How Age-Restrictive Rules Can Violate the Fair Housing Act: Lessons From the Plaza Mobile Estates Case
The Plaza Mobile Estates Case
United States of America v. Plaza Mobile Estates, et al., 273 F. Supp. 2d 1084 (C.D Cal. 2003) is a federal district court decision which is a cause for concern to all landlords, particularly owners of manufactured home communities. The United States and residents of several mobilehome parks sued the owners and managers, seeking a declaration that various park rules violated the FHA based on familial status, and sought injunctive relief to preclude any further publication or enforcement of the discriminatory rules. The court found that the rules at issue were discriminatory on their face because they treated children, and thus families with children, differently and less favorably than adults-only households.
The decision was reached by the district court, not the Court of Appeals, and therefore is not binding precedent on federal appellate courts, or state courts. However, it is a published decision which can be cited as authority in federal district court litigation, particularly within the central district of California.
Rules Found Discriminatory
The court invalidated the “preambles” to the rules of several of the defendant mobilehome parks which stated that the park was “designed and built as an adult facility” or “designed as an ADULT facility.” [Emphasis added]. The court found that these preambles were clear examples of illegal “steering.” The court recognized that while the preambles were not outright refusals to sell or rent to families with children, they clearly suggested a preference for adults only and discouraged families with children from applying for residency.
The specific age restrictive rules invalidated by the court fell into three categories: (1) absolute prohibitions; (2) adult supervision requirements; and (3) hours of access restrictions.
The absolute prohibitions included those rules that: (1) prohibited all children under 18 (or 21) years old from using the billiard room and from riding bicycles; (2) prohibited all children under 16 (or 18) years old from using the therapeutic pool; (3) prohibited all children under 14 (or 18) years old from using the sauna or jacuzzi; (4) required all children under 8 years old to be confined to rear fenced yard of family residence; and (5) prohibited all children from playing on park streets and any other common areas.
The court found that while the health and safety of the children and other residents of the park were legitimate concerns, these absolute prohibitions were not the least restrictive means to achieve such ends. It noted that any concerns that the community owners may have had were not necessarily linked to age, and any concerns about problem behavior could be addressed with the use of non-age related rules. The court held that requiring adult supervision rather than imposing an absolute ban was clearly a less restrictive means of achieving the park’s legitimate goals. However, the court also invalidated a number of adult supervision requirements.
Adult supervision requirements invalidated by the court included those rules that required adult supervision for: (1) children under 18 years old using recreational facilities (recreation building and/or clubhouse), swimming pool, sun deck, saunas and laundry room; (2) children under 14 years old using recreational facilities, swimming pool and tennis courts, and riding bicycles; (3) children under 10 years old using recreational facilities; and (4) all children walking around the park.
As with the absolute prohibitions, these adult supervision requirements were likewise found not the least restrictive means to achieve any health and safety objectives. The court commented that the park’s concerns could be addressed by the use of rules, and that bicycle and pool safety would be better served with a proficiency requirement.
The hours of access restrictions included those rules that prohibited use of the swimming pool and sundeck to children under 18 years old except during specified hours. The court summarily rejected defendants’ attempt to justify these swimming pool hours restrictions as “equitably accounting for the interest of tenants,” noting that this clearly was not a compelling interest. The court further noted that the interest or desire of the adult tenants to discriminate against children could never justify such discrimination.
Compelling Business Necessity Standard
Having found that the age-restrictive rules were discriminatory on their face, the court held that the burden passed to the community owners to justify the rules. The standard applied by the court was whether the owners had a legitimate justification for the discrimination rising to the level of a compelling business necessity as to which the least restrictive means to achieve such end was used. Both criteria, compelling business necessity and least restrictive means, must be satisfied to defeat the claim of unlawful discrimination. The court in Plaza Mobile Estates found that the owners had failed to make this showing.
HUD Approval: No Defense
What is particularly distressing about the Plaza Mobile Estates opinion is that the court invalidated rules which had been approved as part of a Conciliation Agreement entered into with the intervention and approval of HUD. The owners contended that HUD’s approval of the Conciliation Agreement required the conclusion that the rules approved thereunder did not violate the FHA. The court noted that it is the court, not HUD, that is the final arbiter in determining whether the rules are in compliance with the FHA. It therefore appears that a community owner cannot even rely upon the opinion of HUD or the state enforcement agency as a defense against a claim of discrimination.
How Community Owners Can Protect Themselves
In view of the Plaza Mobile Estates decision, landlords need to carefully review their rules and regulations and revise them to eliminate rules which appear to discriminate against families with children. Particularly suspect are rules which expressly refer to children, or persons under age 18. Other rules, which may not contain an express age restriction, are still subject to attack if they have a disparate impact on persons under age 18 or tend to “steer” toward an “adult only” preference.
For instance, community advertising and residency documents obviously must not contain discriminatory phrases and language, such as “adults only,” “retirement community,” or “community for active adults.” In “all-age” communities, there should not be any “adults only” restrictions on the use of common areas, recreational facilities or equipment (except where authorized by state law or regulations). Access to the community’s facilities should not be prohibited to children, and unreasonable supervision requirements must be avoided.
Also, review signs posted throughout the community (whether in the clubhouse or the laundry room, by the swimming pool, or along the streets) for discriminatory words or phrases.
For approval of new tenants, have written policies and guidelines and follow them consistently. Always offer an application to a potential resident, and keep those applications you reject (as well as those you accept).
In speaking to prospective residents, avoid words which might discourage a family with children; avoid “steering” someone to another community or to limited areas within your own community; do not ask about the ethnic, religious or national background of any applicant; do not discuss the problems which a disabled person may encounter in a manufactured home or in your community. Certain words should be avoided, such as: compatible (as in, “Your type is not compatible with our community”), prefer (as in, “We prefer married couples”), discourage (as in, “We discourage children because we have so many elderly residents”), or suitable (such as, “A mobilehome park is not suitable for small children”).
Even if you have adopted good policies and procedures and have trained your management team to be aware of fair housing principles, there is the chance that the policies are not followed. Make sure your staff does follow through!
The following are some additional suggestions:
--Always take an application from any interested person. --Deal the same with all prospective residents: be pleasant, courteous and non-judgmental. Answer all questions. --Keep a record of each inquiry and try to obtain as much information as possible about each person. Also, keep all tenancy and application records for at least two years.
What age-restrictive rules are still permissible? At least in California, it is probably still permissible to require children under the age of 14 to be supervised by an adult (but not specifically a parent) when using the swimming pool or spa pool. This is based upon section 65539 of Title 22 of the California Code of Regulations (“CCR”), which provides that, where no lifeguard service is provided, a warning sign shall be placed in plain view which shall state, “Children Under the Age 14 Should Not Use Pool Without an Adult in Attendance.” Interestingly, even this code section only says “should,” not “shall.” Local counsel should be consulted regarding similar provisions in other states.
For years in California, the CCR language has been used by analogy to require adult supervision for the use of other recreational facilities. It is no longer safe to do this. The community may still be able to require adult supervision where needed to minimize risk of injury or death in situations in addition to the swimming pool and spa pool situation referenced in the CCR. Again, the adult supervision cannot be restricted to a parent; any responsible adult can perform the required supervision.
A park may be able to prohibit an activity which is more likely to be engaged in by children than by adults if there is an express ordinance in the municipality where the park is located prohibiting this activity. A primary example of this would be a municipal ordinance prohibiting skateboarding.
It must always be kept utmost in mine that the basic test is that any age-restrictive rule or regulation must satisfy both criteria stated by the Plaza Mobile Estates court: There must be a compelling business necessity for the policy, and the rule must be the least restrictive means to achieve that policy. This is a standard which is difficult to satisfy. Community owners should consult with legal counsel in reviewing and revising their rules to minimize the risk of liability under state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination against families with children.
Robert G. Williamson, Jr. and Linda J. Lester are attorneys with Hart, King & Coldren in Santa Ana, California. They specialize in manufactured housing issues.