Kate Mercer and Sara Gordon grew up a block apart in their eclectic Cabin John neighborhood. They celebrated birthdays together, had sleepovers at each other’s homes, and ice-skated together on the C&O Canal when it froze over. Their moms were in the same book club and sewing circle.
Now, Mercer, 34, and Gordon, 35, are moving back to the houses that their moms still live in and own. But this time, the longtime friends are bringing their husbands and kids with them. “We’re not [good at sewing],” Mercer says of herself and Gordon. “But maybe we could turn [the neighborhood sewing circle] into wine night.”
Over the past year, each young woman’s childhood home has been extensively remodeled to include private “suites” for their mothers—giving them, their husbands and their kids the run of the rest of the house. Their homecomings—along with the renovations that allow for more comfortable multigenerational living—were their moms’ ideas.
“I could have sold my home after my husband died and moved into a little condo that probably would have cost what I’d have sold my house for, but I didn’t want that,” says Chris Davison, Mercer’s mom, 63. She raised all four of her now-grown children in the house; it has been part of her late husband’s family since the early 1900s.
Davison hosted Mercer, her husband, Ryan, and their two young daughters for more than a year during the pandemic, after the couple sold their house in Gaithersburg and couldn’t find another house in their price range nearby. “Everything went skyrocketing,” Davison says.
After 15 months, the Mercers relocated to an apartment in North Bethesda, but Davison knew that that the growing family would eventually need more space. Living under the same roof worked out so well during the pandemic that rather than risk that her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren move out of the area to find a house they could afford, she asked them if they wanted to move back in with her, this time permanently. The couple, whose third child is due in May, said yes right away, she recalls.
“Both me and Kate love to cook,” says Davison’s son-in-law Ryan Mercer, 33. “It’s not a big deal to put out another plate for ‘Neenie,’ ” the name his kids call Davison. And his mother-in-law, he says, is easy to get along with.
Meanwhile, Nicki Wright—Gordon’s mom—was proposing something similar to her daughter and son-in-law. Widowed since 2016, Wright was living alone in the home that had been in her husband’s family for generations—the house where she and her husband had hosted their annual Easter egg hunt and where her daughter, an only child, was married.
Wright, 73, had been watching her grandson, Franklin, full time since he was born in 2021. It was a great arrangement for all of them to have her watching the baby while they were at work, but the apartment that Gordon and her husband Andrew were renting was getting tight. She worried that they, too, might end up farther away where housing was more affordable.
If they all pooled their resources, Wright figured, they could make updates to the Cabin John house—including a bumped-out suite for her—to make it comfortable for everyone to live there together. “I said, ‘What do you guys think about moving in with me and we’ll make an addition?’ ” she recalls asking Sara and Andrew, 38. “And they said, ‘Oh, yeah!’ ” Now Wright and her family are waiting for renovations to the Cabin John house to be completed. In the meantime, she has been renting an apartment near her daughter and son-in-law’s apartment in Northwest D.C.
Multigenerational living is a growing trend—and not just with adult children taking in elderly parents. Rather, as property values rise and neighborhoods in desirable public school districts become unattainable for some young families, many older folks still in their longtime homes are taking in their grown children and grandchildren to live with them.
The multigenerational trend is due in part to changing demographics. Recent immigrants, as well as Black, Asian and Hispanic Americans, now account for most of the overall population growth in both the county and the U.S., and these are the groups more likely to live with several generations under one roof, according to the Pew Research Center. But the increase in multigenerational living is also the byproduct of a housing crunch that hit the West Coast over two decades ago and more recently has moved eastward, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
In 2019, to help alleviate the local housing shortage, Montgomery County amended longstanding zoning laws to make it easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their properties. Also known as “in-law suites,” ADUs are basically secondary residences on existing homesites—with kitchens, bedrooms, full bathrooms and their own entrances. They can be stand-alone buildings or self-contained units built over a garage, carved out of a walk-out basement, or attached to the back of the main house.
ADUs give homeowners more options when it comes to supporting their grown children, grandchildren or elderly parents, say housing advocates. These units also make great rental properties, according to local builders who say ADU rentals are particularly attractive to schoolteachers and first responders who work in the county but can’t afford the rent of most large apartment complexes near their jobs.
The county’s zoning changes not only make the ADU permitting process easier than before, but also allow homeowners with lots as small as 6,000 square feet to build them. Previously, ADUs were generally allowed only on lots of more than an acre.
“It’s opened the opportunity for more people to come and take advantage of the new law,” says Ehsan Motazedi, deputy director for the Montgomery County Department of Permitting Services. Before the zoning changes were implemented, the county issued between 20 and 30 ADU permits most years, Motazedi estimates. Now those numbers have more than tripled. According to the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA), 126 ADU permits were granted in 2022, 122 in 2021, and 110 in 2020, the first full year of the zoning change.
“People want [ADUs],” says Sean Ruppert, president of Cabin John-based OPaL, the design-build firm that renovated the Davison and Wright homes. But he says the cost of an ADU—which can easily top $150,000—along with the size restrictions that are still in place have so far kept many people in the county from going forward with one.
ADU permitting was not required for the Wright and Davison projects because neither involved a second kitchen or a separate entrance, though Wright says she briefly considered having her own stand-alone unit. “I could have had a little house in the backyard, but I wanted…to be together,” she says.
“I had a couple who was very close [to building an ADU],” adds Marty Mitchell, president of Hometown Collection, an affiliate of Rockville-based home builder Mitchell & Best. “The grandmother was basically the day care,” and the family wanted to all live under one roof, he says. “They couldn’t get over the [county’s] 1,200-square-foot limitation [on ADUs],” so they put the plan on hold.
Mitchell says that even if the size limit and cost of building an ADU is discouraging to some homeowners, he’s still seeing an uptick in buyers for home plans that include two owner’s suites—one upstairs and one on the main level—a design popular with multigenerational households.
Mitchell is so confident that the ADU trend is growing that his company is about to market two different plans for stand-alone ADUs. “Going back to 50, 60, 70 years ago, [the county] chewed up the buildable land [with single-family-zoned lots] and now we still have people who [want to come], but we just can’t produce enough housing for them,” Mitchell says. “ADUs are just one more tool in the tool chest.”
Other area builders are seeing not only a surge in multigenerational housing in general, but also in ADUs. This spring, Maryam Tabrizchi, principal architect with Chevy Chase-based Elie Ben Architecture, completed two high-end ADUs for clients—including one for a Bethesda family with four young kids. “In the short term, we are going to rent the ADU to younger people…for a more affordable housing option for them and some income for us to offset some of the cost,” says the owner of the Bethesda property, who didn’t want to be identified because he didn’t want to invite scrutiny of the family’s use of the ADU. In the long term, the homeowner says by email, “our parents might need assistance…[or] we may move into the ADU and share the main house…with the family of one of our children. …It’s all about having options.”
Teresa Frene, 66, remembers the battles she had with the county over permitting for her stand-alone ADU. In 2008, the divorced mother of three applied for a permit to build one behind the Silver Spring split-level that had been in her family for years. She wanted to live in the ADU and offer the main house to her grown son, his girlfriend at the time and the couple’s newborn baby, all of whom were living in Northeast D.C. “I was a pioneer,” she says.
The county kept rejecting her plans and sending her back to the drawing board. It took about eight months to get the project approved. “Ultimately, after being a completely persistent pain in the neck to the people at the county, they gave it to me,” she says. Frene has now lived in her two-story ADU for about 13 years. It has a full kitchen, a main bedroom and a living room on the main level, and two bedrooms and a bathroom downstairs. These days, two of her eight grandchildren live with her. Her son remained in the main house after his previous relationship ended and now lives there with his wife of eight years and the couple’s twin toddler sons.
When Frene’s young grandsons want to visit her, they stand on the deck—which provides entrances to her place and the main house—and yell, “Yaya! I wanna see Yaya!” she says, and she’ll
stop whatever she’s doing to open the door and let them in. “It’s a win-win,” she says.
In October, Frene fell on the stairs while taking out the trash. Her daughter-in-law, who’s a doctor, was there to confirm that she’d broken her arm, so her son immediately drove her to the emergency room. “It’s nice to have a doctor in the house,” Frene says.
For Cheryl Winn, 43, multigenerational living has always been the norm. When her mother’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong in the 1970s, her parents—who were already living here—chipped in with her grandparents to buy a small split-level in Bethesda with the intention of everyone living together.
When Winn’s mom found out she was pregnant with her, the two generations bought a slightly larger house together—a ranch-style house about a mile away—and all moved there. The plan was always that her grandparents would live with them. They helped raise Winn and her two siblings, and eventually, the younger generation helped care for their elders, Winn says.
At one point, four generations lived under one roof—including Winn’s grandmother, her parents, her husband, and their two oldest kids. She and her husband officially bought the house from her parents eight years ago, “but that didn’t change anything except on paper,” she says. Now a mother of five, Winn and her family built a
second-story addition on the house about six years ago so she and her husband could have a suite upstairs and each of their children could have their own bedroom down the hall. Her parents have a “wing” of their own off the living room, complete with sitting room, bedroom and full bathroom.
It was a personal choice, not a financial decision, for everyone to live together, Winn says. “I had a relationship with my grandparents that I wouldn’t trade for anything, because we lived together and we grew up with them,” she says. “And we [want] that for our kids as well.”
This story appears in the May/June issue of Bethesda Magazine.