycle in multigenerational residential settings. Most typically, multigenerational living takes the form of multiple generations of the same family living together in one household. Indeed, households consisting of multiple related generations have been on the rise in recent decades: in 2016, 20 percent of the US population lived in multigenerational households, up from 12 percent in 1980. Yet increasingly, non-relatives of different generations are also sharing private homes to reduce housing costs and find companionship.
The focus of this report is another, distinct type of multigenerational housing in which households (for example, families, single people, couples, or unrelated roommates) live in their own units within an intentionally created mixed-age community characterized by mutual support. Housing communities of this type include resident-organized cohousing, defined as “collaborative, resident-led, self-managed communities” with “both private homes and shared spaces” and “a commitment by its members to share resources and common activities”. It can also include buildings or sites developed and run by organizations, typically nonprofit, dedicated to specialized populations such as grandparents raising grandchildren, that also have an intent to create communities of mutual support across generations. We refer to both types of communities as “intentional multigenerational communities”.
While multigenerational and/or shared housing is not new, there is no dedicated federal program in the United States designed to create and support them. Germany poses an interesting case study for the United States: it has a long history of shared and multigenerational housing, and the federal government has funded numerous demonstration projects in the last 20 years to support the intentional development of shared and/or multigenerational housing.
One such program is Wohnen für (Mehr)Generationen (Living for (More) Generations). This demonstration program, a joint initiative of the German government-owned development bank KfW and the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ), in cooperation with the FORUM Gemeinschaftliches Wohnen e.V, sought to provide a platform to advance innovative approaches for shared and/or multigenerational living through housing developments and to disseminate these new forms of housing to a wider audience.
Wohnen für (Mehr)Generationen provided grants to 30 projects between 2009 and 2015. The funding supported design and development and was relatively modest in comparison to overall project costs. Projects were selected through a national competition, with selection criteria focused on how well the proposed community supported self-determination and independence of residents, including enabling aging residents to maintain their lifestyles even when extended care was required. Other criteria included: the extent of self-organization, community spirit, and mutual support between generations; a contribution to neighborhood revitalization; and the engagement of citizens and civil society. Projects also had to incorporate universal design principles and demonstrate active involvement with the municipalities in the design and development of the projects. Resulting housing is designed to be in equal measure affordable, inclusive, communal, and “barrier-free”, and to position housing as a platform for service provision for residents and the public alike.
The Wohnen für (Mehr)Generationen program has not been formally evaluated, yet as a federal effort to promote multigenerational communities addressing affordability, accessibility, and informal support among neighbors, it may hold important insights for the United States. In 2019 in the United States, the Office of Policy Development and Research of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) awarded a grant to the German Marshall Fund, with the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies as a subgrantee, to examine the program and draw lessons for the United States. We conducted in-depth interviews with architects, local officials, resident leaders, and residents in five of the communities built under the program, discussing development, financing, design, community life, mutual support, and satisfaction. We also interviewed federal officials knowledgeable about the Wohnen für (Mehr)Generationen program and other relevant policies. After analyzing these findings, we conducted in-depth interviews with professionals involved in multigenerational cohousing and nonprofit-run housing in the United States, seeking to gain insight into how the challenges and opportunities identified in the German model might translate to the United States. This report presents our findings.
Below, we first discuss findings from the literature on the motivation for, benefits of, and challenges surrounding the development of intentional multigenerational communities. We then provide an overview of our research methods and an overview of the Wohnen für (Mehr)Generationen demonstration program and the specific communities we studied. Finally, we discuss insights from Wohnen für (Mehr)Generationen and their application to the United States.