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11 people, 4 cars: Multigenerational households on Long Island

The Alexander family of Dix Hills in Hawaii

The Alexander family of Dix Hills in Hawaii during a family vacation in 2014. Credit: Marsha Alexander

Eleven people in your home. Four cars parked in your driveway. Higher utility bills. Many Long Islanders experience this during the holidays when families tend to gather— but what if this was your every day?

For 64 million Americans, it is. They’re among a record 20 percent of the U.S. population who lived in multigenerational households in 2016, according to a Pew Research Center’s analysis of the latest census data available.

That’s up 5.6 percent from 2014. The U.S. Census Bureau defines multigenerational households as a living arrangement including two or more adult generations, such as grandparents who live with their children and grandchildren.

Some driven by necessity, some by choice, Long Island families cite cultural, financial and other reasons for living in such an arrangement.

ONE HOUSE, 11 PEOPLE

Bindu Valath, 44, is one of them. She lives with her two daughters, her two brothers and their wives, and each of their two kids for a household of 11 people — and a dog.

Her mother was also living with them until she died in 2016.

“We wanted her to have all her kids together,” said Valath, who shares a five-bedroom house in Bellerose Terrace with her extended family. She said they were all able to support and care for their mother when she was ill.

Every couple in the house buys their own groceries but they all split the mortgage and utility bills, she said.

One of the downsides of having so many people, she says, is that there’s less space and it’s too loud for their kids to study.

But they never had to pay for child care. “We always had people in the house,” she said.

In Valath’s case, her brothers and their wives are now looking for their own places, but with Long Island’s high cost of living it’s been difficult to find somewhere they could afford on their own, she said.

“House prices are so high, [my brothers] can’t afford it right now. We can’t afford it,” Valath said. “Even renting a place is very high.”

Their hope is to all live close to each other, but Nassau prices are forcing her brothers to look at New Jersey or Suffolk, potentially splitting up the close-knit family.

“We are very close, now that we all live together. I don’t how it’s going to be when we do go our separate ways. It’s going to be difficult not seeing each other.”
 

FOUR CARS, ONE DRIVEWAY

Chris O’Connell was at work one day when his wife and his parents were hanging out together.

When he got back home, his dad and his wife dropped a bomb on him: What if we all lived together?

“It wasn’t even my idea. I thought it was going to be a huge problem,” O’Connell said. “It’s not at all. They’re very respectful of our own personal space.”

O’Connell, 48, used to live in Manhattan and worked on Wall Street in advertising until 9/11. He was laid off and was unemployed for a few years, he said.

“The fluctuation [of my salary] was so varied,” said O’Connell that he said it just made sense to share living expenses for more stability.

“I always knew I was going to go back to Long Island. To raise kids and afford everything, I knew I wouldn’t be able to live in Manhattan to do that,” he said.

O’Connell has been living with his wife, two daughters, son and parents in a six-bedroom, two bathroom home in Franklin Square since 2011. The ages in the household range from 5 to 74.

“I was worried about [my parents] being overbearing, telling me how to raise my kids and me and my wife not having personal space,” he said. His parents, Daniel Christopher and Diana, are both retired. 

To his surprise, the living situation has been working out “very, very well” and he “can’t think of a single negative.”

They live in a 2,700-square-foot mother-daughter house with his parents on the second floor with their own kitchen and bathroom. Four cars fill up their driveway.

As for the bills, “everything is split right down the middle,” he said. This includes the mortgage, taxes, the cable, the internet, the Costco membership. They each have their own electricity meters, so that bill is separate, he said.

“Splitting the bills helps a lot,” he said. Although their bills are a little higher than what it would normally be for one family, it’s still cheaper than if everyone were on their own, he said.

He and his wife never had to pay for child care, either. He estimates his family saves $1,500 to $1,700 a month overall, allowing him to take his children on road trips and vacations multiple times a year.

“You gotta make sure you get along great. I can see a million ways it could go wrong,” he said. “It’s a blessing. We get along fantastic.”

REGROUPING AFTER A LOSS

September 2012 to September 2013 was a rough period for Valley Stream resident Yolanda Felder.

In addition to the stress of closing down one business to start up another, five of her family members died, including her father.

So in January 2014, Felder, now 53, and her daughter, now 17, moved into her mother’s three-bedroom, two bathroom condo.

“It was really a regrouping,” Felder said. “She was there when I needed her. I was there when she needed me.”

Felder was running a day care business and now produces a talk show on local media.

“I was able to shift into my next business without as much stress,” she said. “It allowed me to be more strategic.”

It also helped Felder get out of debt because she was able to double the payment on her student loans and credit card bills.

“I’m able to save at least $1,200 a month,” she said. There’s no mortgage on their condo and Felder said she helps her mom, who is 69-years-old and retired but works part-time, with the utility bills, taxes and insurance.

One of the downsides of a multigenerational household, Felder says, is that “moms will always be moms.”

“The adult sometimes still sees you as a child and not the adult that you’ve become,” she said.

But she adds that it’s also helped her to become more understanding. “The parents are getting older so you can’t have that short patience. Learn to have more patience.”

“It’s three different generations and we all see things differently,” she said.

Felder doesn’t see this living situation as permanent. Even though she said things have been working out well so far with her mother and daughter, Felder plans to eventually find her own place after her daughter graduates high school later this year.

“I would recommend it if you want to revamp your life. If you have a family member that you can stay with for a while, by all means do it,” she said.

THE SANDWICH GENERATION SQUEEZE

Linda Desmond of Locust Valley has been living with her husband, son and 90-year-old mother since 1996.

Desmond, 60, says she definitely feels the squeeze of being part of the “sandwich generation.”

The Pew Research Center defines this generation as adults with at least one living parent age 65 or older, who are either raising a child younger than 18 or providing financial support to a grown child age 18 or older.

“You worry about your own well-being and now you have this adult that’s also aging. They’re going to need help,” she said.

She said she’s been fortunate that her mother is mostly independent. She has her own living quarters in the house, which includes her own kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. She cooks and does the laundry but she doesn’t drive anymore, Desmond said.

“If she is sick, I’m close by. I’m right upstairs. I can keep an eye on her,” she said. “It’s easier in one respect, but it’s harder because I’m the only one,” said Desmond, an only child.

Linda and her husband take care of the finances of the house while her mother chips in for the electric bill even though “we don’t really ask her,” she said.

Long Island’s cost of living also played a role in their decision to all live together.

“I don’t even know if my mother would be able to afford living on her own,” Desmond said, adding that the physical upkeep of a house would have also been a challenge for her.

It also impacted her son, Michael, a 28-year-old musician, who lives with them. She also has a 25-year-old daughter, Jenna, who went to the College of Charleston in South Carolina and has stayed there since graduating because of its affordability.

“It’s difficult to live on Long Island,” she said. "You hear a lot of the young people still living with parents."

But in a way, having her son at home has been a blessing.

“He takes [my mother] to the store, to the bank, he talks to her,” she said. “Me being able to go out and in the back of my mind worrying about her — he can check in with her.

“He’s doing his thing. But if I need him, he’s there for her,” she said.

Desmond, who works as a teacher's assistant, said that their living situation has been “overall positive” and credits that to having separate living spaces to respect everyone’s privacy.

With Long Island’s cost of living seemingly getting higher and higher, Desmond says she’s been considering a move “probably down south.”

 
 

GIVING BACK TO IMMIGRANT PARENTS

Sterling and Marsha Alexander, who both work as physicians on Long Island and live in Dix Hills in a household of seven, say their reasons for a multigenerational household are more cultural than financial.

“It was a way to give back to parents who were immigrants, who sacrificed everything for their children,” said Marsha, who lives with her husband, their four kids, ages 7, 9, 15, 17 and her 75-year-old mother-in-law. Her father-in-law also lived in the house with them until his death.

She says having her mother-in-law in the house exposes her children to the Indian culture by speaking the Malayalam language and cooking authentic South Indian meals such as dosas, puttu, a popular Keralite breakfast dish made of steamed rice flour with coconut,  and fish curry for them several times a week.

Her parents in-law around also helped with saving money on child care.

“I was able to go back to work after maternity leave without having a delay in graduation, education, career,” said Marsha, a psychiatrist on Long Island.

But multigenerational households are not for everyone, she said. If there are significant unresolved issues in the household she says families shouldn’t live this way.

“It may not be the healthiest for all families,” said Marsha. She says that the privacy in each relationship of the household should be respected, for example the relationship between a husband and wife and the relationship between a parent and child.

“Boundaries should definitely be kept,” she said. “Your children are watching to see how you deal with your parents.”

She and her husband take care of the bills in the home and even though it can get expensive for a family of seven, it’s worth it, she said.

“Family time together, enhancing cultures, multi-tasking, the passing down of wisdom — that outweighs the cost which we do pay,” she said. “You can’t put a dollar amount on all benefits.”

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