Donald Garcia, 35, and his wife, Augustine, were living in a Burbank apartment when Augustine's mother approached them for help. She had refinanced her three-bedroom Tujunga home a year and a half earlier with an interest-only loan, and what had been a $900 monthly house payment had doubled.
"Her mortgage company told her she couldn't refinance for seven years, so we moved in to help out," says Garcia, who added that a change in his apartment's pet policy would have forced a move anyway.
Then, a few months ago, more change: Augustine lost her $60,000-a-year job as a manager at a hardware store. Garcia, trained as an electrician's assistant, could find no such work following the collapse of the housing market, so he started driving a tow truck. Now he and Augustine, he says, owe money to her mother because they haven't been able to help much with household expenses.
"It's hard because I've been living on my own since I was 17," Garcia says. "We went in like roommates -- we wouldn't be in her business, and she wouldn't be in ours. She lived here alone for the last six years, and to have her son-in-law and daughter back -- I'm sure it's been hard on her not having her own privacy."
First, the subprime meltdown and housing market collapse, then the woes on Wall Street, now mounting layoffs. Each has contributed to a phenomenon that many Southern Californians never imagined they would have to face: moving back home with mom or dad after years -- sometimes decades -- of being on their own.
An AARP study released in September reported that more than a quarter of the foreclosures and delinquencies in the second half of 2007 involved homeowners ages 50 or older -- and that was before giant drops in the stock market unraveled the financial safety net for many midcareer Americans.
No reliable figures yet exist on the number of adults forced to move in with parents because of the financial crises, but it's clear this group consists of older, previously well-established homeowners as well as people such as 29-year-old Ondor Ozer of West L.A. In 2006, Ozer was working in retail when he decided to buy a 3,500-square-foot house in Hemet with plans to find a new job nearby. After a year without success, he realized he'd have to lose the house to foreclosure or rent it out and move back in with his parents. He chose the latter.
"I'm upside-down in my mortgage quite a bit -- about $1,300," he says, citing the difference between what he pays on the loan each month and what he's able to collect in rent. "I'm almost 30, and I really don't want to be here, in my parents' house. But I have a nearly 2-year-old son to worry about."
Ozer says his sister and her two kids have also moved back into his parents' 1,300-square-foot home. She's renting out her house to cover that mortgage -- and coming up short about $200 to $300 each month, he says.
The idea of moving back into the old family home was his parents', Ozer says.
"They would rather see me in this situation than lose the home to foreclosure and be even worse off due to bad credit," he says. "I feel it's a lot better to try to hold on, as tough as it might be, rather than give it up."
Despite the corrosive effect that economic stress can have, extended families can find a silver lining in living together, says historian Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, a Chicago-based nonprofit largely consisting of mental health and social work professionals as well as academics whose focus is family life. Diaries and literature from the 19th century remind us that American intergenerational ties were once much stronger, Coontz says. It wasn't until the early 20th century that romance was seen as the key to happiness.
"People were told and encouraged to put all their emotional investment into the marital relationship," Coontz says.
By midcentury, psychiatrists were citing extended family living arrangements as unhealthful and possibly poisonous to a marriage. In reality, she says, living with a parent can offer benefits that go beyond economics.
"Grandparents can be more grand-parental and develop closer family ties, and having more people in a house can sometimes be a buffer for overly intense marital relations or parent-child relations," Coontz says. "To the extent that we are stuck with this happening, it does give us a way to rediscover aspects of family life we've been ignoring for the last 80 to 100 years."
When adult children and parents are forced to live together, they typically experience a breakdown in what Coontz calls "the economy of gratitude." Family members notice only the inconveniences and ignore the nice things that they do for one another.
That doesn't have to happen, of course. Houses are larger now, so family members have more space and more chances for privacy. But beyond that, children and parents can peacefully coexist by approaching the new living arrangement as they would if they were taking on any roommate: Agree in advance on how to handle household purchases, cleaning and other responsibilities. Resolve the question of who is in charge and how the house is to be governed, and the situation may not seem so bad after all.
Alegra Hinkle, 55, returned to her job at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., after nearly seven years of living on and off in Europe.
She owned a three-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot home that she had been renting out to students, but upon her arrival, she found she couldn't afford the $1,200 mortgage payment.
Then her son, a chef with a wife and a year-old daughter, asked Hinkle whether she would consider living together and splitting expenses. Hinkle had to think twice about living under the same roof as the son who had been her most problematic child.
"It's been surprisingly wonderful," she says. "He's calm and sensible, and I'm getting a level of contact with my kids and grandkids that has been more rewarding than I could ever have dreamed. Neither of us could have afforded to live here on our own."
Hinkle and her son talked about how they would divide the space and respect each other's privacy. She lives in the former garage, converted into a studio with its own entrance, and the kitchen is shared. When her door is closed, that means she's not to be bothered. No one is to assume that she will be the live-in babysitter.
For her part, Hinkle goes into other parts of the house only when invited.
"If it is getting tense, then I go into my room and close the door and work on e-mails or read," she says. "I know basically they are very good parents, and I made plenty of mistakes. They will make their own mistakes."
The arrival of a second granddaughter has reinforced Hinkle's feelings that the living arrangement has enriched her life.
"I feel I can help out with the hardest stage of life -- when you're raising young children," she says. "As grandparents we need to feel we're valuable, and while I'm not perfect, I'm a lot better than I was when my kids were little. The one skill we grandparents can claim is that we know something about child nurturing and the value of family. This is what we did 200 years ago, and it made total sense."
Spurrier is a freelance writer.