Villard Square: Innovative Affordable Housing in Milwaukee Developed by Northwest Side CDC and Financed by BMO Harris and IFF

By: Emily Engel

After eight years in the making, The Villard Square GrandFamily Apartments, a first of its kind in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, opened in 2011.  This apartment complex focuses on a giving “grandfamilies” an affordable housing option. Grandfamilies are “families headed by grandparents and other relatives who share their homes with their grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and/or other related children.”[1] 

The Northwest Side Community Development Corporation (NWSCDC, profiled in a 2011 PNV article), which laid the groundwork for the project over several years and secured low-income housing tax credits and helped secure construction financing of $1.285 million from BMO Harris.  The bank construction financing would have been all but impossible to obtain, however, without a commitment for permanent (18-year-term) financing from IFF.  IFF is one of only a handful of CDFIs nationwide with the business model and financial heft to provide such long-term financing. [2] The library’s financing came from municipal bonds and new market tax credits.  

Across the United States 5.8 million children live in homes headed by grandparents. This number jumps to 7.8 million if you include homes headed by relatives other parents.[3] According to the 2010 Census, 78,351 children in Wisconsin (5.9 percent of all kids in the state) under age 18 live in homes where a grandparent or another relative heads the household.  Of those, 25,617 children live in homes headed by a grandparent.[4]  There is more information about grandfamily developments across the country in the “GrandFacts State Fact Sheet” posted on the AARP website

Grandparents raising grandchildren have to deal with generational differences as well as logistical, economic, and legal issues.[5]   In a tradeoff between time and income, younger grandparents may be forced to retire early, while older grandparents with fixed incomes may struggle to absorb costs of parenthood. Custody and guardianship can present hurdles and expenses stemming from the “lack of legal authority to make medical, school-related, and other decisions regarding their grandchildren.”[6]  Many grandparents also lack familiarity with generational norms of very young people. Finally, seniors often seek housing amenities for diminished mobility and emergency services, while children require space to run around and play.  With this demographic growing, NWSCDC together with Gorman & Company, envisioned a place where grandparents could raise their grandchildren in a safe environment that meets the needs of both generations. 

Villard Square amenities include a movie theater, community room, roof top deck and play area, fitness center, on-site supportive services liaison, [7] and a branch of the Milwaukee Public Library. Additionally, to make the complex more accessible to grandparents, the hallways are wide and have handicap accessible railings.  Also, all bedrooms have emergency pull cords.  The complex has features that cater just to the grandchildred including a playroom and on-site tutoring. [8]  The grandmother and grandson featured in the video explain why they enjoy living in this unique community.  This video also explains how this grandfamily-oriented residential complex has positively impacted the community.  For the first time in many years library card issuance has increased; Villard Square residents use the library as a both learning resource and community center.   

Other organizations involved in the center include Jewish Family Services, which coordinates social services and connects residents with local community resources.  In a press release at the time of opening of Villard Square, Sylvan Leabman, JFS President/CEO said, “We are excited about this new housing option that will create a unique intergenerational community for older adults and their grandchildren. We are pleased to be a part of a project that is the first of its kind in Milwaukee, where we will help fulfill the needs of non-traditional families.”[9]

Notably, all of the library metrics have increased – as well as the number of library cards issued, the number of books checked out, and computer usage are also up. A second, similar facility has broken ground for the East Branch of the Milwaukee Public Library, which will be called The Standard.  The East Branch is, however, located in a more affluent neighborhood, and the apartments have market-based rents, but the developers noted that Villard Square was the inspiration for The Standard. 

There are facilities like Villard Square outside Wisconsin; the “GrandFamiles House” in Boston, for instance, opened in 1998. Boston Aging Concerns, Young and Old United, Inc. (BAC – YOU) along with the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development wanted to address the issue of grandparents raising a generation removed.  The home provides affordable housing in addition to social and educational activities for both grandparents and grandkids.  

The LEGACY Act (Living Equitably, Grandparents Aiding Children and Youth) will continue to help these communities flourish across the United States as the demographic grows.  “The LEGACY Act will build on the Grandfamilies House model and help organizations across the country build similar housing developments. There are four key components to the legislation. First, it would create national demonstration projects under existing HUD programs specifically to develop housing for grandparents and their grandchildren.  Additionally, the Act would make it easier for grandfamilies to receive family unification assistance, and would allow access to fair housing funds for education and outreach efforts about the legal issues surrounding these families. Lastly, the Act will provide HUD personnel with specialized training in working with grandfamilies.”[10]


[1] Generations United, available at: http://www.gu.org/OURWORK/Grandfamilies.aspx

[2] Wells Fargo NEXT Awards for Opportunity Finance, available at: http://nextawards.org/stories/villard-square-grandfamily-apartments

[3] AARP About GrandFacts, available at: http://www.aarp.org/relationships/friends-family/grandfacts-sheets/

[4] AARP GrandFacts, available at: http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/relationships/friends-family/grandfacts/grandfacts-wisconsin.pdf

[5] Mind the Gap, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, available at: http://www.bos.frb.org/commdev/c&b/2002/spring/gf.pdf

[6] New York State Office for the Aging, available at: http://www.aging.ny.gov/livableny/ResourceManual/Housing/III1m.pdf

[7] Villard Square GrandFamily, available at: http://m.villardsquare.com/amenities.aspx

[8] 2011 NCSHA Annual Awards for Program Excellence, available at: http://www.ncsha.org/system/files/Wisconsin_0.pdf

[9] Jewish Family Services to Provide Services for GrandFamily Project, available at: http://www.jfsmilw.org/news/press_releases/grand_families.htm

[10] Congressman Capuano Introduces the LEGACY Act to Provide Affordable Housing Opportunities for Grandparents Raising their Grandchildren, available at: http://www.house.gov/capuano/news/2002/pr032002.htm

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