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Extended Families Come Together Under One Roof to Make Ends Meet

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By Alana Semuels

RISMEDIA, December 30, 2010—(MCT)—Morning begins in the Grisso household with the coffee maker grinding beans at 6:07, churning with the same grating sound as a fork spinning in a sink disposal. The eight occupants of the house stir. Two grandparents float into the kitchen and head to work, taking the whole pot of coffee with them for their hour long commute. Upstairs, a teenage girl hits the snooze button, annoying her uncle in the next room over, who doesn’t want to hear the alarm buzz again after another all-nighter playing video games. Dogs run in and out of a crude doggie door in the wall.

By 8 a.m., the house is quiet again, and Philip Routh pads down to the kitchen to start breakfast for his two-year-old daughter, Aubrey, who trails behind him in pink pajamas, chattering about dog tails.

Two years ago, Routh lost his job, fell behind on his bills, surrendered his car to lenders and ended up in this crowded house in Hemet, Calif. It still unsettles him that he’s the only adult in this house without a job. “I called my sister to tell her I was moving in with our parents,” he said, as Aubrey counted eggs in the carton, skipping straight from 1-2-3 to 7-8-9.

All across the country, elbow room in households like the Grissos’ is disappearing as jobless brothers and foreclosed in-laws move in with family, and as young adults return home after unhappy ventures into the working world. The average home today has 2.59 people—the highest number in a decade. And just 357,000 new households were formed in the U.S. last year, the lowest number since at least 1947.

That has a big ripple effect on the economy, pushing down demand for new homes and the big-ticket items that go with them, such as washers and dryers. The trend will shape the country for years to come, as young people put off marriage, children and homes of their own.

Living in a combined household isn’t easy: Families are dividing spaces that were once private and skimping on things that never before seemed a luxury. But the Rouths say they didn’t have a choice. “We had to break down and be humble about it, and say, we can’t get jobs, let’s just do it,” said Philip’s wife, Lisa. “It was a hard step, at least for me, to have to go into their household and live their way, with my two children.”

In 2007, life seemed to be taking off for Philip. He’d just married Lisa, whom he had met on Yahoo Personals, and was getting ready to move the family to Idaho, where his job as a pipe fitter was being transferred. After they arrived, however, his job disappeared when his employer lost its contract—and then they learned that Lisa was pregnant.

The couple and 11-year-old Laura, Lisa’s daughter from a previous marriage, decided to stick it out in Idaho. Philip found work at a potato factory; Lisa clerked at a convenience store. But after their daughter Aubrey was born, they couldn’t make ends meet, and their car was repossessed in 2009.

That’s when Philip’s mother and stepfather, Susan and Tim Grisso, offered shelter in the four-bedroom Hemet house where they lived with their two teenagers. The Rouths stayed in a room with just three walls. Laura slept in a loft area overlooking the living room.

Philip tried to find work—in clothing stores, fast-food restaurants and factories—but came up with nothing. Lisa did find a job, but it was just part time, going door to door for marketing research. Now they keep track of how much the Grissos spend on rent, food and utilities, vowing to repay the debt when their tax refund comes in.

It’s been an adjustment to live with the in-laws, but their generosity has amazed Lisa, whose own mother asks for money when she babysits Aubrey. “I didn’t grow up in a family where the parents took care of the kids,” she said. “It was more like, ‘You’re 18, now you have to pay the rent and bills.’ ”

Now, Lisa and Philip defer to his parents on grocery shopping, child rearing and weekend plans. It is Philip’s mother, Susan, who decides what to buy at the store, Susan who is first to rise in the mornings, and Susan who snaps at Laura for disappearing into a V.C. Andrews gothic novel while others are talking in the living room.

“I’m not the lady of the home; she is,” Lisa said, referring to Susan. “If I were a more dominant woman, this wouldn’t work. I’ve learned to relax my views.”

And although Philip and Lisa are often home during the day, it is his parents who decide what’s for dinner.

Susan and Tim Grisso bought their first new home in Hemet in 2001. But they refinanced one too many times and ended up owing more than the house was worth. After selling at a loss in August, they rented a spacious five-bedroom house in Hemet’s Willowalk gated development.

The 3,100 square feet are a blessing, everyone agrees. With four bathrooms and two living rooms, space is rarely an issue, and the $1,500 rent is about half the Grissos’ old mortgage payment.

Still, there are tensions. Susan Grisso insists that the toilet paper be rolled over, not under, the holder. The Internet is slower with more people using it, and the family uses text messages or Facebook to figure out who will be home for dinner.

This year Tim had to spend 45 minutes on the phone with a confused enumerator to get the census form filled out right. The final tally: six adults, one teenager, one toddler, two dogs, a cat and a hamster.

Still, life in this raucous household has its joys. Living in close quarters has motivated the family to join forces in a small-business venture, Little Peeps Mart, which sells hair ribbons, caps and headbands for girls. A living room in the house is littered with boxes of orders and samples. The whole family has become involved, tweaking the website and steaming flowers for the headbands. They work local weekend carnivals, where the neon glow of rides like the Zipper and the Gravitron invariably draws more customers than their sales booth.

Susan and Tim sometimes talk wistfully of past vacations—cruises to Mexico and camping trips in their RV. But they have no regrets about taking in Philip’s family. The economy has been ruthless, and Tim says he could just have easily been the one losing a job. “I missed being laid off this year by one or two people,” he said. “We did what we had to do.” The door, Susan told them, will be open as long as they need it.

(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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