Virtually all forms of “familial discrimination” became illegal under the FHAA, such as the refusal to rent to tenants because they had children; imposing different terms or conditions of rental depending upon whether they had children; discouraging persons from living in a manufactured housing community if they had children, etc.
The FHAA created certain exemptions, or “safe harbors,” from the prohibition against familial discrimination. The primary one, embraced by many manufactured housing communities, was the 55+ age exemption. On May 3, 1999, the Housing for Older Persons Act (HOPA) became effective. HOPA substantially relaxed the earlier highly restrictive – and unworkable - requirements initially established by the FHAA for housing providers to qualify for the 55+ exemption. Under the FHAA and HOPA, a housing provider may now, without fear of violating the law, legitimately refuse to rent or sell to persons with families, if the provider properly qualifies under the 55+ exemption.
Currently, in order to qualify for the 55+ exemption under the FFHA and HOPA, a community must:
1. Be intended and operated for persons age 55 or over. This intent can be met by such things as (1) The manner in which the community is described to prospective residents; (2) Advertising designed to attract prospective residents; (3) Lease or rental provisions; (4) The written rules and regulations; (5) Consistent application of the rules, regulations and procedures; (6) Actual practices; and (7) Publicly posting statements describing the facility as a 55+ community. The age verification procedures must be updated every two years. This means maintaining a complete file on each space, including with the tenant application updated information, circulated every two years, confirming the names and ages of all persons who are currently residing in the home.
2. Have at least one person who is 55 years of age or older living in at least 80% of its occupied units. This 80/20 rule is critical. Generally, communities strive to be over 80%, since falling below 80% means immediate disqualification. Does this mean that the 20% margin must be reserved for families with children? The answer is “No.” In fact, a 55+ community may to strive for 100% occupancy
by persons age 55 or over. Does it mean that community management must accept otherwise qualified age 55+ applicants when the second or subsequent person occupant is 18 years of age or older? Again, the answer is “No.” If desired, the community may increase the age requirement for the second or subsequent occupant to 25 years, 30 years, or even 55+ years. Similarly, the community can make the 55+ requirement “more restrictive” e.g. by either saying EVERYONE has to be 55+ or that the minimum age must be OVER 55+. The only limitation by the federal government is that the age requirement can’t be LESS restrictive, e.g. under 55, or less than 80% occupied. However, it is important for park owners and managers to make sure that all such age/occupancy requirements be properly reflected in the community’s rules and statement of policy – and be consistently applied.
3. Publish and adhere to policies and procedures that demonstrate an intent to be operated as a 55+ community. This requirement is fairly self-explanatory. The community must make sure that in all that it does, from its advertising, rules, rental agreements, and all other policies, always hold itself out in writing as a 55+ facility.
4. Comply with HUD age verification of occupancy procedures to substantiate compliance with the requirement that 80% of the facility be intended to be occupied by at least one person age 55 or over. The law provides that the following documents are considered reliable for such verification: (1) Driver’s license; (2) Birth certificate; (3) Passport; (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.
When the FHAA was first enacted, it imposed an additional requirement mandating that all 55+ communities must have “significant facilities and services” meeting the needs of older persons. This requirement quickly became a stumbling block for otherwise qualified housing providers from ever obtaining the exemption. HOPA deleted that requirement, and imposed a transition period for facilities to attempt to meet the 80% requirement. The period began on the effective date of the law, May 3, 1999, and ended one year later. During that transition period, HOPA permitted communities that otherwise qualified – without the “significant facilities and services” requirement – to reserve space for 55+ applicants. This meant that during the one year period, communities could legally decline to rent or sell to families without violating the FHAA. However, communities that tried but failed during the one year transition, were then expected to commence renting and selling to families.
However, one major question still exists: What about communities that, for whatever reason, did not qualify for 55+ status? This would include those that tried but failed; those that never tried because they wanted to be a family facility; or those that were unaware of the HOPA transition period in the first place. What if today, a community already has qualified under the 80% rule, but still holds itself out as a family facility? Assuming that it does not discriminate in any respect against the existing families, nor against all those who have applied for occupancy, may it “convert” to a 55+ community, by holding itself out as such, and otherwise meet the HOPA requirements? This is an open – but inviting - question. It would seem that if the community could meet the HOPA requirements in all respects (not because it discriminated in getting there, but simply by attrition of family occupants and the influx of more 55+ residents), it should be permitted to do so. The process would be fairly simple: Implement a rules change, combined with new published policies and age verification procedures, which confirm the 55+ status.
One caveat: Even though the Oregon landlord-tenant law does permit rules changes to implement material modifications in the parties’ bargain, there is a risk of possible argument by families in the community, complaining that they are now limited in the pool of available buyers for their homes. However, it would seem that this risk could be remedied, by “grandfathering” those family residents in, thereby permitting them to sell their homes to other families. This assumes, of course, that by doing so, the community would not jeopardize its 80%-20% ratio. Before proceeding down this path, park owners are urged to contact their own legal counsel familiar with the FFHA and HOPA for advice and direction.
The above article is a discussion of the federal Fair Housing law governing 55+ communities. The contents are not intended to constitute legal advice, and should not be relied upon by the reader as such. All legal questions regarding this complicated and important law should be directed to legal counsel familiar with the area.
© Copyright 2006. Phillip C. Querin. No portion may be reproduced without the express written consent of the author.