Maintaining an Age-Restricted Community: A Refresher on the Housing for Older Persons Act
by Robert S. Coldren, Esq. and James S. Morse, Esq.
If you are reading this, chances are you are one of the millions of baby boomers at or near retirement. Although you might not care for the moniker, the government has officially designated you as an “older person.” If you own property designated as housing for “seniors,” you should periodically refresh yourself on the state of the law protecting “older persons” and to avoid the mistakes of other property owners.
The Civil Rights Act of 1968 enacted The Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) to prohibit housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The FHA was amended in 1988 to expand its coverage to prohibit discrimination based upon disability or family status, meaning the presence of a child under the age of 18 and pregnant women. Because the creation of families as a protected class clashed with the operation of retirement or adult communities, the 1988 amendments included exemptions for housing developments that qualified as housing for persons over the age of 55. Because there was an inherent conflict between protected family status and the exemption for older persons, Congress responded with The Housing for Older Persons Act of 1995 (“HOPA”)* which fine tuned the exemptions and is now the definitive authority for owners of such housing. (You should also be aware that municipalities can have ordinances prohibiting discrimination for categories broader than the Civil Rights Act. Examples of common ordinances gaining popularity are discrimination in housing on the basis of HIV/AIDS status or sexual orientation. Such ordinances are not addressed in this article.)
Occupancy Requirement to Qualify for Exemption
HOPA maintained the requirement that at least 80% of exempt housing must have one occupant who is 55 years of age or older. It also still required that the exempt housing publish and follow policies and procedures that demonstrate an intent to be housing for persons 55 and older. Significant in terms of capital costs, HOPA eliminated the requirement that 55 and older housing had to maintain “significant facilities and services” designed for the elderly. (Communities that are occupied solely by persons who are 62 or older are also exempt from the prohibition against family discrimination under Section 100.303.)
The “Wiggle Room” Factor
At first blush, the 80% requirement appears to give a property owner some “wiggle room” to comply with the exemption. HOPA specifically allows a 55 and older community to be “exempt” from the preference for families if, after September 13, 1988, 80% of the units are occupied by at least one person age 55 years or older. Units occupied by employees of the housing facility or community who are under age 55 do not count against the 80% as long as the employee’s perform substantial duties related to the management or maintenance of the community. Likewise, units occupied by persons who are disabled and require a reasonable accommodation, also do not count against the 80%.
However, the 80% requirement can also be a property owners’ pitfall if it is achieved improperly. The 80% requirement does not mean that the property owner can manipulate the remaining 20% of units occupied by persons under the age of 55. The 80% occupancy requirement is coupled with an additional requirement that the facility or community adheres to policies and procedures that demonstrate the intent to be a 55 or older facility. A manager cannot merely choose to rent to “good” non-seniors or families just because the facility is over 80% senior.
One provision of HOPA which, on the surface, appears troublesome is Section 100.305(h) which provides that each housing facility may determine the age restriction for units that are not occupied by at least one person 55 years of age or older. On its face, this provision appears to allow a community to set any age requirement it wishes for the twenty percent (20%) of spaces which are not required to be occupied by a person 55 years of age or older, including requiring the occupants of the remaining twenty percent (20%) of spaces to be adults. However, this would appear to be contrary to the general intent of the FHA to prohibit discrimination on the basis of "family status.” A more likely interpretation is that the housing provider need not apply any age restrictions on occupancy of the remaining twenty percent (20%) of rental units. This interpretation seems likely, not only in view of the general intent of the FHA, but in view of Section 100.306(d) which provides that a housing facility or community may allow occupancy by families with children as long as it meets the intent requirements of Sections 100.305 and 100.306 (a).
An argument could well be made that a community must allow up to twenty percent (20%) of the spaces to be occupied by persons who do not otherwise satisfy the community’s minimum age requirements. The problem is that a park which "uses up" its twenty percent (20%) allotment may find itself below the 80% requirement if a space which was previously occupied by a person 55 years of age or older ceases to be so occupied. This could occur as a result of an older tenant dying or moving out of the community.
It has been our experience that HUD has, from time to time, interpreted the "twenty percent" allowance as a "fudge factor" in order to avoid hardship where, for example, an older tenant dies, leaving a widow who does not satisfy the community’s minimum age requirements. This interpretation was bolstered by the requirement that the housing be intended for persons 55 years of age or older and that the properties have rules that limit residency to persons meeting the age requirements. Deliberately allowing persons under age 55 to move into the community seems contrary to this intention.
**Tip: In many states (including California) the law requires that mobilehome park owners uniformly enforce all published rules. To allow some households to avoid the requirement could run afoul of the such laws leaving the door open for a disgruntled tenant to sue on a claim that the management is not uniformly enforcing it own rules.
Published Procedures and Policies of Intent
In addition to requiring that at least 80% of the occupied units be occupied by at least one person who is 55 years of age or older, HOPA requires that the housing be "intended and operated" for persons 55 years of age or older, and that the housing facility "publish and adhere to policies and procedures that demonstrate its intent" to qualify for the 55 or older exemption. Section 100.306(a) sets forth a non-exclusive list of relevant factors in determining whether the park "demonstrates" this "intent":
(1) The manner in which the housing facility is described to prospective residents;
(2) Any advertising designed to attract prospective residents;
(3) Lease provisions;
(4) Written rules and regulations;
(5) The maintenance and consistent application of relevant procedures;
(6) Actual practices; and
(7) Public posting in common areas of statements describing the facility as housing for persons 55 years of age or older.
These requirements bolster the "common sense" approach to a community demonstrating its intent to be housing for older persons. Specifically, without limitation, the park’s residency documents need to clearly state the age restrictions on residency, and the age restrictions need to be consistently enforced.
Unscrupulous attempts by property owners to manipulate the intent to remain senior housing have resulted in adverse judgments. In a 2003 federal case in California, Housing Rights Center et al. v. Galaxy Apartments, et al., the apartment complex and management company was sued for allegedly telling an expectant mother that it would not accept families with children because it was a “seniors only” complex. The Housing Rights Center sent “testers” to the building and learned that childless adult testers of all ages were accepted and only testers with children or who were expecting children were told that the complex was seniors only. Obviously, the apartment owner was not complying with the “intent” of the over 55 exemption and was ordered to pay the plaintiffs $51,000 and enter into a two year fair housing training program.
Some states require that housing intended and operated for occupancy by persons 55 years of age or older register with state agencies. You should consult your legal counsel for the applicable registration and renewal process in your state.
HOPA provides specific guidelines for "age verification". To protect your property, these procedures should be followed to the point that, at any given time in the past, you should be able to demonstrate, the percentage of units that were occupied by at least one person age 55 or older.
Section 100.307(d) provides that the following documents are considered "reliable" documentation of the age of the occupants:
(1) Driver’s license;
(2) Birth certificate;
(4) Immigration card;
(5) Military identification;
(6) Any other state, local, national, or international official documents containing a birth date of comparable reliability or;
(7) A certification in a lease, application, affidavit, or other document signed by an adult member of the household asserting that at least one person in the unit is 55 years of age or older.
This last provision is useful in those cases where tenants who are believed to be over 55 years of age fail or refuse to provide proof of age to the park by allowing any other adult member of the household to sign a statement to the effect that the person in question is, in fact, at least 55 years of age.
**Tip: Make it a policy to obtain a written application for tenancy from every household and keep those applications for the length of the tenancy.
Section 100.307(g) further provides that: "If the occupants of a particular dwelling unit refuse to comply with the age verification procedures, the housing facility or community may, if it has sufficient evidence, consider the unit to be occupied by at least one person 55 years of age or older." This section goes on to provide that such evidence may include government records or documents, such as a census; prior forms or applications; or a statement from an individual who has personal knowledge of the age of the occupants. In the latter case, the individual’s statement must set forth the basis for such knowledge. Compliance with this provision most probably would be met by a park employee statement as to their opinion of the age of a tenant, based upon the tenant’s appearance and, if applicable, the apparent age of the tenant’s adult children.
A typical pitfall for owners of such properties is the HOPA requirement that the age verification information must be updated at least every two years, pursuant to Section 100.307(c).
**Tip: In addition to keeping the tenant’s application, the management should consider developing a form which it distributes to all spaces at least once every two years, asking residents to confirm the names and ages of all persons who are currently residing in the home. This is probably good policy in any case, since a record of what adults are actually occupying a home is useful in other situations (e.g., naming all adult occupants in an unlawful detainer complaint).
While there is no guaranteed insulation from lawsuits, a property owner or landlord is well advised to have their policies and procedures in writing and reviewed by competent legal counsel. All levels of a property owners’ management should be instructed to adhere strictly to those written policies and procedures. With competent advice, you should be able to avoid needless and expensive litigation which only detracts from your eventual retirement.
*/The Housing for Older Persons Act of 1995 is codified in 24 CFR 100.300 et seq. The Code of Federal Regulations can be viewed on line. One such site is the National Archives and Records Administration found at www.gpoaccess.gov/cfr
Robert S. Coldren is a founding partner of the law firm of Hart, King & Coldren. For over 20 years he has represented various entities as they relate to the manufactured housing industry. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jim S. Morse is an associate with HK&C and has focused his practice on business and construction litigation matters. Mr. Morse can be reached at email@example.com.