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Young and Old Find Common Ground in Oregon Housing Community

At Bridge Meadows, a special housing development in Portland, troubled foster children and elders live side by side.

The potential for mixing older and younger folks to mutual benefit isn't a new concept. That's why I'm a little embarrassed to admit that there's a variation on the theme that I only just learned about: elderly housing combined with rent-free units for foster parents.

I learned about this type of housing while organizing a series of roundtables for Governing and AARP on "livable communities for all ages." I was preparing for a panel in Portland, Ore., when I came across Bridge Meadows, a 36-unit apartment complex in the city that mixes incomes, generations and skill sets in a way that enlivens and enriches the lives of young and old alike. The complex is actually modeled after Hope Meadows, which opened in the 1990s in Rantoul, Ill., as a way to find placements for "unadoptable" kids.

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Out of 36 units, nine are set aside for adults who agree to either become foster parents or legal guardians to at least three kids within five years of moving in. The other 27 are affordable, one- and two-bedroom units set aside for elders. To be eligible, the head of the household has to be at least 55 with an income ranging between 30 to 60 percent of the area median.

In exchange for affordable rent and after getting specialized training through the Oregon Department of Human Services, elders volunteer their time to work with the kids in the complex. For at least 100 hours per quarter, they tutor, cook, babysit, participate in outdoor activities and so forth. The complex also offers a computer room, library, public courtyard and community garden to help foster connections.

The complex houses 70 people, including 29 children of which 24 were formerly in foster care. Of those 24, just over half are either adopted or in legal guardianship and the rest are on their way to adoption or legal guardianship. In other words, they're all now part of functional families, in permanency or on their way.

The project cost $11 million-plus and was funded in part with money from the sale of low-income housing tax credits and a mix of grants and loans. Before Bridge Meadows even broke ground, planners worked with the local neighborhood on the design of the project. As a result, it proceeded unhampered by planning protests or political skirmishing.

While both Hope Meadows and Bridge Meadows are wonderful models with proven track records, my question for Derenda Schubert, executive director of Bridge Meadows, was about scalability. Schubert believes that the model is one that will be widely replicated because it answers two currently very pressing social problems: how to civically attend to our rapidly aging population and how to place all the troubled kids peppering children and family services systems in the country.

I appreciate Schubert's enthusiasm for the model, but it's doubtful that the Meadows model is going to wind up being the magic answer to the issue of elder housing and troubled youth. But rather than dismiss it as too little in the face of too many, I prefer to view as yet another strategy that communities ought to consider. Who knows, in some places and for some communities, it might be just right.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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