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3 generations in one apartment building? That was the grandparents’ idea

When the three generations of the Haven clan — eight members in all — gather for a family get-together, no one has to travel very far.

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The patriarch and matriarch — Clayton, 84, and Sharon, 76 — live on the ground floor of a 1910 apartment building in the Normal Heights neighborhood of San Diego. Their son, Matt, 45, his wife, Carla, 44, and their three children — Chris, 15, Molly, 13, and Nate, 12 — live on the second floor in a 1,300-square-foot, four-bedroom apartment that was converted out of two one-bedroom rentals. And their daughter, Amy, lives in a street-facing, 350-square-foot studio with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves installed by her father.

This close living arrangement might seem to hold the potential for family squabbles or regular invasions of privacy, but the Havens seem content with this communal life they have created.

“We know how to leave each other alone when we need to,” Amy Haven says. “It’s so much easier for my parents, and they have the room they need. I think it works because we are considerate of one another.”

The way we age in place has changed dramatically in the last decade — co-housing instead of assisted living, accessory dwelling units instead of naturally occurring retirement communities. But concern about aging parents is the same as it always has been.

While many children struggle to find suitable living arrangements for their parents, the eldest Havens came up with their own unique solution to the pressures of Southern California’s cost of living, and family needs: They downsized and consolidated into a two-story apartment building they’d used for rental property — and divided up the six units to accommodate physicals needs, as well the need for privacy for the rest of the family.

The elders now get to live on the ground level with plenty of relatives to check in on them. Their children also get some financial relief by moving in and paying close to market rent — and keep an eye on their parents in the process. And the three grandkids get to grow up with a sense of family.

Three years ago, Clayton and Sharon Haven sold their three-story, 2,200-square-foot home in San Diego and moved into the apartment building they had bought 20 years ago as an investment property. (The couple retired after wide-ranging careers that included his work as a light-rail consultant and hers writing and editing for interior design publications.)

Sandwiched between a Thai food restaurant, left, and an auto mechanic shop is the green, two-story building that is the Haven family's compound.
Sandwiched between a Thai food restaurant, left, and an auto mechanic shop is the green, two-story building that is the Haven family's compound. (Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The home had become a “major maintenance burden,” Sharon says. “I was tired of stairs. We decided to sell it, move into our rental apartment and travel. We felt like this was our window to make our own decisions.”

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With one in five Americans now living in multigenerational households according to the Pew Research Center, it’s not surprising that son Matt and his family chose to leave New Jersey and move in too.

“They wanted to move to California, but knew they couldn't afford the home prices or rents,” Sharon explains.

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Matt’s sister, Amy, a special-education teacher, was already renting a street-level studio in the apartment building.

Following the sale of their home, Clayton and an assistant worked to gut and renovate each unit, updating the foundation, plumbing and electrical.

On the second floor, two one-bedroom apartments were combined to create four bedrooms for Matt’s family of five.

Clayton and Sharon occupy the back, ground-floor apartment as well as a free-standing cottage behind the building.

That left a studio apartment to use as a guest room or Airbnb rental.

Amy Haven reads a book in her studio apartment at the Haven family compound.
Amy Haven reads a book in her studio apartment at the Haven family compound. (Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

After Clayton suffered a stroke while traveling in Costa Rica last year, Sharon became pragmatic about the future of the spare unit. “If we need more care as we age, we can move a full-time caregiver into that apartment,” she says.

Walking down the street, you can’t miss the colorful purple-and-green Harlequin accents on their building between a Thai restaurant and auto shop. Far from their former quiet cul-de-sac in Mission Hills, their new neighborhood is filled with restaurants, a brewery, coffeehouses and a theater.

From their home base, the Havens have easy access to public transportation and can walk to the laundromat and gym. School is three blocks away, and Matt, a pastry chef, can ride his bike to his job at the San Diego Convention Center about eight miles away.

Each unit, designed by Sharon, is unique and addresses each person’s needs in a small amount of space. Sharon and Clayton each have an office, and Clayton, who follows a special diet, cooks meals in the apartment kitchen tailored to his needs. Once or twice a week, the family meets for meals in a bougainvillea-filled courtyard between the building and cottage.

The couple spend evenings together in the cottage, a clean and modern unit filled with masks and artworks from their travels.

Clayton and Sharon Haven spend their evenings together in the bungalow at the rear of the property.
Clayton and Sharon Haven spend their evenings together in the bungalow at the rear of the property. (Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I don’t miss the house,” Clayton says. “This has solved all of our problems. I have a much easier time maintaining things. And we get to see each other in passing every day.”

Sharon believes the family’s around-the-world tour in 1989 helped them learn how to live peacefully together.

“We took our kids out of school when they were 14 and 16 and backpacked around the world for a year,” she says. “We learned about community and how to respect one another.”

The biggest adjustment has been “the realities of dense urban living and getting used to smaller spaces,” Sharon says.

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Still, there are rewards.

For Amy, the apartment allows her to maintain her privacy while keeping an eye on her dad. “There are seven of us who can tend,” she says.

“I like that I can check on my dad.”

Three generations share a meal in the bougainvillea-filled courtyard.
Three generations share a meal in the bougainvillea-filled courtyard. (Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)
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