MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Three percent of children in the U.S. are raised by family members who are not their parents. Often it's their grandparents stepping up during hard times. These families now have a home just for them here in Washington, D.C. Reporter Ally Schweitzer takes us inside a new apartment complex especially for grandfamilies, and she meets there one family hoping to get a fresh start.
ALLY SCHWEITZER, BYLINE: It's a scene that could be playing out in millions of homes across the U.S. Deborah Johnson is in her living room unpacking a box of Christmas ornaments her grandsons just brought out from the car.
DEBORAH JOHNSON: Every year, we do a different theme for our Christmas tree. So this year, we're doing the solar system.
SCHWEITZER: But this holiday tradition looks a little different for Johnson and her grandsons, who are 12 and 15. She has legal custody of the boys, and they've lived with her for two years.
JOHNSON: My daughter has been in a domestic abuse situation since the boys were little. And I kept trying to give her the time to get it together and, you know, trying to figure out why she thought she was somebody's punching bag because she never saw that in my home.
SCHWEITZER: But when one of the boys began struggling with depression, Johnson decided it was time to step in. She and her grandsons shared a two-bedroom apartment in southeast Washington for a while. Today they're moving into this light-filled, three-bedroom apartment close to downtown. Fifteen-year-old Joshua is thrilled to finally have his own room.
JOSHUA: So I feel like that's going to be less stress between me and my brother.
SCHWEITZER: Soon Joshua will be living among 49 other families like his. His new home is called Plaza West. It's a recently opened affordable housing complex just for grandfamilies. There are only a handful of housing developments like this in the U.S., according to Generations United, a nonprofit that tracks multigenerational households. And the grandfamilies moving to Plaza West often come together in the wake of tragedy. Jamarl Clark oversees the building's grandfamilies program.
JAMARL CLARK: Situations range from a grandparent's son that committed murder that's incarcerated. We also have the situation of the grandmother that is taking care of the great-granddaughter who father is murdered.
SCHWEITZER: About 4 percent of children in D.C. live with a relative who isn't their parent, according to Generations United, and Clark says many of these families have special needs.
CLARK: A lot of grandparents that are 55 and up - it's hard to find senior housing that allow them to be able to bring children with them.
SCHWEITZER: Though Plaza West is more than just housing. It's kind of a village. The nonprofit and local church that built Plaza West plan to offer mentoring and social services to residents. The goal is to provide a feeling of community. And that's welcome for Deborah Johnson because it's not easy raising two adolescent, frequently bickering grandsons.
JOHNSON: Boys, boys, boys, boys.
SCHWEITZER: For 12-year-old Michael, this apartment is a big upgrade. Living downtown has slashed his commute to school by an hour.
MICHAEL: And we get more time to sleep. We're not waking up at 6 o'clock in the morning.
SCHWEITZER: But while the boys seem to like their new lives, Johnson says some of her friends struggle to understand why she's chosen to re-enter parenthood.
JOHNSON: You know, they're like, that's not your responsibility. If you didn't do it, somebody else would have done it. I was like, I refuse to see my grandkids in foster care. And more importantly, I did not want to see them separated because they only have each other.
SCHWEITZER: Though that's not entirely true. They also have their grandmother. For NPR News, I'm Ally Schweitzer in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.